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Stars' Future Looks Bright

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars took a peek into the future in the final contest of the 2011-12 season and the early reviews were very promising.

With highly-touted rookie pros Scott Glennie and Brenden Dillon making their NHL debuts, fitting into the club’s lineup fairly seamlessly, there’s little doubt the Stars’ assemblage of prospects is pretty deep.

Add in the group that joined the franchise’s AHL affiliate based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park for the final couple of weeks, and it is clear the organization is bubbling over with talented youngsters.

“It’s really encouraging,” General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said of the collection of prospects that finished the season at AHL Texas. “We’ve been talking a lot about our Austin situation and now that we have our players coming in and turning pro, I was just there watching them play again, and it brings a smile to your face.”

“Our future here is bright, we have a lot of young, good players and I think you saw that in the last game of the year with a few playing here,” added 22-year-old third-year center Jamie Benn. “I think we’re going up, it’ll be fun to see what we can do.” 

Trevor Daley stands with prospect Brenden Dillon after the Stars season finale on April 7, 2012

Beyond Glennie and Dillon, the Stars also had four other players skate in their first NHL contests this past season and each of them shows promise for the future.

Count 21-year-old winger Reilly Smith, who signed with Dallas after his outstanding junior season at the U. of Miami (Ohio) ended, among the next wave of Stars in the pipeline, as he didn’t look out of place in the NHL three games he played down the stretch.

Defenseman Jordie Benn, Jamie’s 24-year-old older brother, also played his first three big-league contests, including that season finale, and delivered solid performances on the blueline with two assists.

Even though it was a small taste of the NHL, the experience will be a valuable one for those players heading into next season, and will help the club’s management evaluate them against top-notch competition.

“This is a dream come true for these guys,” said Dallas Director of Minor League Operations Scott White. “They’ve been playing all their lives to get to this point and it’s an opportunity for them and well-deserved for both, even for Jordie to get a chance again. From a development standpoint, I think it’s huge, just in terms of preparation for next season. They get a little taste of what it’s about, what the pace is about, and I think that bodes well for their summers and their preparation for next year.”

“I think it means a lot,” added Stars coach Glen Gulutzan, who spent the two previous seasons coaching the AHL Texas Stars before his promotion to Dallas. “I think, without getting into specifics, there’s the GM, Joe, who can get to look at some guys before they have to hit July 1 free agency and they kind of get a gauge at where some of their players are at, and you can get a little bit of a gauge from a couple of games or one game. I think that helps the organization and the player, too, knows what he has to do moving forward now to make the big club. Any time they can get that sort of experience, it helps clarify in their mind and our minds where these players belong.”

There’s little question now that players like 22-year-old defenseman Philip Larsen and winger Tomas Vincour, 21, not to mention 24-year-old rookie backup goaltender Richard Bachman, belong on the NHL squad after starting the year in the AHL.

Ryan Garbutt, another AHL mid-season recall who made his debut this year, also proved himself at the top level.

“It’s exciting for me, I talk a little about it, but who would have thought a year ago, Ryan Garbutt would be a player that we were talking about in our lineup,” Nieuwendyk pointed out. “You need those types of things to happen, I think it’s critical, and other teams have that type of thing happen, where they go in, and they stay and we’re no different. Ryan Garbutt did a good job for us, he knows well enough not to get comfortable, he needs a big summer ahead of him, but it’s refreshing to see players come in and do the things they did. Philip Larsen is another one, who I think had a tremendous year for us, and the bar will get raised for him as well.”

“He’s a great player, he brings energy every night, he plays his best every night, so it’s really nice to see him doing real well,” Vincour said of his buddy Larsen. “He and I are really tight on and off the ice. I think he’s on the right track to becoming a great NHL defenseman. He’s a great skater, he shoots the puck well, and he sees the ice really well, too, so that’s a great combination for him.”

Vincour actually returned to Texas, along with Dillon, Glennie and Jordie Benn, for the final four games of the AHL regular season, which, unfortunately, also ended without a playoff berth. It was a tough finish for a team that Gulutzan led to the Calder Cup Finals in 2010, but it’s clear that some of their troubles were due to so many mid-season call-ups remaining in Dallas for so long.

But that final few weeks, which featured the long-awaited arrivals of up-and-coming Dallas prospects Alex Chiasson, Jack Campbell and Austin Smith, was very encouraging.

“It’s been a tough year for us in Texas as well, with us not in the playoff hunt, which in my opinion is unacceptable,” acknowledged White, who also doubles as the AHL club’s GM. “That’s my job. My job, I was told from Day One, is to develop players for the Dallas Stars, so from my standpoint, (having recalled players stick up in Dallas is) great, that’s what we’re about. What your cards are, they are, and you have to make the best with what you have. And the guys that were down there that got the opportunities, some did well with the opportunity that was given them, some did not. I learned a lot about our team down there, what we have, what we have coming in. And now, with the guys we have coming in, Austin Smith, Jack Campbell, Alex Chiasson, those guys are learning a lot now - those are a valuable 10-12 games they got.”

