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Lessons learned from tough year, Stars want Tyler Seguin to be 'the man'

The 25-year-old seems to be on the cusp of something seminal - maybe career-defining - entering new campaign

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

Every once in a while this offseason, Tyler Seguin would find himself thinking back to the Dallas Stars' game in Nashville last Feb. 12.

Struggling on the road, and beset by injuries all season, the Stars were still hanging around the edge of the playoff picture. On this night, they built a 3-0 lead against a team that would later go on to the Stanley Cup final, in spite of qualifying for the playoffs as the second wildcard team in the Western Conference. By the end of the day, though, Nashville would come back to win 5-3 -- the winning goal scored after an egregious Seguin turnover at the Nashville blue line with the Stars on the power play.

No one game defines a season as grisly as the one the Stars endured in 2016-17 when they dropped 30 points in the standings and out of the playoffs a year after winning the Central Division. And no one player shoulders the blame for what was a collective failure.

But for Seguin that game is a kind of talisman, a reminder of the work that needs to be done both individually and collectively.

"There's a certain point when you're sitting in the off-season, we had a long one, you kind of reflect and you think of certain games and that was definitely one that stuck out to me individually where I look back on it and say, '(Blank), what were you doing?' " Seguin said recently.

"It was a miserable last 10 or 12 games knowing we were out," he added. "You don't want to lose that feeling. And individually, there were lots of points you look back and say next year, 'I'm going to be better here' and 'I'm going to be even more consistent here' and 'I need to think more defensively there.'

"It all adds up."

Two years ago, Seguin and linemate Jamie Benn combined for 74 goals and 162 points -- and that was with Seguin missing 10 games due to injury. The Stars won the Central Division before losing in seven games to St. Louis in the second round.

Ken Hitchcock was the coach of that St. Louis team and, of course, is now the man charged with righting the ship in Dallas after last year's disaster.

Video: Seguin on the change in Stars offensive strategy

Exactly how Seguin and Hitchcock connect has been the subject of much discussion in the hockey world, and Seguin, being one of the most aware of NHL players, understands that his lot in life is about to change, perhaps dramatically.

Here's the interesting thing, though: The changes that will be demanded of Seguin may be different than many people think.

First, it's not about Seguin being a better defensive player.

When Hitchcock broke down the team's defensive zone coverages from last season, Seguin figured prominently.

"When I looked at all of our clips, our teaching clips, Tyler stands out more than any player on our team defensively," Hitchcock said. "He's on the highlights defensively of a high percentage of our teaching clips. Where I want to work with him is to be better offensively."

See, we told you this wasn't as simple as it looked.

Better offensively doesn't necessarily mean score more goals or get more assists, although Seguin should be north of the 26 he scored a year ago -- 11 off his 37-goal totals he hit in his first two seasons in Dallas. But for Hitchcock, it means control the puck, and dictate the tone and tenor of the game.

In other words, be 'the man.'

Be the man in the way that Sidney Crosby is the man. Or Evgeni Malkin. Or John Tavares. Or Jonathan Toews.

And that means being different and ultimately being more than what Seguin has been.

"You can get points by being a sudden-strike player," Hitchcock said. "But for him to move to the next level, I want to see one thing, I want to see his competitive level at the puck improve. He's already light years ahead of a lot of guys defensively. The stuff that he does defensively that show up when we're teaching is outstanding. But if you're going to be a good offensive player, you're going to have to hold onto the puck longer, you're going to have to keep it more and if you're going to have it more you're going to have to compete for it longer."

And so the gauntlet has been thrown down.

There's so much to like about Tyler Seguin, just as there is so much to like about this remodeled Dallas Stars team.

He is thoughtful and gregarious and engaging with fans and the media. He embraces social media and sometimes, because it seems like he's been around for a long time, it's easy to forget he's just 25.

In that sense he exists in that murky world somewhere between kid - which offers built-in excuses for all kinds of lapses on and off the ice - and being, well, 'the man.'

Selected No. 2 overall in 2010, he was part of the Boston Bruins team that won a Cup for the first time since 1972.

Two years later, a reputation as a wild child saw him dealt to Dallas in a blockbuster deal.

