As the Stars get ready to head into season number three under Jim Nill, the Dallas GM likes where his team stands.
“We think we have a good thing going here,” Nill said. “We have been patient with our young kids, and they're coming along. We've been fortunate enough to make some good trades and sign some good free agents. We're excited about the year. Our expectations are high, and they should be."
Expectations bolstered by another round of offseason additions that included forward Patrick Sharp, defenseman Johnny Oduya and goaltender Antti Niemi. Sharp has three Stanley Cups in the past six years with Chicago, Oduya has won two Cups in the past three years with the Blackhawks and Niemi won a Cup with Chicago in 2010.
“You are bringing in great pedigree,” said center Jason Spezza. “You are not only bringing in great players; you are bringing in great players that have won and won together.”
Throw in two of the top young forwards in the game in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, a top veteran like Spezza and a promising young defenseman like John Klingberg, and that “E” word comes up again.
“I have high expectations for this club,” said coach Lindy Ruff. “I do.”
But expectations were high one year ago after Nill brought in Spezza and Ales Hemsky, and the Stars fell short, missing the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. The Stars say they have learned their lessons and have a checklist of what they need to do to avoid a repeat of last season.
“We have to have a good start,” said center Cody Eakin. “It’s pretty hard to make up points in the second half. A good start is huge.”
The Stars went 10-13-5 in their first 28 games last season and found themselves nine points out of a playoff spot one-third of the way through the season. It was too big a hole for them to claw back into the postseason.
“We learned a tough lesson last year, having high hopes and not doing things the way we should have been from the start of the season,” said defenseman Alex Goligoski.
So, a good start to the season is key. And Spezza said start doesn’t mean a good game opening night against Pittsburgh and then one more after that.
“When we talk about start, we’re not talking about week one, go 2-0 and everything is good,” he said. “The first two months have to be good to put yourself in a position to be in a good spot.”
And helping to fuel that good start would be good team defense, something the Stars struggled with the first half of last season.
“To have a better start we have to play better defense,” Nill said. “There is really the only way to play. You have to be good defensively.”
The goals against issue – goaltending playing a part as well – plagued the Stars all season. The Stars were the second highest scoring team in the league, but they ranked 26th in goals against. That wasn’t a formula for success.
“Players have talked and we are very aware of our start last season. We were trying to score goals and beat teams by outscoring them every night, and that’s not today’s game,” Seguin said. “Our focus this season is good defense and helping out our goalie, especially using our forwards.”
The Stars believe there was improvement in defensive play over the second half of the season and Ruff believes his team is in a lot better shape in that regard compared to a year ago.
“There's really been an emphasis on changing the way we play,” Ruff said. "We're still working our way through that, but the structure of where our game has gone is a lot better than it was at the start of [last] year."
“I think Lindy did a good job of explaining the systems to us and the tweaks we had to make. I thought we responded well to it,” said Spezza. “Now, it’s just a matter of bringing that mindset right from the get-go, and consistency has to be a big thing for us.”
And finding that consistency as a team will be important if the Stars are going to get back into the playoff picture in the tough Central Division and highly competitive Western Conference.
“That’s a big part of this year: taking the next step as a group,” said Benn. “We’ve improved once again. Jim [Nill] has done a great job bringing in the players that he has and now it’s on us. We need to make that next step and raise our game as a group.”
With Kari Lehtonen coming off a rough 2014-15 season and the Stars getting little help from their backups the past couple seasons, GM Jim Nill brought in veteran Antti Niemi to give the Stars two No. 1 goaltenders.
The Stars know that Niemi, who was acquired from San Jose, and Lehtonen will share the goaltending duties this season, but exactly how they will split the time is anybody’s guess.
“I’ll let that figure itself out,” said coach Lindy Ruff.
“It’s going to be day-to-day,” goaltending coach Jeff Reese said. “They are both going to get their playing time.”
Both Niemi and Lehtonen have played around 60 games each over the past four full NHL seasons. Neither is expected to play 60 this season so it will be some unfamiliar territory.
“I think it is about finding the groove and staying sharp without playing every night,” Lehtonen said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but I am excited to see because it can work really well.”
Niemi said the number of games may change, but one thing remains constant.
“Whatever the situation, the goalie always has to perform,” he said. “You have to be able to help the team no matter what the situation is.”
Niemi and Lehtonen know each other well. They played together for Finland at the Olympics and grew up not far from each other. They once even split time in a game when they were ten-years-old. And the Stars hope the two splitting the net this season will pay some dividends.
