It's been half a year since the Dallas Stars played a game that counted, but we have finally reached the start of a brand new season. Much has happened since Jamie Benn and the Stars closed last season with a historic punctuation. Dallas welcomed three key additions - at three different positions. They said goodbye to their longest tenured player. They re-signed a half-dozen guys to contract extensions. And they almost had that same number of hips surgically repaired.
But in the weeks since reconvening in Texas and getting ready for the 2015-2016 campaign, the Stars are much more focused on looking forward than back. Since the start of training camp, all parties - players, coaches, management, and even fans - have noted that this has been the hardest-working, most-focused preseason of the Lindy Ruff era. Literally from day one of training camp, scrimmages were replaced with hard practices, and light on-ice workouts gave way to battle drills. The buzzwords "compete," "effort," "intensity" that normally echo the hallways all season - yet are typically reserved for when the results are being counted - have already become commonplace vocabulary in late September. There is also a renewed shift of focus for a team who ranked 2nd in goals-for last season, but 26th in goals-against.
This season the Stars are more committed to playing defensively, and playing "the right way." Those often go hand-in-hand, but do not necessarily mean the same thing. The right way, as defined by the Stars, has to do with responsibility and knowing the situation. Examples of the wrong way include dominating a team and leading by multiple goals, then squandering momentum and/or a lead on an ill-advised rush, pinch, or decision. If you watched last season, you saw Dallas fall victim to that far too many times. The Stars are more committed to altering their play and decision-making based on the situation.
For all the change that the Stars did undergo this summer, everyone is entering this season on the same page. You hear the message loud and clear from each individual player. The Stars need a better overall five-man defensive game, they have to be more responsible, and without a doubt they need a faster start.
That brings us back to the approach since training camp opened.
For whatever reason you care to assign, the last two Dallas seasons have followed a similar trend. The Stars dig themselves a hole early in the season, and then have to spend the rest of the year trying to climb back to the surface. Two years ago, they managed to get there. Last season, they never quite got from underground. And it's worth noting that the Stars actually had a better record last year than they did when they made the playoffs in 2014, but they still missed a spot by several points.
This year figures to be just as difficult. The West is loaded. Again. The Central Division is probably the best in the NHL. There is a small margin for error and teams just simply cannot afford to spend it early. The Stars know the drill. They know the talent of their opponents. They know the numbers. They know that a low-90s point total will not get it done, and points lost in October and November can loom large in April. The Stars have been one of the top second-half teams in each of the last two years. But when your start anchors you down, that often times still won't be enough. It's that knowledge and understanding that they carry with them into this week's start of the season.
The Stars have to hit the ground running. This group is coming off their first long summer together after missing the playoffs. For some, it was the first time they ever failed to reach the postseason. They sound like a team that knows what it takes to get back and is committed to doing it from the start of the season.
By the time the puck drops on Thursday night, 180 days will have passed since last year's season finale. It has been six slow-moving months, but now it's here. Next season is at long last this season. The Stars have learned all too well how important the initial steps of a year can be. They know the message. They know the plan. They know what they have to do.
After thinking, talking, and working towards this point, the Stars finally have the chance to go out and get it done. Step one is Thursday. Welcome back to hockey season.
The Stars open up a brand new season with two games this week. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' as the 2015-2016 season begins:
They haven't yet played a game together, but the expected line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Patrick Sharp already looks like one of the most potent in hockey. Over the last two years, those three players rank 2nd, 3rd, and 34th respectively in NHL scoring. They have registered 30-plus goals in five of those six individual seasons. Additionally in the two years combined, all three players rank in the NHL's Top-10 in shots on goal (Seguin - 3rd, Sharp - 7th, Benn - 8th).
The Stars went 1-6 through seven games this preseason, but Ruff said he did not want to get caught up in the record of exhibition games. The numbers suggest he's correct to not. Neither the New York Rangers , who had the most points last season, or the Chicago Blackhawks, who won the Stanley Cup, had winning records in the 2014 preseason. Neither did the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Kings, who also won the Stanley Cup that year. Last year's St. Louis Blues, who finished atop the Central Division, had a losing preseason record as well. In fact, in the last two years the Stars had gone 4-2-0 and 5-0-2 in the preseason for a combined 9-2-2 record. Still, each year, Dallas got off to a bit of a sluggish start. It's not to say that losses in the preseason are encouraged, nor does it dismiss that they can be frustrating. But the fact is that preseason outcomes are long forgotten by the time the regular season takes shape. And the evidence shows that there is little to no correlation between preseason results and the rest of the year.
After opening the season on Thursday night against Pittsburgh, the Stars hit the road for the first time this year on Saturday with a visit to the Colorado Avalanche. Of all the things the Stars need to improve this season, their record against the Central Division ranks near the top. Dallas was a dismal 8-14-7 in games against division rivals last season. No other Central Division team had a losing record within the division. The Avs proved to be a microcosm of the Stars struggles. Colorado finished in last place in the Central, and 12th out of 15 teams in the West. Yet, the Stars were winless against the Avs, going 0-3-2 last season. In the year prior, the Stars went 1-3-1 vs. Colorado. All told, in the last two years, the Stars have only 5 of a possible 20 points against the Avalanche. Saturday's game in Denver is the first of four meetings this season, and the only Central Division opponent the Stars will play in their first 16 games.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for 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.