Dallas Stars fans are probably some of the most frustrated fans in the National Hockey League. For the last five seasons, the Stars have teased their fans’ beliefs of playoff hopes, leading them through a rollercoaster year only to collapse in the last week or two. This year figures to be different and I fully expect that Texas’ lone NHL team will still be playing this May. A plethora of positive offseason moves have this team back on track to championship contention, starting this year.
The first piece of the overhaul took place in the Stars’ front office. Since taking over as GM of the franchise, Jim Nill has been by far Dallas’ most aggressive individual in a determined effort to improve his team. In mid-July, he pulled the trigger on a groundbreaking deal with the Boston Bruins, which saw the departure of fan favorite winger Loui Eriksson and several top prospects. In return the Stars hauled in highly-coveted center Tyler Seguin and gritty winger/center Rich Peverly.
The move seemed to send shockwaves through the rest of the league: the Stars were taking that all-important first, and usually most difficult step to earning legitimate contender status.
To sweeten the deal for Dallas, Seguin was a major contributor on two different Eastern Conference Champion Bruins teams. At 21 years old, his talent level is off the charts, and shortly after his arrival in Dallas he signed a six year extension which locks him up through the 2019 season. After the team all but franchised him, many Stars fans began to peg him as the next closest thing to Mike Modano. He has a similar skill set, and if anything his talent level is just a notch below Modano’s at the same age – but hey, in Modano, we’re talking about probably the greatest American hockey player ever. Give Seguin some time.
They say you have to give to get, and the Stars and Bruins did just that in a deal which I believe substantially improved both teams in the short and long terms. The silver lining of this deal is that establishing Seguin as the top line center allows emerging star Jamie Benn to move back to his original position on the wing. Last season Benn was forced to move to center because of depth issues, and he posted the fewest goals (12) and points (33) of his career (although much of this had to do with the shortened season). Back in his natural position, he should be comfortable and ready to contribute in a big way coming into this season.
The Stars also signed veteran center Shawn Horcoff, formerly with the Edmonton Oilers. Horcoff, even at 34, still brings a stingy and smart presence to center ice. He’s a large body and doesn’t shy away from contact in any zone. In the past, the Stars have generally lacked enforcer type players, but Horcoff will provide that gritty edge on the offensive side of the puck - He's shaping up to take over Dallas’ second line center spot.
Sergei Gonchar, who in my opinion, is the best Russian-born blue liner of the last 15-20 years, will immediately strengthen Dallas’ defensive corps. Headlined by Gonchar’s veteran aura and the seemingly limitless potential of young Brenden Dillon, the Stars should cut down on their shots allowed per game this season. Last year they ranked 24th in that category, allowing about five more shots on average than they were able to create. This put a tremendous strain on net minder Kari Lehtonen and created more rebound scoring chances for opposing teams. As a result, Lehtonen took a lot of unwarranted heat from Stars fans following losses in big games.
To help keep Kari fresh all year (and especially in a full season directly following a shortened one) Nill worked his magic again signing free agent goaltender Dan Ellis. Last year with the Carolina Hurricanes he shared time with Cam Ward, and was effective in his starts. He is a solid backup and will be an immediate upgrade between the pipes over either Richard Bachman or Cris Nilstorp.
Finally, the Stars excelled in the 2013 Entry Draft. With the tenth overall pick the Stars selected Russian winger Valeri Nichushkin. At just 18 years old, many scouts and draft experts saw him as an absolute steal for Dallas.
With what many referred to as “top five talent” it was quite a surprise he fell down to tenth. Many teams ahead of Dallas in the draft were hesitant to take Nichushkin because he was still on contract with the KHL at the time of the draft - the fear was that he would come into camp with an attitude that if he wasn’t guaranteed a starting spot with Dallas, he would return to the KHL without an issue. Nevertheless, Nill was able to look past this setback and pick Nichushkin based on his overwhelming talent and potential.
The Stars made out like bandits with this pick. Nichushkin, at 6 foot 4, is a bruising forward with above average speed, elite puck handling and an admirable energy on the ice. He has a similar build to fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin, and the same physical potential. Scouts noted his inconsistency but also say that when’s “he on, he’s on.” His talent, potential, and size alone earned him a spot in the Stars top six forwards.
With all that said, here are the lines I’d like to see the Stars put on the ice this season.
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Alex Chaisson
Valeri Nichushkin – Shawn Horcoff – Ray Whitney
Erik Cole – Cody Eakin – Rich Peverly
Antoine Roussel – Vernon Fiddler – Lane MacDermid
Stephane Robidas – Brenden Dillon
Sergei Gonchar – Alex Goligoski
Trevor Daley – Jamie Oleksiak
Top to bottom this is a solid twenty-man rotation. Each line features an up and coming player paired with established stars or veterans. Between trades and in-house moves, Dallas upgraded at nearly every position on the ice, and now they are a far bigger and tougher team. Horcoff, Cole, Benn, and Chaisson are all large and skilled offensive players that can also bring defensive aggressiveness in the neutral and defensive zones.
Back for another run are those “blue-collar” players, such as Peverly, the entire checking line, Robidas, Daley, and Dillon. Guys that are willing to take hits for teammates, and get down to block pucks with their bodies are invaluable to a team’s success. With many of those guys in the defensive group, the Stars should be allowing fewer shots this year (they ranked 24th last season). On the same token, with those four physical offensive guys at the top, Dallas should be forcing more turnovers in the neutral zone and the forecheck should be much more consistent and pressing.
This will create more time on the puck in the offensive zones, more offensive zone draws, and in the end should be creating more shots for the Stars overall.
Although the Stars ranked 11th in total offense last season, scoring an average of 2.7 goals per game, they were bottom ten in the league in shots created. This is a testament to their style of play under Glen Gulutzan, who employed the well-known “dump and chase” offensive system. Defensemen would simply fire the puck into the offensive zone and allow the speedy forwards to out-skate opponents and then set up. The effectiveness of this system was deceiving – the Stars had the personnel to pull it off, but had to burn a ton of energy beating opponents to pucks, and subsequently the defensive effort suffered.
This year, the Stars feature more high-end skill forwards who should be able to play on the puck much more. Add in new head coach Lindy Ruff’s far more organized offensive sets that place a premium on possession, and the Stars should elevate their total offensive team output.
Prediction: As we FINALLY return to an 82-game slate, I have the Stars going 45-32-5. That record will put them in the conversation for a 5-8 seed in the newly-organized western conference. The Stars dramatically improved in many areas, and should be back in the playoffs this year. Before everyone gets too excited, keep in mind Stars fans, that this is a slowly but surely-developing rebuilding process. Count on waiting at least 2 or 3 more years before this team is a true Stanley Cup contender.Back to the Dallas Stars Newsfeed