There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the Dallas Stars heading into 2013-14 after an offseason of significant change. That change swept in new management headed by GM Jim Nill, and a new head coach in Lindy Ruff.
The roster has a new look with the additions of centers Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff, defenseman Sergei Gonchar and backup goaltender Dan Ellis.
“If you look at all the successful teams, they are built a certain way,” Nill said. “You have to be good in the net, you have to have a good goalie. You’re defense has to be very good. You have to have some puck movers, you have to have some size back there and you have to be good down the middle. You have to have good center ice men.”
Nill beefed up the center position in one day, acquiring Seguin and Peverley along with defense prospect Ryan Button from Boston for forwards Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith and Matt Fraser and defense prospect Joe Morrow. He acquired Horcoff from Edmonton for defenseman Philip Larsen and a seventh-round pick in 2016. He added to the defense by acquiring the rights to Gonchar for a draft pick and then signing him to a two-year contract. Nill dipped into the free agent market and signed Ellis, a dependable veteran who will backup No. 1 goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
The Stars will add some youth to the mix as well. Forward Alex Chiasson, who scored six goals in seven games late last season for the Stars, is on the roster. So is highly touted Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin, the team’s first round pick (10th overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft. Both Nichushkin and Chiasson have been mentioned as possible Calder Trophy candidates. Defenseman Kevin Connauton, acquired from Vancouver last season in the Derek Roy deal, has cracked the roster as well.
Throw in a new logo and new uniforms, and the Stars are bristling with newness in 2013-14.
“To me it’s like a fresh start,” defenseman Stephane Robidas said. “We’re starting from scratch, it’s new. We’ve got a new GM, new coach, new jerseys and new players. It’s a lot of new things, but it’s all positive and certainly interesting. I think we are headed in the right direction.”
The Stars also find themselves playing under the NHL’s new alignment for the 2013-14 season. They’ll be in the Central Division along with Chicago, Colorado, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg.
“The alignment is great. It keeps you in your time zone more often,” said Ruff. “The rivalries are important. I think the fact that the fans get to see every team is important, too.”
Along with the all the change and newness, there is a sense of optimism that the Stars can get back to the playoffs, a place they haven’t been since 2008. Their five-year postseason drought is the longest in franchise history.
“It’s something we always talk about before the season starts and during the season,” Lehtonen said. “We’ll just have to go out there and execute and play well.”
The playoff format changes this season with realignment. The top three teams from each of the four divisions qualify along with two wild card teams from both the Western and Eastern Conference. Those wild card teams are the top two finishers outside of the division qualifiers in each conference. Ruff said not much changes as far as making the playoffs – eight teams make the cut in each conference.
“You’ve got to be one of the top eight, and that’s the way I look at it,” Ruff said. “It doesn’t matter how you cut it, you’ve got to be in there.”
“Not making the playoffs for five years is not what we want,” said left wing Jamie Benn, who was named the team’s new captain during training camp. “With the players we brought in and the people surrounding them, it’s our time to do it and this is the year.”
There were big changes to the forward group, and there will be change for a couple of key members of the group as well.
With the additions of Seguin, Horcoff and Peverley, Jamie Benn will move back to his natural position of left wing after spending a couple of seasons playing center. Seguin, who had played right wing during his time in Boston, will move back to his natural position of center. Benn and Seguin will play together on the Stars’ top line.
“Every day I feel like I am learning more about him as a player,” Seguin said. “He’s a great player to play with, we’re having a lot of fun out there and hopefully we can do some damage.”
Erik Cole is lined up on the right wing with Seguin and Benn to start the season.
Although Horcoff and Peverley also were brought in to beef up the center position, it appears as though the Stars will start the season with Cody Eakin, Vernon Fiddler and Chris Mueller at center behind Seguin.
Eakin, who had a strong camp and preseason, is expected to center the second line with Ray Whitney and Chiasson to start the season. Horcoff and Fiddler are expected to be joined by Nichushkin on the third line. Mueller, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt have made up the fourth line in practices leading up to the opener. Lane MacDermid is in the mix as well.
