Stars defenseman Trevor Daley smiled when asked how his anticipation for 2014-15 compared with past seasons.
“It doesn’t compare to any other one,” Daley said. “Not even close.”
Daley is not alone. There’s a lot of anticipation surrounding the 2014-15 season. The Stars are coming off their first trip to the playoffs since 2008. They have two of the top young players in the game in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. And they added a couple more weapons this summer with the trade for center Jason Spezza and the signing of right wing Ales Hemsky in free agency.
“Top to bottom, from management to the equipment guys, everybody can’t wait to get going,” said forward Antoine Roussel. “I bet the fans are, too. It’s going to be fun.”
The speedy, attacking Stars were fun to watch last year and they tasted some success with that trip to the playoffs. The belief is that with the offseason additions and last season’s experience, better things could be ahead this season.
Spezza, a point-a-game player in his NHL career, and Seguin will give the Stars a strong one-two punch at the center position, a key ingredient most of the top teams in the NHL possess. The highly skilled Hemsky gives the Stars another offensive threat in the top group of forwards. The Stars were able to re-sign veteran center Vernon Fiddler and add winger Patrick Eaves, giving the Stars a deep group of NHL forwards.
“I look at Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza as a 1A and a 1B. We’ve got two elite centermen,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “I think with our top nine forwards – even our top 12 – we match up with almost any team in the NHL.”
The Stars overhauled the backup goaltending position, signing free agent Anders Lindback as the No. 2 guy behind starter Kari Lehtonen. The Stars didn’t go outside the organization for help on defense, but will rely on some younger players to take bigger roles.
Overall, head coach Lindy Ruff sees an improved team.
“[I see improvement in] all parts of our game,” Ruff said. “Even if you look at the end of the year – the way we played the last three months – I think our depth on the offensive side is better. I think our defense starting the year should be better. I think Patrik Nemeth had a good playoff in Austin (with Texas Stars) and played well down the stretch, so he should add something to the backend. I think Lindback has had a good camp and should help us in that category, too.”
Fighting down the stretch to make the playoffs and then gaining playoff experience in the first round loss to Anaheim should benefit the Stars, especially the younger players.
“You have to learn to lose before you can learn to win and we definitely lost and not the way we wanted to lose,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “It’s all part of the game and we can learn from that. It’s going to be nice that now we have a year under our belt in the playoffs and we are such a young team. I think that was big for us, just to learn what it takes to win in the playoffs and how hard it actually is. You can’t take a minute off or you are on the golf course. It was a tough way to lose, but it was good for our team.”
But as the 2014-15 campaign gets underway, the Stars are spending less time looking back and more time focusing on the task ahead.
“It’s exciting. We had such a great year last year and we’ve put that to rest now. We are looking to make some new accomplishments this year,” said Fiddler. “There’s a lot of jazz around town about the new additions and stuff like that. We’re definitely excited about those additions and we have to go out there and prove ourselves again this year.”
With the offseason acquisitions of Spezza, acquired from Ottawa, and the signing of Hemsky in free agency, the Stars’ top six forwards look a lot more dangerous.
Seguin and Jamie Benn, who both ranked in the top ten in league scoring last season, will form two-thirds of the Stars’ top line. Spezza and Hemsky will make up two-thirds of what should be a potent second line.
And with two strong offensive lines centered by Seguin and Spezza, opponents are going to have to make some decisions on matchups.
“It is going to make harder decisions for other teams,” said Benn. “I think last year Seguin, Val [Nichushkin] and I got the top two D men on every team, and in this league those two guys are usually pretty good. The other teams are going to have to make decisions. It’s going to be nice, but it’s still going to be a challenge.”
Ruff has options as to the other forwards that will slot into the top six. Nichushkin, who will be in his second NHL season, has seen a lot of time with Benn and Seguin during camp and the preseason, but Colton Sceviour is an option there as well. Erik Cole played with Spezza and Hemsky during the preseason, but Patrick Eaves also has skated with Spezza and Hemsky.
The Stars’ third line is expected to be a trio that played well together last season – Antoine Roussel, Cody Eakin and Ryan Garbutt.
“They are a hard line to play against,” Ruff said of the Eakin line. “When things aren’t going good, they are a line that can help swing the tide because they are relentless. Some teams can do that with skill sometimes. They are the type of line that drives our team because they just don’t stop working. They’ve got speed, grit. They just won’t quit on a play. They are a pretty important part of our team.”
Fiddler is expected to center the fourth line. Veteran Shawn Horcoff, Sceviour and Eaves are among the options to play on that line.
Overall, the Stars like their depth and the various elements their group of forwards bring.
“If we need offense we’ve got a couple of great looks,” said Ruff. “If we need tenacity, if we need a harder line, a more physical line, we’ve got the Eakin line, they provide everything for us. Then we’ve got a fourth line that should be a great two-way line for us.”
