prom·ise [prom-is]: indication of future excellence or achievement
For perhaps the first time since 2008, the Dallas Stars show promise. That promise is giving Stars fans from all over a level of excitement that has not been felt in quite some time. The underlying question however is where does that excitement stem? Is it the first full season of having Tom Gaglardi at the helm? Perhaps it’s the new leadership team of General Manager Jim Nill and Head Coach Lindy Ruff? Surely the acquisition of Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff is fueling the fans’ excitement or maybe it’s the new jerseys.
Whatever “it” is, make no doubt that Stars fans are counting down the days (some mobile applications are even allowing fans to count minutes and seconds) to the start of the season. The 2013-2014 season has a feeling like it did 21 years ago when the Stars moved down to Dallas in regards to the feelings that the fans really have no idea what they’re going to see out on the ice come October 3rd when the Florida Panthers come to Dallas to kick off the season.
This season, the future begins. The new superstar…the face of the organization, Jamie Benn, will lead the Stars as the 6th captain in Dallas’ history. Ray Whitney and Stephane Robidas assume the alternate captaincy as gone are the days of the rotating on-ice leadership. Coach Ruff has stressed the importance of leadership and knowing exactly who the leaders are each night is a good first step. But how will all of the aforementioned affect the results which, in DFW, are most vital to the picky sports fan?
“My expectations for this team are to make the playoffs,” Jim Nill said when asked if this was a playoff team. “Like every other team we need to stay healthy, but with the strong message being conveyed by the coaching staff and overall skill of the team, our focus is on being a playoff team.”
Longtime play-by-play extraordinaire, Ralph Strangis added, “We’re a mystery. The key will be in net with our back up. Teams in the West that were at the top got a dozen wins out of their number 2. I think [Dan] Ellis is the right guy. If Kari can put in 55 games and Ellis can contribute 12 wins, then yes, I say we make it.”
It seems as if most publications don’t value the moves the Stars have made in the offseason as much as those of us here in the area who watch this team on a daily basis. Sports Illustrated, for example, has the Stars finishing 12th in the new-look Western Conference (that’s one spot down from where Dallas finished last year). They attribute that ranking to a “porous” defensive unit along with “only having Seguin and Benn” as a scoring threat. Ray Whitney (2nd), Alex Goligoski (4th) and Cody Eakin (6th) may have something to say about that as they look to remain at near the top of the Stars offensive output.
But, when you consider the amount of time the Stars were without the puck, then it’s easy to see why the defense would be a cause for concern. If you don’t win faceoffs, you’re always on defense and the skill guys are unable to do what they do: score. By going out and making moves to bring in Seguin, Horcoff and Peverley along with veteran defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, the Stars (at least on paper) have improved their faceoff attributes which in turn will assist in taking pressure off the defense and will allow the offense to get set up and have better chances.
“Last year, Benn and [Mike] Ribeiro were half of our team up front,” Strangis eluded. “Now, we’re deep at center for once. This will allow us to win more faceoffs, which we have to do, starting on special teams.”
Ralph added, “Special teams are key in this game. Power play is part skill, part creativity and part chaos. It’s how you are at shutting down the other guys.” That key will reside in the pairing of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
When Seguin was informed of the trade that saw Loui Eriksson head to Boston, Tyler stated it was Jamie Benn who first reached out. Now, the two live several floors apart and drive in together to the rink. Wednesday night, the two threw out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers game. Before they even play a regular season game together, Benn-Seguin are the new Getzlaf-Perry or Thornton-Marleau.
“I’m very pleased with the chemistry between Benn and Seguin,” Nill said. “They have a good feel all over the ice and have adapted to their respective positions early in the season.” Of course, the positions that Mr. Nill is referring to is Jamie being moved back to his natural position of left wing and Seguin moving to center.
In addition to beefing up the top line, the Stars can now also boast a formidable 3rd line to go with a physical 4th line. Last year, Vern Fiddler and Ryan Garbutt showed that the Stars would not be a team that would be pushed around, when in Vancouver, along with former Star (wipe away the tear) Eric Nystrom, each line mate got into a separate altercation just 3 seconds apart (the puck must be dropped prior to a fight or misconducts may be issued, and a second must be taken off the game clock at puck drop). Now matched up with most likely Lane MacDermid, the Stars 4th line will offer opposing teams’ skill players all they can handle.