Since his arrival in Dallas, he's become a fan-favorite. He's put up great numbers. He's dealt with injuries and disappointment, and yet here we are on the eve of a new season and there is the unmistakable feeling that Seguin is on the cusp of something seminal, maybe career-defining.

"He's approaching the crossroads of his career at a time when that franchise is at the crossroads," offered Laurence Gilman, longtime NHL executive who now acts as a hockey consultant and media analyst.

Gillman calls Seguin "one of the most enigmatic players in the NHL."

"He's a mercurial talent," Gilman said. "What I've seen in Tyler Seguin, particularly in the last couple of years, is he seems to thoroughly enjoy the game most when playing 5-on-4, or 6-on-5, and doesn't have the same attention to detail when the game is played 5-on-5."

To become something else, though, is within Seguin's grasp, Gillman predicted.

"Fortunately for Tyler, he's going to play under one of the most structurally sound, and most disciplined coaches that's coached in the league in the last 20 years in Ken Hitchcock," Gillman said. "If he truly wants to be a complete player, the opportunity will exist for him to do that."

From the outside, the narrative looks to be something like this: Hitchcock must tame the wild being that Seguin represents, rein him in, beat the personality out of him in order to produce the kind of player Seguin and Hitchcock both want him to be.

But that presumes he's still the party animal.

Seguin smiles at what many people believe him to be.

"Yeah. It's a misperception in a way, but also sometimes you kind of enjoy it because then I get to prove people wrong," Seguin said. "I still am a very hard worker. I'm still a very competitive guy. I still love being in the gym. And, yeah, I enjoy the fruits of the labor of traveling and whatnot, and I enjoy posting (on social media) it, and I think, at times, maybe I made a couple of wrong decisions back when I was young."

"And in a way I guess it kind of all worked out," he added. "I'm here now. I'm in Dallas. I got to surprise some of my teammates in Dallas. I think in management, too -- them thinking that I was supposed to be this 'party boy.' Yeah, I like to have a good time, and I can sometimes be the off-ice captain as far as setting up dinners or setting up team bonding nights. But nothing more than that."

In fact, Seguin seems quite chuffed that when he works out with Crosby in the offseason, or when the two were part of World Cup of Hockey events with Team Canada, Crosby often tabs Seguin the off-ice captain.

Can he become that kind of glue guy on the ice, too?

Former NHLer and national analyst Mike Rupp feels there's the potential for Seguin to completely reshape how he's viewed in the NHL.

When a coach has trust in his superstars, that creates a whole different dynamic, said Rupp, who points to the work Crosby did in establishing a complete game even after he won a scoring title.

Video: Seguin and Benn attend NHL Media Day

Crosby hated being on the bench for key draws earlier in his career and worked hard to be a guy his coaches could count on to win those draws and to be trusted in all situations.

"I think Tyler Seguin probably wants to do those things," Rupp said. "It's just how Hitch gets him there."

"If he can find a way to make a statement that he's willing to adapt, the hockey world will look at him differently," Rupp added.

Seguin is like the rest of us, wondering how it's going to turn out. But just as Rupp pointed out, Seguin longs to be the guy the coach sends over the boards.

"I aspire to be a top centerman," Seguin said. "I think in the past I've always been called number one center. I've always been called that."

But sometimes, the label belied the reality on the ice.

"When I was in Boston, I was the young buck, so I kind of got moved to the wing a lot," Seguin said. "Nothing against Lindy (former Dallas head coach Lindy Ruff), but when I was here with Lindy, as well I'd always be centerman, and then whenever things got a little rough, I'd get thrown on the wing. And Hitch's message, I feel to me is, there's ups and downs in the whole year, but when things are getting rough, and you're staying there, and you're getting through that. And I've never really had that opportunity."

The past is hard to escape in Dallas, with Hitchcock returning and frequent reminders of the Stars' 1999 Stanley Cup win found everywhere. Indeed, Seguin references the changes to Hall-of-Famer Mike Modano's game under Hitchcock's tutelage in the mid-to late-1990s in Dallas.

"Obviously I'm no Mike Modano, but it's kind of similar as far as he was a big point guy, he had to kind of adjust," Seguin said. "It's going to be about the complete game this year. I know Hitch is going to be tough on me, and I think I need that, and I know he's going to be tough on the team and I'm looking forward to working with him."

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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