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Burnside: Five burning questions as Stars get set for training camp

DallasStars.com's Scott Burnside weighs in with his talking points as the team readies to open camp on Friday

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

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In a matter of moments, the transition from a much-heralded offseason to making good on unbridled optimism begins. It's called training camp, and the Dallas Stars -- no matter how impressive their offseason additions and changes might have been on paper -- start in exactly the same spot as every other NHL team.

That is to say, at square one.

Tone, identity, scheme, all will be dictated by head coach Ken Hitchcock, who returns for a second go-round as the Dallas bench boss. Everyone knows what happened the first time around -- the team's seminal Stanley Cup win in 1999 -- but Hitchcock's challenges are many, not the least of which are serious competition for playing time along the blue line and how to govern a forward group heavy with centers.

Those are details to be sorted out as camp progresses. But Hitchcock is on the eve of camp, focused on the bigger picture of how this group comes together in a Central Division where a case can be made for six of seven teams (sorry, Colorado) to not just make the playoffs, but win the division outright.

"This is a very rich division," Hitchcock said of the Central Division, which has sent five teams to the post-season in three of the last four seasons.

"It's a division with a ton of depth. A ton of versatility. Lots of good defensemen. The whole division's like that. And to me, all of that is irrelevant unless you build a team. So the challenge for us is to learn on what happened last year, learn what we've added and then build a team from there. If you can't build a team, it doesn't matter what your talent pool is, that's just a talent pool."

So, without further ado, here are five burning training camp questions as the Stars kick off what is a critical season for the franchise.

 

1. Who fits where as the defense looks to rebound?

Did we mention the defense? As many as nine or 10 NHL worthy defensemen will be looking for seven spots during training camp, with the real focus on the top six who will form the core of a Stars' defensive group that must rebound after an atrocious 2016-17 season.

The expectations for this group are high with Marc Methot coming over from Vegas, which selected him from Ottawa in the expansion draft. It's likely Methot, who partnered with the dynamic Erik Karlsson in Ottawa, will see some time playing with skilled John Klingberg, but Julius Honka is also a right-handed shot who has a similar skill set. Hitchcock isn't married to having defensive partners shooting left and right, but is more concerned about the dedication to team defense regardless of the skill set of the particular defender.

"I don't care if we carry 12 defensemen," Hitchcock said. "I just know that if those six are going those six are playing. We're not having tryouts, we're not having tryouts in the middle of the season. If we're happy with the six, then you've got to wait your turn. And when it's your turn then you've got to go."

The dilemma becomes one of establishing a threshold for what are acceptable levels of mistakes in a game that is all about mistakes. Young players -- especially important players like Klingberg, Honka and Esa Lindell who figure to be very much in the mix to be among the top six -- can't play afraid. That's where veteran defensive specialist and long-time Hitchcock associate Rick Wilson will be key in keeping the seven or eight defensemen in a groove.

"The one thing we have going is it seems like a lot of our defined defenders are on the left side. I don't want to dismiss how good Lindell was last year. He's a top minute guy. He can absorb a lot of minutes. He's a real horse," Hitchcock said of the left-handed shot Lindell.

Our guess as to the top six when the dust clears? Methot, Lindell, Hamhuis on the left, with Stephen Johns, Honka and Klingberg on the right, and either Patrik Nemeth or Jamie Oleksiak as the seventh defender.

 

2. How will Ken Hitchcock handle a glut of centers on the roster?

By our count, there are at least seven players headed to camp who could lay claim to being a natural center. That's a lot.

But is it too many? Not according to Hitchcock. "Because that means that you've got people that know how to play low in your own zone and they can read off of each other," Hitchcock said. "It's nothing but a bonus. We can win more face-offs than probably we've ever won. And we can make ourselves be better supporting our defensemen better than most teams because we've got a lot of guys that know how to play that position. So they're comfortable going down low. They're not going to veer away from being the responsible low guy when it's their turn."

Look for Tyler Seguin and Martin Hanzal to be the only full-time centers on the roster. The rest, including veteran pivot Jason Spezza, will have to learn to adjust, pending the situation in the game and where the play is on the ice.

Look for Seguin, Hanzal, Spezza and Faksa to get the bulk of the work in the middle, although we know that Devin Shore is highly regarded by the coaching staff and is coming off a season that saw him take 470 draws.

 

3. Can Mattias Janmark return to past rookie form?

One of the truisms of the game is that to have a chance, you've got to stay healthy.

Two years ago, the Stars were healthy, especially early on, and rolled to a Central Division title and 109 points. Last year, they were crippled with injuries from Day 1 and dropped 30 points in the standings and out of the playoffs.

One of the key figures coming into camp health-wise is the guy they sometimes call Mr. Fix-it, Mattias Janmark, who had a terrific rookie campaign two seasons ago but who missed all of last season with a rare knee injury.

The 24-year-old has been medically cleared to play, but he is in some ways starting from scratch.

How does he emerge from training camp? How does he perform in preseason games? Can he stand the rigors of NHL competition on a nightly basis?

If he can answer all those questions on the positive side of the ledger, the natural center should be a boon to Hitchcock, floating up and down the lineup and helping to jumpstart any number of players as he did two seasons ago.

If not, well, that opens up different options for guys like veteran R.J. Umberger, who will come to camp on a professional tryout basis, and youngsters Remi Elie, Denis Gurianov and Jason Dickinson.

 

4. Will Ben Bishop break Dallas out of its goaltending funk?

A year ago, eyebrows were arched when GM Jim Nill started the season with Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen as his goaltending tandem, and that skepticism was well-founded as the Stars finished 29th in goals allowed per game allowing 3.17 goals per game.

With Ben Bishop signed long-term as the team's go-to guy in net, having signed six-year deal with the Stars in the off-season, and with Lehtonen settling into the backup role after team bought out the final year of Niemi's contract, there isn't much drama at the team's most important position.

That's probably a good thing.

If Bishop, the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, can stay healthy there's no reason the Stars can't jump into a top-10 position in terms of goals allowed per game, maybe top five.

His ability to handle the puck -- he is one of the best in the league --- will also be a boon to Stars defenders, and should help the transition game in a way the team has not seen in many years.

 

5. Where will Alexander Radulov end up in the lineup?

Even with Hitchcock's determination that all his players are going to be sound defensively, he has no plans to stifle the team's considerable offensive and creative capabilities.

It's no stretch to imagine the Stars once again returning to the upper echelon of league, scoring as they were two years ago especially, with the addition of a new top right winger in Alexander Radulov after a successful return to the NHL in Montreal last season.

The big Russian star with the checkered past seems an ideal fit with captain Jamie Benn and Seguin. But Hitchcock believes Radulov's skill set is so important, there are multiple options he'll consider.

"Rads's game is contagious," Hitchcock said. "So wherever we use him and whoever we play him with, it's because he creates a contagious working environment. He competes so hard at the puck. He wants the puck so badly. He's hungry for it. It becomes contagious for the team and for the people he's playing with. I just have to decide where I want to put him and who I want him to influence the most."

Our guess is he starts with Benn and Seguin. But where he ends up, well, that's going to make for some interesting camp discussion.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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