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What to watch for as Stars return home to face Avalanche

Tonight's tilt is the first leg of a preseason back-to-back at American Airlines Center

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

The Dallas Stars return home to American Airlines Center Monday night for their fourth of six preseason games and first of back-to-back preseason contests. They'll host the Colorado Avalanche, who spanked the Stars 5-1 last Thursday in Denver, and 24 hours later, Dallas will face the Minnesota Wild for the first time this preseason.

The Stars, 2-1 following Saturday's 4-0 win in St. Louis, close out their preseason schedule Saturday in Minnesota.

Here's what to look for Monday night.

 
1. Crunch time

The next 48 hours loom large for a team that still has significant decisions regarding key forward positions, and how the defensive alignment will look.

As of Monday afternoon, there will be 32 players in camp for head coach Ken Hitchcock and his staff to consider. The veteran head coach would like to get down to a final roster of 23 and use that opening night roster in next Saturday's preseason finale, so expectation is that as early as Wednesday, he'll trim to that number barring injury.

"So that's the goal," Hitchcock said. "So we've got we want to take a hard look. The duplicating guys in the next two games will be the guys that we're looking at. So if you see a guy playing in both games (Monday and Tuesday), it's because we want to see if he's going to cut the grade of the 23."

Candidates for that kind of scrutiny include R.J. Umberger, Roope Hintz, Curtis McKenzie, and possibly, Adam Cracknell up front, and Julius Honka and Patrik Nemeth on the back end.

Everyone with the exception of Martin Hanzal (see below) will play in at least one of the two home games Monday and Tuesday.

 

2. The Hanzal factor

Complicating matters vis-a-vis a final roster is the fact that key offseason signing Hanzal is still recovering from an ankle injury sustained in workouts prior to the start of camp. The big center expected to engage in full workouts Thursday and Friday, with the hope being that he can play in Saturday's preseason finale. But who plays alongside the premier two-way center? It's an important decision and one that comes with no small amount of guesswork given Hanzal's absence.

"Because we haven't seen him so we don't know how this is going to work and that's the guess for us," Hitchcock said.

Because the expectation is that Hanzal will log hard minutes against top offensive groups on opposing teams, his wingers need to be made of stern stuff.

"He's going to need two sturdy players on that line because he's going to be matched up against top players a lot," Hitchcock said. "So we have to see who can play that role. I think we have an idea but we haven't even practiced it."

Regardless the unit, like the top four on defense, will need to be consistently doing the job for Hitchcock's system to work properly.

"That has to be a really dependable line because we can't have any holes in that line if we expect to play the way we want to play," Hitchcock added.

 

3. So, let's do the math

We can surmise that to start the season with the first two forward lines will look like this:

Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov

Mattias Janmark, Jason Spezza, Brett Ritchie.

And Hitchcock has been impressed with the trio of Radek Faksa, centering Tyler Pitlick and Antoine Roussel.

"They've been a really good line for us," Hitchcock said. "So that's kind of taking one player or two players out of the mix for Hanzal so we've got to see other people doing that job."

If that unit remains intact by process of elimination, that leaves two spots as everyday wingers for a group that includes Devin Shore (who would appear to be a lock for us to make the team), Cracknell, McKenzie, Hintz, Jason Dickinson and Remi Elie as the most likely candidates.

Hintz has played center throughout camp, and while he has come in for high praise from Hitchcock, one wonders if his role hasn't been more as a placeholder for Hanzal, as Hitchcock has looked at natural centers like Shore and Dickinson on the wing in recent days.

 

4. What of Honka?

The defensive situation is equally fluid heading into Monday's game, especially as it relates to skilled defender Julius Honka.

Early in camp, Honka, the diminutive but smooth skating defender taken 14th overall in the 2014 draft, came in for high praise from Hitchcock, and the belief was he'd worked his way into the important group of six defenders that will form the everyday defensive corps for the Stars. But in recent days, in an effort to identify and solidify his top four defenders, Hitchcock seems to have settled on Marc Methot and John Klingberg as a top pair, followed by Esa Lindell and Jamie Oleksiak, a left-handed shot who is comfortable playing on the right side.

"Touch wood he's getting better every day," Hitchcock said of Oleksiak. "He's a big man. He doesn't lose many board battles. Comes out with pucks. Makes calm plays. Plays under pressure. He's exactly what we need right now."

Dan Hamhuis and Stephen Johns were impressive in Saturday's 4-0 win over St. Louis, and the feeling seems to be that Johns has the inside track on the third defensive spot on the right side.

If those are your top six defensemen where does that leave Honka?

Does he become a seventh defender on the main roster rarely playing or does he return to the American Hockey League where he's played the last three seasons to keep his game sharp? Tough call.

Honka will be in the lineup Monday night but don't expect him to worry about any uncertainty.

"No. Not at all. Never," Honka said Monday. "I just go and play my game. Just play hard and do whatever it takes to help the team win."

"That's how I am," he added. "I don't really stress about too much I just want to be ready mentally be ready physically be prepared."

 

5. Captain in the loop

Dallas fans will get their second look at the team's top line of Benn, Seguin and Radulov on Monday. The trio hasn't played since the opening preseason game last Tuesday, a win over St. Louis. But just because the big guns haven't been playing doesn't mean Benn hasn't been deeply involved in the inner workings of this team. He has.

"He's included in everything we do," Hitchcock said. "So when we make a schedule change I text him. When we want his opinion on the mood of the team I ask him. So I ask him every day or every couple of days, give me a feel for the pulse of the team. The more you include the more you form a partnership the bigger the bond is and the more responsible the player gets so that's what we're doing."

Sunday was a prime example. Hitchcock decided to have the players do off-ice workouts as opposed to a full practice. He asked Benn his opinion.

"This was a good idea he thought," Hitchcock said. "But that's a partnership with the captain. He's got to have a feel for the pulse of the team."

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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