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What to watch for as Stars cap preseason at Minnesota

Saturday's exhibition finale will provide Dallas' prospects with one more opportunity to impress

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

The Dallas Stars head to the "State of Hockey" to take on the Minnesota Wild on Saturday in their final preseason game.

Thank goodness.

Although the Stars (3-2) will have only played in six preseason contests, the feeling of anticipation for the start of the regular season Oct. 6, when Dallas entertains the Vegas Golden Knights in their first-ever game, is palpable. In short, it's time to get rolling.

Here's what to look for in Minnesota.


1. Some of the 'A' group takes the night off

If you asked all of the veteran players or players who look to make the Stars 23-man roster, they'd probably like to get in this game as a kind of final tune-up. Head coach Ken Hitchcock gets that, but he's not going for it. He wants to give the kids who have been so impressive in training camp one more look, and he doesn't see the value of having a full NHL roster playing at this stage of training camp.

He'd rather they save themselves for good, hard practices in the week leading up to Oct. 6.

"I'm not playing my lineup on Saturday. I'm not playing it. I just have learned my lesson. I'm not doing it," Hitchcock said. "I'll put in there guys that I still want to look at for now or for the future but I'm not putting the 'A' group in. I don't want to do that."

Instead he approached his top players, most of whom had already played three preseason games, and asked them if they are ready. They apparently said yes, hence Saturday's lineup will not include captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, John Klingberg and Mattias Janmark. That group will not travel to Minnesota, but will skate in a vigorous session at home.

As for Benn, who did not practice with the full group Thursday or Friday, he did skate on his own for an hour on Friday, and will be skating with the small group Saturday, and again with the full group Sunday afternoon as Hitchcock wants to ensure he's at 100 percent for next Friday.


2. Hanzal's debut

The one guy everyone is looking forward to seeing play on Saturday night is Martin Hanzal. None more interested to see how it goes than Hanzal himself, who has battled an ankle injury sustained in pre-camp workouts and has just this week returned to full practice. This will be his only preseason contest.

"Game speed is going to be huge," said Hanzal who will face off against the team that acquired him at last year's trade deadline.

"It's going to be tough you know, it's just one game and the season starts," he added. "I'm really looking forward to playing tomorrow in Minnesota and be part of the group."

Perhaps as important as how Hanzal fares in the game is who Hitchcock slots onto the wings with the big center, who was signed as a free agent in the offseason.

Looks like Antoine Roussel on the left and Devin Shore on the right to start with. Shore is a left-handed shot but is comfortable playing all three forward positions. Shore has been one of the surprises of camp, and the most consistent forward day-in, day-out.

Hitchcock said they want to move Shore, who got some looks playing on the point on the power play the last couple of days, as high up the lineup as possible.

"He looks like a really efficient player that's going to help us in a number of areas so we want to expose him to as much as we can in the next week or so," Hitchcock said.

Video: Hitch discusses Pitlick's potential


3. Finale for impressive youngsters

A number of young forwards have made a significant impression in camp and they'll get a last look on Saturday night as a reward for that effort. But given the Stars' salary cap situation, and the depth up front, it's hard to imagine any other outcome for guys like Remi Elie, Jason Dickinson, Gemel Smith or Roope Hintz -- other than being sent to the Stars' American Hockey League affiliate in Cedar Park, Texas at some point early next week.

That's not an indictment of their level of play, but the numbers game as the Stars will be right up against the salary cap when the regular season starts.

"Our depth is going to be the strength of the organization for a couple of years now," Hitchcock said.

There will be no hesitation in bringing up these players should circumstances dictate, the coach added.

"We're going to have no issue bringing them up and playing them on a regular basis because we've seen what they can do," Hitchcock said.


4. Quite possible the Stars will carry eight defensemen

What remains unknown heading into the final preseason game is how the defense shakes down, especially with GM Jim Nill telling reporters Friday there's a good possibility the team will carry eight defensemen.

How this impacts talented young defender Julius Honka remains unknown.

Honka, 21, has had an up and down camp but when he's been up he's been very good, especially on the offensive side of the puck. If Honka, who will play Saturday, stays with the big team he likely starts the season out of the top six, which means if he's in the lineup it will be as a seventh defenseman where he will play sparingly (likely on the power play). And that's if he plays at all.

It's possible Hitchcock would use his seventh spot on more experienced players, Patrik Nemeth or Greg Pateryn, both of whom have been solid in camp. Lineup numbers and the salary cap dictate that if Honka stays one of Pateryn or Nemeth has to go. The bigger question is whether Honka staying with the big club, but not playing regularly, hampers his development.

Is there more value in working every day with defensive coach Rick Wilson, and simply being around NHL players, than playing big minutes every night as a top-pairing defenseman in the American Hockey League a few hours down the road in Cedar Park? Discuss amongst yourselves.

The regular season is when teams really get a feel for where players are at, Nill said.

"And things change quick in this business," he added. "We'll go game by game here. See where we're at. We've got lots of flexibility. Lots of different options."


5. Ben gets the nod in net

Ben Bishop will get the start on Saturday night and play the entire game. He's played a total of five periods in the preseason (one full game and two periods of his first start). Kari Lehtonen, who started the previous game against Minnesota on Tuesday, has played eight periods (two full games and two periods in his first start).

Bishop will no doubt start next Friday's season opener, and we would speculate that Lehtonen will play the next night in St. Louis as the Stars open the regular season with back-to-back games -- a situation that Hitchcock admitted isn't ideal especially right off the hop.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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