By Martin Iheke
By the time your Dallas Stars open the 2013-2014 season at home against the Florida Panthers, it will have been 159 days since the Stars last took the ice. A lot of changes have taken place within that time span that includes a new general manager and head coach. Of course, this is in response to the franchise missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season not to mention a new owner who wants to put his stamp on the organization. For the first time in a long time, there is a real sense of optimism about the present and future of this team.
New general manager Jim Nill wasted no time in immediately putting his stamp on the team by letting go head coach Glen Gulutzan and replacing him with longtime Buffalo Sabres head coach, Lindy Ruff. Nill wanted a head coach with experience and who is able to handle young players. Next up, he traded a conditional six-round pick for defensemen Sergei Gonchar from the Ottawa Senators. Nill believes adding Gonchar will help stabilize the back end with his experience and ability to contribute on the power play.
As we turn the draft, the Stars drafted what many experts believe could be one of the biggest steals in the draft when they took 18-year old right wing Russian phenom Valeri Nichushkin 10th overall. A lot of mock drafts had him selected around the 5th overall spot but some teams were hesitant on picking him because of concerns about whether he could play in the NHL right now because of his contract in Russia. Obviously, the Stars were not worried one bit about that issue. According to Red Line Report 2013 Guide on starsinsideedge.com, this is what they had to say about Nichushkin: “Has a ridiculous skill level and has grown to be monster-sized. An absolute man among boys against his own age group, overpowering and walking down any defender, anytime he wants. Has a smooth, gliding stride that generates deceptive speed and creates easy separation. Great strong, soft hands that allow him to control the puck and make moves at top speed. Long reach combined with wide body make it impossible to move him off the puck. Pro release around the slot — wastes no time stopping the puck to set it up. Receives even the toughest passes with ease, controlling hard passes in skates and kicking them up to his blade all in one motion. An imaginative passer who sees the ice well. Good hockey sense in all three zones, and is even used on the top PK unit, where he rags the puck smartly.” The Stars think that he is so good and ready that he could immediately end up on the roster to start the season.
Trades Strengthen Team
Nill did not stop at the draft. With the emphasis of strengthening the center positions for the Stars, he went ahead and made a blockbuster trade with the Boston Bruins by trading wingers Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith and Matt Frasor along with defensemen Joe Morrow for centers Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverly and defensemen Ryan Button. The biggest thing that sticks out to me in this is giving up a very underrated all-around winger in Eriksson for a young and talented center in Tyler Seguin. With Nill wanting to move forward Jamie Benn back to his natural position as left winger, the Stars needed to have a potential #1 center who could play along with Benn. Seguin could very well be that guy. He is only 21 and has room to grow into one of the more elite players in the league not to mention it will take a lot of pressure off Benn. Seguin helped the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup Finals in two out of the last three seasons winning it in 2011. He is fast and very skilled and can handle the puck and play on both ends of the ice not to mention he is good at face-offs. Peverly will most likely play on the 2nd line and he is a very good faceoff guy. Nill also traded for center Shawn Horcoff from the Edmonton Oilers sending defensemen Philip Larsen their way. Horcoff would center the 3rd or 4th line. Let us not forget that Nill signed a solid backup veteran goalie in Dale Ellis who can come in and play so Lehtonen does not have to be overworked. With all these moves, Nill wants a deep roster that can play on both ends of the ice while possessing the puck more.
A New Division
After 15 years in the Pacific Division, the Stars finally moved out of there and into a newly reformed Central Division that should benefit not only the team but the fans. Too many times in the past the Stars have had to play divisional road games that start at 9 or 9:30pm locally where fans on most occasions would not be able to see the whole games. Also for the team, they have had to travel two time zones back and log the most travel mileage of any team in the league. Thanks to Gaglardi and team president Jim Lites, the Stars do not have to worry about that anymore. Most of their games now, especially the divisional ones, will start at 7pm which is much more convenient for everyone. They do have to deal with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks more now that they are back as divisional bunkmates. The St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche round out the rest of the division so this will not be an easy ride for the Stars.
The Stars believe with the strong farm system they have along with some young talented players on the team, it will not be too long before they become very good again. Having solid veterans like Ray Whitney, Sergei Gonchar, Erik Cole, Stephane Robidas and Vernon Fiddler to help guide the young players will only help to stabilize any potential setbacks that could take place in the locker room. The question now with all the moves that have been made, can head coach Lindy Ruff put it together and make it work? Is rookie Nichushkin ready to contribute this quickly? Now that Jamie Benn has been named team captain, can he finally lead this team back to the playoffs? What about the back end? That was one area I do not think the Stars upgraded much because I feel they are still lacking that true #1 defensemen. Gonchar is good but he is not a #1 defensemen. They are probably waiting on some of the kids in their farm system like defensemen Jaime Oleksiak or Patrik Nemeth to be fully polished before joining the Stars who could eventually fill that hole. Hopefully, these questions will be answered throughout the season. If they are, I expect them to make the playoffs.
All I can say for now is I am looking forward to this season as it begins a new era that should be filled with excitement and enthusiasm. If you are a Stars fan, I hope you feel the same as I do about this team. If you are just a casual fan, take some time to check out the Stars. They are going to be fun and interesting to watch.