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Eye on the Future: Riley Tufte Is Still A Work in Progress

2016 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images

When Minnesota Duluth freshman forward Riley Tufte was selected late in the first round of last summer’s NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars, it was expected that Tufte would be a bit of a project. Tufte spent the majority of his draft year playing for his hometown Blaine High School, with brief stops before and after the season with the Fargo Force of the USHL.

In our draft profile of Tufte last season, we noted that while Tufte had some incredible raw tools, he would likely have a difficult time making such a big jump from playing high school hockey straight to NCAA Division I hockey:

Pro Projection:

As a bigger prospect, Tufte is likely going to need a longer timeline before he's ready to make an impact at the NHL level. He'll head to the University of Minnesota Duluth next year. If his slow transition to the USHL is any indication, it may take a year or two before he starts to make a big impact with the Bulldogs, but after three to four years in Duluth and some time spent in the minor leagues, Tufte could develop into a very good pro player. The sky is the limit for a player with Tufte's physical tools. He's got the upside to be a scoring line wing at the NHL level.

It didn’t help matters when Tufte suffered a wrist injury at the US World Juniors Evaluation Camp and was severely limited in preseason practice, and forced to miss his team’s first four games.

So the fact that Tufte is currently scoreless through his first six games with Minnesota Duluth shouldn’t necessarily be a cause for panic. I took a closer look at Tufte in UMD’s game on November 5th against St. Cloud State to see what’s been going on behind the low numbers to start his season.

As far as Tufte’s usage, Minnesota Duluth is a deep, veteran team that is currently ranked number one in the country. Tufte has been playing left wing on the Bulldogs’ third line with center Jared Thomas and right wing Parker Mackay the majority of the time. There are pros and cons to that(in terms of of his development; there’s no question it has worked well for UMD). Tufte isn’t quite seeing the same ice time at 5-on-5 or playing in as important situations as he would be playing top-6 somewhere else, but it also means that he’s usually playing against much more favorable match-ups. At this stage in his career, he’s probably not ready for that big of a role at the collegiate level. It’s also worth noting that Minnesota Duluth will add transfer and Minnesota Wild draft pick Avery Peterson at mid-year, and he slots nicely into that third line, which potentially gives Tufte a more-skilled linemate to work with.

Tufte has also played on UMD’s second power play unit, where he’s reportedly been pretty decent, though on Saturday, UMD only had one power play, which carried over between intermissions, so the top unit was able to double-shift.

It almost goes without saying that Tufte still shows the many factors that helped make him a first round pick. He’s still huge. He can still really skate. At one point early on Saturday, he was able to catch a (fairly quick) St. Cloud State defenseman outside of the face-off dots while he was skating the puck up the ice, and was able to use his speed to gain inside leverage. Tufte ended up being taken down on the play, erasing the chance, though I thought he should have drawn a penalty on the play. That ability to put pressure on the defense like that with his size and with his skating is really rare.

He can still really fire the puck too. He had a couple shots from the high perimeter that he was still able to test the goalie on.

As for why all that talent hasn’t added up to a point on the score sheet yet, I think there are a couple factors at play.

The first, is that I think he is still learning the game at the faster pace of the college level, and doing a lot of thinking out on the ice rather than just playing. He’s doing a decent job picking up defensive responsibilities, but there were a few times where he was late to his position on the breakout, which ended up keeping the puck in his own end. He also lost a great scoring chance late in the game when he forced a turnover in the St. Cloud State end to create a 2-on-1 situation. But Tufte panicked and tried to force a long pass too early that was easily knocked away by the defenseman. It’s a big jump to the speed of college hockey and Tufte got a later start to the year. Once the game starts to slow down for him, he’ll be a lot better.

Some of the struggles are in part due to the fact that even though he’s huge, he’s never been a tremendously tough player. He’s got that heavy from the perimeter, but it’d be nice to see him using it more from higher percentage areas of the ice. He got beat a few times in the neutral zone because he attempted soft stick checks rather than taking the body. But he does seem to be making a concerted effort to play a tougher game. He did get to the front of the net, and just missed being rewarded for it a few times. I’ve seen a little bit more grind in terms of working along the boards for pucks than I have in past years. And when he took a decent hit from 6’7” SCSU forward Ben Storm, he made a strong effort to make sure he answered back with a stiff, finished check on Storm later that shift rather than backing down.

The third part of the equation is that he definitely had a little bit of luck go against him to come out of Saturday’s game without a point. In the first period, he picked up a drop pass on a 3-on-2 with a clean, high percentage look at the net, only to have the play whistled down because a linemate was a half-step offside. Later that period, he had a great look at a backhand rebound putback at the side of the net, only to have the rebound take a hop over his stick.

In the second period, he got two good whacks at a rebound in front of the net, and the goalie came up with saves on both. Later that period, a sequence he helped set up with a strong cycle in the offensive zone ended with a linemate getting a great look at the side of the net off a rebound and an open net, only to have him airmail it off the post and over the glass. So there’s been some chances there, including some that don’t even necessarily show up in the “scoring chance” fancy stats.

The bottom line is that while some of might hoped Tufte might immediately take off in college hockey, the reasonable expectation was that it would take some time for him to make a big impact, and that appears to be the case. It will be interesting to see how he progresses throughout the year, and especially next year, because there are still signs of a lot of promise.