Depth: Among the players the Stars have available in the American Hockey League are veteran center Travis Morin, last season’s AHL MVP, left wing Curtis McKenzie, last season’s AHL Rookie of the Year, right wing Brett Ritchie, center Radek Faksa, center Justin Dowling and left wing Brendan Ranford.
Injured: Rich Peverley remains out due to an irregular heartbeat. Peverley has been cleared for off-ice workouts, but he has not been cleared for on-ice work.
The Stars stood pat on defense, making no offseason moves other than buying out the final year of Aaron Rome’s contract. Nill opted not to dip into the free agent market and pay big money for a piece that he didn’t see as a good fit. So, he decided to stick with what he had and let some of the Stars’ young prospects – many who helped the Texas Stars win the AHL’s Calder Cup last season - push for a roster spot.
It didn’t’ hurt that Nill and Ruff liked what they saw out of the Dallas defense over the second half of the season, especially the top pairing of Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley.
“They played their best hockey the last 30 games,” Ruff said. “Part of that was everybody getting to understand each other. Players understanding what I wanted and me understanding what and where was the best possible situations to play these guys, where there 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.”
Goligoski and Daley will anchor the defense again this season. Brenden Dillon and Jordie Benn should see ample time as well. Dillon averaged more than 21 minutes per game last season and Benn logged a little more than 19 minutes per game.
Patrik Nemeth, who was called up from Texas late last season and played in five Stanley Cup Playoff games, earned a roster spot out of camp as expected.
With veteran Sergei Gonchar expected to miss the first three to five weeks with a fractured ankle, it has opened the door for a couple of the Stars other young defensemen.
Kevin Connauton, who played 36 games in his first NHL campaign last season, is expected to get a bigger role to start the season with Gonchar out.
And Jamie Oleksiak, Dallas’ first round pick (14th overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft, will start the season on the NHL roster due to the Gonchar injury.
“Anytime somebody is injured it is an opportunity for somebody to step in and make an impression,” said Ruff. “Those are a couple of players that are going to be fighting for that prime ice, and you hope that it is an opportunity that they can seize.”
Depth: Among the defensemen the Stars have in the AHL are Cameron Gaunce, who played well in nine games with Dallas last season, Jyrki Jokipakka, who had a very strong training camp and preseason, and John Klingberg, an offensive defenseman who is making the jump to North America from Sweden this season.
Injured: Sergei Gonchar will start the season on injured reserve with a fractured ankle.
Last season was a step forward for Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen in that he was able to help lead the team into the playoffs. And he put in a lot of work to do it, leading all NHL goaltenders in games played (65) and minutes (3,804). He posted a 33-20-10 record with a 2.41 against average and .919 save percentage.
The playoffs didn’t go as well. He posted a 2-4 record with a 3.29 goals against average and .885 save percentage, and allowed ten goals over the final two games as the Stars lost their first round series to Anaheim.
“I have a lot of confidence in Kari,” said Ruff. “I think he was under some criticism, but he was under a heavy workload. When the chips were on the table late in the season, he is the guy that got us there. We asked him to play a lot of games in a short period of time. I think that took a little bit of a toll, maybe physically and mentally. We all have to learn from the playoff experience. I think he can take a lot out of the season and I think he can learn from the playoffs.”
For Lehtonen’s part, he is focusing on getting better and looking forward, not back.
“There are always things you want to do better and that doesn’t change,” Lehtonen said. “Every summer you have to try to get better and try to figure out new things. I am just trying to get better as a goalie. It was tough the way we lost, but that’s in the past and we have to look at what is ahead.”
Ruff said he would like to see Lehtonen play about 60 games this season, and that means the Stars will need a good effort from Anders Lindback, whom the Stars signed as a free agent in July.
Lindback had an up and down 2013-14 season with Tampa Bay, posting an 8-12-2 record, 2.90 goals against average and .891 save percentage. With starter Ben Bishop injured, Lindback got the call in the playoffs and struggled, going 0-3 with a 3.91 goals against average and .881 save percentage as Tampa Bay was swept by Montreal in round one.
Lindback has looked good in the preseason with Dallas, and the Stars are hopeful he can be a reliable backup, something the Stars have had issues with in recent years.
“He needs to be able to step in and win games for you, play well. Most times he is stepping in tougher situations, a lot of times it is back-to-backs situations. I like what I have seen from him,” Ruff said of Lindback. “If he plays well, he’ll get rewarded for playing well. At the same time, it could give Kari that rest he’ll need during the season.”
Depth: On the goaltending depth front the Stars have Jussi Rynnas, a free agent signing out of Finland, and 2010 first-round pick Jack Campbell, who both are with the Texas Stars of the AHL.
