One of the questions lingering as the Stars approach next week's season opener against Vegas is who plays with center Martin Hanzal. On Thursday, we got our first look at some of the possibilities.
Hanzal, who is coming off an ankle injury that sidelined him for the first five preseason games, skated on a line for the first time in a Stars practice, and he had Antoine Roussel on his left wing and Devin Shore on the right.
"That's a line we want to look at two days in practice and then make a determination," said coach Ken Hitchcock. "[Hanzal] played as a one (center) in Phoenix, so we feel we have to get him players that can make plays off the rush. He passes the puck so well that you are going to have to have players that have some form of tempo with him if you expect the line to be effective. These are two tempo players he'll start with. We'll look at [Remi] Elie in there. We've got a number of options, but that's where we want to start."
Hanzal missed the first part of training camp due to the injury, and started practicing with the team last week. He is expected to play in Saturday's final preseason game at Minnesota. Today's practice was the first step in trying to nail down some linemates.
Video: Burnside breaks down preseason roster
"It was great to be back on the ice with the guys and have an actual line, do all the drills," Hanzal said. "It's always a process to find the chemistry with the right people on a line. It's going to take a while, but it's always like that when you have a new team, a lot of new players or a new coach."
What Hitchcock is looking for when it comes to Hanzal is a partner because the Dallas coach likes to work with forward pairs and then mix in the third guy on the line depending on the situation.
"I never look at threesomes. I look at twosomes," Hitchcock said. "I think because of individual matchups and advantages you are looking for, you have to be flexible with the third guy on the line. I don't change very much off twosomes."
Right now, Hitchcock likes the forward twosomes of Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin, Mattias Janmark-Jason Spezza, and Radek Faksa-Tyler Pitlick. A leading candidate to match up with Hanzal is Shore.
"We want to get Shore as high up the lineup as we can. That's why he played point on the power play (today)," Hitchcock said. "He looks like an efficient player that is going to help us in a number of areas so we want to expose him to as much as we can in the next week or so before we make our determination."
Hitchcock has his top six defensemen
Hitchcock said he has his top six defensemen to open the season, but he won't say who. Based on Thursday's practice the top three pairs appeared to be Esa Lindell-John Klingberg, Marc Methot-Jamie Oleksiak, and Dan Hamhuis-Stephen Johns.
Patrik Nemeth, Greg Pateryn, and Julius Honka shared time on the fourth pair. Honka then saw all the reps on the point with the second power play unit.
Power play work
The Stars spent some time on the power play Thursday. Jamie Benn did not practice, so Remi Elie took his spot on the top unit. Here were the units.
PP Unit 1: Elie, Seguin, Radulov, Spezza, Klingberg
PP Unit 2: Janmark, Hanzal, Ritchie, Lindell/Shore, Honka
Maintenance program for Benn and others
Stars captain Jamie Benn did not practice Thursday. Hitchcock said Benn was starting a maintenance program.
"He's on maintenance. He's going to be on maintenance," Hitchcock said. "Anybody that came off a former rehab or conditioning, we've put them in the conditioning phase. We've told them when we are going to put them back on the ice. We are going to do the same with three other players so that we get a body of work. They'll skate on their own, they'll skate with [skills coach] Stan [Tugolukov], and they'll join the group when we feel they are 100 percent. If we think a guy is 90, we've got all kinds of time, and we're going to take advantage of it."
Hitchcock was asked if there was a specific injury with Benn.
"There isn't an injury issue," Hitchcock said. "There's a wanting to start at 100 percent issue both on fitness and durability. I don't want to go in there and have anybody nurse an injury from exhibition. He got banged around pretty good in exhibition, so I prefer to do it this way, so we are 100 percent to start the season."
Hitchcock wouldn't identify the three other players who would be going through the maintenance regiment but said they are coming off surgery. Among the Stars coming off surgery are Tyler Seguin (shoulder), Mattias Janmark (knee), and Tyler Pitlick (knee).
Notes: Roussel leaves practice early
Forward Antoine Roussel left practice early after getting hit with a puck in the upper body. Hitchcock said he thought Roussel would be fine but would provide an update on Friday.
Hitchcock said he would not use Saturday's final preseason game as a dress rehearsal for opening night, so don't expect to get an early look at the lines and defense pairs for the first regular season game. "I'll put in there guys I still want to look at for now or for the future, but I am not putting the 'A' group in," Hitchcock said.
Thursday's practice lineup
Remi Elie - Tyler Seguin - Alexander Radulov
Mattias Janmark - Jason Spezza - Brett Ritchie
Antoine Roussel - Martin Hanzal - Devin Shore
Gemel Smith - Radek Faksa - Tyler Pitlick
Curtis McKenzie - Jason Dickinson/Roope Hintz - Adam Cracknell
Esa Lindell - John Klingberg
Marc Methot - Jamie Oleksiak
Dan Hamhuis - Stephen Johns
Patrik Nemeth-Greg Pateryn/Julius Honka
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 DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.