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Stars mix caution, optimism on first day of training camp

Bowness experiments with new strategies while watching from the bench during an 'awesome' return to practice

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

FRISCO, Texas -- The first day of Stars training camp in Phase 3 of the NHL's "Return to Play" during the COVID-19 pandemic was a mix of both caution and experimentation.

Rick Bowness stood on the bench and wore a mask because he said he wanted to "err on the side of caution" to avoid any worry of contracting the illness. But, on the ice, his team was trying all sorts of new things that the coaching staff had developed during their time away from the game.

"I'm still very nervous about the COVID," Bowness said. "It was more related to that than anything. It wasn't a change of strategy or anything. It was me being 65 years old and erring on the side of caution."

It's a perfect example of how Bowness has run the team since taking over in December. The interim head coach has taken one step at a time in his first shot at running a bench since 2004, and he's showing that he can both captain the ship and trust his assistants.

 

[READ MORE: Five key storylines to follow during Stars training camp]

 

Bowness normally is one of the most vocal voices on the practice ice, but he let John Stevens, Todd Nelson, Derek Laxdal and Jeff Reese bark the commands on Monday.

"We've been talking for four or five months," Bowness said of the game plan that was executed.

The Stars broke down into two groups and ran lines and defense pairs that were designed to have some meaning. They practiced drills that will "activate" a defensemen and hopefully create odd-man rushes and more offensive opportunities. They are not completely different, but they acknowledged that there are scoring issues that can be addressed and they want to address them.

"I definitely think we can do more," said forward Jason Dickinson. "We've talked a lot about it."

Video: Bowness: 'All of the focus will be on what we do now'

The tweaks the coaching staff made were noticeable. Leading scorer Tyler Seguin skated on the right wing with Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov. All three players have speed, and moving Seguin from center to wing allows the trio to try an alignment that hasn't yet been tested.

"That's a very fast line," Bowness said. "That's great speed up front, so we want to take a look at it and see what it looks like. What that line has in terms of speed is going to intimidate a lot of teams."

Meanwhile, Seguin's former linemates -- Jamie Benn and Corey Perry -- were flanking the versatile Dickinson on one of the team's biggest and most physical lines.

"That other line with Dicky and Corey and Jamie, that's a big heavy physical line that we talk about for spending more time in the offensive zone," Bowness said. "Hopefully, they can get the puck into the offensive zone and protect it and spend more time there."

The regular checking line of Radek Faksa flanked by Blake Comeau and Andrew Cogliano returned, while the final line is Joe Pavelski between Alexander Radulov and Mattias Janmark. Bowness said those three players are among the best on the team statistically in puck possession, and that he anticipate they can build on that.

"They didn't play a whole lot together, but when they did, they obviously had results," Bowness said. "If we can generate time in the zone with those guys and generate quality chances, we're confident the puck will go in the net for us."

Pavelski and Radulov are second and third among forwards on the team in terms of time on ice, so that could be the top line or the fourth line, but that's the kind of balance Bowness is looking for.

"We want to roll four lines, and we want to be consistent," he said. "That's what we're working toward."

Video: Benn excited to resume play after first day of camp

On defense, the coaching staff kept John Klingberg and Esa Lindell together, but moved Andrej Sekera next to Stephen Johns and put Jamie Oleksiak with Miro Heiskanen. The reason, Bowness said, is to allow the more skilled defenseman the opportunity to join the play and help push more offense.

"That's why we've got Stephen with Sekera today, we want him jumping up," Bowness said of Johns. "We've got Miro with Oleksiak to go every chance you get. You look at all our best offensive opportunities, it's been a four-man rush. You look around the league, it's a four-man rush. With the skaters we have back there (on defense), we're going to be putting a lot of pressure on our D to be jumping up on the play."

He added, though, that the changes have to be done in a smart way so that the team can remain one of the better squads in goals against average.

"Now, all of that said, there's a lot of onus on the forward with the puck -- he's got to make better plays," Bowness said. "If you're going to bring up your D, you have to respect the fact they're coming and you have to make high percentage plays coming through the neutral zone."

Tweet from @DallasStars: 👋, captain! pic.twitter.com/pP13ShXDdF

It's a tricky balance, but one the team believes it can achieve.

So far, the group has navigated Phase 2 properly and been diligent in following protocols and staying healthy. Benn had four teammates work out at his home gym during most of Phase 2, and said the results were good. He, Seguin, Comeau, Oleksiak and Ben Bishop were able to share the workouts and still follow the protocols.

"I think it really helped," Benn said. "It was good to hang out with a couple of teammates along the way."

As for the return to full practice at Comerica Center in Frisco, Benn said that was special.

Video: Dickinson, Stars return with 'energy and excitement'

"It was awesome," he said. "I think a lot of guys had a smile on their face the whole day. We've kind of been stuck at home and cooped up for a bit, so it was very exciting to be out there with the guys again."

The Stars will practice no more than three days in a row to stay fresh, Bowness said and will take Thursday off this week. They also want to try to get some scrimmages in and run one day like a regular game day with a morning skate and a night scrimmage.

The coach said he hopes to be on the ice by Wednesday's practice. The Stars players were tested last Thursday and then again Monday morning. Bowness said he would like to see all of Monday's tests before getting on the ice.

"It's a different world out there. I'm going to have to adjust to it, there is no question," he said. "I just want to make sure I'm cautious, which we've been since this virus started, and I will continue to do that. My health -- hey, I'm a grandfather now, my first grandkid. I intend on playing some golf with that kid down the road. I intend on being here a lot longer.

"So, yeah, am I going to be careful? Absolutely."

He can do that and also push the coaching boundaries with his team at the same time.

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, and listen to his podcast.

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