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Stars trying to upgrade defense to match offense

by Sean McCullen continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.

The Dallas Stars were busy this offseason not only trying to assure they get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs but looking to build a perennial contender.

Forward Patrick Sharp, acquired in a July 10 trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, and defenseman Johnny Oduya, signed as a free agent July 15, bring a winning pedigree to Dallas that could help the young Stars reach the top of the Western Conference this season and for years to come.

"We're excited and we know we're going to be good offensively," general manager Jim Nill said. "Our biggest thing is going to be playing the game the right way both ways, and we're going to do that."

It certainly wasn't for a lack of firepower that Dallas missed the 2015 playoffs after qualifying for the postseason for the first time in six seasons in 2014; their 3.13 goals per game were second in the NHL. But the Stars finished tied for 11th in the League on the power play (19.0 percent).

"I think that's where Patrick Sharp is really going to help us, actually," Nill said. "Whenever we played against Chicago, he was a big part of their power play on the point."

The Stars' young core is headlined by 26-year-old Jamie Benn, whose 87 points earned him the 2014-15 Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer, and 23-year-old Tyler Seguin, who is fifth in the League in goals over the past two seasons (74) behind Alex Ovechkin (104 for the Washington Capitals), Joe Pavelski (78 for the San Jose Sharks), Max Pacioretty (76 for the Montreal Canadiens) and Corey Perry (76 for the Anaheim Ducks).

Benn and Seguin have combined for 327 points the past two seasons, the most in the NHL. With Sharp joining them, the Stars lineup will have three of the top-10 goal-scorers in the NHL from 2013-14.

Dallas took a step back in its second season under coach Lindy Ruff in part because of its young defense and oftentimes shaky goaltending. The Stars were tied for 26th in the League in goals allowed per game (3.13), and goalie Kari Lehtonen had his worst goals-against average (2.94) since 2008-09 with the Atlanta Thrashers.

Nill added two of Sharp's former Blackhawks teammates, Oduya and goalie Antti Niemi, to help shore up things in the defensive zone.

The Stars traded a seventh-round pick to the San Jose Sharks for the rights to Niemi at the 2015 NHL Draft, then signed the pending free agent to a three-year contract June 29.

Niemi and Lehtonen are expected to share goaltending duties for the Stars, who will play 12 back-to-backs this season.

"Both of them have played a lot of games over the last three, four years," Nill said. "And there's been times during their seasons when they probably needed to be spelled at times, either because of injuries or being a little bit tired. They know now that they're going to get that chance to be recharged. … They're both very competitive guys, so they're going to push each other, which I think is the best thing."

Nill called Oduya "the last piece of the puzzle" after signing the 33-year-old defenseman as a free agent July 15. The Stars will balance their youth with veteran defensemen Oduya, Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Jordie Benn.

"We have a good mix. I think it's important to have a mix in this league," Nill said. "It is a young man's game nowadays. But when you have that mix of the old guys and the young guys, I think it really kind of protects you."

Though the Stars' inexperience on defense certainly played a big role in them missing the playoffs last season, their group of four NHL-ready, 23-and-under defensemen, and several highly touted prospects in the pipeline, is perhaps the biggest reason for optimism about the future in Dallas.

John Klingberg, 22, who finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting last season, when he had 11 goals, 29 assists and a plus-5 rating in 65 games; 22-year-old Jamie Oleksiak; and Patrik Nemeth and Jyrki Jokipakka, each 23, played a total of 174 games last season.

The wild card for the Stars could be highly skilled right wing Valeri Nichushkin. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Russian had 14 goals and 20 assists as a rookie in 2013-14, but a hip injury that required surgery early last season caused him to miss all but eight games.

"We've added not only Sharp, but really we've added Nichushkin too," Nill said. "So we know we've got lots of depth."

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