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Stars hope added Cup experience keys playoff return

by Steve Hunt / Dallas Stars



NHL.com continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

DALLAS -- After ending a five-season Stanley Cup Playoff drought, the Dallas Stars were expected to not only make it back to the postseason, but go on a run after being eliminated by the Anaheim Ducks in the 2014 Western Conference First Round.

However, the Stars missed the playoffs last season, finishing seven points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the final wild card in the West.

Dallas general manager Jim Nill made three key additions this summer, and all of them bring Stanley Cup rings. He acquired veteran left wing Patrick Sharp in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks and signed defenseman Johnny Oduya, another member of the 2015 Stanley Cup champions, as a free agent. Nill also acquired goaltender Antti Niemi from the San Jose Sharks; he won the Cup with the 2010 Blackhawks.

The pieces are in place, but it remains to be seen whether the Stars take the next step.


Sharp is the only major addition to a talented group of forwards that includes left wing and captain Jamie Benn, the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner who had 35 goals and 87 points, and Tyler Seguin, who finished fifth in the NHL with 37 goals despite missing 11 games.

Benn and Seguin skated on the Stars' top line for most of last season, and Sharp could join them. The three almost certainly will play together on the power play; Nill pointed to Sharp's effectiveness on the point in Chicago. Sharp is looking forward to the opportunity.

"They're incredible players. I played in Chicago with some pretty good individual players," said Sharp, who won the Cup three times with the Blackhawks. "You know how good and competitive [Benn and Seguin] are playing against them. Being able to skate with them, you really see their skill level, their maturity. They want to be great players. They want to be leaders. They want to take that next step."

Jason Spezza, the Stars' marquee addition when he was acquired from the Ottawa Senators in the summer of 2014, more than capably centered the second line and had 17 goals and 62 points.

Right wing Ales Hemsky, also added prior to last season, had 11 goals and 32 points in 76 games while spending much of his time on the second line.

Cody Eakin, who centered the third line and occasionally moved up to the second, established NHL career highs of 19 goals and 40 points in 2014-15. Veteran grinder Vernon Fiddler returns to center the fourth line.

Right wing Valeri Nichushkin, the 10th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, looks to rebound after a hip injury that required surgery limited him to eight games last season.

Left wing Ryan Garbutt, who was part of the "Pit Bull" line with Eakin and right wing Antoine Roussel, went to Chicago in the Sharp trade.

Injuries limited veteran right wing Patrick Eaves to 47 games last season, but he had 14 goals and 27 points, so having him healthy for the entire season could pay dividends.

Left wing Curtis McKenzie appeared in 36 games as a rookie. Center Colton Sceviour, who played primarily on the wing last season, had nine goals and 26 points in 71 games, all NHL career highs. Left wing Travis Moen battled an injury after arriving in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens but ultimately proved a nice addition to the group.


Besides the addition of Oduya and the trading of stalwart Trevor Daley to Chicago, this unit returns largely intact.

With Daley gone, Alex Goligoski is the Stars' longest-tenured defenseman. John Klingberg turned many heads as a rookie, impressing especially on offense, and big things will be expected from him.

"There's so much depth with the young guys," Goligoski said. "I'm not even really sure who's going to be playing where, when and whatnot, but that's good. There's going to be a lot of internal competition for ice time. It should be a group that can grow a lot as the season goes on. I think we should be good."

Jason Demers, acquired from the Sharks on Nov. 21, 2014, for Brenden Dillon, gave Dallas another right-handed shot. Jyrki Jokipakka, 24, and Patrik Nemeth, 23, who missed much of the season because of an arm laceration, played well in their NHL time.

Jordie Benn, older brother of Jamie, played 73 games last season and is another viable option.


Kari Lehtonen, now the Stars' second-longest tenured player behind Jamie Benn, is back and expected to be the No. 1 goaltender. Lehtonen played 65 games for a second consecutive season, but his 2.94 goals-against average was his worst since 2008-09, when he had a 3.06 GAA with the Atlanta Thrashers.

"I think there were some good stretches and some were struggles," Lehtonen said. "Of course, it was one year that overall, I wasn't too happy about. I just need to keep believing in my abilities and just working on things. I know I can play better and that's what I'm here to do."

Niemi, a fellow Finn who Lehtonen knows well, gives the Stars a steady backup, a nice change after they used Anders Lindback and Jhonas Enroth in that capacity last season.

"I think Kari is going to have a bounce-back year," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think Antti is going to give us solid goaltending. I think [a] one-two combo like that should be something that can put the extra eight to 10 points on the board for you."


The Dallas power play converted on 19.0 percent of its chances last season, 12th in the League. The Stars lost Daley from that unit, but adding Sharp, a big part of the Blackhawks power play, should make them better with the man-advantage.

The penalty kill ranked 19th at 80.7 percent. As the Stars struggled early in the season, they took plenty of bad penalties. But those dissipated as the season progressed, and Dallas started playing better hockey.

One telling number might be the Stars' power play/penalty kill differential, which was 56:50 last season, seventh in the NHL. Equaling or improving that number will allow each unit to be much more efficient.


Ruff is about to begin his third season in Dallas. Assistants Curt Fraser and James Patrick return from last season.

Jeff Reese, who spent six seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers, replaces Mike Valley as goaltending coach. Valley was named director of goaltending development.

Lehtonen developed a great relationship with Valley, who has been with the Stars since 2009, but said he's looking forward to working with Reese.

"We've been doing some stuff in the video room, talking about some things," Lehtonen said. "He has some good ideas about my game and that's what we're trying to work on."

Author: Steve Hunt | NHL.com Correspondent

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