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Stars camp journal: Rubber starting to hit road heading into third day

Head coach Ken Hitchcock has separated the group into two entering a critical Sunday

by Mark Stepneski and Scott Burnside /

CEDAR PARK, Texas -- Sunday marks the first day of real separation in terms of having a realistic shot at making the Dallas Stars' opening-night roster. 

Head coach Ken Hitchcock separated the group into two heading into Sunday's third on-ice session with mostly veterans and those with an inside track on roster spots set to practice in the morning with the rest, mostly younger players, set to scrimmage after. Those who scrimmage still have an opportunity to stay in the hunt for roster spots, but they need to impress on Sunday.

"Whoever emerges from that scrimmage is a good player and is going to get a chance to go with the big boys," Hitchcock said.

The veteran group features 12 forwards, nine defensemen and two goalies and most are established NHLers on NHL contracts.

"The guys that are in the big group, they're the one-ways, so they get the first kick at the can and whoever emerges from the young group they get to challenge for the spot," Hitchcock explained. "But if the young group comes into that big boy club and then they emerge, then they get the spot. It's pretty simple."


[Click here to download roster for Sunday's veterans practice and prospect scrimmage]


The scrimmage will have three run-time periods of 25 minutes each. Penalties will earn the opposing team a penalty shot and there will be a shootout component at the end.

"We want to see who's going to rise to the occasion and who's going to be overwhelmed," Hitchcock said.

Among the interesting names who will scrimmage Sunday are high end prospects Jason Dickinson, Remi Elie, Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz. Longtime NHLer R.J. Umberger, in camp on a tryout basis, is also taking part in the scrimmage.

Defenseman Julius Honka, who seems a good bet to earn a top-six spot on the Dallas blue line, will take part in a portion of both sessions.

Video: Klingberg, Honka and Lindell address expectations

A fresh start for Stephen Johns

Defenseman Stephen Johns said he was ticked off all summer because of what happened last season. It was a bad season for the Stars, and his own play didn't meet expectations.

It was a step back for Johns, who cracked the NHL late in the 2015-16 season and made an immediate impact as the Stars advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

Last season was a much different story. There were plenty of ups and downs for the 25-year-old. He was a healthy scratch 15 times, and there was a brief stint in the AHL.

"Last year, I took a couple of things for granted and thought it was going to be a little easier because of my first stint in the NHL," Johns said. "Last season was a big growth stage for me. I can only go up from here. I am coming in with open eyes this year."

Johns is putting 2016-17 behind him and looks at this season as a fresh start under new head coach Ken Hitchcock and defense coach Rick Wilson, who are looking to establish a top-six group of defensemen they can ride.

"I am looking at hopefully getting a spot in that top six and stay in the top six this year," Johns said. "That's everyone's attitude. It's a good attitude to have. Everyone is pushing each other. Spots are open for the taking."

What will it take for Johns to get one of those spots?

"He has to be consistent with the puck," Hitchcock said. "If he is consistent with the puck he is going to make the team and be a good player for us. What we can't have is inconsistencies as far as moving the puck and making the simple plays.

"If he makes the good plays and he is solid with it, and he's crisp with it, he can be an impact player, a top four guy."

Everyone is accountable

It's not unusual for Hitchcock to stop practice to make sure drills are done the right way. He may single out a player now and then to get his point across. And it appears the assistant coaches aren't immune.

Hitchcock gave assistant Stu Barnes some grief after Barnes didn't get the puck in deep enough to begin one of the drills Saturday afternoon.

"Got to get it deep, Stu," Hitchcock barked from the bench, drawing some laughs.

After practice, Hitchcock offered some insight.

"We broke Barnesy in today," Hitchcock said. "We had some fun with it."

When someone said Barnes appeared to start squeezing his stick after being called out, Hitchcock was quick with a quip.

"Everyone is accountable," he said with a laugh.

Tyler Pitlick, a name to remember

One of the most interesting, if under the radar, additions to this Stars team is hard-working winger Tyler Pitlick.

In a recent interview, owner Tom Gaglardi mentioned Pitlick as someone the team was pleased to have added having watched the 25-year-old Minneapolis native playing in the Western Hockey League. But there's also an element of having to start from scratch for Pitlick who had carved out a niche for himself on an emerging Edmonton Oilers team last year before tearing up his knee.

The incident took place on an innocuous backchecking play on Dec. 18.

Some contact with a St. Louis Blues player and Pitlick's skate caught a rut in the ice twisting his knee awkwardly. He heard a pop and knew it wasn't good.

 "I knew something was wrong. It felt bad right away," he said.

He underwent surgery Jan. 9 and has been recovering ever since.

So far so good as Pitlick hasn't looked out of place playing alongside Tyler Seguin and Mattias Janmark, two guys who figure prominently in the Stars' everyday plans this season.

Is Pitlick on a similar arc?

Hitchcock said both he and GM Jim Nill were impressed with Pitlick last season, and when Pitlick became available as a free agent, there was agreement the Stars should pursue him.

"We thought he was a perfect third-line player, or fourth-line player, but he was a great depth player for the organization," the coach said. "We were lucky enough to get him."

Pitlick is mindful that he's got to keep working to re-establish himself as an everyday NHLer in Dallas.

"There's always guys coming up to try and take your job, so there's no room to get comfortable. Especially for a guy like me who's a worker," he said.

But it's definitely a boon to be paired with guys like Seguin and Janmark to help make his case.

"It's definitely a good feeling coming in right away and getting to play with some good players."

As for being under the radar compared to additions like Ben Bishop, Martin Hanzal, Alexander Radulov and Marc Methot Pitlick is okay with it although he'd like to see the narrative evolve as time passes.

"I'd like to think halfway through the year they'll be like, 'I'm really glad we got Tyler Pitlick.' I'm hoping that's the impression I can leave," he said with a smile.

Video: Ken Hitchcock elaborates about the team's depth

Seize the moment -- again

The NHL is a league of opportunity. And if there is a silver lining to what was a 2016-17 season marred by injury and disappointing results for the Stars, it was the ability for a number of young players to prove they are NHL material.

Few made that case as strongly as Devin Shore, who played all 82 games in Dallas last season, finding his way onto the team's power-play rotation and netting 33 points along the way. Not that Shore, 23, is taking anything for granted.

"I think the only difference is maybe you have more confidence in your ability because you know you can contribute and make an impact at this level," Shore said Saturday. "Other than that, it's a clean slate, a new season and obviously new staff, so you have to go out there and earn everything and re-prove yourself. So the way I'm approaching it is you're trying to make the team again same way as last year."

Playing alongside Antoine Roussel and Brett Ritchie the past two days, it would seem that Shore's future is very much as a Dallas Star.

Still, there is always an interesting dynamic at play in training camp where a team is trying to forge chemistry and an identity but where players, especially younger players, are trying to compete for precious roster spots.

Or maybe it just looks strange from the outside.

"I think that's a big part of being a professional," Shore explained. "I think everybody understands that. We understand that team chemistry is huge and you're not going to get too far without it. But at the same time you owe it to the guy next to you to compete as hard as you can against him because that's how you're going to get better."

"I think to be a good pro at camps like this you have to absolutely bring your best regardless of who you're going out against because you know they understand that and we're all just trying to make the Dallas Stars better so the only way to do that is to push each other to the limits."

Quote of the Day

"I know we've got a lot of guys that can play top nine (forward positions) which for us is going to be a big advantage. I think that's going to be our biggest advantage. I think, for me, we've got 13, 14 guys that can play in a top nine role which is a great thing for us." -- Hitchcock on the depth of productive forwards at his disposal.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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