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On the Radar - Return of the Stars

by Josh Bogorad @JoshBogorad / On the Radar

The long, hot Dallas summer has finally broken, and a brand new hockey season is upon us. As the Stars hit the American Airlines Center ice on Thursday to begin the new year, they will do so underneath two new banners recognizing their accomplishments from last season. The Stars are the reigning Central Division Champions. They are the reigning regular season Western Conference Champions. They are a team predicted by many to once again contend for a Stanley Cup. While nothing from last year guarantees success this year, the Stars are undoubtedly on everyone's list of teams to watch.

The beginning of a new season allows you to also reflect on your past.

So how did the Stars get here? Just five years from bankruptcy to the new banners, hopes, and expectations. It all starts at the top with Tom Gaglardi. The Stars owner should - and does - get the credit for orchestrating the turnaround. Simply put, nothing that follows happens without Gaglardi. However, what did follow was Jim Nill. Then Lindy Ruff. Then Tyler Seguin. Then Jason Spezza. Then Ales Hemsky. Later Antti Niemi. Followed by Patrick Sharp. And Johnny Oduya.

Others came and went along the way as the domino effect continued. When you overhaul a roster, it truly involves hauling in parts from all over. That's exactly what the Stars did, and they began to morph into something new. There are only four current members of the Stars who were with the team on opening night in 2013 - the last opener before Nill's arrival. They are Jamie Benn, Jordie Benn, Cody Eakin and Kari Lehtonen. When Nill was hired three months after that, his vision began.

That vision has resulted in two playoff appearances in the last three years after going five straight without one. It has led to an increase in points in all three years under him. It is responsible for the new banners, and all of the excitement that Thursday and the new season bring. It also led to the last five months being the first offseason of its kind under current Stars management.

Since Nill's arrival in Dallas the summers have almost been as exciting as hockey season. One big off-season splash after another have made marquee July headlines the norm.

That's how it works when you get a fixer-upper. You get the excitement of demolishing parts of the old house, and building new ones exactly how you want them. You pick the size. You pick the color. Not a fan of that room over there? No problem, where are the dynamite sticks? That's what the Stars were a few short seasons ago. A fixer-upper. Eventually though, if you do what you set out to, you look up one day and not nearly as much needs fixing. Things actually start to look a lot more like the plans in your head at the beginning. Sure, you can always improve and touch up. That never stops. But you're more in need of bargain accent pieces than a new roof like before.   

That was on display when the Stars announced their opening-night roster earlier this week. Including injured players, 27 names were announced by the Stars on Tuesday. All but four of them played for Dallas last year - almost the exact reciprocal from the 2013 comparison. In years past the main storyline surrounding the Stars in October was how the new players would look. The main storyline this year is how the returning players will perform, especially those in the more expanded roles they are being given.

What will John Klingberg look like as a true number one defenseman in his third season? What can a full year of Radek Faksa bring to the lineup? How does Stephen Johns fare as a top-four, 20-plus minute a night player after making his NHL debut late last season? Will Brett Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie become the dynamic NHL power forwards they have been in the minors? Will Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak solidify themselves as everyday players on the Stars blue line? What will young centers Devin Shore and Jason Dickinson do when given an opportunity?   

Over the summer the Stars said goodbye to half of the defensemen who played in Game 7 vs. St. Louis. They watched Vern Fiddler and Colton Sceviour depart via free agency. Val Nichushkin bolted for Russia. More recently, they suffered injuries to Mattias Janmark, Cody Eakin, and Ales Hemsky. Yet despite all of those subtractions, it's almost all familiar faces in the Stars locker room. Rest assured they still fit in their bargain shopping with key additions of Dan Hamhuis and Jiri Hudler - the latter of which has the potential to be the best value contract in the NHL this season. But this season is about the returners.

It's fitting that as the Stars try to take the next step as an organization, their success is largely dependent on individuals taking the next step in their careers.

They will do it alongside a group that has spent the last few years growing together and building what they have now become. Seguin has been in Dallas longer than Boston. By the end of this season, Jamie Benn will have been Stars captain longer than he played without the C. Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp, who both donned letters and were beloved in their prior homes, now sport an A on their Stars jerseys. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi know what to expect and how to prepare in their two-goalie system. What started as a plan, and then became a collection of players, is now a team.

Meet the new Stars. Just like the old Stars. Only with more to prove.  

Josh Bogorad is the Studio Host on Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on 'Stars Live' and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.      

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