- Stars training camp got underway on Friday morning at the team’s practice rink, and the usual marquee names -- Brenden Morrow
, Marty Turco, Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen, Sergei Zubov, Philippe Boucher -- drew the usual attention from coaches and fans.
But there were also plenty of eyeballs riveted on a group of younger players who could have a major bearing on the Stars’ fortunes this season. Camp workouts and pre-season games will give Dave Tippett and his coaching staff an opportunity to gauge whether Jussi Jokinen, Antti Miettinen, Niklas Hagman, Loui Eriksson
, Joel Lundqvist, Chris Conner, Junior Lessard, and others are ready to move into a higher goal-scoring bracket.
“We have young players who can check and skate, but can they take it to the next level and produce?" Tippett said. “And it’s not just goals. It’s giving you and your linemates the best chance to score. We want to challenge all of them. Some guys have a history of scoring more. Loui scored (31) in the minors (for Iowa in 2005-06). Brad Winchester scored 20 in the minors in a 40-game stint. Hagman had 17 last year. Jokinen, Miettinen, we expect more from them too."
The organization was unable to land a premium sniper during the off-season either through free agency or a trade. Salary cap constraints and the high price of free agents prevented an upgrade for a team that finished 21st in the league in goals last season with an average of 2.65 per game.
That leaves an opening for a prospect like Lessard, who had 27 goals last season to lead the Iowa Stars in that category.
“He’s got to push somebody out of a job," Tippett said. “We’ve talked about it. That’s the situation he’s in. He has to come in and have a very good camp. If he’s going to make it, this is his opportune time."
Lessard won the 2004 Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top college player for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, registering 32 goals and 31 assists in 45 games of his final season. Like Morrow, he is most effective crashing the net for rebounds and deflections.
After signing with the Stars as a free agent in April of 2004, Lessard has had his chances to make an impression in three seasons in the AHL. The red-headed right wing from Quebec knows that at the age of 27, it’s time to take the next step.
“There are a lot of contracts here, but the organization’s going to give a shot to the best players no matter what so I’m looking forward to it." Lessard said. “I’m not getting any younger. I know I’m running out of time. But I try not to worry about it, try to get better every day and try to impress.
“Given a chance, (scoring goals) is one thing I can do. It’s up to me to take that challenge. But I also don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I just want to keep going to the net. You have to keep it simple. That’s how I score my goals."
Three years at the highest level of minor league hockey have given Lessard a solid foundation.
“Experience is always a good thing," he said. “I’m a lot smarter than I was two years ago. I know what I have to do to stick around. There are a lot of things I’ve done in the minors to keep developing, get better and take the next step."
Veterans like Morrow, Modano and Lehtinen will still be expected to provide the bulk of the scoring. Tippett looks for Morrow, who begins his first full season as team captain, to be in the 30-goal range. That’s the target Morrow would have hit if he hadn’t missed half of last season due to injuries. During their time together as linemates, Morrow and centerman Mike Ribeiro
developed a strong rapport, and that should continue this season.
Lehtinen notched 26 goals last season, and Modano should still be in the 20-goal range despite having turned 37 over the summer.
Dallas also got strong offensive support from its defense last season, particularly from Boucher (19 goals and 51 points, both career highs) and Zubov (12 goals and 54 points). The Stars will need a healthy contribution once again from the blue line.
“It’s going to have to be scoring by committee," Tippett said. “The group we really need to make a contribution to our team is Jokinen, Eriksson, Miettinen, (Jeff) Halpern, Hagman. And I think this could be a breakout year for Steve Ott
. A little bit of adding on would help, some from players coming back from injuries, some from improving. We don’t have a Brett Hull who’s going to get his 50. It has to come from all sources."
Miettinen had 11 goals and 14 assists in 74 games last season, Jokinen is another candidate to boost his scoring. He chipped in with 17 goals and 38 assists as a rookie in 2005-06, then had 14 goals and 38 assists last season as one of three Stars to play in all 82 games.
“There are some holes for guys to score goals," Jokinen said. “I want to be that guy. I’m a playmaking guy, but I’d like to get to the 20-goal mark."
Modano agrees with the notion that the Stars must coax more scoring from younger sources.
“We’re banking on guys to step in and fill that void," Modano said. “There’s going to be pressure on those young guys to finally evolve and hopefully become the players we’re hoping they will be. You’re looking at Miettinen, Jokinen, Eriksson. I’m a big fan of Chris Conner. I like the way he plays, his ability and speed. Those are four guys who could make an impact if they adjust and prove they belong here."