For a team that underwent massive reconstruction in the wake of a fifth straight season out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it's fair to say that there are more than six questions that the Dallas Stars will need to answer coming into the season. But following some major additions to their roster and an overhaul of the front office and coaching staff, Dallas will be an intriguing team to watch entering the 2013-14 season.
It starts with the hiring of Jim Nill as general manager and Lindy Ruff as coach. Both enjoyed successful stretches with the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres, respectively, and are among the most-respected men in the game. They'll likely have to harness all their expertise to lead a team that is very different from the one that finished the 2012-13 season seven points out of a playoff spot.
Despite all the changes, Dallas will have stability where it counts. Jamie Benn, easily the team's best all-round forward, will be expected to take the next step toward becoming a franchise player, while goaltender Kari Lehtonen once again will be expected to carry the defense as far as he can.
Other than that, there will be plenty of questions surrounding an intriguing Stars team. Here are six of them:
1. How will Tyler Seguin adapt to being at center? -- In an offseason filled with transactions, none earned the kind of headlines that came with Seguin's move to the Stars in July. The second pick in the 2010 NHL Draft led the Boston Bruins in goals and points as a 20-year-old in 2011-12 and earned a spot at the 2012 All-Star Game. But his play dipped last season and he was relegated mostly to third-line duty through the Bruins' run to the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.
That demotion isn't going to happen in Dallas, where Seguin is expected to shift back to his natural center spot on the Stars' top line and handle the kind of responsibility he never confronted in Boston. How successfully he handles that pressure and takes on that role likely will decide which direction this season goes in for Dallas.
"I think he's going to have to grow into the responsibility of playing against some of the top lines and being a guy who has to play down low," Ruff told NHL.com.
2. Can the kids take the next step? -- Last season saw a number of young prospects get a shot to crack the Stars' lineup. Some, like Cody Eakin and Brenden Dillon, stuck around for much of the season. Others, like Alex Chiasson and Jamie Oleksiak, enjoyed short stints with the club.
A refurbished Dallas team will be looking to all of these young players to assert themselves more this season. With the 21-year-old Seguin now centering the top line and 18-year-old Valeri Nichushkin getting a shot to crack the lineup, this young team is sure to experience its share of growing pains. How the prospects weather that adversity and earn their stripes under Ruff could dictate exactly how far this team goes.
3. Will Jamie Benn become a franchise player? -- Be it with a strong statistical season or a highlight-reel play, Benn has shown the ability to be a marquee offensive player for the Stars. It's the main reason the team signed him to a five-year, $26.25 million extension in January.
The past four months have seen the Stars trade most of their veteran forwards, including Brenden Morrow, Derek Roy, Jaromir Jagr and Loui Eriksson. With all that experience now absent from the roster, much of the responsibility will fall on Benn to lead a unit that is one of the youngest in the League. Benn led the Stars last season with 33 points, and if he can answer the call, he could prove to be a star among Stars.
4. Can the Stars finish strong? -- For the past three seasons the Stars have found themselves on the playoff bubble only to miss the postseason thanks to a late-season collapse. With an outside chance at making the postseason in 2012-13, the Stars finished 1-5-1, eliminating any hope of making the playoffs for the first time since 2008. It was yet another collapse for a club that struggled through similar swoons in 2011-12 (3-9-0) and 2010-11 (5-6-3).
A young roster with a glaring lack of NHL experience could have trouble turning around this trend. But if the Stars hope to see playoff hockey for the first time in five seasons, they'll need to see their team dig deep as the games become more important.
5. Can Ruff get the Stars to do the little things right? -- Put simply, the Stars lacked the polish required to win games last season. They ranked 29th in shots on goal per game and 22nd in shots allowed while posting a minus-13 goal differential. Throw in a 2-15-0 record when trailing after 40 minutes and this is a team that had trouble carrying the play in a competitive Western Conference.
That's why it's important that this young Stars team takes on the personality of their no-nonsense coach. Ruff likely won't tolerate youth as an excuse for sloppy play. In a new environment with a new team, the veteran coach will need to instill the character that has made him one of the game's most respected bench bosses. Not an easy task considering how young this squad likely will be.
6. Can Kari Lehtonen do it alone? -- Lehtonen has established himself as a franchise goalie since coming to Dallas in 2010. The second pick in the 2002 draft has been a rock in the Stars' net, although he occasionally has been prone to injury. That's been a problem, considering the lack of any contingency plan in the Dallas goal.
Last season Lehtonen's backups -- Richard Bachman and Cristopher Nilstorp - combined to go 7-8-1 with an .889 save percentage. That was only a slightly worse showing from the previous season, when the backups -- Bachman and Andrew Raycroft -- went 10-13-1 with a .905 save percentage. Lehtonen mostly was healthy last season, starting 35 games, but the lack of a proper backup was a glaring problem in a conference where the margin for error is razor thin. The Stars brought in veteran Dan Ellis to back up Lehtonen this season, but only time will tell if he provides an upgrade.
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Author: Tal Pinchevsky | NHL.com Staff Writer