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What to watch for as Stars open regular season against Vegas

After a big offseason, Ken Hitchcock leads Dallas into a new year of great optimism -- and greater expectations

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB /

A summer of great change for the Dallas Stars was followed by a training camp of great optimism -- and now, it's time to see whether the Stars can become the team that their roster suggests they can be.

The first test takes place on Friday night at American Airlines Center, as the Stars host the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion team's first-ever regular season contest. Head coach Ken Hitchcock is certainly looking forward to putting all the conjecture in the rear-view mirror.

"Just to get going and stop talking about predicting, and stop talking about the what if's, and start talking about hockey and the games that just got played," Hitchcock said Friday morning. "The predicting part of the business -- and who's going to get hired, who's going to get fired, who's going to win, who's not going to win -- that just gets old after a while. Now, we get to play, and starting (Saturday) morning, we get to talk about the game we just played."

Here's what to look for as the 2017-18 season commences.


1. New coach, familiar face

This will be an emotional night for Ken Hitchcock. He's done a nice job of distancing himself from the magical history that connects him to this franchise, and this community having guided the Stars to their only Stanley Cup win back in 1999. He'll be reminded of those moments Friday, but he'll be more interested in how this team responds after a training camp during which he challenged his team to be harder to play against. 

He has said at various times it's possible this team will have three third lines, which is a way of saying he's got the big offensive unit of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, and three in-your-face, hard-working lines all of which can produce offense. That's the plan, anyway, and Friday will provide a first look at how that plan gets put into action. 

Longtime associate Rick Wilson, while looking after the defense (see below), is also responsible for the penalty kill, which was beyond dreadful last year, while former Star Stu Barnes will be working on the power play that was also less than acceptable. 

"We know that there's going to be a lot of work to be done in that area," Hitchcock said of special teams Friday morning. "We think we've really improved during the preseaon in killing penalties and that's going to be the focus. The power play is going to look different. Nobody's seen our power play, nobody's seen us work on it. Our units are different than we've ever had here, so that's going to be a little more a patient, take time kind of thing. But right now PK is going to win you hockey games. If you're good on PK you can win games." 

Keep an eye on the combined total of success rates for both special teams, and whether it reaches Hitchcock's goal of 105 -- last year the Stars were at 91.8.

Video: Pregame: DAL vs VGK


2. Big line, new man on the right

Each of the four key pieces added to the roster in the offseason -- Ben Bishop, Marc Methot, Martin Hanzal and Alexander Radulov -- will be counted on to contribute in significant moments, but fair to say the most interesting add was Radulov. 

No one has brought more emotion to practices the past three weeks than Radulov, who spent last year in Montreal reclaiming his NHL career. He's locked in with a new five-year deal and said in a recent interview he still needs to prove that the Stars were right to believe in him. 

"I want to start. It's been a long summer," the big right winger said. "We've got to be ready, we've got to play the right way and help each other." 

It's going to take time for Radulov to find the right rhythm with Seguin and Benn but not too much time, right? 

"He's exactly as advertised. He's exactly what we need," Hitchcock said. "He's just relentless on the puck, he's strong on the puck, he's determined on the puck and that has become contagious." 

It's not just about Radulov, whom Hitchcock loves for his puck pursuit and ability to control the puck in the offensive zone, but it's about Seguin learning to be more diligent on the puck, as well as Hitchcock has challenged Seguin to become a true 'No. 1' center instead of just a quick-strike offensive threat. 

Hitchcock said he's happy with the trio's work without the puck thus far but not so much with the puck. 

"They are really committed when the other team has the puck. I'm very happy with that," he said. "They don't cheat. They're on the right side of things. But I want to see how they are with the puck."


3. The big four -- and we mean big

The offense should be there, even though the team slumped to 16th in goals per game last season. The defense? Well, that's the big question, isn't it? 

The blue line is going to have a significantly different look starting with the addition of Methot, who was a crucial part of an undermanned Ottawa team's advancing to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final last spring. The 6-foot-4 veteran is a physical and emotional force, and looks to start the season with Jamie Oleksiak, another big body (6-foot-7), and will join Esa Lindell and John Klingberg on the top four. 

If it works the way Hitchcock wants, that group of four will play a lot against opposing team's top units. Oleksiak is the surprise member of that group and has come in for repeated praise during training camp from Hitchcock vis-a-vis his sturdiness. 

The 14th-overall pick in 2011 is getting his best chance yet to make good on early promise.


4. Oh, yeah, new goalie

Who cares that Ben Bishop didn't stand on his head during preseason? No one. Now, starting Friday night, Bishop is going to be expected to start making good on the new six-year deal he signed to help resolve the longstanding goaltending issues that have plagued the Stars the past few years. 

Bishop knows that. He's used to playing under the pressure of high expectations. You don't get to be a two-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy, or guide your team to a Stanley Cup final and conference final in back-to-back seasons without thriving under that kind of pressure. Friday, it starts again for Bishop in a new jersey. And while we're on the goaltending, let's not forget that Kari Lehtonen has been forced to play in front of some horrific team defense the last few seasons, even when the Stars won the Central Division two years ago.

It's a contract year for the veteran netminder, and his performance as Bishop's backup is going to say a lot about whether the Stars meet high expectations. Lehtonen, whom Hitchcock said was the best player during camp regardless of position, is expected to start Saturday in St. Louis as the Stars begin the season with back-to-backs.

Video: Eakin returns to the AAC

5. Crowded middle

Remember at the beginning of training camp, all the discussion about Jason Spezza having to play the wing and what Hitchcock was going to do with all his centers? Things played out differently but the question of the center position remains intriguing.

Spezza remains as the team's second-line center, playing with Mattias Janmark, who returns after missing all of last year with a knee injury, and Brett Ritchie, who's going to get a chance to improve on his 16-goal campaign of a year ago. Where it gets interesting is with free-agent acquisition Martin Hanzal, who is used to playing top-center minutes but who is being counted on to play a shutdown role with promising sophomore Devin Shore and Tyler Pitlick --another new face, on the wings.

That means Radek Faksa, signed to a new three-year deal in the off-season, is pushed down to a fourth-line position with Antoine Roussel and Adam Cracknell and/or Gemel Smith, who made the team out of camp as a rookie.

Our theory is that if one of the forward units isn't going, Hitchcock will ramp up the ice time for the others. But charting how this all fits is going to be interesting especially early on.

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

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