For the last few months, hockey fans everywhere have been asking, “Is it October, yet?” Now that the answer is finally yes, teams are making their last-minute preparations for the start of a brand new season. For the Stars that means making decisions regarding the roster, lines, and pairings for Thursday night’s season-opener vs. Chicago. Two and a half weeks ago training camp opened up, and there were some big questions that loomed. Now, just days from opening night, we know many of the answers.
Barring any last-minute changes, we know that Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin will play together on one line, while Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky will join forces on another. We know that Cody Eakin and Brenden Dillon have agreed to terms and will be in the lineup on Thursday. We know that, unfortunately due to an injury suffered in the final preseason game, Sergei Gonchar will not. We know that Anders Lindback emerged to win the backup goaltending job. We know that there is a crowded pool of NHL-ready talents ready to make the step up to Dallas. But we also know that for the most part, they will be starting the season in the AHL, waiting for their number to be called later in the year.
Yet, for all that we have learned, the biggest question of all remains. And in the end, it is the only one that truly matters.
How will the 2014-2015 Dallas Stars perform?
Last year the Stars made some noise in the second half of the season and piqued people’s interest in what was brewing in Dallas. On July 1 that noise got louder. Just minutes before free-agency opened, the Stars acquired Spezza in a blockbuster deal. Within a couple of hours, they signed Hemsky. In one afternoon the Stars had gone from a nice little story, to the talk of the NHL. Dallas was being mentioned alongside the powerhouses of the West and even labelled by many as “Contenders” for this season. It’s a good thing a strong-suit for both Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill is keeping an even-keel, because the Stars became the sports equivalent of an overnight sensation. For the last three months, it seems like anyone and everyone has been raving about Dallas. And with that, comes a level of expectation that this Stars regime has never before faced. All around the NHL, people have been waiting to see the Dallas Stars.
So, how will the team respond with the added personnel and experience, but also expectations?
Well, no matter what happens, we won’t find out this week. For as much anticipation there is surrounding opening night, and as much as the AAC on Thursday will undoubtedly be an incredible atmosphere, it is just 1 game of 82. Questions like that are not answered in one night. It will take the next six months. Still, everyone wants to make a strong opening impression. Especially a team that took a big step forward last year, and what was believed to be another big one over the summer.
One thing we do know is that the Stars won’t sneak up on anyone this year. They are going to get their opponent’s best every night, and will have to counter with their own. Their opponent’s best on Thursday is about as good as you can find. Perhaps it’s fitting that opening night comes against the Blackhawks. A division rival, one of the premier teams in the NHL, and an opportunity to make one heck of an opening statement. It should provide a fine, initial litmus test for a Dallas team everybody wants to watch this season.
Whatever the results, the time has come. The wait is over, and hockey is back in Dallas. One of the most anticipated seasons in Dallas Stars history is ready to begin. Enjoy Act One.
This season OTR has moved to Mondays. Every Monday throughout the year, we’ll provide some storylines to keep an eye on in the coming week. The Stars open their new campaign on Thursday, and then hit the road on Saturday. Here are a few things to keep ‘On the Radar’ during the opening week of the NHL season:
Last year when the Stars opened the season, there was a noticeable period of adjustment for the team. That came in large part due to all of the new faces in Dallas. In the first game of the season last year, 5 of the 19 guys who played for Dallas were appearing in their first ever game for the Stars. Additionally, there were a half-dozen more, who had spent less than a full season in Dallas. Even furthermore, the Stars also had a Head Coach and General Manager who had never worked a game for the Stars. It all added up to a significant learning curve that featured players consistently switching lines and defensive pairings, while Lindy Ruff discovered his desired roles from his team. Heading into this season, that is not an obstacle with which the Stars will have to contend. While the opening night lineup has not been officially announced, it is likely that only two players – Spezza and Hemsky (with the possible chance of Patrick Eaves) – will be making their Dallas debut. And helping to smooth that transition, the two are former teammates who are expected to play on the same line. In fact, expanding on that point, three of the four projected forward lines and two of the three defensive pairings will be the same that the Stars rolled out in the playoffs five months ago. While the schedule over the first couple of weeks provides many challenges, getting to know one another should not be one of them.
The first week of the season features just two games for Dallas – one at home, and one on the road. However, three of the first four, and five of the first eight Stars games will be played outside of Dallas. The Stars badly struggled on the road last year. Their record of 17-20-4 was the eighth worst in the NHL, and the lowest mark of any team that made the playoffs – where Dallas went 0-3 in Anaheim. In their first road game of the season the Stars visit Nashville, who last year ranked 22nd of 30 NHL teams in points at home. The next stop is Columbus, who also finished in the lower half of home points last season. In what is expected to be another very tough Conference race, the Stars have to find a way to produce points on the road better than last season. They can do themselves a service by starting quickly.
During the preseason the Stars unveiled a four-forward power play unit that, on paper, is as lethal a unit that you will find in the NHL. The quartet of Seguin, Benn, Spezza, and Hemsky have combined for 169 power play goals in their career. Last year both Seguin (11) and Spezza (9) finished in the Top-25 in power play goals. If Ruff does choose to use that unit this season, the Stars still have forwards like Eakin, Valeri Nichushkin, Colton Sceviour, and Erik Cole that they can deploy on a second unit. Loading up the #1 unit is an experiment that will continue to be monitored, but it’s one Ruff seemed committed to in the preseason. Last year the Stars had the 23rd ranked power play in the league at 15.9%. It was even worse (15.2%) at home. Dallas is expecting much better numbers this season. If it winds up staying together all year, that top Stars unit should be able to deliver those results.
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.