Familiarity breeds contempt. And, sometimes, successful hockey teams.
Familiarity is nothing new in hockey, and it makes a lot of sense as to why. The better you understand a player, his strengths and weaknesses, the easier it becomes to figure out how that player will fit into an organization. Furthermore, when multiple players are familiar with each other, the whole process gets expedited.
The question then becomes: if you are able to specialize in and focus on one or two specific areas, will that extra familiarity pay off? It’s an interesting idea, and one with some precedent behind it.
Over the course of the last 20 years the Detroit Red Wings became known for being the NHL’s top team when it came to scouting and attracting European talent. First it was Russians in the 1990s, with names such as Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov, and Vladimir Konstantinov, and then Swedes in the 2000s, with players like Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Jonathan Ericsson, and that’s not even mentioning the legendary Niklas Lidstrom. Nobody could do it like the Wings could, and their ability to identify and add talent from overseas became the envy of the league. There was certainly a strong level of trust between the Wings’ front office and their European scouts that paid massive dividends for the team, with four Stanley Cup victories between 1997 and 2008.
While the Dallas Stars are currently a few steps away from being an elite team in the same vein of those Wings squads, it is easy to see the franchise following and building around that same train of thought once you start inspecting their relationship with their developmental league of choice: the Western Hockey League.
On their 2013-2014 NHL roster, eight different Stars players spent either some or all of their junior careers in the WHL. The biggest name on that list is undoubtedly Jamie Benn, the Stars’ captain, who finished with 79 points last season, second on the team behind only Tyler Seguin. Other notable members of the organization’s core group of youngsters, and fellow WHL alumni, are center Cody Eakin and defenceman Brenden Dillon.
While eight players isn’t exactly a lot, this relationship between the Stars and the WHL has only really started to take off within the last few years, and has been focusing moreso on the young players that have just recently been drafted or signed. When you take a closer look at the Stars’ current prospect pool and their AHL team, the Texas Stars, it’s impossible to not see WHL connections all over the place, connections that connect to each other as well.
That probably sounds confusing. Let’s take a look at the connections in more detail to help illustrate the point:
-Cody Eakin, who scored 35 points in 81 games for the Stars last season, played with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos from 2007-2010. One of Eakin’s top teammates during those years in “Speedy Creek” was center Justin Dowling, who has spent the last two seasons with the Texas Stars. Dowling was never drafted, but signed his first NHL contract with the Dallas Stars on March 26, 2014. After scoring 47 points in 74 regular season games and 14 points in 14 playoff games as Texas won the Calder Cup, the 23 year-old Dowling looks to have NHL potential.
-Eakin also played briefly with former Stars prospect Matt Fraser for the WHL’s Kootenay Ice, with both players having huge roles in guiding the Ice to the 2011 WHL Championship and an appearance in that year’s Memorial Cup. Fraser was traded to the Boston Bruins last summer as one of the pieces in the deal that brought Seguin to Dallas.
-Who was the Broncos’ coach during the Eakin and Dowling years? It was Mark Lamb, who actually served as an assistant coach for Dallas from 2002 until 2009 and still has ties with the organization.
-Another player that Lamb coached? Defenceman Julius Honka, Dallas’ first round selection, 14th overall, in this past June’s NHL Entry Draft.
-Speaking of coaches, the newest head coach of the Texas Stars is none other than Derek Laxdal, who spent the last four seasons behind the bench of the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings. Laxdal spent the five seasons prior, from 2005-2010, connected to the Stars’ organization as the head coach of their ECHL affiliate, the Idaho Steelheads. Laxdal was previously a strong candidate for the coaching job in Texas, eventually losing out to Glen Gulutzan.
-Laxdal’s Oil Kings not only won the WHL Championship in 2014, but also the Memorial Cup as well. One of the team’s top forwards during that run was Brett Pollock, who was just recently drafted by the Stars in the second round of the 2014 draft.
-Defenceman Kevin Connauton played 36 games for Dallas last season, his first year with the team after being acquired via trade in the spring of 2013. Connauton played one season in the WHL, 2009-2010, for the Vancouver Giants. Dallas’ scouts probably got a good, early look at the defender in Vancouver while they kept an eye on another Stars prospect, Tomas Vincour, who was drafted by the Stars in 2009 and played half of 2010 for the Giants. Vincour spent the next four seasons in the Dallas organization before being traded to the Colorado Avalanche.
-Right wing Colton Sceviour played 26 games for Dallas last season, scoring 12 points. Sceviour was drafted by the Stars in 2007 after a good season with the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks. Sceviour was traded within the WHL the next season, but one of the players that joined that Winter Hawks team was center Taylor Peters, who was never drafted but signed with the Stars as a free agent in 2013. Peters just finished up his rookie AHL season for Texas, registering 16 points in 70 games.
-From 2011-2013 the Kamloops Blazers sported two effective scoring wingers by the names of Cole Ully and Brendan Ranford. Ully was drafted in the fifth round by Dallas in the 2013 draft. Ranford signed with the Texas Stars as a free agent on an AHL-only deal for the 2013-2014 season, a move that turned out to have major implications as Ranford scored 16 points in 21 postseason games as Texas won the Calder Cup. The Stars, combining that successful playoff performance with what they already knew about Ranford from his WHL days, signed him to a three-year entry-level NHL deal this summer on July 2nd.
-Brenden Dillon spent four seasons with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, from 2007-2011, before signing with Dallas as a free agent. One of Dillon’s teammates in Seattle was Branden Troock, who appeared in nine games for the Thunderbirds at the end of the 2010 season. He would later be drafted in the fifth round by the Stars in the 2012 draft.
It’s pretty obvious to see that the Stars’ front office puts a lot of trust in their WHL scouts.
While all of these connections might not mean much right now, the Stars are most likely hoping that this familiarity will help strength the organization’s unity as the franchise continues to grow and build a contending roster. And who knows, maybe one day the hockey world will look on in awe of a successful Dallas team full of WHL ties, the same way they did with the Red Wings.
Derek Neumeier primarily covers the Dallas Stars, but also other various topics related to the sport of hockey. A Journalism graduate of Mount Royal University, Derek also writes for Defending Big D, and has done previous work with the Edmonton Oilers as a communications intern and Hockey Canada as a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @Derek_N_NHL