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Arrival of Sharp, Oduya, Niemi gives Stars optimism

by Sean McCullen

The Dallas Stars appear primed to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after an offseason when they added three players who've won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Stars got off to a slow start last season -- they were 9-10-5 through November -- and finished seven points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference.

It was a disappointing step back for Dallas, which made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons in 2014.

"We need to make the playoffs," general manager Jim Nill said. "We need to be a consistent team. The idea is to make the playoffs every year, so that's our goal."

Here are four reasons for the Stars to be optimistic:

Former Blackhawks bring experience: Before acquiring goalie Antti Niemi and forward Patrick Sharp in separate trades, and signing free agent defenseman Johnny Oduya, the Stars had two players on their roster who have won the Stanley Cup: Tyler Seguin (Boston Bruins, 2011) and Alex Goligoski (Pittsburgh Penguins, 2009).

Sharp won the Cup three times playing for the Blackhawks, including twice with Oduya (2013, 2015) and once with Niemi (2010). They've played 280 NHL postseason games; that experience will be important to the Stars, who have 10 players who have played in fewer than 10.

"I think the biggest thing is [Sharp and Oduya] know how to win," captain Jamie Benn told The Dallas Morning News in early August. "They have lived it, and that's something not a lot of us have done yet."

Power play should be better: The Stars are going to score. They were second in the NHL last season (3.13 goals per game), but their power play was mediocre, finishing tied for 11th in the League (19.0 percent).

That should change with the arrival of Sharp, who Dallas plans to use on the point with the man advantage.

"He can really shoot a puck," Nill said. "If you get him out there with a [John] Klingberg or Goligoski, someone like that, we think it gives us another weapon back there. So we're excited about it."

Sharp has scored 66 of his 249 NHL goals on the power play.

Goaltending depth (and competition): With the addition of Niemi, the Stars won't have to ride incumbent No. 1 goalie Kari Lehtonen, who played in 65 games each of the past two seasons and looked worse for the wear in 2014-15, when he had the second-worst save percentage (.903) of his NHL career.

Niemi was 31-23-7 with a 2.59 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage and five shutouts in 61 games with the San Jose Sharks last season.

"They're both very competitive guys, so they're going to push each other, which I think is the best thing," Nill said.

More commitment to defense: The Stars were not good defensively last season, finishing tied for 26th in the League in goals allowed (3.13 per game). They were particularly bad in October and November, when they allowed an average of 3.46 goals over 24 games.

"We didn't early on buy in to you've got to play the game both ways," Nill said. "And a little bit of that is inexperience with a young group of guys. We learned our lesson. By about December we figured that out; the trouble was we had already dug a hole for ourselves."

Oduya will provide a more stabilizing presence in the defensive zone than Trevor Daley, who went to the Blackhawks in the Sharp trade. Oduya was plus-28 the past three seasons with Chicago.

Benn said the Stars probably paid too much attention to the preseason hype about their offensive prowess. Their poor start made them realize they needed to commit to defense, he said.

"There were a lot of expectations that we would be a great offensive team, and sometimes I think that can shoot you in the foot," Benn said. "I know I messed up a few pucks early last season by trying to be too fancy, and I learned from it.

"You just need to play a simple team game and then when the opportunity comes, you can let your skill take over."

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