The additions of Spezza and Hemsky are expected to provide a boost to the Stars’ power play, which ranked 23rd in the league last season at 15.9 percent.
“One of our weaknesses last year was our power play. You start adding players like Spezza and Hemsky to your team, you know you’re going to be dangerous offensively,” said Nill. “It’s hard to score goals in this league and we think we added some guys that can help take care of that problem.”
There was a lot of buzz about the power play in the preseason when Ruff rolled out a four-forward power play unit that included Spezza, Hemsky, Jamie Benn and Seguin. Defensemen Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley have taken turns playing one point on the unit and Seguin has lined up on the other point.
“Obviously, Seguin has a big shot back there and they have to respect that,” Spezza said. “It opens up the plays down low.”
The power play looked good in the preseason and the Stars like the potential.
“It’s those five guys reading off each other. It’s not so much laying it on a map and saying you’re going to be here and you’re going to be there. It’s reading what’s open and giving them different looks,” said Ruff. “As long as the work ethic stays strong, the way they move the puck around … that’s going to be a tough unit to deal with.”
The Stars’ penalty kill ranked 21st in the league last season at 81.4 percent, and the team is looking for improvement on that side of the special teams ledger as well.
“It was important for us, it won us a lot of games. It had a lot of big kills. There were some games where we weren’t very good, which really hurt us,” said Ruff. “I would rather have one game where we are real bad than just give up one a game because that one a game is usually devastating to you. But we need it to improve. We need it to be a factor in more games. When I say more games, probably in the five to ten game range where it can be the difference maker.”
Fiddler expects improvement because some of the team’s younger penalty killers have a year of experience under their belts.
“There is room for improvement. We made some strides, we got a little more aggressive,” Fiddler said. “The younger guys learned how to kill a little bit. Experience is only going to help our younger guys through that because the only way to learn is to get your feet wet. I think everybody is going to be better and more on the same page. Maybe we can even get in the top five, that’s a reasonable goal for our team.”
Last season had its challenges for Ruff and Nill as they adjusted to a new team, new players, new surroundings and each other. But they got on the same page, instilled an identity of a fast, attacking team and helped get the Stars to then playoffs for the first time since 2008. It’s clear they have the ship heading in the right direction.
“I remember last year was just a big blur,” said Nill. “We didn’t know the team. Lindy and I didn’t know each other. We put a staff together, we put a team together. We knew the players, but we didn’t know them. We’ve had a chance now to get a feel for guys. Lindy and his staff have done a great job putting the pieces together. We’ve made some additions and there is a little bit of freshness again. That’s going to create a buzz for us moving forward.”
“Last year was tough,” said Ruff. “I didn’t know any of the players. But now I know them and they know me.”
But challenges still loom, Ruff said, because teams around the league know the Stars and that means he’ll have some work to do as a coach to help his team adjust.
“I think everybody is going to be prepared for us. They know what to expect out of us. That’s the part that scares me,” Ruff said. “Teams know what we are and try to defend us different ways. That’s the hurdle we have to get over. That’s the next step. It’s my job to get us in an even better place.”
What Nill has done with the Stars roster in less than two years on the job is impressive. He’s turned a weakness at the center position into a strength with trades for Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza over the past two summers. Throw in the addition of Ales Hemsky and the Stars have a highly skilled group of top six forwards and the potential for a potent power play.
He added to the forward depth by re-signing Vernon Fiddler and bringing in Patrick Eaves via free agency. The Stars look to be as deep a team as any at the forward position.
Nill found the right coach in Lindy Ruff, who was able to piece everything together last season and help the Stars forge an identity as they fought their way into the playoffs.
All that sets the team up well coming into this season, but like any year things have to go right for there to be success. Players are going to have to play to their potential.
The Stars are going to need a solid season from goaltender Kari Lehtonen, and to keep Lehtonen from being overworked the Stars are going to strong performances from backup Anders Lindback.
The defense, which made strides over the second half of the season, will need to take some more steps forward.
A couple of key injuries could derail the train. When injuries do hit – and they will – the players called upon to fill the void, including those from the AHL’s Texas Stars, will have to contribute.
Even if a lot goes right, the Stars still have a tough road ahead. The Stars aren’t operating in a vacuum. There are a lot of other teams in the Western Conference trying to nail down those eight playoff spots. And the West is still stacked. The Stars are in a tough Central Division with Chicago, St. Louis, Minnesota and Colorado as formidable foes. Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Jose should be strong again in the Pacific. And who knows if another team from the West will surprise and take steps forward this season and make a push into a playoff spot.
But all that said, the Stars look like a top eight team in the West and should be able to secure a playoff spot for a second straight season.
Prediction: Third in the Central Division, sixth overall in the Western Conference
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.