Peverley is out to start the season as he continues to get treated for an irregular heartbeat. He is expected to return for the second game against Washington. Once Peverley returns, Ruff will have more options.
Overall, the Stars have some speed, skill and size in the forward group. Ruff believes the Stars should have a balanced attack.
“Through the preseason, I’ve liked the depth of scoring,” Ruff said. “We’ve been able to get production, really, from the top twelve. The top nine has been good, but even Roussel, where he’s been at, has chipped in a couple. Mueller has been able to chip in. If you want to be one of those teams that wants to get into the top ten in scoring, you need depth. You can’t rely on one line. I like the fact that we haven’t relied on just one line. Even when we had a light lineup, with few veterans, our youth scored for us.”
Gonchar was the big addition to the Stars’ defense, which otherwise will look a lot like last season’s.
“I didn’t mind our defense,” said Nill. “Maybe we could use a little bit of size, but I liked our speed and our puck moving. We made a change to try to improve on that.”
Gonchar will help the Stars ability to move and possess the puck. He’ll be a boost to the power play as well. He’ll provide leadership and guidance to younger players, especially his countryman, Nichushkin.
“He’s a special player. There are not too many players like that in the league,” Robidas said of Gonchar. “He’s got poise with the puck, he’s got a good shot and he always makes that good first pass. He’s really creative offensively. He’s going to help our power play.”
Gonchar will likely be paired with Alex Goligoski to start the season. Robidas has been skating with Brenden Dillon leading up to the opener. Trevor Daley, who suffered an upper body injury in the preseason, appears ready to play and has been practicing on a pair with Jordie Benn, who played 26 NHL games last season. Connauton, a slick skating offensive defenseman, looks as if he’ll start the season as the seventh defenseman. Aaron Rome will miss the start of the season due to hip surgery.
The Stars defense will be a key part of the team’s attack, being more aggressive at times to help generate offense. Robidas thinks the Stars have a good mix on the blue line to handle things at both ends of the ice.
“I think we have good mobility, we have all guys who can skate well,” Robidas said. “We’ve got some size. We’ve got a little bit of everything. With Gonchar and Alex, we’ve got guys who can run power plays and move the puck and shoot it. Even a guy like Trevor, he’s a proven player. We’ve got guys who can move the puck and support the attack. We can defend well with our speed. We’ve got a couple of bigger guys like Brenden and Romer and even Connauton is a pretty big boy. We’ve got a good mix of youth and experience.”
Lehtonen and Ellis both had solid training camps and preseasons. Lehtonen posted a 2-0-1 record with a 1.97 goals against average and 93.1 save percentage. Ellis was 2-0-0 with a 1.20 goals against average and 95.5 save percentage.
“They were really good. I am happy with both of them,” said Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley. “Not only with their performance and the way they’ve been practicing and their work ethics, but also how they have jelled together and really seem to complement one another. It’s really nice to see. They’re close on and off the ice. It’s a good tandem.”
This will be Lehtonen’s fourth full season with the Stars and the first year of a five-year, $29.5 million extension he signed just prior to last season’s lockout. Lehtonen’s been a rock for the Stars, and he’s carried the team at times. Now, it’s time to take it one step further.
“The next step is pretty obvious. It is to lead us into the playoffs,” said Valley. “Even more so, rather than looking at the big picture, it is to be really consistent all year and we hope that he can stay healthy for the season as well. But the next step is to get your team into the playoffs and lead them.”
Ellis, a Dallas draft pick in 2000 who played with Carolina last season, is expected to give the Stars a solid veteran presence in the backup position. The backup position has been a sore spot for the Stars the past couple seasons, and the hope is Ellis will provide some stability.
“It’s huge,” said Valley. “You need two, arguably three good goaltenders because you do have injuries and you do have things that happen, and sometimes there is nothing you can do about it. But you have to have two solid guys that can win you a game any night. The team has to have confidence in both guys. To have Danny Ellis come in and show that he can play and show that he can be a guy you can rely on is huge.”
The Stars special teams were so-so last season. The power play ranked 18th in the league at 17.0 percent. The penalty kill was 17th at 81.0 percent.