“It gives us two No. 1 goalies. If there's an injury or one of them is struggling, we've got time to get it corrected,” Nill said. “With our travel and back-to-back games, it’s tough, and to have an experienced goaltender you can put in there to steal you a game, it is a must. The league is really tight and if we can get an extra two or three wins because of a 1A/1B goalie, that is going to make the difference for us.”
Depth: Jack Campbell is expected to be the No. 1 goaltender for the Texas Stars of the AHL, but he will miss the first 3-6 weeks of the regular season with a hand injury. Philippe Desrosiers, who is in his first year of pro hockey, and Maxime Lagace also are in the Stars’ minor league system.
The Stars defense looks a lot like what was on the ice at the end of last season, except for the departure of Trevor Daley to Chicago in the Patrick Sharp trade and the arrival of ex-Blackhawk Johnny Oduya via free agency. Oduya will give the Stars a strong defensive presence in their top-four and veteran leadership.
“He brings a lot of experience,” said defenseman Alex Goligoski. “He’s a great two-way player, a good passer, puck mover and skater. He can kill penalties. And he’s seen it all. We’ve got a bunch of young guys in here, and he’ll be great for them. He’s going to fit in nicely.”
The Stars will open the season with eight defensemen, meaning the Stars believe in the old saying that you can never have enough defensemen.
“There are going to be injuries. We hope there isn’t, but there are going to be injuries,” Nill said. “With the travel and everything, we need eight defensemen.”
Goligoski and John Klingberg, who is coming off a superb rookie season, are expected to be the Stars top defensive pair. Coach Lindy Ruff also used Oduya and Jason Demers as a second pair a lot during the camp and the preseason. Ruff has also reunited Demers with Jordie Benn at times. Those two were an effective pair last season.
The Stars also have Jyrki Jokipakka, Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth who will be vying for time in the lineup.
“There’s going to be the odd time that we may feel we may need more size. There may be the odd time we are looking for more speed,” Ruff said. “I think whoever is playing and putting a consistent game together and is bringing the most is going to play. It’s not easy, but it’s something we have to deal with because you know you can never have too many good defensemen. You are one or two injuries away. I’ve gone 12 deep in a season with defensemen, and you are always a day or game away from needing another good D-man.”
Depth: The Stars have plenty of quality young defensive depth in the AHL. Esa Lindell, the top defenseman in Finland’s top league last season, is in his first North American season and isn’t far from the NHL. Stephen Johns, acquired from Chicago along with Patrick Sharp, is also close. Julius Honka, Dallas’ first-round pick in 2014, played well in training camp and the preseason and is coming off a good rookie season in the AHL. Ludwig Bystrom, a second-round pick in 2012, had a strong training camp.
The Stars have eleven forwards returning from last year’s team, but there is still a sense of big change with the addition of Patrick Sharp, who was acquired from Chicago along with defense prospect Stephen Johns in exchange for defenseman Trevor Daley and forward Ryan Garbutt.
“We can put him in our top six, he’s a power play specialist. He does a lot of small things,” GM Jim Nill said. “The winning and the leadership he is going to bring to the locker room is going to be huge.”
The thought through camp and preseason has been that Sharp would play on the top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Jason Spezza is expected to center the second line, and he had Valeri Nichushkin and Ales Hemsky on his wings at times during camp. Time will tell if those are the combinations in the top six to start the season. Ruff could look to juggle things around based on the opposition or spread his weapons out more evenly among his lines.
“We have lots of options,” said Nill.
The Stars have strength down the middle in the rest of the lineup with Cody Eakin and Vernon Fiddler at center. Rookie Mattias Janmark, the surprise of training camp who pushed his way onto the opening night roster, is a center as well. Patrick Eaves, Antoine Roussel, Travis Moen and Colton Sceviour round out the forward group.
Overall, the Stars, who ranked second in the league in scoring last season, should have plenty of scoring punch and should be one of the league’s top offenses. But one of the keys this season is getting the goals against down and forwards have a role to play there, too.
“If our forwards can improve, and I speak for myself as well, by going back to our own net and playing good defensively, we’re going to be a good team this year and I’m looking forward to that,” Seguin said.
While the top six forwards get a lot of attention, Ruff sees an important role for the guys in the bottom six.
“Real hard to play against. I need a group of penalty killers to come out of that group and be really good for us,” Ruff said. “You need the Fiddlers and the Moens, and I think we saw some pretty heavy physical play (during the preseason), more than I saw in last year’s preseason where there were two or three scraps. You need some bite; you need some physicality, and you need them to push in the odd goal because those are the ones that help drive a team.”
