NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.
The Dallas Stars learned how to win last season with little expected of them. They wound up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in six years.
"I think we did surprise a few people," Stars coach Lindy Ruff told NHL.com.
They won't anymore.
If the Stars don't wind up in the playoffs again this season they'll be seen as a disappointment because expectations on them are rising now that Ruff and general manager Jim Nill have their fingerprints all over the team.
STARS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
2013-14 record: 40-31-11, 91 points, 5th in Central Division, 8th in Western Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost 4-2 to Anaheim Ducks in Western Conference First Round
"It's about learning how to win consistently and it's about learning how to win the right way," Nill said. "You've got to respect winning."
Nill isn't talking about respecting a winner, even though the Stars have earned respect across the NHL for what they did last season and the moves they made during the offseason. They acquired Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators, signed Ales Hemsky to a three-year contract and created goalie competition behind Kari Lehtonen by signing Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas.
Nill, though, is talking about respecting the art of winning -- as in don't take it for granted because the NHL, particularly in the Western Conference, has a way of humbling those who do.
Dallas was the fifth of five Central Division teams to make the playoffs last season, falling in line behind the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild. All of those teams expect to be better than they were last season, when each had at least seven more points than the Stars' 91. Dallas has to be better too.
"When you look at how young we are with some of our talent, it will be how they manage those expectations that are going to be placed upon them," Ruff said. "There's going to be no free nights."
The good news is Dallas fared well against the Avalanche, Blues, Blackhawks and Wild in the second half last season, going 5-2-1. Overall, Dallas was 12-10-6 against the other playoff teams in the West, including 5-2-2 against the three Pacific Division qualifiers.
"Our guys know they can compete against those teams," Nill said. "That's what excites me about our group. Our dressing room is unbelievable. They play for each other and they play the right way."
Nill has given the Stars the tools by making several shrewd personnel decisions since he was hired 15-plus months ago. His focus has been on building through the middle.
He started last summer by acquiring centers Tyler Seguin and Shawn Horcoff. Seguin, in particular, became a star, leading Dallas with 84 points and developing chemistry with captain Jamie Benn, who was second on the team with 79 points.
Nill continued to build the Stars' center depth this offseason by acquiring Spezza. To top it off, he signed Hemsky, who had 17 points in 20 games playing primarily with Spezza after arriving in Ottawa late last season. Spezza played in 19 of those games and had 20 points.
The Stars have the potential for a first-line pair of Seguin and Benn and a second-line pair of Spezza and Hemsky. Ruff can figure out the rest of the lineup around that, likely using Valeri Nichushkin and Erik Cole as the remaining two top-six forwards.
"We have lots of flexibility," Nill said. "Even some of the players we have in our so-called bottom six can move up."
He's specifically talking about Cody Eakin, who had 35 points last season and is in line to be the No. 3 center. Eakin, who is still a restricted free agent, is versatile enough to play the wing on either of the top-two lines, and he's accustomed to playing on the power play and penalty kill.
The Stars were 23rd on the power play (15.9 percent) and 21st on the penalty kill (81.4 percent) last season. They need to improve in both areas.
"We've gotta share some ice time," Ruff said. "We've added Spezza, who has been a No. 1. We have Seguin, who is up around 20 minutes. Eakin's ice time was going up in the playoffs. Players have to make some adjustments."
Ruff is hoping the competition for ice time increases in training camp as some of the Stars prospects, particularly on defense, vie for roster spots.
The Texas Stars, Dallas' American Hockey League affiliate, won the Calder Cup last season and had young players doing the heavy lifting, including defensemen Patrik Nemeth (22 years old) and Jamie Oleksiak (21), who is 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds.
The Stars have six returning defensemen, including the still unsigned Brenden Dillon, a restricted free agent, but Nill is hoping Nemeth, Oleksiak and Cameron Gaunce make a case for jobs in camp. Nemeth could have the edge after playing in the playoffs last season.
"You can't just be a guy who comes in and says, 'Well, I'll be a five, six or seventh guy,'" Nill said. "You've gotta show you want to be one of the top guys."
Just as the Stars have to show they want to be one of the top teams.