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Five Questions: Stars' Ruff talks Benn, expectations

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

NHL.com's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff:

Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff knows the potential of his new No. 1 line featuring Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Patrick Sharp. What he doesn't know is the type of chemistry that line can have, and how quickly it can come together.

Ruff didn't learn nearly enough in the preseason because Benn was limited to two games with the Stars being cautious about his recovery from multiple hip surgeries he had during the offseason.

In the final preseason game on Sunday, a 4-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, Ruff used his loaded-up top line at the start but wound up juggling his forwards around as the game went along. The three players combined for 10 shots on goal, but only one from Benn, the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner.

Dallas finished the preseason 1-6-0. The Stars begin the regular season Thursday at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Benn, Seguin and Sharp are expected to play together.

"I'm looking at it as being the line that hopefully can be that offensive line, but I think a lot of times if you try to load up a big line teams will pay extra attention to trying to defend it," Ruff told NHL.com. "A lot of times when pieces are split up that's when you get most of the damage done. That to me is what is interesting."

Ruff went through this exact experiment last season with newly acquired forward Jason Spezza joining Seguin and Benn on a line together. It worked, to a degree, Ruff said.

Benn led the NHL with 87 points in 82 games. Seguin had 37 goals and 77 points in 71 games. Spezza had 62 points in 82 games. However, Ruff went away from that line more than he went back to it after using it at the start of the season because he was concerned about the depth of the other lines. Seguin also missed time with a knee injury.

"I tried Spezza, Benn and Seguin last year and they ended up getting defended by the top-two defensemen all the time and the other team's probably most reliable line," Ruff said. "It makes it tougher on them. Sometimes when the pieces are on different lines you get more done as a team."

Ruff, though, was hoping to get a better gauge during the preseason to see how Benn, Seguin and Sharp looked together, and if they could fight through the difficult assignments to be an offensive juggernaut. He didn't see enough to know for sure.

"It's too minimal," he said. "I don't really know what I've seen yet. I mean, Jamie Benn has played in [two] games. I've learned from practice, but when you're practicing against your own guys it sometimes looks too easy."

The question about the Stars' No. 1 line is actually only one of several that Ruff is dealing with after a less-than-ideal training camp because of injuries and rehab, and subpar results in preseason games for a team going into a season facing high expectations based on personnel moves during the offseason.

Ruff touched on several of the topics he's dealing with in a Q&A with NHL.com.

Here are Five Questions with…Lindy Ruff:

Your preseason games weren't great and your preseason record wasn't either at 1-6-0. I read some quotes from you about frustration. Do you worry when the preseason games don't go well? Do you take much stock into it?

"I've had examples of great preseasons and terrible starts, and mixed preseasons and good starts. It's hard to gauge the preseason because we've been missing the bulk of the lineup. There's been no [Ales] Hemsky, no Spezza, no Benn and [Cody] Eakin missed the start with a minor injury. We've been missing a lot so it's hard to evaluate. We've got guys coming off injuries that I think I have to be patient with. So it's been a different camp from a structure standpoint and a compete standpoint. I've liked the way we've competed. We played [almost six] games against starting goaltenders and what I would say are rock solid teams in Chicago, Tampa Bay, Florida with [Roberto] Luongo, St. Louis. For me, I have really liked our compete [level]. The game against Tampa Bay last week I thought we had a chance to win it and we didn't. The game before [against St. Louis] we had a younger lineup. I thought when we played Florida we were totally dominating at home, misplayed a puck and it went into an empty net. I think from a structure standpoint our game is way ahead of where it was at the start of last year, but we're going to have a little bit of unknown going into the season here because of all the guys that missed time at camp."

That leads me to my next question. There are a lot of expectations, high expectations, from people on the outside because of the additions the Stars made this summer in Sharp, Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi. There is a lot of talk about the Stars getting into the playoffs and being a contender. Are the expectations legit? Is it right for people to have these high expectations?

"I love expectations. I think it puts you in a place where you feel like you're being noticed. I think the expectations come with some of the acquisitions and the commitment our ownership made here. We do have some good pieces. I do understand that this league is incredibly tight and we know we'll have to be better in a couple areas. If we are, then I think we can meet those expectations."

Speaking of expectations, what are your expectations for Valeri Nichushkin considering he's 20 years old and lost almost a full season of development?

"Well I know he's a big man who can skate and he really understands the game. Expectations? If we could get him, realistically and it would be an improvement from his rookie year, into that 15 to 20 goal range, I think that would be a good year. I think he's capable of more, but I don't want to set the bar too high. Missing a whole year has been tough. We'll start with something that I think is reasonable to attain and go from there."

Last season, John Klingberg was the Stars' breakout defenseman. There are a number of young players on the blue line still in Patrik Nemeth, Jyrki Jokipakka and Jamie Oleksiak. Who do you anticipate, expect or, quite frankly, need to breakout this season?

"That's an interesting one. Like you said, we've got three of them there and I'd like them all to break out. There's three guys there that are vying for some crucial ice time. I've seen some development. In Nemeth's case, he missed a lot of hockey with that severe injury he had. I also think Jokipakka surprised us. He probably exceeded where I thought he would be. For me, he's the guy that is a little bit of the other guys."

Ales Hemsky had a tough time scoring last season, only 11 goals and 32 points in 76 games. He had hip surgery during the offseason. Why should people believe he'll be better this season?

"I think it was a huge change for him and admittedly so more structure was put inside his game in the team sense. I think that his second half, he looked more like the guy who could score 20 or 30 goals. He had some great opportunities. I told him that I just wished he shot the puck more because there were times when he was point blank and he was dishing it off. Even in the second half, not feeling good, knowing that he was going to need surgery, I thought he skated incredibly well and he was kind of the player I thought we were getting."

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