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Burnside: Five things to watch as Stars look for bounce-back at Blues

Veteran center Jason Spezza is set to make his preseason debut tonight in St. Louis

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

The Dallas Stars head to St. Louis on Saturday for their third of six preseason games. Here's a look at what to expect for this tilt just up the street from the Gateway Arch.


1. Scheduling curiosity

The schedule makers didn't do the Stars any favors (okay, do the schedule makers do any teams any favors, any time? Now that we have that out of the way.) Regardless, this road game marks the start of three games in four nights, with the Stars returning home for back-to-back games Monday and Tuesday against Colorado and Minnesota. Then they don't play until next Saturday when they close out the preseason slate with a visit to Bruce Boudreau and the Minnesota Wild. Then they don't play their season opener until the following Friday, Oct. 6, at home against expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

The spacing isn't ideal, but it does allow for lots of teachable moments from head coach Ken Hitchcock and with still a handful of lineup spots, both on the blue line and up front, still in play that's not necessarily a bad thing. But given Hitchcock's desire to ice strong lineups at home and players' desire to play in the preseason finale it does change the dynamic in terms of who gets into games.

"The players all want to play in the final game," the Stars coach said. "And I find those final games end up just being like the (preseason) NFL games, they don't end up being good evaluators but because we've got such a break leading into the final (preseason) game and then after the final game we'll probably play our roster full in the final."


2. Let's try this again

The Blues were expected to ice a lineup heavy with everyday NHLers Saturday, although it's worth noting that Hitchcock's old team is already struggling to stay healthy, with the open of the season still almost two weeks away.

The Blues lost Alex Steen to a hand injury in last Tuesday's game in Dallas and were already without Jay Bouwmeester, Patrik Berglund and young Zach Sanford -- and that's not counting talented Robby Fabbri who is trying to return after knee surgery.

As a result the Blues' lineup, like the lineup employed by Dallas, will be heavy on players looking to either make the team out of camp or play bigger roles once the season gets rolling. Given the injury issues that plagued Dallas last season from the get-go, no one is feeling sorry for the Blues but given how tight the division figures to be health is always a key and the Blues are facing some early adversity in that department.

Still, Hitchcock is looking forward to his roster being tested by the Blues Saturday especially coming off a disappointing 5-1 loss in Denver Thursday.

Look for natural centers Devin Shore, a virtual lock to make this team, and Jason Dickinson, on the bubble, to play on the wing Saturday as Hitchcock has pretty much identified his four centers as Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Martin Hanzal and Radek Faksa.

The coaching staff, along with input from management, has been looking at which of the team's glut of centers could make the switch to wing and the next week will be key in filling in those final forward spots.

"It's tough because if they want to play they have to play outside position," Hitchcock said. "That's where upper management said both Shore and Dickinson can play on the wall so let's give them a bit of an evaluation."


3. Slasher-fest

So, we'll stop talking about officiating and the number of faceoff and slashing calls when it stops being a factor. Right now it's the biggest story of training camp and the Stars, like virtually every team, are trying to adjust to what is going to be called and when.

Basically, if you wave your stick in the direction of an opposing player, you're going for slashing. And you'd better have your mind in gear if you're a center, because you will go to the box if you don't line up properly outside the hash marks and in a timely fashion.

In Denver on Thursday, the Stars gave the Avs a two-minute 5-on-3 thanks to a faceoff violation that followed a minor penalty call, and the Avs did the exact same thing later in the game which led to the Stars' only goal in a 5-1 loss.

One interesting off-shoot of the new standards, in terms of how the Stars might look on opening night, is that Hitchcock believes if the games continue to be called like this in the regular season, fourth-line players better be good at one of two special teams.

"They better be great specialists," Hitchcock said. "Because this looks like it's going to be a penalty-fest. So they better be either great on the power play or great killing penalties because if they're just five-on- five players there's no use in playing them. They're going to have no room to play."

That would seem to put players like off-season free agent acquisition Tyler Pitlick and Dickinson, both versatile players who can kill penalties, in good stead moving forward.


4. Fluid defense

If the forward picture is coming more into focus with the top two lines seemingly penciled in; Benn/Seguin/Radulov and Janmark/Spezza/Ritchie and Faksa and Hanzal locked into center spots the greatest fluidity is along the blue line corps.

"That's been interesting," Hitchcock admitted.

Hitchcock has said from the outset he wants to identify a top six and ride them once the games start. At the start of camp it seemed that group might look like this; Marc Methot, Esa Lindell and Dan Hamhuis on the left, and John Klingberg, Stephen Johns and Julius Honka on the right. And while Honka came in for early praise Hitchcock says they are still looking to identify not just a top six group but the top four defenders who are so important to the team's structure.

With Jamie Oleksiak moving into the discussion not just for a top-six spot but perhaps moving to the right side, and joining Methot, Klingberg and Lindell on the top four these next three games are crucial for Oleksiak, Johns and Honka.

"We're looking at where do we see our top four where we don't ever have to have a meeting with them," Hitchcock said. "We don't ever have to worry about it."

Look for Oleksiak, a left handed shot, to continue his audition for a bigger role to continue Saturday, where he'll likely play on the right side with Lindell.

"There's always an adjustment when you're asked to switch sides or whatever" Oleksiak said Saturday. "But pretty much my whole time in Dallas I've played on the right side."

"It's always a good feeling, kind of feels like the work you put in the summer paid off and just kind of recognition of that," Oleksiak said. "But at the same time it's still a long preseason and you've got to kind carry this forward."


5. Hello, Jason

Saturday's game marks the first for center Jason Spezza. Outside Martin Hanzal, who is still nursing a sore ankle but rejoined his teammates for the first time since camp opened on Saturday morning, Spezza is the last regular to get some preseason action.

"It's fun to get into game mode," Spezza said. "The game's the fun part of what we do so I'm looking forward to getting in." It will be especially interesting for Spezza, a center, to get his first taste of the new zero tolerance for messing around in the faceoff circle.

"I'm hoping I can adjust quickly," he said. "You can sit at home, watch and listen to all the talk about it but until you get in there live - even today practicing I found myself cheating a few times where I probably would have got tossed out. That's what these preseason games are for is getting out the wrinkles like that."

Both Spezza and Hitchcock are in favor of the clamping down on the kind of scrum-form of draws that had become the routine in recent seasons.

"It's going to be interesting to see what standard they keep it at," Spezza said. "So it's probably a good initiative because there's been a lot of confrontation on draws that maybe the linesmen don't like that make it hard for them to drop pucks." 

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.

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