NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill and coach Lindy Ruff are determined to do a lot more than just have their team qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs each season.
That feat was accomplished last season, their first together in Dallas, and snapped a streak of five straight non-playoff appearances. However, the two have bigger goals in mind.
The Stars earned the second Western Conference wild-card spot last season with 40 wins and 91 points. Nill's acquisition of Tyler Seguin in a trade with the Boston Bruins played a big part in that; Seguin led the Stars in goals (37), assists (47), points (84), power-play goals (11) and game-winning goals (eight) while playing top minutes at center.
"There were some battles during the year," Nill said. "It looked like they were going the wrong way at times and they fought through that and I think that prepared them for the run to get into the playoffs. Then they got in the playoffs and realized how close they were to advancing; how close, but how far. We were one overtime from going to a Game 7 [against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference First Round] and maybe moving on.
"We still have work to do and it will be a challenge for us to get back to that same level [in 2014-15], but I know our guys will do it."
"I think first you have to realize that none of what we did last year came easy," he said. "I think we can have confidence that over the last 30 games we played our best hockey. If we can play well in our own end first, which we didn't do at the start of the season last year, that's the key. We had to beat some good teams down the stretch to get into the playoffs."
Nill continued the upgrade during the summer when he acquired center Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for right wing Alex Chiasson and two prospects, and then signed right wing Ales Hemsky to a three-year contract to solidify his top-six forward group. So deep at forward are the Stars right now that Antoine Roussel, Cody Eakin and Ryan Garbutt, who combined for 47 goals as the second line last season, could serve as Ruff's third line in 2014-15. Eakin, however, remains an unsigned restricted free agent.
The organization also has a number of high-end prospects looking to make their mark with the big club this season. The Texas Stars, the Stars' American Hockey League, won the Calder Cup last season on the strength of several players looking to make the jump. Dallas also reached the championship game of the eight-team Traverse City Prospect Tournament earlier this month.
"I know we have some great pieces coming, and then we have a great foundation here," Nill said. "Our best players are our youngest players. We've got some players down in Texas that are 22, 23, then I look here and Tyler Seguin is 22, Jamie Benn is 24, and the core of our team is all the same age."
Strength down the middle is something Nill always has believed in and he's stuck by that philosophy.
STARS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275
The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.
Below are Dallas Stars players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff.
12. Jamie Benn
, LW (Top 50 breakdown
13. Tyler Seguin
, C/RW (Top 50 breakdown
37. Jason Spezza
, C (Top 50 breakdown
56. Kari Lehtonen
, G (Cubeta's breakout pick
115. Alex Goligoski
, D (Category specialist
116. Valeri Nichushkin
, RW (Cubeta's sleeper
142. Ales Hemsky
, RW (Overvalued
210. Antoine Roussel
, LW (Multicategory specialist
"If you want to be one of the elite teams, you have to have it," Nill said of strength at center. "I came from Detroit, we always had it. It was [Steve] Yzerman-[Sergei] Fedorov, [Henrik] Zetterberg-[Pavel] Datsyuk. You look at the other teams that are winning on our side now, you need to have two elite centermen. We knew that was a little bit of a weakness on our team."
The Stars now have five proven performers down the middle in Seguin, Spezza, Eakin, Vernon Fiddler and Shawn Horcoff.
"Jason is an elite scorer in the NHL and a point-per-game guy and those types of players are hard to find," Nill said. "He's right in the prime of his career, has been to the Stanley Cup Final and has been a leader for his team. We think he's going to be a great fit on our team moving forward."
Benn, the team captain, had career-highs of 34 goals and 79 points, and Valeri Nichushkin, the 10th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, should improve on his rookie totals of 14 goals and 34 points.
"For Valeri to come over from Russia, learn the language, new rinks and a new game was great," Nill said. "We think he did great, and he stayed in Dallas all summer. We think he's going to have a great year."
Spezza, who enters the final season of his contract, had 23 goals and 66 points with Ottawa last season and Hemsky had 13 goals and 43 points with the Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa.
"I've watched Spezza a long time since I coached in the East [with the Buffalo Sabres]," Ruff said. "He's a point-per-game guy who can make plays and singlehandedly win games. Center ice and defense need to be the strongest parts of your team and having [Seguin and Spezza] one-two and Eakin in the three-hole gives us good depth and strength down the middle."
Once Ruff was able to learn the strengths and chemistry between partners, the Stars defense made quite a turnaround to close the regular season and earn a playoff berth.
ADDITIONS: C Jason Spezza (trade, Senators), RW Ales Hemsky (free agent, Senators), G Anders Lindback (free agent, Lightning), G Jussi Rynnas (free agent, Finland), RW Patrick Eaves (free agent, Predators)
SUBTRACTIONS: RW Ray Whitney (free agent), RW Alex Chiasson (trade, Senators), C Dustin Jeffrey (free agent, Canucks), G Tim Thomas (free agent), D Aaron Rome (buyout, Red Wings), C Nicholas Paul (trade, Senators)
PROMOTION CANDIDATES: D Jamie Oleksiak, D Patrik Nemeth, D Jyrki Jokipakka, D John Klingberg, RW Brett Ritchie
Two players leading the way were Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski. The two were paired together in November and began having a major impact two months later after Daley returned from an ankle injury. Goligoski had four goals, 28 points and a plus-11 rating in his last 40 games; Daley had six goals, 13 points and a plus-11 rating in his last 40.
"Both guys started to wrap their arms around the number of minutes they were playing," Ruff said. "Part of that was everybody getting to understand each other, understanding what I wanted and me understanding what and where was the best possible situations to play these guys, where their compete level was and where we had to push them.
"I thought we got our team to a pretty good level on the defensive side. The goal this year is to take it a step further."
Unlike the upgrades made at forward, Nill didn't believe the market was right to reel in a top defenseman. The only move the team made among its defense corps was to buy out the final season of Aaron Rome's contract, stick with what was in place and perhaps look to the future by giving some young players an opportunity this season.
In addition to Goligoski and Daley, the Stars have veteran Sergei Gonchar back in the fold with Jordie Benn, Brenden Dillon [also an unsigned restricted free agent] and Kevin Connauton. Challenging for roster spots will be Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak and John Klingberg.
The Stars again will lean on Kari Lehtonen as their starter. The 30-year-old went 33-20-10 with a 2.41 goals-against average and .919 save percentage last season, and led the League in games played (65) and minutes played (3,804).
How important is Lehtonen to the team's success? They went 7-11-1 without him in the lineup last season.
Goalie - DAL
GAA: 2.41 | SVP: .919
"Kari has a good work ethic, especially in practice, but I think he's a guy, like our defense, who hasn't really been pushed into the spotlight and will be able to surprise a lot of people," Seguin said.
Nill signed Anders Lindback on July 1 to be Lehtonen's backup. The 6-foot-6 goalie has a 34-35-5 career record, with a 2.74 GAA and .904 save percentage in 85 career regular-season games with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators.
Six days after Lindback signed, the Stars signed Jussi Rynnas to a two-year contract. Rynnas went 28-5-7 in 40 regular-season games for Karpat in Liiga, Finland's top professional league. He led the league's goaltenders with a 1.51 GAA and .939 save percentage in 2013-14.
Also looking to earn more playing time is Jack Campbell, who was limited to 16 games with Texas of the AHL last season because of a knee injury. The 11th pick of the 2010 draft went 12-2-2 with a 1.49 GAA and .942 save percentage.