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Oduya, Niemi among key questions for Stars

by Sean McCullen / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars are confident they did enough this offseason to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing them last season.

The Stars were second in the NHL in goals (3.13 per game) in 2014-15 but finished tied for 26th in goals allowed (3.13 per game).

"We know we can score goals," general manager Jim Nill said, "but it's still going to come down to how we play away from the puck that's going to be the biggest thing."

Here are three questions facing the Stars entering this season:

Will the defense improve enough with Johnny Oduya? Patrick Sharp was the Stars' big-name addition from the Chicago Blackhawks, but Oduya, a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Chicago, may prove to be the more important acquisition.

Oduya, 33, essentially replaces Trevor Daley, who was part of the July 10 trade with the Blackhawks that landed Sharp. Oduya, signed as a free agent July 15, brings a more stabilizing presence to the Stars than Daley did. Oduya's experience will be important for Dallas, which likely will play at least two defensemen 23 or younger most games.

"I'm very confident that our group of veteran guys, when things do struggle (for the younger defensemen), that's where an Oduya, it was so important to bring him in," Nill said.

Who will emerge as the No. 1 goalie? The Stars acquired goalie Antti Niemi in a trade with the San Jose Sharks at the 2015 NHL Draft, then signed him to a three-year contract June 29.

Niemi and incumbent starter Kari Lehtonen, each 31, will share goaltending duties, Nill said.

Niemi, who was the No. 1 goalie for the Blackhawks when they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, was 31-23-7 with a 2.59 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage and five shutouts with the Sharks last season.

In 2014-15, Lehtonen had his worst GAA (2.94) since 2008-09 and the second-worst save percentage (.903) of his NHL career. However, he had one of his best NHL seasons in 2013-14 (33-20-10, 2.41 GAA, .919 save percentage).

"There's been times during their seasons when they probably needed to be spelled at times, either because of injuries or being a little bit tired," Nill said of the Finnish goalies. "They know now that they're going to get that chance to be recharged."

Will NHL scoring champion Jamie Benn be healthy by opening night? Benn had offseason surgery on each hip; the first was performed April 27, the second on May 4. The Stars said his recovery would take 4-5 months, but the Art Ross Trophy winner expressed optimism for an early return when he resumed skating in early July.

By early August, Benn was on the ice at the Stars practice facility in Frisco, Texas, three times per week.

"Workouts are picking up, but it's still controlled," Benn told The Dallas Morning News for a report published Aug. 5. "I get pretty antsy at times, but the trainers remind me that I've got plenty of time and just take it slow."

Author: Sean McCullen | Staff Writer

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