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Stars 2016-17 Season Preview

Stars look to build on last season, take a step forward

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

After finishing with the second best record in the NHL last season and coming within one win of reaching the Western Conference Final, expectations are high for the 2016-17 Dallas Stars. 

"I think those expectations are good and that is our challenge," said Stars GM Jim Nill. "I think we are a good team, but we have to go out and do it. That's going to be the biggest thing."

The Stars will look to build on last season when they won a division title for the first time since 2005-06, finished first overall in the West for the first time since 2002-03 and won a playoff round for the first time since 2008.

"I feel like we are in the toughest division in the NHL, we certainly were last year. To win that division over 82 games is no small feat," said Stars forward Patrick Sharp. "Winning a playoff round against a tough Minnesota team is another feather in our cap. Hopefully, we can gain from that experience."

And maybe get a little motivation from the way the season ended, which was with a 6-1 loss to St. Louis in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.

"We've been sitting on that all summer. It wasn't the way we wanted to go out, especially at home and the way we lost," said Stars captain Jamie Benn. "One-hundred percent it's motivating."

The Stars will head into 2016-17 with many of the same goals they had one year ago: a strong start, a good record at home and a strong record within the division. The Stars were able to accomplish all three last season, and the start was the big one. The Stars were 12-3-0 after 15 games, 17-4-0 after 21 games and 28-8-3 after 39. That will be tough to repeat.

"I think the West is going to have some improved teams and the start is going to be even tougher for us, but our focus is to play real good hockey right off the bat," said Stars coach Lindy Ruff.

The division record will be key with the Stars playing nine of their first 13 games and 11 of the first 21 within the division.

"It's going to be a huge opportunity for us to get going in the right direction," Ruff said. "Our goal [last season] was to have a winning record within the division, and we accomplished that, and when we get through that 11 games, we want to have a winning record."

There are other goals. The Stars, who have been a top scoring team the past two years, made strides defensively last season and look to continue that trend. They allowed 2.78 goals per game last season after allowing 3.13 in 2014-15.

"We want to maintain offensively where we are, but take another ten percent off that goals against and clean up a few areas," Ruff said.

The Dallas roster has gone under changes, but there were no flashy offseason moves. Veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis and veteran forward Jiri Hudler were the key signings. There are ten new players who weren't on last year's opening night roster, five of them are under the age of 25.

"[Injecting youth] helps a lot," Sharp said. "The speed and skill are at a premium out there, and we've got our fair share of young guys that can step in and provide that boost of energy and enthusiasm that you need over an 82-game season."

An 82-game season the Stars hope will put them in a good position in the standings and set them up for a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup this year," Stars center Tyler Seguin said. "It's a winning culture now, and we all want to win. The bar is set high, let's go get it."

Forwards

The Stars have one of the deepest set of forwards in the NHL with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp leading the way. Throw in a skilled offseason acquisition like Jiri Hudler and an up and coming young player in Radek Faksa, and the Stars look good up front. And it's a potent group offensively.

But it's been a rough preseason for the Dallas forward group. Center/left wing Mattias Janmark is out until the spring due to knee surgery, Cody Eakin is expected to miss the month of October with a knee injury, and right wing Ales Hemsky won't be ready to start the season with a groin injury.

But those injuries meant opportunity for others, and center Devin Shore and right wing Adam Cracknell seized roster spots out of training camp. The Stars signed veteran forward Lauri Korpikoski late in the preseason, adding another piece to help cover the injuries.

Benn and Seguin are two of the top players in the league. Benn ranked second in the NHL in scoring last season with 89 points (41 goals, 48 assists) in 82 games. Seguin tallied 73 points (33 goals, 40 assists) in 72 games. But both have battled injury issues with both of them as well.

Benn is coming off surgery for a core muscle injury during the offseason, but he looked good in camp and his two preseason games. He was coming off hip surgery last season and didn't miss a beat. Seguin, who missed the end of last season with Achilles and calf injuries, suffered a hairline fracture in his heel during the World Cup of hockey, missed the entire preseason but will be ready to go for the season opener.

