After a long and eventful summer, the 2013-2014 NHL season is finally underway. The puck dropped on a brand new season Tuesday night, and while the Stars don’t officially open their campaign until Thursday when they host the Florida Panthers at AAC, the start to this long-awaited season is finally upon us. Following an off-season filled with change in just about every area imaginable, there is naturally no shortage of storylines surrounding the season ahead. The most talked about of those stories will be covered in abundance – both on this site and others. How will Jamie Benn perform in his first year as Stars captain? Will he and Tyler Seguin live up to their potential in their new roles at wing and center? Will the combination of new GM, Jim Nill and Head Coach, Lindy Ruff be able to lead a revamped Stars team back to the post-season in their first season in Dallas? These are all questions burning to be answered. They will receive plenty of coverage, and remain intriguing questions to follow throughout the year. But in this feature, each week we’ll scratch beneath the surface to look at some of the other, less-publicized stories that Stars fans will want to keep an eye on. Every Wednesday, we’ll visit a series of topics pertaining to Dallas’ upcoming week. While there are more than enough interesting plots to follow with this year’s Stars team, our goal is to bring something new to fans each week. Whether you bleed Victory Green, or are simply green to the Stars and hockey, we hope you find some interesting areas to follow all season long. Now, here is a look at a few items that should be “On Your Radar” for the opening week.
Out of the Blocks Quickly
If history is any indication, look for the Dallas Stars to make an immediate statement in the opening month of the season. New Head Coach Lindy Ruff is notorious for having his team prepared from Day 1 of the season. Ruff prides himself on reinforcing work ethic and determination. Throughout pre-season and training camp, “compete” drills, focused on puck battles and game-like scenarios, have been a mainstay. More than results of games, in the pre-season Ruff has said he looks to see what other teams say about playing his team in exhibition games. Hearing opponents admit that they were outworked and outhustled by his team are a badge of honor for the first-year Stars Coach. While other clubs may be progressing into game-shape, Ruff expects – and demands – his club be there come opening night. His results throughout his career suggest it has worked. In his last ten seasons as Buffalo Sabres Head Coach, Ruff had a sub-.500 record in the opening month only twice. Over that span, his teams went a combined 57-37-9 for a winning percentage of .597. He’s gone 7-2-1 in his last 10 season openers. On Thursday night, the Stars host a young team with a lot to prove this season in Florida. Then on Saturday, the Washington Capitals will already be playing their third game, while Dallas will be entering only its second. Despite facing opponents who are exuberant and settled into the season, watch for Dallas to take the game to both teams and try to assert the aggressive, workman-like effort of their bench boss. It is also worth noting that the Stars have had plenty of success in recent season openers as well. They have won three straight, have points in five in a row, and in nine of their last ten. Ruff is hoping his history, coupled with that of Dallas, is enough to keep the trend going.
With players like Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin leading the way, there is no doubt that the Stars have a young nucleus. While guys like 41-year old, Ray Whitney and 39-year old, Sergei Gonchar lift the Stars average age to the middle of the pack in the NHL, most would still consider them a young team. However, it’s not always age, but rather experience that’s worth noting. On the recently announced opening night roster, two players have yet to make their NHL debut entering this season. They are 18-year old, first-round draft pick, Valeri Nichushkin and 23-year old defenseman and former third round pick, Kevin Connauton. However, an additional eight players on the current roster have fewer than 82 games of NHL experience (equal to one full season). They are as follows:
Cody Eakin – 78
Ryan Garbutt – 56
Brenden Dillon - 49
Antoine Roussel - 39
Chris Mueller – 37
Jordie Benn – 29
Lane MacDermid – 14
Alex Chiasson - 7
Of the ten players with less than a full season of NHL experience on their resume, over half appear poised to be everyday players for Dallas this season. In many cases, they figure to be a large piece of the team as well. Throughout the preseason, Eakin and Chiasson have joined the nearly two-decade elder, Whitney on the second line. With Rich Peverly and Aaron Rome ruled out for opening night, but Peverly expected to come back as early as Saturday, the battle for inexperienced Stars to stay on the roster, as well as keep their place once on it, will be an ongoing one. For at least a handful of players, opening weekend will be a chance to make a statement either for or against their case.
The Return of Ovi
One of the best things about the new NHL realignment is the return of each team visiting every building at least once during the regular season. The big payoff for hockey fans is that you no longer have to wait to see the best players in the league like you’re waiting for Halley’s Comet. Stars fans will get a glimpse at one of the best around in the opening weekend when reigning NHL MVP and last year’s league-leading goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals invade the AAC on Saturday. It will be just the fourth ever trip to Dallas in nine seasons for the recent Sochi Olympics torch bearer. It’s also his first since December of 2010. For Stars fans with terrific memories, they might recall that Ovechkin played a big role in that game, but not one he normally plays. Ovechkin was held without a point in a 2-1 Stars win, and was ruled to have interfered with Dallas goaltender, Andrew Raycroft, to negate a would-be, game-tying goal for the Caps with 7.6 seconds left. The incident was a bit of a telling play for Ovechkin, as he hasn’t had his best statistical games in his visits to Dallas. In three combined games at AAC, Ovechkin has just one goal and one assist, and his Capitals are 1-2. (Keep in mind that two points in three games is a heck of a pace for most players, but Ovechkin averages well over a point per game in his career, and scores a goal more than once every two games on average.) Ovechkin’s lone-goal in Dallas came in his rookie season in January of 2006. While Stars fans haven’t necessarily seen Ovechkin at his peak, there is no denying he is still one of the best of his generation. Even though, thanks to the realignment, it will now be an annual occurrence, this is Ovi’s only regular season appearance in the Lone Star State this season. That is reason enough to make sure you’re there to take in one of the best in the business. Grab a ticket, get to the game, and enjoy the show. Whether he’s at his sharpest or not, he is a worthwhile attraction any time he’s in town.
Special Teams Switch Up
It won’t take long for Ruff to put his stamp on this team, but if you’re looking for something to point at immediately to showcase there’s a new man in charge, you need look no further than special teams. Whether the Stars are playing a man up or a man down, the men in green will look different when there’s a power play with Ruff behind the bench. Since the curtain was lifted in pre-season, the Stars Head Coach has deployed a four-forward power play unit. He said it was not an experiment, and he plans to continue that into the regular season. Perhaps it’s because of the eight defensemen on the roster, only Stephane Robidas is a right handed shot. Or perhaps it’s because he feels his best offensive weapons are forwards, and wants his most potent arsenal out there for the man-advantage. Likely it’s a combination of both, but at least for the start of the season, get ready for a steady diet of forwards on the power play. We’ve already seen players like Jamie Benn, Chiasson, and Whitney play point so far, and expect that to continue now that the games count in the standings. On the other end of the special teams spectrum, look for a change at penalty killing forwards as Seguin and Jamie Benn will be utilized this season. Neither has had a ton of shorthanded experience in the NHL, but Ruff simplifies his explanation in his decision by saying he wants his best players on the ice more often. He adds that long stretches of inactivity for his top forwards, if the Stars get into penalty trouble, is damaging to them and the team in the scope of the game. Plus, he says he expects their awareness and speed to yield shorthanded chances when out there on the PK unit. Much like the power play, Ruff is not exclusive in his reasoning for the change and confident in his decision. Look for the new-look power play and penalty killing units to be on display this week.
After a six-month off-season filled with major headlines one after another, the focus finally turns back to the games this week. We hope you now have a few more things to look for in the Stars first two contests of the season. Enjoy opening week, and be sure to check back next week and all season long to find out what is “On the Radar.”
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Josh Bogorad is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars.Josh is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310 The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.