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What to watch for as Stars conclude home exhibition slate vs. Wild

Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock is keeping a watchful eye tonight as the team wraps up its back-to-back

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars get right back at it in preseason action Tuesday night, 24 hours after dropping a 4-2 decision to the Colorado Avalanche. They'll host the Minnesota Wild, who will be the Stars' opponents in their final two preseason games. The Stars travel to Minnesota Saturday closing out their six-game preseason schedule. They're currently 2-2.

Here's what to look for in the team's fifth preseason outing.

 

1. Trimming down

Some more roster trimming by the Stars in advance of Tuesday's game, with Denis Gurianov being sent to the Stars' American Hockey League affiliate in Cedar Park, Texas, and Brian Flynn and Brent Regner being placed on waivers with the anticipation of sending them to AHL. That leaves 29 players in camp and, with all due respect to those three players, nothing of a surprise with those cuts. Which means the drama (anxiety? angst? anticipation?) is going to continue for players hoping to stick around for the Oct. 6 opener at home against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

The drama may actually play out longer than earlier anticipated as Hitchcock may wait until the weekend before narrowing down to a 23-man opening night roster.

"I think based on injuries and guys that are banged up I think we'll probably take this group into the two practices (Thursday and Friday) and then make an evaluation by sometime on the weekend," Hitchcock said. "But I think before we play Saturday we want to be somewhere between 23 and 25. I don't think we've lost that focus right now."

 

2. Methot, Faksa, Hanzal on the mend

Speaking of players dinged up Marc Methot skated before the rest of the Stars group Tuesday working on a series of skating drills. He was wearing a normal black practice jersey, as opposed to a different color that usually designates a player returning from injury, and did take part in the main workout after.

Methot did not play much in the third period of Saturday's 4-0 win in St. Louis and wasn't in the lineup for either Monday or Tuesday's games at home. Can't blame the Stars for being overly cautious with Methot who, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, maybe the single-most important player on this team given his role as alpha dog on the blue line and in the dressing room.

Radek Faksa is also nursing a sore finger after blocking a shot late in Saturday's game in St. Louis.

"It's really precautionary," Hitchcock said. "If it was a hockey game he could play right now but we've opted into with him and Faksa - Faksa took a shot in the finger - we could play them both but we've got evaluations on other guys so really to be honest with you it's just an excuse not to play them."

As for center Martin Hanzal, he skated with a regular jersey Tuesday morning for the first time as he recovers from an ankle injury that has kept him out of all preseason action. The plan is for him to play Saturday in Minnesota and skate in full sessions Thursday and Friday.

 

3. Keep an eye on the lineup

Hitchcock suggested we keep a close eye on players in the lineup for both Monday and Tuesday's games.

Among those players who are getting back-to-back looks from the coaching staff, and who would be considered bubble players, are Remi Elie, Roope Hintz and Gemel Smith -- all forwards. Jason Dickinson did not play Monday but draws back into the lineup Tuesday and the natural center will likely again play on the wing where the remaining roster spots offensively exist.

Curiously, R.J. Umberger is not in the Tuesday lineup after playing his best game on Monday night. As a player without a contract, who is in camp on a tryout basis, it's hard to see how Umberger fits for the final roster but every day he's still here is a good day for the veteran NHLer looking to make a comeback after missing all of last year with injury.

"Obviously he's made a good account of himself and he's gotten better and better," Hitchcock said.

Hintz has been playing center throughout camp, so in spite of strong play and ongoing praise from Hitchcock, there really seems to be no place for him in Dallas to start the season. Likewise, Elie and Smith appear destined to start the season in the American Hockey League in spite of impressive play. Part of this is simple economics and will play into final decisions made by GM Jim Nill and his staff.

If players like Dickinson et al. can be sent to the minors without fear of losing them on waivers, and paying them an AHL salary as opposed to an NHL salary, that's what happens.

"If the guys are the same then obviously the one-way stays and the two-way goes down. That's just the economics of the game," Hitchcock said. "What's been good for us and difficult for Jim is that some of the younger guys who can go down have been pushing the older guys who have contracts so that's what competition is about, that's what's taken place here."

 

4. How about Honka?

Keeping with a theme of what to do with youngsters, the Julius Honka saga continues as the skilled-but-diminutive defender is back in the lineup Tuesday after a strong performance Monday that saw him deliver 13 shot attempts, a game-high seven shots on goal and chip in a pretty third-period goal in a losing effort.

Hitchcock said Honka is getting better every day and described him as having taken over the game on Monday. But is that good enough to land a roster spot?

The player that Honka would seem to be in competition with for a spot in the top six along the blue line is Stephen Johns, who has, likewise, made a positive impression playing on a third pair often with veteran Dan Hamhuis. 

Johns, too, will return to action Tuesday. The ongoing debate over Honka is that if he isn't considered a top-six player, is he better served going back to the AHL and playing big minutes every night as opposed to serving as a seventh defenseman at the NHL level and playing sporadically.

The answer, it would seem, is a resounding 'yes'. Greg Pateryn slots in Tuesday, basically taking Patrik Nemeth's spot from Monday night, as those two appear to be vying for a seventh spot on the blue line when the opening-night roster is released.

 

5. Minus Benn, big unit ready for another closeup

Captain Jamie Benn will get the night off, but his regular linemates, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, will both return to the ice as the team's No. 1 center (Seguin) continues to build a relationship with the newcomer Radulov.

Way too early to be quibbling over how the two talents will mesh, but by the same token, for a team that will be desperate to get off to a good start -- and which plays back-to-back to open the regular season (Vegas at home Oct. 6 and then in St. Louis the next night) -- it's imperative the big guns are firing when the meaningful season begins.

"We're trying to get some of our veteran guys more engaged in getting their own games in order," Hitchcock said although he did not specifically reference Seguin or Radulov.

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

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