Curtis McKenzie. Brett Ritchie. Jyrki Jokipakka. John Klingberg. These are some players that you might not have expected to see at the start of the season but they are all making a significant impact in the lineup today. Curtis McKenzie and Brett Ritchie have contributed six points in the last five games. Jyrki Jokipakka has been a staple in the Stars lineup since January. We all know the impact John Klingberg has had, as he currently leads all rookie defensemen in scoring despite playing 14 fewer games than Aaron Ekblad, who is second. These players will all have a huge influence on where the Stars go in the future, either by their play on the ice or if they end up being traded in a package deal. The Stars have a wealth of young defensemen, and they may try to move someone for a more established player. Same goes for McKenzie and Ritchie. The Stars are deep at forward and may either consider them trade-able assets or players that could push people like Ryan Garbutt and Colton Sceviour out of the lineup. No matter what, the Dallas Stars are going to benefit from having to play these rookies down the home stretch of the season.
Brett Ritchie Looks Destined for a Top-6 Role
Brett Ritchie made an immediate impression when he was called up to the NHL lineup back in late December. He scored two goals in his first two games, including a goal on his first NHL shot. He spent a little bit of time on the top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin and looked like he belonged there. He isn’t there now and probably needs a little more time to develop, but I believe he is destined to take that spot with Benn and Seguin. He is a power-forward who isn’t afraid to hit people and go to the tough areas of the ice. He also isn’t afraid to shoot the puck and has a pretty wicked shot on the right side. Personally I think he ends up next to Seguin and Benn, possibly as soon as next season. Val Nichushkin is considered to be the favorite for that line, but I see Nichushkin working better with Spezza on the second line.
What About Curtis McKenzie?
While McKenzie has produced some points, he seems like a better fit for a bottom-6 role. The energy he drives into a game with his fighting and hitting just screams fourth-line and would give the Stars a tremendous amount of depth.
With how well he produces, agitates, and hits, I could see McKenzie pushing Ryan Garbutt out of Dallas. Garbutt has already fallen out of favor with the Stars coaching staff, as evident with a few healthy scratches of late. McKenzie has already seemed to push Garbutt out of the lineup this season and he may be a permanent solution next year.
Probably One Young Defensemen Too Many
There is no question that defense and goaltending has cost the Stars a playoff spot this season. It is very likely that Jim Nill will look to add an established top-4 defenseman in the offseason and that is going to push someone out of the lineup. John Klingberg isn’t going anywhere as he looks like a top-pairing defenseman already. Alex Goligoski has proven to be the best Stars defender this season and is plenty capable of handling big minutes. Trevor Daley had a career year offensively, so Nill may sell high on him. It is doubtful Jason Demers gets moved after being traded for this season, plus he has played quite well. Many Stars fans want Jordie Benn out, but I still think he is a serviceable bottom-pairing defenseman or insurance in case of injuries. Then you players like Patrik Nemeth, Jyrki Jokipakka and Jamie Oleksiak. All young defensemen who look to have bright futures, but there probably isn’t room for all of them. The Stars are desperate for bigger, stay-at-home defensemen like Nemeth and Oleksiak, so I think that makes Jokipakka potential trade bait. We saw it in the offseason last year with Alex Chassion. He was young and had played well at the NHL level, but was expendable thanks to players like Colton Sceviour and Brett Ritchie. So he was traded in a package for Jason Spezza. I could see Jokipakka and potentially Daley involved in a package for a top-level defensemen this offseason.
No matter what happens this offseason, the Stars should benefit greatly by having to thrust this young players in the lineup. There is no replacement for NHL experience and these rookies have gotten a lot of that this year. We’ll see what Dallas decides to do with all of them.
Jordan has been covering the Stars for The Hockey Writers since February 2015. He is originally from Iowa City, Iowa. You can follow Jordan on twitter @jordan_dix