There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the Texas Stars heading into the 2012-13 campaign. Last season was a rough one, and this one offers a fresh start and a chance for redemption. There’s a new coaching staff, headed by Willie Desjardins, and a lot of new faces on the roster, including several highly-touted Dallas Stars draft picks.
“I think we’ve made a conscious effort over the last three years to get back to our draft picks. We were ‘draft pick depleted’ before I even got here,” said Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk. “In today’s NHL, you see how skinny free agency can be, and we have the serious philosophy of drafting and developing. We put a lot of resources into that, and we are not short on resources for development. We value it that highly, and for the first time in a long time, we’re seeing a pool of players coming together that have a real opportunity to be NHLers. We’re excited about it, and I think there will be a good buzz with that team this year.”
When Texas opens the regular this season this weekend, it will offer what could be a look into the future of the Dallas Stars. This season’s influx of draft picks is reminiscent of the 2005-06 season, when the Stars had seven draft picks make their pro debuts with the Iowa Stars, who were in their first season as Dallas’ American Hockey League affiliate. Loui Eriksson, Nicklas Grossman and B.J. Crombeen were among the notable players in that wave of draft picks making their AHL debuts.
This time around, it is goaltender Jack Campbell (first round/2010), defenseman Jamie Oleksiak (first round/2011), right wing Alex Chiasson (second round/2009), defenseman Patrik Nemeth (second round/2010), right wing Reilly Smith (third round/2009) and right wing Austin Smith (fifth round/2007).
It’s an impressive group, as Campbell is ranked among the top NHL goaltending prospects and was impressive in a short stint with Texas late last season. Oleksiak (6-7, 254 pounds) and Nemeth (6-4, 233 pounds) bring size and mobility to the blue line, Chiasson has a nice mix of size and skill, and the two Smiths both are highly skilled and were big scorers in college.
“This is probably the most in terms of the cupboard being really stocked since my first year in Iowa when we had so many young players,” said Texas Stars GM Scott White. “All these guys are well-complemented with some experienced guys who are going to help their games along. Ultimately it’s up to each player to move their games along, but it is a good time. Everybody is excited, but now it’s a matter of everybody getting the process and journey going of developing. Our job is to move these guys along.”
And the Stars won’t be afraid to take their time developing their young players. Nieuwendyk said the offseason addition of veteran players like Ray Whitney, who is signed for two years, and Jaromir Jagr will help keep the Stars competitive and vying for a playoff spot now while the prospects get their feet wet in the pro ranks.
“We can still compete at a high level, be competitive and the goal is still to make the playoffs, but we give our kids the proper amount of seasoning to develop at the minor league level,” said Nieuwendyk.
Some of the prospects already got a head start on their pro careers. Reilly Smith played three NHL games with Dallas late last season after wrapping up his career at Miami University in Ohio. Campbell played 12 games with Texas late last season after finishing his junior career. Austin Smith played 12 games with Texas, and Chiasson suited up for nine after wrapping up their college careers. It was an opportunity to start experiencing the pro life, living on their own and adjusting to the game at the pro level.
“In college, you’ve got two or three seconds to make a play and here, you’ve got one or two,” said Chiasson, who played three seasons at Boston University. “You’ve got to be ready for every play, every shift. Every guy has a role on the team. That’s the main thing; it’s so much more of a positional game. College guys are in great shape, but they skate everywhere and you only play two games a week.”
Nemeth has played professionally the past couple years in the Swedish Elite League, but now he has to adapt to life in North America, the North American game and playing on a smaller ice surface than in Europe.
“You’ve got to play a little more simply on the smaller ice and knock the puck out of your own ice sometimes instead of trying to make a good play,” Nemeth said. “It’s a little bit of a transition, but it is getting better and better.”
For Oleksiak, who spent all of last season in junior hockey, this will be his first real taste of pro level, outside of a Dallas Stars training camp and one NHL preseason game a year ago.
“I am trying to get the most out of it in terms of trying to develop my game, finding my niche and finding my spot on the team,” said Oleksiak. “It’s a great opportunity and I think there is a real bright future for the Stars with the players in their system, the guys that have been here a while and the ones that are developing.”
All of these young prospects, who are still in their early 20’s, are vying to establish themselves as full-time NHL players. Some may take longer than others. Not all of them may make it. It’s a process and the difference between who makes it and who doesn’t can be very small.
“The biggest challenge is coming in with a consistent game. They need to have some kind of skill they can add at the NHL level where they will get an opportunity,” said Texas assistant coach Doug Lidster, who played 16 seasons in the NHL. “For each player it is a little bit different. If the guy is supposed to be relied upon in his defensive zone, then he has to be real strong in that area. If he is an offensive player, he has to contribute in that area. Trying to do that on a consistent basis and doing that at the next level, that’s the next challenge.
“Most of these players have had that success at the previous levels – quite a bit of success to get to this level – but that last step is very difficult. When you first look at the players, there is not a significant difference between an AHL player and an NHL player. But the NHL player, if you watch him over a period of time, does it more consistently and maybe one split second faster.”
What the prospects hope will be a journey to the NHL begins this weekend, when the Texas Stars open their season with a game at San Antonio on Saturday and then their home opener Sunday against Charlotte at Cedar Park Center. The goal now is to help make the Texas Stars better, and then help make the Dallas Stars better down the road.
“It’s a special feeling being around these guys and being able to develop with them,” said Reilly Smith. “Everybody is going for the same common goal, but we’re all pushing each other more and more each day and I think it is going to benefit the team.”
“It’s more exciting than anything. You look around and you’ve got guys in the same spot you’re in, and you all want to make the next level,” said Austin Smith. “Hopefully, one day there is a whole chunk of us playing together at that next level. You develop here and develop that chemistry here; it could pay dividends in the future.”
Photos courtesy of the Texas Stars