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On the Radar: Battleground

by Josh Bogorad / Dallas Stars

Dallas Stars training camp opens on Friday, and there are a number of intriguing storylines to keep an eye on. How will Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky look in their first skates as members of the Stars? Who is the frontrunner to take the spot alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn as the first-line right winger? What players bulked up or sharpened their skills this offseason, in hopes of a breakout year? Yet, of all the subplots to keep tabs of, the biggest storyline of the 2014 Stars preseason is the number of position battles that exist throughout the roster.

Beginning on Friday, 50 players will take the ice in front of Lindy Ruff, Jim Nill, and the rest of the Stars hockey ops staff vying for what amounts to about one roster spot for every two guys in camp. There are always position battles in September, as coaches readjust their offseason pecking order based on what they see in a three-week session leading to opening night. But what makes this year so interesting for the Stars are the number of players in those battles, and how many exist.

Typically speaking, each year there are a small number of guys who are realistically fighting over a smaller number of roster spots. Camp is still important for everyone as it gives the staff something to think about for down the road when spots eventually open up. But as for the immediate present, the pieces are, for the most part, in place. This year, however, there is an abnormally long list of players who very well could crack the Stars opening night roster. And trying to guess who it will wind up being is throwing darts.

At the forward position, there are currently more NHL-contracted players than there are spots in a nightly lineup. However, there are a handful of young prospects who are knocking on the door and could play their way onto the roster with a solid preseason. Former Stars draft picks like Brett Ritchie (who is expected to miss the start of preseason with a pinky injury suffered in Traverse City), Curtis McKeznie, and Radek Faksa lead a talented group of up and coming players, who some believe are NHL-ready. All told 11 different forwards who were Dallas draft picks and remain on entry-level contracts are attending camp. Adding to the drama is the fact that last year a number of Stars veterans saw their play time lessen late in the year. That, coupled with summer declarations from Nill that he will find a place for talented kids who prove themselves, should serve as evidence that nothing will be given just because someone is on a one-way deal. The kids might have to make up some ground on Ruff’s whiteboard, but the opportunity is there for them to turn heads and claim a place on the Stars NHL roster.

Defensively, the Stars have even more intrigue. The blue line appears to be where the fiercest camp battle takes place. At least one spot will be won this preseason. Based on performance, that number could raise. Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Jyrki Jokipakka, and John Klingberg are four guys that continue to get mentioned as players on entry-level contracts who could absolutely be inside American Airlines Center on October 9th. There are other camp invites who have proven their worth as well, performing in call-ups as recently as last season. With everyone fighting to stand out, one defenseman who is on a one-way deal once again finds himself entrenched in a position battle. Kevin Connauton outlasted Oleksiak last year in what essentially was a head-to-head training camp battle for the final spot on defense. Even though Connauton’s solid camp was enough to keep him up in Dallas for the majority of the season, he’ll once again find himself fighting for a spot this year. A total of 14 defensemen will be in camp. About half will remain by opening night. But many more than that are in the serious running.

All of this should be more than enough to keep you interested during camp. However, this year there are battles everywhere. That includes in net. Seven different goaltenders are attending camp. Among those are Jack Campbell and Philippe Desrosiers, either of whom could one day be the #1 guy in Dallas. But it’s not their time yet. Instead, this camp will focus on two other goalies. They are 6’6” Anders Lindback and 6’5” Jussi Rynnas squaring off to serve as the primary backup to Kari Lehtonen. Together the two add up to almost 13 feet of goaltender, but there’s only room for one on the roster. Both were signed to one-way contracts over the summer. The 26-year old Lindback has the lengthier NHL resume with 85 games, including 23, plus 4 in the playoffs, last season in Tampa Bay. He signed a one-year deal with the Stars in July. Rynnas is one year older than Lindback, but has played in just 3 NHL games, and started only one of them. He is, however, coming off of a career season in his native Finland. The 27 year-old put up fictional-like numbers with a 28-5-7 record, 1.51 GAA, and .939 save percentage in 40 games in the Finnish Elite League. That performance was enough for Nill to sign him to a two-year deal at NHL money. One of these two guys will be tasked with spelling Kari this season. Which one it is remains up in the air.

When the Stars take the ice on Friday for the first official skate of a new season, a lot will be at stake. Everywhere you look jobs will be on the line. Training camp is here. The season is soon to follow. The Stars have three, very short weeks to decide who they bring with them to opening night.

Let the battles begin.

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.

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