Where the Stars were very weak last year was the vital 3rd line. When on the road, it’s generally the 3rd line that’ll see significant playing time against the home team’s top scoring line. Thursday morning, Mark Stepneski of DallasStars.com tweeted the morning skate lines prior to the “dress rehearsal” match up against the Colorado Avalanche and the 3rd line comprised of Antoine Roussel-Shawn Horcoff-Valeri Nichushkin. Here is a line that has skill and physicality that will help in relieving the Stars defensive corps. Roussel showed last year that along with his 14 points and 3rd best shooting percentage among Stars with at least 45 shots, his 85 PIM led the team by 20 minutes with just 39 games played.
Having a proven leader in Horcoff at center along with Roussel going into the dirty areas will greatly benefit Stars number one draft pick, Valeri Nichushkin. Being assigned to the 3rd line might be one of Lindy Ruff’s first overlooked coaching moves in terms of Val could easily play on one of the top-2 lines and succeed, but in order to grow into a more well-rounded NHL forward, being placed on the 3rd line with Horcoff-Roussel will take pressure off Nichushkin and allow him to focus on positioning and back checking.
Although the defense will be the area which will require the most attention, as most publications have indicated, I don’t believe it will require that much work. The addition of Sergei Gonchar will be the quietest move that Jim Nill will have made all year in regards to player acquisition, but the value that Gonchar brings to the roster cannot be quantified. Leadership on and off the ice, quarterbacking the power play and mentoring Nichushkin are all things that will drive the Dallas Stars that you won’t find on the score sheet at the end of the evening. In turn, this will take a huge amount of pressure off Alex Goligoski, who since being traded for James Neal has failed to live up to the number one defenseman moniker, can now focus on puck possession and building on his point total that shot up after a surprise benching last season.
Trevor Daley is healthy (for the most part) after offseason surgery to repair his nagging neck issue and Brenden Dillon has a “full” season under his belt. There are some who tossed Dillon’s name (myself included) as a potential captain of this team down the road. Although I believe Benn has that secured for as long as he wears the silver star on his jersey, Dillon has an opportunity to step up his game to include leadership. Finishing 10th in the Calder Trophy voting (Rookie of the Year), Dillon was easily the Stars’ number one defenseman last year, and I wouldn’t expect his game to dip heading into this season.
The unknown factor on the blue line will be the 6th-8th spots and how those will be handled. With the injuries to Aaron Rome (still potentially a month out) and Daley being relatively untested this preseason, who the Stars bring in for the bottom defensive pairing will be what to watch for. Will Dallas carry 7 or 8 defensemen? Will they carry 7 but due to the close proximity of Cedar Park, will they constantly have Kevin Connauton, Jamie Oleksiak and Jordie Benn on the ready for a call up at any given moment? I think Connauton might be the most “NHL ready” in regards to skill. Having Oleksiak as a scratch more than 60% of the time will be detrimental to his development and he should go where he’ll get the most effective minutes possible. Jordie Benn, in my opinion fills the 6th-7th spot well, but in the course of an 82-game season, I just don’t see how giving him NHL minutes when you have players who make up the future plans is justifiable.
Of course, this season and the success or failure all resides on the shoulders of #32. In the first year of his contract in which he signed 24 hours before the lockout, Kari Lehtonen will be looked upon to be elite and not just a number one net minder. Consistently overlooked by national media, Kari will have the spotlight as the league will undoubtedly see more of the Stars during highlight programs each night with the likes of Benn and Seguin along with Nichushkin scoring pretty goals more often. Because of this, unfortunately Lehtonen will feel more pressure and potentially be bitten by the injury bug that finds its way into Kari’s season. As Ralph mentioned before, the importance of Dan Ellis will be immense. For the first time since coming to Dallas, Kari will have a legitimate back up and that veteran presence in net will provide the confidence the defense will need on the nights that Kari is off.
Last season, I went through the schedule and broke down month-by-month what I thought the Stars would do. For the most part, I believe I did pretty decent for someone who doesn’t do predictions very well. Of course, I did miss on the most important prediction: top-8. Although I said the Stars would make the playoffs, I wasn’t able to take in consideration Chicago’s and Anaheim’s complete control of the Western conference. The injuries that the Stars had of course played into that as well, and although injuries are a part of the game, I think the Stars just underperformed last year. There was no identity. The team, although more than a year removed from the Tom Gaglardi purchase was still a patchwork of a team.
This year, the team is Tom Gaglardi’s. Gaglardi told Jim Lites to find a general manager and he found the hands down best candidate available. Jim Nill was then told to go hire a new head coach and he found the hands down best candidate available. This year, the Stars are not fighting to stay above the salary cap floor and the front office has been aggressive in acquiring top-NHL talent and leadership. This year, the Stars WILL make the playoffs for the first time in six years. This year, a new Star will rise and the Dallas Stars will become relevant in the National Hockey League once again. This year, is promising.