The Stars expect Benn and Seguin to help fuel the Stars offensive engine again this season.

"Together they are dynamic as a scoring group, and we would hope for more of the same, that they could continue down that path," Ruff said.

Based on the practices leading up to the season opener, veteran Patrick Eaves could line up as the right wing with Benn and Seguin.

Spezza scored 33 goals last season and lost some weight over the summer as the NHL trends younger and faster.

"Just trying to adapt and get better," he said.

Sharp, who popped in 20 goals last season and Hudler, who scored 16 goals last season with Calgary and Florida and 31 goals with the Flames in 2014-15, could be on the wings with Spezza to open the season.

"We've been pretty good together," Spezza said. "We had some chances [in the preseason], and we are starting to find our way around each other. If we can be a good line for the team, it will be a good thing."

The 22-year-old Faksa, who came up from the AHL in the middle of last season, had a big impact down the stretch and in the playoffs. He appears to be the third line center. He brings size and a good two-way game. The Stars think he can bring a little more on the offensive side of things.

"I felt the second half some of his hard work finally started to pay off; he started putting pucks in the back of the net. He gained some confidence offensively," Ruff said. "We all know that he is a sound player defensively and we are just hoping the offense will come."

Faksa has had Antoine Roussel and Brett Ritchie on his wings during the final week of practice.

Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie are two of the new additions to the forward group this season. Both have seen NHL time the past couple years and are getting a shot to be full-time NHL players this season.

Shore got off to a great start in the AHL last season before being sidelined by a shoulder injury that required surgery. He missed most of the preseason with an ankle injury, but still impressed enough to make the NHL roster. He appears to be the fourth line center to start the season.  

Gone from last season's forward group are Vernon Fiddler, Colton Sceviour, Valeri Nichushkin and Travis Moen.

Defensemen

The Dallas Stars will have a different look on defense this season. Gone are veterans Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Kris Russell and into the mix will come veteran Dan Hamhuis and a lot of youth.

The Stars signed the 33-year-old Hamhuis, who had been with Vancouver, as a free agent. He should bring a steady defensive presence to the Dallas backend.

"He's a good, consistent defenseman that knows how to play the game," Ruff said. "He plays the game the right way. A veteran guy that we are going to use in a lot of situations. He brings a good veteran presence with us losing some veteran defensemen."

Johnny Oduya, 35, and Jordie Benn, 29, bring veteran presence as well. And 24-year-old John Klingberg is entering his third NHL season and is already one of the league's top offensive defensemen and he is proving to be a good all-around player on the blue line.

"He can play in all situations, " Ruff said of Klingberg. "He'll be right at the top as far as minutes playing on our backend. He may get a little bit of penalty killing time because he is such an effective player. As each year goes we are going to look to him for more responsibility."

The rest of the defense will include Stephen Johns (24), Patrik Nemeth (24), Jamie Oleksiak (23), and Esa Lindell (22). Johns played a big role down the stretch and in the playoffs last season. Nemeth and Oleksiak both saw limited playing time in the NHL last season, but should get better opportunities this season. Lindell is coming off an outstanding 2015-16 campaign in the AHL.

While the injection of youth will also bring some much needed size to the Dallas blue line, it will bring some challenges as well.

"It is going to be having them play good, consistent hockey," Ruff said. "We had a little more of a veteran group last year. Last year's success was dependent on attention to detail."

The Stars seem set on carrying eight defensemen for a second straight season. There were challenges with that as well. When the Stars got off to a great start, Ruff didn't make many lineup changes and that left Nemeth and Oleksiak on the outside looking in when it came to playing time. Ruff said it should be different this season.

"The schedule, when you get into November, is a lot tougher schedule, a lot more games in fewer days and I think there is an opportunity to keep guys fresh," Ruff said. "That's probably the main thought that will go into it. If we want to keep guys going, we may go into a little bit of a rotation basis and then when we get into November guys will be ready to go."

Goaltending

The Stars will have the same look in goal this season with Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi splitting time. Lehtonen and Niemi both won 25 games last season in helping the Stars finish with the best record in the West and second best in the NHL.