Depth: The Stars have two players who saw considerable NHL time last season who are not on the active roster. LW Curtis McKenzie was the last forward cut prior to this season and will start in the AHL. There is right wing Brett Ritchie, but he is expected to be out until December with a wrist injury. Radek Faksa, Remi Elie, Jason Dickinson and Devin Shore are young Dallas prospects who made impressions during training camp and will be in the AHL. Veteran Travis Morin and left wing Brendan Ranford, both playing with Texas (AHL) could be in the mix for a call-up as well.
The Stars power play had its ups and downs last season and finished 12th in the league at 19.0 percent and tied for fifth with 55 power play goals. There was a big difference between the performance at home and on the road. The Stars ranked third on the road at 23.3 percent and 27th at home at 15.5 percent.
“I thought at home last year we started off way too fancy,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “It’s hard to explain why you can be that good on the road and that poor at home. With the personnel we have, some of it is execution, and some of it is finishing those really good opportunities. But the big part of it is look at our home power play, it was lagging way behind.”
The addition of Patrick Sharp should be a boost to the power play, which has the potential to be one of the better ones in the league considering the personnel. The top unit could feature Sharp, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and John Klingberg. Ruff does have the option of balancing out his two units. Either way, the goal is for the power play to have a bigger impact this season.
“The one thing you always strive for is to be the best. Get better every day and try to be the best. I think we had some great opportunities to keep moving up the ladder, and we came a long ways with it last year,” Ruff said. “We just want to make sure when we start the season, that it will be a big part of getting off to a good start.”
The Stars could use improvement on the penalty kill this season. It ranked 19th in the league last season at 80.7 percent and was 25th at home at 79.8 percent. Ruff said he saw some good things with the PK during the preseason.
GM Jim Nill and coach Lindy Ruff both enter their third year with the Stars this season. In their first year, the Stars put together a 91-point season and made the playoffs as a wild card team, losing to Anaheim in the first round. In year two, it was a 92-point season but the team missed the playoffs by seven points. Both Nill and Ruff said season three is about taking a step forward.
“It is now our time,” said Nill. “We’ve got the pieces in place, and it is time to start doing it now.”
“It’s really important for us to take that next step,” Ruff said. “[Sharp, Oduya and Niemi] have been winners and know how to win. They should help us get there. I think our youth is at a stage in their career where they can help us, too.”
There was only one change in the coaching staff. Jeff Reese took over as goaltending coach for Mike Valley, who is now director of goalie development. Reese has been a goaltending coach with both Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, and he played in 174 NHL games.
“He’s very experienced,” Nill said. “He’s played in the game, he’s worked with goalies, and he’s won a Stanley Cup as a goalie coach. It’s an opportunity to add to our organization.”
Curt Fraser and James Patrick return as assistant coaches. Fraser is in his fourth season, and Patrick is in his third. Kelly Forbes is in his seventh as video coach.
GM Jim Nill’s overhaul of the roster the past three years has been impressive and extensive. This offseason’s haul of Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi provided a boost to the Dallas lineup at the forward, defense and goaltending positions and the team has the potential to be better at each position. The championship experience Sharp, Oduya and Niemi bring is huge as well, especially to a team that struggled handling the ups and downs of the long NHL season last year.
The Stars seem poised to take that next step, but there will be challenges. Possibly early in the season as Jamie Benn and Ales Hemsky try to get up to speed after offseason hip surgery and as Sharp, Oduya and Niemi adjust to a new team.
Then there is the rest of the Central Division and the Western Conference. The Central is probably the toughest in the league, and the West will be tough as well. The Stars made the playoffs in 2013-14 with 91 points and improved by one point to 92 last season and ended up seven points out of the final wild-card spot. Of the seven teams in the Central, all of them have made the playoffs the past two seasons.
“Parity is alive and well. It is crazy. It comes down to injuries, luck,” Stars owner Tom Gaglardi said. “There’s just no way to guarantee you’re a playoff team anymore. I don’t know. It is just going to get tougher and tougher.”
The start will be key, and the Stars need to do better against the division than their 8-14-7 record last season. They’ll need to be better at home than 17-16-8, which ranked 12th in the West and 26th in the league.
And they’ll need to be better defensively, and get that 3.13 goals-against average down. If they can remain one of the top scoring teams in the league, which seems likely considering the weapons, and they can lower the goals against – through better team defense and goaltending - then they should be in a position to move forward enough to get them back into the postseason.
Prediction: 3rd Central Division
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.