How Dallas Stars used one draft to build foundation of a Cup contender

Front offices throughout the NHL are willing to invest what amounts to a miniature fortune on travel so their amateur scouting staffs can find the players they believe can help them have a brighter future.

And that's not even including additional scouting costs such as salaries or the investment that comes with eventually trying to develop those draft picks into NHL players.

Every front office knows there's an art to drafting and developing. But to draft and develop the type of players who could potentially become franchise cornerstones? That can be a painstaking process that might take several years to master, with the sobering realization it might never happen.

Now you're starting to understand what made the 2017 NHL draft a defining moment for the Dallas Stars. They didn't find just one franchise player. They found a franchise defenseman, a franchise goaltender and a franchise forward in one draft when they used their first three picks to select defenseman Miro Heiskanen, goaltender Jake Oettinger and wing Jason Robertson.

"We're hoping we can get one or two guys in each draft that can just play for us and be serviceable and good players," one NHL amateur scout who works for another team told ESPN. "They got a No. 1 defenseman who can run a power play, a starting goaltender and a top-six forward in one draft. Even if they didn't get Oettinger and just got Heiskanen and Robertson, that's still a rock-star draft. There is not a word to describe three guys of that caliber. It's scary good."

Building through the draft and developing that talent is how teams win in the NHL. The Tampa Bay Lightning used five drafts in the span of seven years to acquire cornerstones Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Colorado Avalanche used four drafts over seven years to select cornerstones Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar.

But there's more to it. The Lightning still had to develop the talent they drafted and the undrafted free agents they procured to support what they had beyond their cornerstones. The Avs parlayed players who were once thought to be cornerstones in their long-term plans and traded them to eventually strengthen their core.

The end result: The Lightning and Avalanche combined to win the past three Stanley Cups and serve as a blueprint for others to emulate.

"When we got into the [flat salary] cap world, the parity world, if you make a mistake signing a free agent, you don't get out of that," Stars general manager Jim Nill said. "The best way to stay out of that? It's the draft and developing young, homegrown players that can have success."

In the 1990s, the Dallas Cowboys had their triplets in Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith, who led them to three Super Bowls. Could it be possible that 30 years later, the Stars have their own version of a title-winning trio who might help bring a Cup or two to Big D? They'll look to take a step in that direction with the opportunity to wrap up their first-round series with the Minnesota Wild in Game 6 on Friday night.

What the Stars did in order to refine Heiskanen, Oettinger and Robertson to reach this stage of their respective careers was a gradual process. And while they each showed continual flashes of promise, this season provided even more confirmation.

Heiskanen was already a top-pairing defenseman who could play in every situation. This season he broke through to score a career-high 73 points, which more than doubled his point total from the 2021-22 season.

Oettinger went from sharing the net to becoming a full-time No. 1 starter who was in the top seven in games started, saves, save percentage, goals-against average and shutouts. Robertson, who came into this season with 125 career points, improved to 109 points and his second straight 40-goal season.

Beyond their success in the 2017 draft, the Stars have quietly created one of the stronger farm-to-table approaches in the NHL. Their current iteration started in 2015 with center Roope Hintz. It has since continued to include center Ty Dellandrea, defenseman Thomas Harley and center Wyatt Johnston, with prospects such as Mavrik Bourque and Logan Stankoven lined up to be next.

Exactly how did the Stars set themselves on such a strong course in such short order?

HOW THE STARS came away with a franchise-altering haul in 2017 actually can be traced to the 1990s and the Detroit Red Wings. Nill was hired at the start of the 1994-95 season by the Red Wings to serve as their director of player development before eventually becoming assistant GM.

A year later, the Red Wings hired Kitchener Rangers head coach/GM Joe McDonnell to be an amateur scouts before he was promoted to director of amateur scouting before the start of the 2003-04 season.

Nill was hired by the Stars before the 2013-14 season and he hired McDonnell to be Dallas' director of amateur scouting.

Their time with the Red Wings was foundational for several reasons. At the time, the Red Wings were at the vanguard of scouting well before the salary cap made it en vogue. They had already established a pipeline in Europe in addition to North America. That helped them draft a collection of prospects who reached the NHL, such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Jiri Fischer, Niklas Kronwall, Jiri Hudler, Valteri Filppula, Jimmy Howard and Johan Franzen, among many others.

Nill said he was "very fortunate" to be with the Red Wings at that time because of what he learned from Scotty Bowman, Jim Devellano and Ken Holland about the intricacies of both building a team and winning with them. Nill said what resonated with him is how the Red Wings' management was able to build a bridge of internal talent that allowed the franchise to win four Stanley Cups while transitioning from those teams led by Steve Yzerman and Lidstrom to the group headlined by Datsyuk and Zetterberg.

