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Checking Back In on Riley Tufte

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

When we last checked in with Minnesota Duluth freshman and Dallas Stars 2016 first round draft pick Riley Tufte, he was six games into what would become a 14-game scoreless streak to begin his college hockey career.

The overwhelming message of the piece was that even though Tufte was having some early struggles, he still showed the same promising abilities that got him drafted so high, and certainly had the potential to have success, it might just take time. I closed with this:

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.

Tufte eventually broke through with an assist on January 6th, Minnesota Duluth’s first game of the second half of their season, and since then, has really taken off. Tufte has nine points(5-4-9) over his last 10 games, and was named the NCAA’s first star of the week for the weekend of January 20-21 for his performance in a sweep over the University of North Dakota.

I got a closer look at the new Riley Tufte two weekends ago in a pair of games at the North Star College Cup, where his Bulldogs defeated Minnesota and St. Cloud State to take home the title.

The difference between seeing him in November and now is noticeable. Tufte wasn’t as terrible as his numbers made him look in the first half of the year. He was certainly doing some good things. But the difference now is that he’s doing those good things a lot more frequently and playing with a lot more confidence.

The game on Friday against Minnesota was one of his best of the year. It started with his first shift when he used his size behind the net to control the puck and establish possession, then created on turnover on that shift which lead to a chance for his team.

Later in the first period, Tufte scored a goal when he took a puck off the wall, cut to the center of the ice, and lasered a wrist shot into the upper corner of the net.

He had another highlight reel play in the second period when he made a tremendous backcheck to cleanly steal away a puck from a Gopher. Even more impressive was that then, on the transition, Tufte outskated his defender to create a scoring chance, and would have had a semi-breakaway opportunity if he had been able to handle a difficult pass.

He finished the game off with a nice assist where he made a backhand flick pass to a streaking Avery Peterson for a breakaway and a goal. Peterson’s presence as the center on Tufte’s line to start the second half—Peterson had to sit out the first half of the year after transferring into school from Nebraska Omaha last year—can’t be understated in the turnaround for Tufte either. Peterson is a draft pick of the Minnesota Wild and a natural goal-scorer. Peterson has already scored four goals in nine games played, with Tufte picking up two of his three assists on Peterson’s goals. Meanwhile, Tufte’s former center, Jared Thomas, is still without a goal this season in 26 games played.

Minnesota Duluth is using Tufte as a net-front presence on the power play, which certainly makes sense given his size. Tufte isn’t a natural in that position. His hands aren’t quite good enough to make plays in tight in front of the net, but where I think he’s really effective is that he’s so fast that he’s able to get from the front of the net into the corners and retrieve pucks to maintain possession better than a lot of players in that position.

Overall, his speed continues to be his biggest asset, which is remarkable for a player that is 6’5”. He has the ability to join rushes and get himself into position to be a threat on offense consistently because he can outskate players. That’s starting to pay off with more offensive production, and should only continue once he gets a little more comfortable handling the puck at high speed.

He’s not all the way there yet. He missed a defensive zone pick-up that led to a goal in the championship game, and as I mentioned above, he still needs to get a little better with the puck. But for anyone hoping Tufte would start to show signs of becoming the player he was projected to be last year, he is definitely starting to show them.

The timeline for Tufte moving to Dallas likely hasn’t changed much. He’s still a player that would benefit from at least another two years at Minnesota Duluth. But his recent player suggests that he’s on the right track to someday making an impact for the Stars.