In the days leading up to opening night on Oct. 6 against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, DallasStars.com's Scott Burnside will break down the Stars and their six opponents in the Central Division. Continuing our previews today: the Dallas Stars.
Sept. 30 -- Minnesota Wild
Sept. 29 -- Winnipeg Jets
Sept. 28 -- St. Louis Blues
Sept. 27 -- Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars: 34-37-11; missed the playoffs
Back in the saddle: We'll start with the most significant change of the offseason: the repatriation of former head coach Ken Hitchcock to the Dallas bench. Hitchcock is mindful the place history plays in his return to the place where he won a Stanley Cup in 1999, establishing the Stars as the benchmark for all teams in non-traditional NHL markets. He's still looking for a second ring, as are the Stars. Can a second go-round create more Cup magic? Certainly, Hitchcock and longtime assistant Rick Wilson should be able to turn the leaky Stars defensive corps into a top-half defensive club, and that should be enough to get the Stars back to the playoffs after missing last season when they took a 30-point nosedive in the standings over the previous season. Hitchcock has said he's already seeing signs that his team has embraced the style of hockey that will make them exceedingly tough to play against in an exceedingly tough division.
Bish mode: First, we love Ben Bishop's glow in the dark mask. If Bishop and the Stars have anything to say about it, that'll be most of what gets lit up around the Dallas net this season. Great opportunity for Bishop, a two-time Vezina Trophy nominee with the Lightning, to revitalize his career after a disappointing final campaign in Tampa Bay-- one that saw him traded to Los Angeles at the trade deadline. Goaltenders have traditionally thrived under Hitchcock's tutelage, and Bishop's numbers are top-notch, so no surprise if he finds himself once again in the Vezina discussion. Perhaps the most interesting goalie storyline in Dallas isn't Bishop, who signed a six-year deal in the off-season with average annual cap hit of just under $5 million annually, but what becomes of backup Kari Lehtonen, who is entering the final year of his deal. At age 33 (he'll turn 34 in November), Lehtonen needs to put together a strong season in relief. He's been sharp in preseason and he needs a strong season to ensure his future just as the team needs him to ensure their immediate future.
Veteran help to plug leaky defense: Let's not overstate the impact that Marc Methot had while playing with two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson in Ottawa. Similarly, can't underestimate the potential impact the veteran Methot will have on a Dallas blue line that is definitely trending younger with Klingberg, Esa Lindell and Stephen Johns all looking like top-six defenders to start the season, and with talented 21-year-old Julius Honka knocking at the door. Methot, a left-handed shot, looks to start the season with Klingberg, who took a step back in his evolution, but who possesses high end offensive skills. Regardless, Methot is seen as a critical offseason add to a blue line that needed a lot of upgrading, and his impact in the dressing room and on the ice, where he possesses significant snarl, has already been felt during training camp.
Rekindling an offensive sizzle: Nothing went right for the Stars last season, including the vaunted offense, which went from No. 1 in the league two seasons ago, to middle of the pack. There's a misconception about Hitchcock that his teams don't generate offense. They do. And there's no reason this team shouldn't be north of three goals per game on average, especially with the addition of Alexander Radulov, who instantly becomes the team's top right winger. Radulov is also a big body and hard to move off the puck. So is two-way center Martin Hanzal, who missed the early part of training camp with an ankle injury, but looms large in Hitchcock's scheme. Throw in big, smart bodies like Jason Spezza, captain Jamie Benn, Radek Faksa and Brett Ritchie, who has bounced up the lineup to Spezza's line, and you get a sense that the Stars will be a handful both physically and skill-wise. At least they should be.
Making all the pieces fit: Lots of moving parts for Hitchcock and his staff to integrate, and given what is expected to be a tightly-packed Central Division, not much time to do it. Hitchcock did a lot of pre-planning prior to training camp in the hopes of getting a chance to spend quality time with his players to try and make sure he's got the right mix from opening night on. Does Radulov fit with Benn and Tyler Seguin? How does the veteran head coach handle a glut of centers which sees Radek Faksa, fresh off a new three-year deal worth $6.6 million, starting the season as the team's fourth-line center? Hitchcock has promised to be patient, breaking his evaluation of defensive pairings and line combinations into five-game segments. Patience hasn't always been Hitchcock's virtue, but he may need to employ a healthy dose of it as this team figures out what it is in the early going.
Lots of folks we've talked to like the Stars to win this division, as it did two years ago. That might be a bit ambitious, but this should be a playoff team, and should be vying for home-ice advantage in the first round.
Stars finish third in the Central Division.
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.