"They did a great job of drafting and were one of the first teams that went to Europe and into Russia," Nill said of the Red Wings. "They had a couple drafts similar to what we had in 2017 when they drafted Lidstrom and [Sergei] Federov. They knocked it dead too."

But there is something to be said about the parts Nill and McDonnell played from the time they joined the franchise.

"The stuff McDonnell and Nill did in Detroit when McDonnell was running the amateur draft speaks for itself," one NHL amateur scouting director told ESPN. "I would think the fact he left Detroit with Jim Nill speaks highly of his dedication. Not that I want to speak for Jim Nill, but I imagine knowing Joe well and the success he's had identifying talent speaks highly in the world of hockey."

Both the amateur scouting director and amateur scout who were interviewed by ESPN provided a composite look at what has made the Stars successful with their drafts.

The amateur scout said McDonnell and one of his most trusted scouts, Mark Leach, who also spent several years in the Red Wings organization, are known for being easy to speak with. That, in turn, can create the sort of environment that allows their scouts to potentially feel confident in expressing their observations, the amateur scout said.

"I get the sense the guys who are good in those positions listen really well," the amateur scout said. "As the leader of an amateur department, if you have high stress, high anxiety and feel the pressure of making a pick, that feeds down to other guys. You don't want to do anything for your staff that will make them not want to share something or give their opinions that may go against what is being said."

The amateur scouting director said there are teams that look to draft a certain type of player and that the Stars have a defined idea of what they want. The scouting director said the past few drafts have shown the Stars targeted skilled forwards with offensive upside in Bourque and Johnston, the first-round picks in 2020 and 2021. They've also shown that size is something they seek in their defensemen, which was evidenced by taking the 6-foot-3 Harley in 2019 along with their first-round pick last year, Lian Bichsel, who is 6-5.

"Depending upon their strategy, they seem to be able to find talent. Especially later in the first round or with those early second-round picks," the scouting director said. "They are able to find very good players."

That's the context for how the Stars are able to identify talent. They have people who have done it for decades and have built a staff with eight amateur scouts, European scouting director Kari Takko and McDonnell.

AS FOR HOW it all came together for the Stars in 2017? Nill admits there was some luck involved.

The Stars finished with the seventh-worst record in the NHL and had a 5.8% chance of winning the lottery, a 6.1% chance of getting the second pick and a 6.4% chance of picking third.

Having such a poor record opened the door for them to trade Patrick Eaves to the Anaheim Ducks for a conditional second-round pick. The condition for the Stars to get a first-round pick was that Eaves play in at least half the Ducks' playoff games through the first two rounds.

The Stars entered the 2017 draft with the No. 3 pick from the lottery, Eaves meeting the conditions to flip that second-round pick into another first-round pick (No. 26 overall), while also having a high second-round pick (No. 39).

"We were sitting there during the draft lottery and when you move up from that spot to No. 3, that changes your whole mindset," Nill said. "You are picking high in the first round and then pretty high in the second round. We got lucky with the lottery. You're looking at a whole different group."

The expectation was that centers Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick were going to be off the board when it came time for the Stars to pick third. Nill said Heiskanen was on the short list of three or four possibilities for the team to take when it was their turn. Heiskanen projected as a responsible two-way defenseman who could someday do everything required of a top-pairing option.

Nill said the Stars' scouts watched Oettinger "all the time" when he played at the United States National Team Development Program. That gave the Stars confidence that Oettinger fit the archetype of a contemporary goaltender, an athletic puck-stopper who has size packaged in a 6-5 body. Plus, they knew they had to start thinking about the future with Ben Bishop getting older.

As for Robertson? Nill said they knew he had high-end offensive ability and the intelligence to go with that skill. But the question they kept coming back to was his skating and whether he could be a good enough skater in the NHL.

"Is he too weak and needs more strength? Is there a hitch? That's where player development is so important," Nill said. "In the end with Jason, we were looking for someone who could score and with the guys that were left, we were fortunate to get him. The next part after we drafted him was for him to work with our player development staff."

HEISKANEN, OETTINGER AND ROBERTSON are also reminders of how developing the players comes with its own set of challenges.

Now the Stars' director of player personnel, former NHL center Rich Peverley was the team's director of player development for six seasons. Peverley explained that Heiskanen, Oettinger and Robertson are prime examples of how every player's development path is different.

