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Laying the Groundwork

Friday, 07.16.2004 / 12:00 AM / News
Dallas Stars
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Laying the Groundwork



July 16, 2004

While focusing on the current team, Stars GM Doug Armstrong keeps an eye on the future with a dedication to building a strong farm system

This is part two of dallasstars.com's look at Doug Armstrong's two-pronged plan to maintain the Stars' place as a top team in the NHL. While the present team is taking shape, restocking the minor leagues with young talent for the future is a top priority.

Young forward Steve Ott looks to increase his role in the future
While there is much uncertainty of what the new collective bargaining agreement will look like in the National Hockey League, one thing is evident -- drafting and adding young talent to your farm system will be vital to building and maintaining a quality team in this league. And it's been that way for many years.

Championship teams' foundations are built from within. Sure, a free agent or two can help put you over the top, but you have to build the foundation first. Armstrong knows this better than anyone and has been making moves to stockpile young talent that will form the Dallas Stars of the future.

"We've been making an effort to restock the pond in our minor leagues for several years now," Armstrong said. "We're committed to accumulating good young talent that we can grow."

The key for Armstrong in this effort over his tenure as general manager has not been just accumulating draft picks, but top draft picks. All told, he has made deals to stockpile 19 draft selections in the first three rounds over the four drafts from 2002-2005 (this includes four picks the Stars now have in the first three rounds next year). Currently, those 19 top picks are the third-most of any team in the league during that time span (only Washington and Edmonton have more).

"(Assistant General Manager) Les Jackson and I work closely with our scouting staff and know what players we want to take on draft day," Armstrong said. "Over the last few drafts there have been opportunities to trade down to get more picks and still get the players we wanted. Those extra picks are valuable assets to use in trades or to draft more kids that are the future of the franchise."

When one looks at the future of the Dallas Stars, the first names that jump out are the ones that have already garnered some NHL experience -- Niko Kapanen, John Erskine, Trevor Daley, Steve Ott, Antti Miettinen, Mathias Tjarnqvist, Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. The Stars drafted every one of these players.

And Dallas' hockey staff is hopeful that a good number of these players take the next step and make a solid contribution to the Stars this season.

"As we've said, some of our younger players will be counted upon to fill some important roles," Armstrong said. "The best avenue to keep the Dallas Stars playing at a competitive level every year is to keep phasing young talent into the main group."

Two more young players that may have a big impact on the Stars very soon were both acquired before the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

The first came in April when the Stars made a significant investment towards their youth in signing winger Junior Lessard to a pro contract. Already 23 years old, he may have a chance at cracking the Stars' lineup sooner rather than later.

Lessard won the 2004 Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate player in the nation, leading the country in both goals (31) and points (61) in just 44 games as a senior for Minnesota-Duluth. He increased his point total in each season of college, scoring a combined 52 goals over his last two campaigns. Lessard was selected to the 2004 American Hockey Association first team, the All-America first team, and was named both the uscho.com and insidecollegehockey.com National Player of the Year.

"We were very happy Junior decided to join the Dallas Stars," Armstrong said. "He could have signed with any NHL team. The fact that he won the Hobey Baker Award tells you that he's got some scoring talent. When a player wins that award, he grabs everyone's attention.

"We're hopeful that Junior continues to improve his game and becomes a solid NHL player for us in the seasons to come."

Trevor Daley (pictured) and Shawn Belle will improve the Stars blue line
Armstrong then used one of the team's main positions of strength to make a trade on the eve of the draft that netted the Blues' 2003 first round pick -- defenseman Shawn Belle. The price was goaltender Jason Bacashihua. But with three quality goalies in the system and a need for young defensemen, it was a trade that Armstrong had no problem in making.

"The depth that we had at the goaltender position gave us the opportunity to deal for Shawn," Armstrong said. "You can never have enough good young defensemen coming through the system."

The 19 year-old Belle is a very strong skater, winning the Bobby Orr Fastest Skater Award at the 2003 CHL Top Prospects Skills Competition prior to the draft last year. He's considered a good two-way defenseman.

Other Stars draft picks that haven't started their pro careers in North America that have a good chance to one day don the green Star at American Airlines Center include right wing Loui Eriksson, defenseman Matt Nickerson, center Marius Holtet, left wing Jussi Jokinen, right wing Brandon Crombeen, center Yared Hagos winger Vojtech Polak, defenseman Elias Granath, goaltender Eero Kilpelainen, and goaltender Tobias Stephan. All are considered solid NHL prospects and should push for a roster spot in the coming years.

"Fans may not know these names now, but we're watching their development on a daily basis during the hockey season," Armstrong said.

Eriksson is considered to be the top prospect in the organization. This skilled left winger was named Best Rookie in the Swedish Elite League this past season.

"Winning that Best Rookie award is a positive sign that this young player has done well at a senior level of hockey," Assistant General Manager Les Jackson said. "Loui was a little more dominant in his game this past season and uses his skill well. He has a chance to be a very good player."

Then there's the latest crop of draftees taken a few weeks ago in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. In all, Dallas selected 10 new prospects, nine of which were 6-1 or taller. Five of the picks were used on defensemen with good size, including first rounder Mark Fistric (6-2, 232 pounds), and second round picks Johan Fransson (6-1, 183 pounds) and Niklas Grossman (6-4, 187 pounds).

"We're trying to target bigger players in the draft," Armstrong said. "But it is important that these big players can skate too. If you look around the NHL, the forwards and defensemen all have size. So in order to compete you need big players who can skate very well."

Good news for Stars fans is that it looks like there is a bit of quality to go with this youth quantity.

Nine Dallas prospects have been invited to participate in two separate top junior evaluation camps in North America this August. These two camps will include the best junior talent from four participating countries.

Mark Fistric
Belle, Crombeen and Fistric have been invited to Team Canada's National Junior Team Development Camp in Calgary. Finland, Sweden and the United States are also holding a World Junior Evaluation tournament in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Nickerson will play for Team USA, Eriksson, Fransson, Granath and Grossman for Team Sweden, and Kilpelainen for Team Finland.

"We're excited that a good number of our prospects have been invited to these camps," Armstrong said. "It gives us more positive signs that we're are going to have an influx of quality talent down the road to remain competitive at the NHL level for years to come."

Perhaps one of the most important ingredients that Armstrong is working on to solidify Dallas' farm system is a strong affiliation agreement with an American Hockey League club that the Stars can build a positive relationship with. Dallas management would oversee all hockey operations of the organization in order to develop these future Stars in the right way, with their coaches. The Stars have signed one-year affiliate agreements with both the Houston Aeros and the Hamilton Bulldogs for 2004-05 to send their prospects, but Armstrong and his staff have their sights set on a more permanent home in the seasons to follow.

"We're looking at several options at the moment to create a good partnership club to develop our players, beginning in 2005-06," Armstrong said. "I think we'll finalize an agreement that will work positively for us, as well as for the AHL club involved, very soon.

"Having this type of arrangement is vital to the future of our youth development."

Looking at the big picture, Armstrong's plan seems to cover all the bases. Next season's roster is well on its way to taking its shape, while the dedication to adding talented youth and building a strong farm system will form the future for the Dallas Stars.

"The Dallas Stars have built a tradition of excellence that we plan on continuing," Armstrong said. "We will continue to look at ways to improve this hockey club, both for now and in the future.

"But overall I think the future of this hockey team is very bright."

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