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Stars See Options, Depth With Forwards

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

When it comes to the team’s offseason moves at the forward position, both Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill and coach Lindy Ruff like to talk about all the options now at their disposal. Ruff quipped recently during a radio interview that he is going through quite a few napkins as he ponders potential line combinations.

“I’ve thrown out many a napkin where I’ve scribbled down the lines and the next day they didn’t work out,” Ruff said in an interview with Stars radio host Bruce Levine on The Ticket. “I am anticipating there will be a few more crumpled ones.”

Those options are looking good after the additions of top six forwards in center Jason Spezza and right wing Ales Hemsky and boosting the team’s depth by re-signing center Vernon Fiddler and bringing in versatile forward Patrick Eaves.

The addition of Spezza was the key move for the Stars, who were looking to add a No. 2 center to complement first line center Tyler Seguin. Nill thinks the Stars have something a little better than a No. 1 and No. 2, a key in keeping up in the highly competitive and tough Western Conference.

“I look at Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin, it’s like a 1A and 1B. We’ve got two elite centermen,” said Nill. “You look at the other teams that are winning on our side, you need to have two elite center men. We knew that was a little bit of a weakness on our team. We thought we really strengthened our center ice position and that’s one of the moves we knew we needed to make.”

Spezza, acquired from Ottawa on July 1, is a point-per-game player over his NHL career, registering 687 points (251 goals, 436 assists) in 686 games. Add in the highly skilled Hemsky, and the Stars see a boost for an offense that ranked 10th in the league last season at 2.82 goals per game. And it should provide more balance for a team that saw Seguin and Jamie Benn score just under 31 percent of the team’s goals and a little more than 26 percent of the team’s points in 2013-14.

“You look at all these teams in the West that are good offensively, we took a good stride offensively and hopefully this pushes us a notch higher,” said Ruff.

With Seguin and Spezza holding down the top two center spots, that allows Cody Eakin to slot in as the third line center, a good fit in the Stars’ eyes, especially with Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt likely on his wings.

“Eakin is a real strong three,” said Ruff. “For a good period of time he played as a two last season, and he handled that fine. We’ve got some real good options down the middle. If we need offense we’ve got a couple of great looks, if we need tenacity, if we need a harder line, a more physical line, we’ve got the Eakin line, they provide everything for us. Then we’ve got a fourth line that should be a great two-way line.”

How all the pieces fit together is still up in the air. That’s what training camp and preseason will help nail down as far as how the Stars start the season. The Roussel-Eakin-Garbutt trio seems a good bet. As for the top six, Ruff has already been running through ideas on those napkins. He knows that Seguin and Benn formed one of the most potent duos in the league last season as two-thirds of the Stars top line, and sees good options for the third piece.

“Val [Nichushkin] played a big part for our team last year, he split time with [Erik] Cole and [Rich] Peverley up there with Seguin and Benn. I anticipate he could go there,” Ruff said. “A guy like Erik Cole, if he comes back healthy – he dealt with numerous injuries last year – so if he comes back healthy and is skating the way we know he can skate and plays the way we know he can play, there might be an opportunity for him in that top six. I think we’ve got some great options. [Colton] Sceviour played a big role for us late in the season and in the playoffs. There are options and we can go in different directions.

“We know there are a couple of pieces. Seguin and Benn play well together and Spezza and Hemsky play well together. There may be an opportunity to look at a Hemsky playing up with Seguin and Benn, and maybe a line of Cole, Spezza and Val.”

Then there are Fiddler, Eaves and Shawn Horcoff, all players that Ruff and Nill see as guys who can move up and down the lineup. And then there is the versatile Peverley, whose status is still up in the air as he recovers from surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat. Even if Peverley isn’t ready to go, the Stars still see a lot of options and the potential for a solid four-line set of forwards as they open the season.

“Lindy’s got a lot of flexibility here with his lineup. Last season we had the one elite first line and then we were kind of really a team of three really good second/third lines. I think a lot of our success was our depth and we think we added to that,” said Nill. “I think with our top nine, even our 12, I think we match up with almost any team in the league right now.”

Pushing for time

The Stars currently have 14 forwards on the roster as it stands now, including Rich Peverley who remains a question mark.

There are several forwards who could push for playing time this season. That group includes right wing Brett Ritchie, who had a strong rookie season with the Texas Stars of the AHL, center Travis Morin, who was the AHL regular season and playoff MVP, AHL Rookie of the Year Curtis McKenzie and 2009 first round pick Scott Glennie.

Stars GM Jim Nill said those players and others will get a look in training camp, adding that the team has to be prepared for more than just opening night. It has to be ready for the long grind of an 82-game season.

“They are all in the mix. There can always be injuries. You start the season with what you think is your team and it can change awfully quick with one or two injuries,” Nill said. “The door is open. I am excited about the competition. I want everybody to come into training camp to show what they can do. There are going to be openings and there are going to be injuries. It’s a long year and it’s a battle. I just want everyone to know to come in and do what you are supposed to do.”

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