The Lonestar state is next as we arrive in Dallas.
Brett Ritchie - Niagara IceDogs
Everything finally came together for Ritchie this season. Previously he'd only given us a little taste of what he was capable of, but 2012/2013 was a major breakthrough for him. I think there were a couple major reasons for that. Firstly, he played with an edge and was a physical contributor at all times. He was able to channel his aggressiveness away from the puck into scoring chances by being an intimidating force. Secondly, his skating and ability to carry the puck improved. He had more confidence in looking to take the puck to the net and carry it into the zone, and the improved speed and acceleration to give him some separation. Lastly, he had way more confidence in his shot and was working harder away from the puck to get opportunities to use it. When you add it all up, you've got a power forward with a goal scoring touch. Next year he'll be turning pro and playing for Texas of the AHL. If his late season AHL stats are any indication, I expect him to have an immediate impact on a top 2 scoring line. He can likely replace the things Matt Fraser brought to the Texas lineup this year. That said, I also wouldn't rule him out of playing some games in the NHL this coming year. If he can continue to use his size effectively away from the puck, he could probably jump right into a 3rd line role.
Radek Faksa - Kitchener Rangers
It was not a good year for Faksa, the Stars' lottery selection in 2012. I was definitely a big fan of his in his draft year, but he actually regressed this year, rather than progressed. Mind you he did battle some injuries (mostly an MCL sprain) and struggled to find chemistry with linemates, but it's still disappointing to see him fail to take that next step forward. He remained a solid two way player and a reliable back-checker and board player. But there was something lacking in his game offensively. He didn't seem quite as confident in handling the puck and was nearly invisible offensively in some of the games that I saw this year. There wasn't nearly as much urgency to his game off the rush, and it seemed like he was content to just try and play a cycle game in hopes that offensive opportunities would be created for him. As a very high draft pick, you want to see him take over games offensively, especially considering he does have skill (especially as a playmaker). Bottom line is that if his offensive game doesn't take a step forward soon, we might have to re-evaluate his potential as a top 6 player. Nothing I saw this year suggests he's capable of playing that role at the professional level. Next year isn't going to be any easier for him in Kitchener. The Rangers are graduating their three best scoring wingers (Puempel, Leivo, Rieder), which means he's going to have to put this team on his back and be their number one center. We'll see if he's up to the challenge.
Gemel Smith - Owen Sound Attack
Similar to Faksa, I don't think it was a terrific year for Smith. The regression in his offensive numbers wasn't really the issue, just that he failed to stand out as much in my viewings of Owen Sound this year. The majority of his game still revolves around his speed and his ability to beat defenders one on one. He's certainly aggressive enough without the puck, but isn't necessarily effective either because he still lacks strength. I expected his game to grow a lot this year, anticipating that he'd get stronger and become more of a force on the forecheck and away from the puck. I just didn't see that consistently. Next year he'll assume the number one center spot in Owen Sound with the departure of Daniel Catenacci. He'll have some talented wingers at his disposal (the likes of Zach Nastasiuk, Cameron Brace, Jaden Lindo) so I fully expect him to improve and be a more consistent offensive player. A 70 point season is a very realistic expectation.
Cody Payne - Plymouth Whalers
Acquired in the Jaromir Jagr trade, Payne was one of the most improved players in the OHL this year. He went from being a crash and bang bruiser to someone who could be relied upon as a secondary scoring option. I think he gained a lot of confidence in his offensive abilities this season. While he still works best in a dump and chase role, he took some chances with the puck and flashed potential as the type of forward who can be a load to handle with the puck off the rush. He also improved his release and was able to be more effective near the crease. Considering his effectiveness away from the puck (physically, defensively, board work), his increased offensive contributions are gravy. This offseason he was traded to Saginaw where he's going to get a chance to play on a scoring line, as well as some powerplay time. I don't expect monumental increases in his offensive numbers, but I do think he's capable of a 55 point season next year. He certainly looks like he could be an effective 3rd/4th liner at the NHL level.
Jason Dickinson - Guelph Storm
An interesting pick by Dallas in the first round this year. I was pretty hard on Dickinson this year, but only because I was so disappointed in his lack of progression. I thought he would have a terrific year after being so impressed with him as an OHL rookie. His game lacked anything resembling consistency this year, and he pulled a major disappearing act in the 2nd half of the season. He has the qualities of a good complimentary scoring winger; speed, size, tenacity, skill with the puck. But there was often a lack of urgency in the offensive end. Next year will be a big test for him. Guelph is returning a lot of key players offensively, which means one of two things could happen. He could step up to the plate and be a go to offensive force for them or he could continue to struggle with consistency and have his role decreased. The key will be the emergence of his physical game and the ability to draw upon energy from his play without the puck.
Remi Elie - London Knights
A human cannonball. Elie was a huge factor on the forecheck for London this year. He was a very intimidating force for opposing defenseman, afraid of getting caught in his crossfire. But I think there's more to his game than we give him credit for. As the year went on, particularly during London's run in the playoffs, Elie looked more and more confident handling the puck, trying to create his own offensive chances. He's got a quick release and I think he's got goal scoring potential. He should get a slightly increased role this year, perhaps even some powerplay time. A 20/20 year is a very reasonable expectation for him.
Nick Paul - Brampton Battalion
Paul had a very effective first year in the OHL with Brampton. While his offensive numbers don't jump out at you, it's important to note that the Battalion were a low scoring team. Paul saw considerable time on Brampton's first line and was a consistently solid contributor for them...even if it didn't show up on the score sheet. His board play is already very strong, as is his defensive awareness. The key to his progression as an offensive player will be improving his skating and his shot. Skating wise, he's a bit sluggish and it prevents him from being more involved off the rush. It also prevents him from creating more chances for himself coming off the wall. And the shot, well that's self explanatory. With Brampton moving to North Bay, he'll assume a similar role as the previous year. He'll see time on a scoring line and be expected to increase his offensive output. Similar to Elie, I'd expect him to crack the 40 point barrier.