Some of their other numbers weren't as sparkling. Among the 44 goaltenders who qualified for league leader status, Lehtonen ranked 36th in goals-against average (2.76) and 38th in save percentage (.908), and Niemi ranked 30th in GAA (2.67) and 40th in SV% (.905).  

Everybody kind of jumps on our goaltending but it's really a team thing," Nill said. "Our forwards have to be better, our defensemen have to be better and our goaltenders have to be better. The responsibility is on all those guys. That's part of the maturing of a team."

Still, the Stars saw their team goals-against average go down and the save percentage go up from the previous season with the two-goalie system of Lehtonen and Niemi. There were some ups and downs in the playoffs, but the Stars believe the system worked, and both goalies can take a step forward this season.

"My confidence level is good right now. It's been a big subject of conversation, obviously. We finished second overall (last season), and both these guys won 25 games for us," Ruff said. "Both guys feel they can have a better year, and I feel they can too."

One year ago, the two-goalie system was uncharted territory for both Lehtonen and Niemi, but both are comfortable with it heading into this season.

"We didn't know how it was going to work and how we as individuals were going to feel about that, but now we have adjusted and learned," Lehtonen said. "It's not new anymore, and that makes it a lot better and one thing I don't have to worry about."

With a condensed schedule this season due to the World Cup, the Stars believe there will be a benefit to having two number one goaltenders.

"The way the schedule is - there are a couple of months that are very demanding - it is going to be a huge bonus to have two guys that can play," Ruff said.

Special Teams

The Stars special teams were good last season. The power play ranked fourth in the league at 22.1 percent, and the penalty kill was tenth at 82.3 percent. The Stars scored 58 power play goals and allowed 44, giving them a 14-goal edge in that area.

On the negative side, they gave up a league-high 15 shorthanded goals but did score ten while down a man, so they were minus-five there.

The Stars power play has the potential to be even better this season, especially with the addition of a skilled forward like Hudler who will allow Ruff to load up two power play units.

"It gives us a solid two units," said Ruff. "That should create some competition and maybe get 40 seconds out of one and 40 seconds out of another and then come back with that first unit or with whatever unit started and play with a higher pace."

Last season's penalty kill numbers were the best for the Stars since 2007-08, and those ten shorthanded goals scored tied for third in the league.

They lost several of their key penalty killers from last season, so they will have to fill the void there. A key will be Faksa, who turned out to be one of the team's best players on the PK.

Outlook

The expectations heading into this season are less about big offseason moves and more about what the team did last season and the belief that the team can build on those accomplishments.

While expectations are high for the Stars and the team is relishing the challenge, no one is expecting it to be easy. Last season is out the window, and the Stars are 0-0-0 along with everybody else to start 2016-17.

"You can't sit on your laurels. You have to move forward," said Spezza. "We have to come with urgency in the first ten games, just like we did last year, because if you get yourself behind it does become a tough league to play in."

Moving forward would be a deeper run in the playoffs, but it's a long way to April and the postseason. The Stars are going to have to grind their way through 82-games to make it to the playoffs, and they'll have to do it in the Central Divison, which again should be the toughest division in hockey. And the Western Conference as a whole could be tougher. Parity is alive and well in the NHL, and the standings seem to get tighter every season.

"It won't be easy," Ruff said. "The teams at the top are going to come down, and the bottom is coming up. It did last year, and I think it will do it again."

Like any season, the Stars will need some good fortune on the injury front, something they didn't get much during training camp and the preseason. But they have been getting healthier as the regular season approaches.

The young players who are stepping into the lineup will need to play well and, as the saying goes, the team's best players will have to be their best players. The goaltending, of course, will be key as well.

And the Stars will need to be ready to navigate the ups and downs of the long, grinding 82-game season.

"It's just maintain an even keel," said Sharp. "The goal is to get better every week, every month and peak at the right time. We are happy with what we did last year. It felt like we took a step in the right direction, but starting Thursday that doesn't mean anything. Teams are going to be ready to play us all season long and we are going to have to give our best effort just to get back to the spot we were in last year and hopefully take a step forward."

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.

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