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Five questions facing Stars as training camp begins

Dallas comes into the new campaign with optimism, but several storylines bear watching before opening night

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

The Stars have been on a roller coaster of change for a few years now. They had three head coaches in three seasons, transitioned from Kari Lehtonen to Ben Bishop in goal, and have changed most of their depth forwards in that span.

And yet, it seems, they might have finally hit on a winning formula.


[CAMP CENTRAL: Complete coverage of Stars training camp throughout the weekend]


Heading into the beginning of training camp Friday at Comerica Center in Frisco, Dallas is considered one of the real contenders for the 2020 Stanley Cup. The Stars have a Vezina Trophy finalist in Bishop, two of the top defensemen in the league in John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, and a group of forwards that could have scoring skill in the top six and the bottom six.

By adding former All-Stars Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, the Stars should be able to improve their ranking as the 28th-best scoring team in the NHL. In addition, the decision to move out Valeri Nichushkin, Tyler Pitlick and Brett Ritchie could open the door for some talented youngsters who should get the chance to immediately compete in the NHL. If both the elder skill and younger skill step up, the Stars really could be a handful.

Mix that with head coach Jim Montgomery having a year under his belt, and you have some legitimate reasons for optimism. That's why some betting services have the Stars as high as third in the league in preseason odds and that has them seventh in their preseason rankings.

Video: 31 in 31: Dallas Stars 2019-20 preview

All of that said, hype is only hype. Management and the coaching staff are determined to create a mindset that every win has to be earned, and that every accomplishment will be followed by another challenge.

"It's great, and I definitely think it's good to have that on the outside, but we have to keep our focus, we can't believe the job is done," said Stars general manager Jim Nill. "I think we need to understand that anything can happen in this league, and we need to be ready for anything. If we do that, I think we're going to be good.

"I like where our organization is at right now. We have some good prospects, we added some good free agents, and I think we have good depth right now."

With the improved speed and talent and the addition of assistant coach John Stevens, the Stars expect to push an aggressive style of play from the opening practice Friday, and that should make the fan excitement even more intense.

"I think we'll have a lot more pace right from the start," Montgomery said. "We want to be the hardest working team in the NHL, and that will start right from the start. We'll add layers, and we'll teach as we go, but we want players moving fast and reacting and playing at a high pace."

After three days of full practices in Frisco, the Stars will start the preseason schedule at home Monday against St. Louis, so the learning will have to come on the fly.

Here are five questions the team will be trying to answer before the regular season opener Oct. 3 vs. Boston.


1. Will injuries to defensemen affect the opening night roster?

Defenseman Stephen Johns missed all of last season with headaches and it is unclear whether he will be able to practice at full speed yet. Because of that, there is a chance a significant member of the defense will miss time.

The Stars added 33-year-old Andrej Sekera as a free agent in the offseason, and he could end up being a key player. Sekera missed much of the past two seasons with knee and Achilles injuries, but played in the World Championships in May and appears to be fully healthy.


[READ MORE: Perry, Sekera ready to 'prove people wrong' with Stars]


If Sekera is teamed with Miro Heiskanen on the second pairing, he will have a great chance to succeed. He can move the puck well, and was a 22-minute defenseman for five seasons before the injuries hit, so he's excited about the chance he's being given on a one-year deal with the Stars.

That would likely put Jamie Oleksiak and Roman Polak as the team's fifth and sixth defensemen, although there is a strong group of players pushing up from the AHL. Taylor Fedun, Gavin Bayreuther, Joel Hanley and Dillon Heatherington each spent time in the NHL last season, some with significant time due to injuries to Johns and Marc Methot. Mix in Emil Djuse and Ben Gleason, who are coming off strong performances in the Traverse City prospects tournament, and there is plenty of depth if Johns isn't ready.


2. Will opportunities with the forward group affect the opening night roster?

The Stars have 11 forwards who are locks to play in the NHL this season, and then are hoping to rely on younger players to fill the gaps. Nill made some tough decisions in the summer, buying out Nichushkin (who was signed by Colorado), trading Pitlick to Philadelphia, and letting Ritchie go unsigned (he signed with Boston). That should shuffle the bottom six quite a bit and open the door for younger players.

When you combine that with the loss of Cody Eakin in the expansion draft to Vegas, the trading of Devin Shore to Anaheim last season, and the departures of Antoine Roussel and Jason Spezza in free agency, the forward group has changed a great deal in the past few seasons.

The two forwards who stepped up last season were Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson, and both are expected to see increased minutes this year. Meanwhile, a group of about six players who are waiver exempt should be able to bounce back and forth between the NHL and AHL. Among the experienced forwards who will have a crack at the opening lineup are Denis Gurianov, Justin Dowling and Joel L'Esperance. Each has played at least 18 games in the NHL, so they have a head start on the younger players.

