By Martin Iheke
The last time your Dallas Stars were on the ice for an official game, they blew a 4-2 lead at home in Game 6 in the first round of the playoffs against the Anaheim Ducks only to lose in overtime and the series. It was a disappointing way to end the season despite making huge strides during the regular season which resulted in making the playoffs for the first time in six years. General Manager Jill Nill and Head Coach Lindy Ruff will head into their second year with the franchise after a solid first season. With both of them now having spent a full year with the organization, they have a better grasp of what kind of team is here and what the players can provide whether it is here with the big club or in Cedar Park, Texas with the Texas Stars.
“Looking back, it was a real challenge,” Nill said according to dallasnews.com. “I knew Lindy, but not really. I knew the organization, but not really. There was a lot to learn and a lot to process, and it took some time,” as he continued. Ruff pretty much agreed with that assessment. “In a lot of ways we were flying blind last season,” Ruff said according to dallasnews.com. “This year, it’s not going to be easy, but I think we have a much better feeling about the direction we’re heading,” as he continued. After the Game 6 loss at home to the Ducks, Nill and Ruff knew that for this team to take the next step, they would have to bolster the second line to take pressure off forwards Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Valeri Nichushkin. They did just that by trading for forward Jason Spezza from Ottawa Senators. They also signed free agent forward Ales Hemsky, who has previously played with Spezza. Having those players as your second line improves the offense more and frees up Seguin and Benn to be even more effective. It also allows forwards Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt to move down to the third line and serve more as a checking line, which is what they are.
As for the blue line, the defensemen are pretty much in tack from last season. Trevor Daley, Alex Goligoski, Brenden Dillon, Sergei Gonchar and Jordie Benn will be leading the way. Right now, Gonchar is out with a fractured bone in his ankle so this will be an opportunity for youngster like Patrik Nemeth, Kevin Connauton and Jamie Oleksiak to step up. Nemeth really came along late in the season and into the postseason after being called up from Cedar Park. He took his brief experience in the NHL and brought that to the Texas Stars in helping lead them to an AHL championship, last season. As for backup goalie, Anders Lindback will serve as the backup to Kari Lehtonen. He comes from the Tampa Bay Lightning where he was sort of up and down but the Stars believe with the right coaching, Lindback can hopefully be a serviceable backup.
With the regular season getting under way starting Thursday night at home against the Chicago Blackhawks, there are a few questions that need to be answered by the Stars if they want to take that next step from just making the playoffs:
Can Lindback excel as the backup goalie?
Unfortunately, Lehtonen has a history of missing time during the season not to mention you do not want to overwork him. Lindback will have to be solid in net when he is called upon so the Stars do not fall in the standings.
Will the blue line improve from last season?
This is probably the most pressing issue that concerns most Stars fans. Since the squad lacks a #1 defenseman, they will have to rely on the names mentioned above to be collectively good. If they can consistently move the puck out of the zone with no costly turnovers, they will be all right. If they do not, it could be some long nights.
Will the power play be better?
This is part of the special teams where the Stars really need to improve on. They finished 23rd last season at 15.9% according to dallasnews.com. With the additions of Spezza and Hemsky, the Stars are hoping these two players can help on this. The Stars will be able to roll out two units instead one that would make it harder on opposing teams to defend their attack.
Will they be better beyond regulation?
The Stars really struggled playing beyond regulation, last season. Their record was 6-11 in overtime/shootouts. They did not win an overtime game at home as well. It is nice to pick up at least a point when you get beyond regulation, but it helps even more to get that second point. It could make the difference from barely making the playoffs to possibly competing for a division title which could result in having home-ice advantage in a playoff series.
If the Stars are able to address these questions with positive results, they should finish a lot better than last season and perhaps compete for one of the top spots in the Western Conference. If they cannot, look for them to struggle to make the playoffs again. Either way…. this is a young, fast and exciting team that I cannot wait to start watching again come Thursday night against the Blackhawks.
10/9 vs Blackhawks 7:30 pm
10/11 @Predators 7:00 pm