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Back to work, Stars open camp under Ken Hitchcock with 'great first day'

An up-tempo practice greets Dallas out of the gate as it begins preparations for the new season

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

CEDAR PARK, Texas -- Coach Ken Hitchcock admits it's hard not to be excited about the upcoming Dallas Stars season considering all the offseason changes, the new coaching staff, and the new players. But there's a lot of work to be done before the Stars kick off what will be the long, grinding NHL season.

"We can't be in a hurry to be anywhere right now," Hitchcock said. "We've got to embrace the daily."

And the daily began in earnest Friday morning as the Stars opened training camp at H-E-B Center in Cedar Park with 59 players taking the ice. There were two groups, both going through about a 115-minute on-ice session.

"It was good," said defenseman John Klingberg. "A little bit of new system stuff. I liked the way we went through it. It was easy to understand even though it's going to take a little bit of time to all get on the same page."

There's a lot of motivation as the Stars come off a disappointing 2016-17 season that saw them miss the playoffs and struggle through one of the worst seasons since the team moved to Dallas.

Video: Jamie Benn's thoughts on Radulov, Tyler Seguin speaks

"We all have enough motivation after last season," said center Tyler Seguin. "We were playing meaningless games the last 10 games of the season, and nobody wants to go through that again. That was a lot of motivation going into the summer."

And adding to the motivation is the offseason moves of GM Jim Nill, who traded for goaltender Ben Bishop and defenseman Marc Methot and signed forwards Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal and Tyler Pitlick in free agency.

"Jim Nill was pretty much MVP of the summer and checked off all the boxes that needed to be checked off," said captain Jamie Benn. "All of us around here are pretty excited to get this thing going."

And that excitement was evident as the team took the ice for Friday's sessions, which were high-paced and energetic.

"That's the way to start it off," said Klingberg. "That's the way it's going to be the whole year, and it starts from day one to set the pace right away. I like it."

Hitchcock liked what he saw as well.

"We had a first great day," he said. "The tempo was hot. The players responded."

Among the areas the Stars worked on Friday were defensive zone exits and forecheck, two areas Hitchcock sees as key to helping the Stars get better defensively. The way Hitchcock sees it, the Stars defensive issues started at the other end of the ice.

 "When you look at the analytics, this team wasn't good defensively because we weren't good offensively. We never spent enough time in the offensive zone," Hitchcock said. "We never spent enough time from the red line in offensively, so it made us vulnerable defensively. The focus for us, to be honest with you, is going to be from the red line in for the first five days. This is going to be a very competitive camp offensively."

So, there will be that work on the forecheck, puck possession and moving the puck quickly out of their own end. Hitchcock also wants to see the team protect the puck better, something he considers key for a good defensive team.

"Seventy-five percent of what you do to play good defense is protect the puck in the right manner. That's the buy-in that you need," Hitchcock said. "It's not that difficult to get a buy-in when the other team has the puck. But to leave people in good spots, to leave them in good places shift in and shift out, that requires unselfishness. It requires a strong team focus, and that's what we'll put an emphasis on. I think our puck management is what I want to see improve dramatically right from day one. I want us taking pride in putting it in the right place, keeping it in the right place and learning how to play the score and the time on the clock. I think those things are really important."

Compete and character are important as well, and Hitchcock wants to establish that in the Stars. The team has plenty of skill, but that can take a team only so far especially in a tough Central Division.

"We're on the floor. Our skill and talent got us on the floor. We've upgraded in some areas, so we don't have to fight to get to the floor. But if we expect to get to the ceiling then we are going to have to see our compete and character level come through," Hitchcock said. "To match [the good teams in the Central] you've got to be good for a long period of time during the season. You can't have big dips and peaks and valleys in your game because you can't recover from it. We've got to let our compete and character shine through."

Hitchcock has promised a different camp, vowing to whittle down the large number of players to a more manageable number in short order.

"We're going down quick," Hitchcock said. "This is going to be a different camp than anybody has ever seen. The goal after four [exhibition games] is to be at 30 [players] and after five to be at 25."'

Video: Nill discusses opening day of training camp

The Stars already have a good idea of who those 30 are, but they are not carved in stone. Some players could fall out as others push their way in.

"That's competition," Hitchcock said.

And Hitchcock promised what appears to be some ramped-up competition on day three of camp, but he won't reveal the details. There was, however, a recent schedule change for day three that includes a veterans practice in the morning and prospects scrimmage at noon.

"I've never done it before, and I want to see how the players react," Hitchcock said. "We'll do this every second or third day after day three and see what happens. We'll see what the guys that are involved in one part of the training camp feel and the ones that are on the outside, how fast and how hard do they want to come back into the inside."

So, stay tuned.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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