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Stars-Avalanche takeaways: Roster battle not limited to forwards

With most regulars returning, six or seven players find themselves fighting for the team's seventh defenseman role

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Mersch floats one home

DAL@COL: Mersch takes the lead on redirected wrister

Michael Mersch tees up a wrist shot that tips off a defender and flutters past Philipp Grubauer, giving the Stars a 2-1 lead in the 3rd

  • 00:56 •

DENVER -- The battle to earn a spot on the opening night roster for the Stars is not limited to forwards. Dallas has six regulars returning on defense from last season, and that means six or seven are battling to be the seventh defenseman.

Four of them played Thursday in a 2-1 win over Colorado at Pepsi Center.

After acquiring Andrej Sekera as a free agent in the summer, the Stars' top four looks like Esa Lindell-John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen-Sekera. With veterans Jamie Oleksiak and Roman Polak returning, as well, the third pair could contain those two.

That said, there is a large group of blueliners who would love to make the opening night roster and might even work their way onto the third pairing depending on strategy or performance.

Video: Veteran Upshall excited to be playing with Stars

Taylor Fedun leads that group. The 31-year-old played 54 regular season games last season, and brings both a steady hand and a little bit of skill. Fedun was acquired from Buffalo last season after injuries set in for the Stars, and said returning this season makes things a little bit easier.

Fedun has played 100 NHL games with Edmonton, San Jose, Vancouver, Buffalo and Dallas, and said coming back to the same team is a big deal.

"It was a little different just in that I was coming back to the same team and knew the systems and everything," Fedun said. "There's been a lot of turnover in my career, and this was definitely a little different, especially knowing we had such a strong finish to the year."

Fedun played Thursday with Oleksiak, and that could be a good pair going forward. Fedun logged 22:34, and had one shot on goal and one hit. Fedun is right-handed and could offer a different element than Polak, who also is right-handed but weighs 35 pounds more.

Video: Stars rally in 3rd for 2-1 win against Avalanche

An even more skilled option might be Gavin Bayreuther. The 25-year-old played 19 games with the Stars last season and had five points (two goals, three assists). He said he wants to play smart, but that he also wants to use his offensive skills.

"I think the first thing (Stars general manager) Jim Nill said when we had our welcome meeting was, 'You're here for a reason, so play your game.' " Bayreuther said. "My biggest part of my game is my shot, so I want to get pucks to the net and see where that could go."

Bayreuther played 18:35 against Colorado, had two shots on goal and two hits.

Other options include Joel Hanley, who played 16 games last season (and played 19:48 and had two hits against Colorado), Dillon Heatherington, who played five games last season and Ben Gleason, who played four. Dallas also added free agent Emil Djuse in the offseason, so he's in the mix.

Video: Bayreuther ready to play his game against Colorado

Stars coach Jim Montgomery said the battle will go to the end of preseason.

"It's funny, I feel like I know 12 defensemen out here," he said. "It's nice to know them. It's hard to get everybody games right now. Last year, it was easy to get players games."

But players will earn their minutes, and Montgomery said it doesn't matter if they are right-handed or left-handed.

"The hand doesn't matter, it's the person who can play the way we want and who can play the best, and also can add character and energy to the locker room," Montgomery said.

 

Goalies saving the day

The Stars goalies have allowed just four goals in three preseason games and continue to look great. Jake Oettinger (31 saves in two periods) and Landon Bow (15 saves) combined to stop 46 shots in the win.

"It's incredible, isn't it?" Montgomery said. "Oettinger was really impressive his first NHL exhibition experience, and Bowsy just continued on how good he was last game. Those two won us a game tonight."

Oettinger, who played the past three seasons at Boston University, was making his NHL debut in preseason play. On the other side of the ice for the Avalanche were Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Samuel Girard and Cale Makar.

"They dressed their 'A' lineup, and those kids … not only did they make great saves, but they made it look the way you want a goalie to make it to look," Montgomery said. "They were square to pucks, they were sounds, they weren't spitting out rebounds. It wasn't by fluke."

Oettinger said the experience was fantastic.

Video: Oettinger wants 'to play against the best guys'

"It's fun," he said. "It's obviously the best guys I've ever played against, and I want to play against the best guys."

Oettinger, Bow and Colton Point are likely battling for the chance to play in the AHL because veterans Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin have the top spots sewn up, but Oettinger said he wants to keep the NHL dream alive.

"It's huge," he said. "You've seen all of the goalies have played well, so you've got to play well to stay up here. All I want to do is stay up here as long as I can and make the decision as hard as possible."

He said it's been interesting now that he doesn't have classes and is doing this as a job.

"You've got to earn your spot every day," Oettinger said. "My dad jokes about punching the clock and going to work every day. It's the job I want."

 

Upshall steps up with first goal

Video: DAL@COL: Upshall tallies after racing down loose puck

Scottie Upshall is 35 and didn't play a game last season. He's been battling injuries and is pushing to extend his NHL career past 759 games.

So it was nice that he played 12:40 Thursday, had six hits, four shots on goal and scored a goal. It was a performance that allows him to believe he can continue his NHL career.

"It's been a long road," he said. "Having the opportunity here with these guys to showcase what I can still do, you've got to take advantage of it. Playing in games like this with a young team, you've got to be a leader, you've got to show what it's like to play hard hockey."

Montgomery said he liked what he saw from Upshall.

"I thought we were really getting overmatched in the first 10 minutes, but he had that big hit on the forecheck and I thought the last 10 minutes of the first period we started establishing some O-zone time and getting some shots and bodies to the net."

The fight for a roster spot continues to get interesting, as Justin Dowling left the game with an upper body injury. He will be re-evaluated Friday.

 

Stars need to improve structure

Video: Montgomery impressed with young goaltending

Dallas has allowed 112 shots on goal in three preseason games and taken 64. They were outshot 47-23 on Thursday, and Montgomery said that has to change.

So far, leading scorers Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn have not played in a preseason game, so their return should help change the shot clock.

"Having won a lot of games like that, I think we're comfortable," he said of winning low-scoring games while being outshot. "But being outshot like that ... starting on Saturday night (against Florida at Tulsa), we're going to have our best forwards start playing, so iof it starts happening then, it's going to be concerning."

Montgomery said fixing the problem in the final four preseason games is huge so the team can be ready for the season opener on Oct. 3.

"It's really important, because we really want to be relentless with and without the puck, and we really haven't been," Montgomery said.

 

Nichushkin getting fresh start in Colorado

Former first-round draft pick Val Nichushkin was bought out by the Stars in the summer, but has landed a one-year deal with the Avalanche.

He played against Dallas in the preseason game Thursday.

Nichushkin had a hard time getting his paperwork in order so he could join the Avalanche, and that led to a slow start at practice.

"I think the boys are great here. I think it's gone pretty well," Nichushkin told ColoradoAvalanche.com. "Everybody asked why I came so late, but it was in fun. Not fun to have my passport take a while, so that is why I came late for camp. Practice was pretty fast, a little hard for me for the first day."

Nichushkin said he wants to forget his struggles in Dallas last season where he did not score a goal all season.

"Last year, I want to forget it because it was probably an awful season," he said. "I look forward right now, and hopefully a new team like the Avalanche that I can show better hockey."

Nichushkin played 15:19 Thursday and had one shot on goal and one hit.

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 DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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