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Burnside: Stars embracing new season of lofty expectations

On the eve of a year with so much potential promise, Dallas embarks with evident optimism

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

In the days leading up to Friday's season-opening contest against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, the Dallas Stars will have gone through myriad situational drills.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock's plan was to have them practicing all kinds of possibilities -- playing up a goal, down a goal, goalie pulled, power play, penalty kill, and 3-on-3.

They will have practiced to prepare for the real thing. They will have imagined themselves performing in real National Hockey League games. And like the now 30 other teams in the NHL, they practiced hoping it would be good enough when they crossed the line between prepare and perform when their season opens on Friday night.

 

[LISTEN: Burnside Chats podcast featuring Sportsnet.ca's Elliotte Friedman, Jamie Benn and Ken Hitchcock]

 

"It's like Christmas morning. It only comes around once a year," Dallas netminder Ben Bishop explained of opening night.

Mattias Janmark, coming off a full season of rehabbing a knee injury, has his sister, brother, and parents coming in from Sweden for the game against the expansion Golden Knights.

"I think all the premiers are special, and this one is even more," said the skilled winger, who will likely start the season playing with Jason Spezza and Brett Ritchie. "It's going to be like (my) debut all over again. It's going to be fun."

The feelings of nervous anticipation are no different in Dallas than they were in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, where the Penguins hung a second straight Stanley Cup banner and are looking to cement their place as one of the great teams in NHL history with three straight championships. Or in Washington, where all the talent in the world has yielded only springtime disappointment, or in Chicago where the Blackhawks are trying to reverse the public opinion that the window has closed on their own dynastic endeavors.

In Dallas, the optimism is palpable.

Talk to scouts and talent evaluators and analysts, and they love the work done by general manager Jim Nill since last year's forgettable 30-point dive in the standings.

New coach Hitchcock, new starting goalie in Bishop, Marc Methot, Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal all bring strong pedigrees and have helped create a landscape that suggests literally anything is possible in Texas this season.

The players certainly feel it.

"Yeah, I do feel the same way," said defenseman Esa Lindell, who has moved into a prominent role as a top four defender, likely to play alongside John Klingberg when the season starts. "I'm really pumped about the season. Last season was really pretty bad how it ended up, so this one should be better.

"We should be ready to go," Lindell said.

But here's the thing.

We've spent a lot of time over the past decade in places like Pittsburgh and Washington at this time of year.

The Penguins won a Stanley Cup in 2009 and then stumbled their way through the postseason for six straight springs, winning four rounds over that time. Washington has won two straight Presidents' Trophies as the top regular season team, and three dating back to 2010, and have yet to get beyond the second round.

All of which puts us in mind of a great line by Washington head coach Barry Trotz when discussing his team: You don't know until you know.

It is the same everywhere, but certainly it is so in Dallas, given the additions and the expectations.

For instance, we don't know for sure yet how Methot will help create a defensive identity that will elevate a Stars team that was second-worst in the NHL last season in goals allowed per game. We expect he will be critical to that process.

Can Alexander Radulov bring the jam and emotion that made him a favorite inside and outside the Montreal locker room last season during his return from a four-year absence in the Kontinental Hockey League? The expectation is he will.

Video: A new era begins in Dallas

Can Bishop, he of the two Vezina Trophy nominations and sterling playoff record, provide stability in goal where there has been little the past couple of years? The belief is, yes.

Can Janmark stay healthy and recreate his "Mr. Fixit" role of two years ago before a knee injury ruined all of last season?

Can Hitchcock find enough minutes for Hanzal and Radek Faksa, who will slot into center positions behind Seguin and Jason Spezza?

Is sophomore Devin Shore, a "Mr. Fixit Part Deux," able to fill gaps up and down the lineup and keep the Stars' engine humming smoothly?

Is Jamie Oleksiak ready for prime time, playing in the top four after several years of moving in and out of the lineup?

On and on the questions -- and the wondering about what this team might become and what they might achieve -- all before a meaningful puck has been dropped.

"You want to approach the game not worrying about the month of April and May, and at the same time you can't help but think we have a really good club here. You don't want to waste games," said Methot, whose Ottawa Senators took the Penguins to double overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final last spring before he was claimed by Vegas in the expansion draft and then acquired by Dallas a couple of days later.

"If there's one thing I've learned over the seasons, when you're always making a push to make the playoffs, you regret your start or you regret those games that you let slip away at the beginning of the year," added Methot, who will likely start the season playing alongside Oleksiak. "So you want to try and be sharp right away. We know we have a good group in this locker room, and we have to take advantage of that."

Bishop, acquired from Los Angeles and then signed to a six-year contract before the start of free agency, has played on teams in Tampa Bay, where expectations were likewise high to start a season. Putting those expectations in their proper place is a matter of focus.

"I think you can expect it from yourself, but you can't listen to the noise outside," Bishop said. "You really just have to focus on winning the first game. You can't look too far ahead."

The only goal for this team should be getting to the playoffs, Bishop said.

"The biggest thing is getting there and the only way to get there is to win games in the now so you've got to focus on the first game of the year and get two points and then you focus on the second game," Bishop said. "I think you get in big trouble if you start looking too far ahead and start thinking things are going to happen."

Hitchcock has praised his team's effort in training camp. He likes what he's seen for the most part as he tries to prepare a team that is balanced and hard to play against.

"We're a lot better checking team now, two weeks into camp, than we were 14 days ago. Way, way better," Hitchcock said.

But, as he also said recently, every night will be a new test and a new challenge to be hard to play against.

"And every night you've got to earn your ice, and you've got to earn your points against us if you're going to get them," the coach said. "And that's the whole focus on how we want to build this group. It's not based on skill, it's not based on talent. It's based on what level can we put on the ice that is really difficult to play against and can we discourage the opposition."

It's almost time.

The questions being asked in Dallas are no different than those being asked in 30 different cities. And at the end of the day, the only question that matters is -- are we ready?

And the only answer is ... we'll know when we know.

For the Dallas Stars, on the eve of a season with so much promise, such high expectations, the knowing one way or another begins Friday.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott Burnside on Twitter @OvertimeScottB and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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