For the first time in years the Dallas Stars enter a new season with expectations. Expectations of improvement. Expectations of playoff wins not just an appearance. Expectations that the success of last season was just the tip of what’s to come. For Stars fans it’s a great place to be.
GM Jim Nill’s off-season acquisition of Jason Speeza and Ales Hemsky from the Ottawa Senators has made this forward group one of the best in the league. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn finished 4th and 10th respectively in scoring last season. They were one of the best duos in the league and opposing teams circled their number on the white board before every single game. They faced their opponents best defensive core every night. So did Speeza and Hemsky.
Hemsky was traded to the Senators near the end of last season. He was paired with Ottawa’s captain and the two had instant chemistry. Spezza is a point per game player for his career and Hemsky began his career near that pace but has been buried on awful Edmonton teams for the better part of a decade. The change of scenery could do wonders for them both.
The Canadian Hockey press is relentless. A Captain of a Canadian team like Spezza has every move scrutinized. Coming to Dallas where he can go out to eat and have a 99.98% chance of not being recognized and 100% chance of his choice of appetizer not being reported should do wonders for his quality of life and therefore elevate his very substantial play. Joe Nieuwendyk left Calgary in the late 90’s for Dallas and won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP in ’99. For years players like Bret Hull and Bill Guerin came to Dallas knowing that they had a great chance to win but also a better quality of life.
But the two won’t just be able to hide in public. They will be able to diminish their visibility on the ice as well. Playing on the second line behind Seguin and Benn who are line 1A, will allow Speeza and Hemsky who are really line 1B to avoid top defensive match-ups. That’s a one-two punch that only a few teams in the league can boast. As one line starts to take over a game the opposing coach must make a decision on which line to cover leaving the other one to face inferior competition.
Last season’s second line of Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt becomes one of the most effective third lines in the league. The three are very young, very fast and overly tenacious. They hunger for minutes and they skate with determination every shift. Head Coach Lindy Ruff will have no qualms throwing them out against other teams top lines.
Follow that up with a fourth line centered by Vern Fiddler and two wing spots that are going to be challenged for all season long by young AHL players chomping at the bit to make the big club and veteran role players that know how to win and want to stay in chartered planes instead of rented buses. It’s been years since we saw competition for spots that left us wondering how we could leave this or that guy out instead of how are we going to make it when this guy is our best option.
As great as the forward lines can be the real weakness of this team for years has been defense and as of right now that doesn’t look to be improved. Last season saw Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley have their best seasons as pros and lead the team to the playoffs. Beyond that Jordie Benn may have played way over his head and Sergei Gonchar looked very old and confused at times in Ruff’s uptempo style of play. Brendan Dillon was a holdout for the entirety of the preseason, he did eventually sign, but only a one year deal which could be a giant motivator as he he will be looking for a long term contract at the end of the season.
The other spots on D are going to be highly contested by a multitude of very young, very talented yet very inexperienced defensemen. Jamie Oleksiak, Patrick Nemeth, Jyri Jokkipaka and Kevin Connauton all have played well enough to have serious consideration to play at the NHL level. The problem is none of them has set himself apart from his counterparts.
Each has their own set of positives and their own set of drawbacks that keeps them from being obvious game-breaking talent. With time one or more of them might step up and be the difference maker the Stars desperately need but unless that happens sooner rather than later the Stars biggest weakness over the last 5 seasons hasn’t improved enough to make a significant difference in the collective blood pressure of Stars fans.
The final and most important piece of the puzzle is goaltending. Kari Lehtonen has at times over the last 5 years looked like the best goaltender on the planet. The problem is that when he has shown that caliber of play it has been during mid season games that really have little importance to winning a Stanley Cup other than to gain a few points in the standings.
Kari Lehtonen’s status may be as equally shaky as that of the defense in front of him. When the Stars had the Anaheim Ducks on the ropes in Game 6 in the first round of last year’s playoffs he gave up three goals in what felt like a nanosecond. In reality it was five minutes of game time but Kari was out of position on all three. To win a Stanley Cup that just can’t happen. So far this preseason he hasn’t looked like those are situations he can now address on a regular basis. Slow to cross his crease, dropping to soon and a failure to track the puck has ballooned his numbers and put extra pressure on his already shaky backups to perform when he isn’t in the lineup.
As great as the Stars look up front they are going to need to be twice as good on the back end as they appear to be right now. Lindy Ruff did an exceptional job last season adapting a style of play to the talent that he had instead of demanding that his talent play a system he designed. He willed them to the 8th spot and the playoffs. This season they are marked.
They are the media “darlings” as the fun team to watch and the “hot pick” to do some damage this season. Hopefully those things will be true. Hopefully we can believe in our expectations. Hopefully we can expect the young D to blossom and produce at least two full time regulars. Hopefully Speeza and Hemsky will post 65+ seasons. We’d like to expect that Kari will be the good Kari all season and in to the playoffs. We’d like to expect that his backups will give him the rest he needs to be fresh for a playoff run. We’d like to expect a lot of things.
We’d like to expect that for the first time in a long time that the words Dallas Stars Hockey carry relevance. We’d like to expect that NHL tonight shows all of the Stars highlights and not just the box score.
Most of all we’d like to expect that when we show up at the rink or flip on the tube we have a great shot to win.
For the first time in a long time that’s what we will expect.