The additions of Gonchar and Seguin should be a boost to the power play. The Stars likely will go with four forwards and one defenseman when they have the man-advantage. It’s a look they rolled out in the preseason and one that Ruff liked.
“We’re going to continue that,” Ruff said. “Looking at the number of players and the right-handed shot options that we have with that fourth guy, dropping a Chiasson or dropping a Ray Whitney down as one of your flankers on the power play is just a good look for us. It’s not as good a look when you bring a defenseman in there and he’s a left-handed shot and can’t one-time pucks. It’s a look we want those guys to be comfortable with and a look we want to try.”
On the penalty kill, Ruff wants to use guys like Seguin and Jamie Benn to keep his top players involved in all facets of the game and not sitting on the bench in key situations.
“It’s too long for your best players to be sitting. There are going to be games where they need to be out there competing in those shorthanded situations. It keeps their motor running,” said Ruff. “One of my responsibilities is to turn them into guys that can be in real tough situations. On the flip side of it, you get opportunities on the penalty kill and if your best players are on the ice they can turn those opportunities into shorthanded goals for us. I’d like to see our top guys kill.”
Nill was methodical in his search to find a replacement for Glen Gulutzan, who was dismissed as head coach of the Stars in May. Nill said he was looking for a guy with experience and Ruff, the longtime coach of the Buffalo Sabres, fit the bill.
“Experience was a very important part of it. Past history, situations they have been in, and longevity is a big part of it. Lindy really had all those,” said Nill. “Lindy was the first guy I interviewed and he was at the top of my list. I loved what he said. He’s got a calmness to him, a confidence. He’s the coach, he’s in charge and he knows what to do. He’s been in different situations. He’s been to the Stanley Cup Finals, he’s had to deal with an organization that’s gone through bankruptcy, he’s dealt with good teams, bad teams, teams struggling, teams overachieving. He’s seen it all and if you’ve been through those life experiences you know how to deal with them.”
Joining Ruff on the staff will be James Patrick, the former NHL defensemen who spent seven seasons working under Ruff as an assistant in Buffalo. He’ll handle the team’s defensemen and the penalty kill.
Curt Fraser returns as an assistant coach. Fraser will handle the power play and work with Ruff on the forwards.
Valley returns as the goaltending coach.
Nill’s work since taking over as GM has been impressive. He’s acquired a top young player in Seguin, who is still only 21-years-old and has just scratched the surface of his potential. Put Seguin and Jamie Benn together and you have two of the top young players in the game. There’s more young talent in Chiasson, Nichushkin, Dillon, Eakin and top prospects like Jamie Oleksiak, Brett Ritchie and others who are knocking on the NHL door.
“Where I am excited is that we have a group of players who are 20-25 who are going to be the core of our team in the next two or three years,” said Nill. “They are all going to be growing up together.”
Throw in an experienced coach such as Ruff and the stability in ownership that Tom Gaglardi has brought to the organization, and the future looks bright for the Stars.
Does that future hold a playoff spot in 2013-14? Like past seasons, it’s going to be a dog fight. The Stars should be right in the middle of things, as they have been the past few years. A lot of things will have to go right. They’ll have to stay relatively healthy. When there are injuries, the players they bring in from the Texas Stars will have to contribute.
Seguin will have to deliver as a No. 1 center. They’ll need a big season from Jamie Benn. They’ll need a big season from Lehtonen as well. Ellis will have to take some of the load off Lehtonen, deliver when he gets the nod in net. Gonchar will have to come in and provide a boost to the defense. The kids will have to contribute. The Stars will need some depth scoring to take the pressure off the top line. The special teams will need to keep up their end of the bargain.
The Stars aren’t operating in a vacuum. There are six other teams in their division and 14 other teams in the conference fighting for a spot in the playoffs as well. It should be no different than the past few years. It will be tight, with just a few points separating who gets in and who gets an early vacation. A tough break here or there or a few good bounces here or there could make a difference.
But with Nill and Ruff at the helm, the Stars might be in a better position than in past years to weather the ups and downs of the long NHL season, and put themselves in a position to secure a playoff spot instead of let one slipping away.
Prediction: Fourth in the Central Division, Wild Card playoff spot
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.