Coming out of the prospects tournament are: Joel Kiviranta, Adam Mascherin, Riley Tufte, Jason Robertson, Nick Caamano and Tye Felhaber, so there should be a lot on the line in these preseason games for those players.


[READ MORE: Kiviranta making strong case for quick jump from Finland to Stars]


Also in the mix are training camp invites Scottie Upshall and Stefan Noesen, who will both be on professional tryout contracts, and 2018 draft pick Ty Dellandrea, who is in a unique situation. Dellandrea can play nine NHL games this season without burning the first year of his three-year, entry-level contract, so that's a pretty tempting opportunity for Dallas to take a look at a player who was among the best for the team in the Traverse City tournament.

With the forward depth that could move up if Dellandrea has to go back to junior hockey, it would make a lot of sense to give him a look at the start of the regular season. That means one of the forward spots could be spoken for.


3. Will the team get off to a faster start with Montgomery in his second season?

In retrospect, last October was a real challenge for the Stars. Montgomery was coming from the college ranks and had never coached in the NHL at any level previously. In addition, the Stars players had their third head coach in three seasons.

So it's no surprise they got off to a 10-9-2 start.


[READ MORE: What is Montgomery's biggest takeaway from first season with Stars?]


This season, Montgomery has a great deal of confidence after a strong playoff run and the addition of good friend John Stevens to the coaching staff. Stevens is expected to help Montgomery with game-planning and with coming up with a way to generate a more aggressive attack that improves on a goals per game average of 2.55 that tied Arizona for 28th in the NHL last season.

Montgomery has spent a great deal of time gearing up for this season, and knows how to use that time better because he's already been through one campaign. Mix that experience with the addition of two veteran goal scorers in Pavelski and Perry, and the Stars have the opportunity to be better in a lot of ways.

And be better a lot more quickly.


4. Will Bishop be able to replicate his Vezina finalist season?

Bishop has been through a lot in the past few seasons, including going through a terrific run with the Tampa Bay Lightning where he was twice a finalist for the Vezina (2014, 2016), battling through groin, knee and ankle injuries, and losing his starting job to Andrei Vasilevskiy. He was traded to the Kings and the Stars in 2017, and then battled injuries again in his first season in Dallas.

But last year, Bishop hit his stride and posted career bests in goals against average (1.98) and save percentage (.934) and also played in all 13 playoff games. He was probably the team's MVP, and that has some believing the Stars have the best goaltending of any contender in the Western Conference.

Video: Bishop claims the No. 33 spot on Top 50 Players list

Add to that the fact Anton Khudobin finished 15th in GAA at 2.57 and eighth in save percentage at .923, and you have a pretty good set up in net. If Khudobin can again play 41 games like he did last season, Dallas can be cautious with Bishop and make sure he remains healthy. If Bishop can remain healthy, he has a much better chance at repeating as a Vezina Trophy contender.

Bishop will turn 33 in November, so age isn't a factor quite yet, but he is in the prime of his career and the Stars need a prime season from him, so his health will be something to watch.


5. How do you assemble the top six forward group with the additions of Pavelski and Perry?

Pavelski is 35 and has never played for any other team except the San Jose Sharks. However, he also scored 38 goals last season and appears to have endless energy. Perry has scored 359 career goals, including six seasons of 30 or more. However, he missed much of last season with a knee injury and tallied just six goals in 31 games, causing the Anaheim Ducks to buy him out.

So, the Stars' two big free agent signings have some question marks.

That will be important in deciding how Montgomery wants to align his forwards. He has seven players in the mix for the top six, and he might decide to shakes things up even more than that.

Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov are the two constants, as Seguin had 33 goals among 80 points in 82 games and Radulov had 29 goals among 72 points in 70 games last season. They were the hands down leaders of the offense. Jamie Benn struggled with 27 goals among 53 points in 78 games, but that line was often at its best when the three played together.

Video: Pavelski excited for chance to win in Dallas

That will be a big question to sort out in training camp. Do the Stars shake things up and try to spark Benn by moving him to a line with Pavelski or Perry? Do both Hintz and Dickinson -- who each excelled in the playoffs -- deserve a chance to play in the top six? Should Montgomery shuffle the lines and balance out the scoring?

It's a great puzzle to ponder for both fans and the coaching staff. And when you mix in the potential for Radek Faksa, Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau to increase their production, there could be a big uptick on the scoreboard for Dallas.

That said, they have to do that while still trying to maintain a GAA of 2.44 that was second-best in the league.

Like we said at the start, there are a lot of challenges to tackle here.


2019 Dallas Stars Training Camp

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Comerica Center, Frisco

Admission and parking: Free to the public

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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