Peverley said Heiskanen, who debuted as a 19-year-old, actually could have played in the NHL at 18. But the front office wanted him to get an additional year of development and getting stronger and faster. They knew he was going to play in several international competitions either for the Finnish under-20 men's national team or for the Finnish national team while logging heavy minutes for his club team, HIFK. It amounted to Heiskanen playing a combined 70-plus games for club and country.

The Stars knew Oettinger was close to being ready. He had the maturity and was physically ready to make the jump. But they wanted him to get more experience at a higher level while also spending time with coaches who could help hone his skills. That's why they were patient in watching Oettinger spend three seasons at Boston University, where he compiled a 2.34 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in more than 100 games.

Nill told ESPN this season that the pandemic significantly altered the Stars' development plan for Oettinger. They wanted him to play more than 50 AHL games in 2019-20, but the changes brought on by COVID-19 meant the Stars used him as a third goalie in the bubble, which led to Oettinger becoming Dallas' backup when Bishop got hurt.

"We were concerned. Are we getting ahead of course with him?" Nill said. "My job is to worry about today, tomorrow and 10 years down the road. ... Was it better to have him come back and be a backup or have him play in the AHL?"

Robertson's situation was also unique. As Nill said, the Stars wanted to address concerns about his skating. Peverley added that the team also worked with Robertson in developing an offseason training program and creating a nutrition plan.

"I think everyone has had a good hand in his development," Peverley said. "He came from a different background in terms of a hockey background being from California. He didn't know how to work out, how to train in the offseason and didn't know how to follow the nutritional things we preached. That was something he bought in and was all-in because he wanted to play in the NHL."

Robertson began the 2018-19 season with the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs before he was traded to the Niagara IceDogs. Jody Hull, who was the IceDogs' associate coach when the team acquired Robertson, described how Peverley and the Stars were inclusive rather than invasive when it came to Robertson's development.

Hull, now an associate coach with the WHL's Tri-City Americans, said the key to development is that the NHL team and the team prospects are playing for share a common goal: They work together to make the player better.

They created a plan to address Robertson's skating. One way they did that was to improve Robertson's conditioning, which Hull said can be a contributing factor toward improving skating.

"Rich was awesome," Hull said of Peverley. "He was up front and we talked about what we thought were deficiencies and areas Jason needed to improve. At the end of the day, what Dallas wants to see are the same things that will benefit the Niagara IceDogs in the same way. It was a hand-in-hand relationship."

Both the IceDogs and Stars saw growth from Robertson, with him scoring 25 goals and 79 points in 38 games for Niagara. Between the Frontenacs and IceDogs, Robertson scored 48 goals and 117 points in his final OHL season.

He spent one season in the AHL, where he finished with 25 goals and 47 assists in 60 games before he was called up to Dallas for the 2020-21 season.

Robertson finished second in voting for the Calder Trophy, the award for the NHL's best rookie.

"You have to establish trust and there has to be honesty there," Peverley said. "I am a firm believer and have always been taught this. You can't go in and impose your systems and way of playing on a junior player. You have to go with what the coaching staff is teaching. It's about establishing pro habits because they all want to see the player be successful as a pro. It's speaking the same language as coaches and management. If you do that, the players will have no confusion."

FIVE GAMES INTO their first-round series against the Wild, the contributions made by the Stars' latest crop of homegrown talent has been there for all to witness.

Heiskanen is averaging more than 29 minutes and had four points in the Stars' 7-3 win to tie the series at 1-1. Oettinger has a 2.19 GAA, a .925 save percentage and provided a 27-save shutout for a huge Game 5 win. Robertson has six points, including a goal and assist in Game 5, while averaging almost 20 minutes in ice time.

Hintz broke out for a hat trick in Game 2 to cap a four-point night and has 11 points in five games. Johnston has only one point, but he's operating as a second-line center and Natural Stat Trick's data shows he leads Stars forwards in 5-on-5 ice time. Dellandrea is receiving third-line minutes and leads Stars forwards in short-handed ice time. Harley, who played only six regular-season games, has been featured in all five playoff games and is serving as a third-pairing defenseman.

That's seven homegrown players who are all 26 or younger having an impact in the playoffs. And when you include older players such as captain Jamie Benn, who was drafted by the club in 2007, and forward Joel Kiviranta, an undrafted free agent the Stars signed and developed in the AHL for a season, it gives them 12 homegrown players on their active roster.

"People will say, 'We draft who we want,' and I say that's hogwash. They care. These teams do care," the amateur scout said. "Not saying Dallas doesn't but I get the sense they have guys they like and they pick those guys who fit into what they are doing in Dallas."