Team executives are also excited about how well the future bodes for the organization after seeing that late influx of youth at the AHL level.

“Watching them play again, it’s just refreshing to see Alex Chiasson, the big body, flying down the wing scoring his first pro hockey goal (against the Chicago Wolves on April 10),” Nieuwendyk said. “Jack Campbell, working his butt off in that net, backstopping them to the victories he has early in his pro career. Austin Smith, a little water bug out there, up for the Hobey Baker this year, Scott Glennie has made big strides. It goes on and on. Brenden Dillon, who you saw, the first time Dallas Stars fans have seen him, big 6-foot-3, has a little edge to his game.”

“Just watching (in Cedar Park), you see the future, it’s named Jack Campbell and Alex Chiasson and Brenden Dillon, Tomas Vincour,” added Stars President Jim Lites. “These guys can play. And we send our guys that should have been there all along down to play, against one of the best teams in the AHL, who are leading their division, and we won - it was pretty fun to watch. So when we’re playing guys that should be in the AHL against guys that are playing in the AHL at a high level, we’re really successful. We know how to develop players, we have quality management people in place.”

Chiasson, the club’s second-round selection (38th overall) in the 2009 Entry Draft, joined Texas following the conclusion of his college season at Boston U., and wound up with five points (one goal, four assists) in nine AHL games.

Campbell, the highly-regarded former Team USA World Juniors gold medal-winning goaltender who Dallas chose in the first round, 11th overall, in 2010, looked quite strong against AHL competition, posting a 4-7-0 record, including his first pro shutout, with a 3.02 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage in 12 appearances.

As for Austin Smith, the 23-year-old Dallas native turned pro after completing a stellar senior season at Colgate University in which he led the nation in goals with 36 in 39 games and was named a Hobey Baker Award Finalist. His first taste of pro hockey was solid as well, recording three assists in 12 outings.

That’s not even mentioning first-year pro Matt Fraser, a 21-year-old forward who led the Texas Stars and finished second overall in the AHL with 37 goals, was the other player to make his NHL debut in Dallas this past season.

With several veterans on the Dallas roster becoming unrestricted free agents in July, and the potential of having a farm club bursting with talented prospects, the temptation is there to leave a few spots in the lineup open for some of the youngsters to seize in next Fall’s training camp.

“Ideally, I really believe that the longer you can let them marinate in the American Hockey League, which is a really good league, the better player you’re going to have longer term for our club here,” Nieuwendyk pointed out. “But you look at a kid like Matt Fraser, who did some good things this year in the AHL, he may win the Rookie of the Year Award with 35-plus goals, those are kids that we will look at in the evaluation process. Ideally, you’d like to get them as many games as you can, much like we did with Tomas Vincour, where I think two years ago, Tomas Vincour looked a lot like Alex Chiasson to me, just feeling his way, but now Tomas Vincour has made really good strides and looks like an NHL player. I think there’s a step and there’s a process, and we’ll try and make the right decisions on those kids.”

Either way, competition at the next training camp promises to be pretty fierce, with a fairly large pool of players trying to win a few NHL jobs. Even Bachman, who usurped veteran Andrew Raycroft as Kari Lehtonen’s backup following his recall from AHL Texas on Nov. 27, is looking forward to fending off a challenge from Campbell in September.

“Definitely, I think it’s always good to be pushed, whether you’re a starter, no matter what league you’re at, if you’re backing up, a young kid in junior, you want someone to push you,” said Bachman, who posted a 8-5-1 record, with a 2.77 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage in 18 NHL contests. “It helps bring out the best in you, it helps you compete more and bring your game each and every day. I like that, I like the competition, it keeps you working hard, it keeps you honest, which is nice.”

Add into that mix the prospects that Dallas is poised to select in next June’s Entry Draft, including with the number 13 overall pick, and the organization’s pipeline is beginning to look quite stocked.

“It’s a good pick,” Nieuwendyk said. “We have amateur scout meetings planned soon, we’ll have to get a better sense of where we are with those guys. I know it’s a good draft again, much like last season, where we selected Jamie Oleksiak (14th overall). We’ll be looking at all options.”

“The good news when you don’t finish well like we did, is you’re sitting in a good draft position,” Lites noted, “where we will for sure get a player in the first round and should get two more in the second. We have three picks in the top 50 in a pretty deep draft and that makes me excited, because that’s how you get better here.

“That’s how we have to build this thing, and it will be with Dallas Stars players. The mix has to be 70 percent home-grown drafted and developed, 15 percent other people’s mistakes that you can turn into cream, and 15 percent unrestricted free agents that you get to fill positions - whether they’re top-six forwards or top-two defensemen or further down the lineup, that become part of the mix. But if you don’t do the 70 percent well, it won’t matter what you do with the other options, it won’t be good enough.”

That aspect of the organization has gotten much better in the past few seasons and the club is beginning to reap the benefits of it, and will continue to for years to come.

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