A new season.
A blank slate.
While the highs and lows of the 2015-16 season and playoffs will certainly ride with the Dallas Stars moving forward, this is when it’s officially all in the rear-view mirror. Only hope and expectations remain.
The Stars are considered one of the top contenders in the NHL this season. Last year's team dropped Game 7 of their second-round series with the St. Louis Blues after earning the top seed in the Western Conference in the regular season. The Stars used a dynamic and relentless offensive attack to offset below-average defending and goaltending, shortcomings that led to some major changes in the offseason in some areas – and not so much in others.
All summer rumors flew of the Stars hunting for a change in goal. Neither Kari Lehtonen nor Antti Niemi performed nearly as expected or needed, and goaltending was the major factor in the Game 7 loss. Yet the contracts of both meant a trade would be tough to work out, never mind the price that a player like Ben Bishop would have commanded.
No moves were made, however, and the Stars enter the season with the same approach as before – a goaltender tandem where both Niemi and Lehtonen will see roughly equal starts. There is credence to the thought that both will be more comfortable splitting time and learned from the struggles of last season. However, it will be interesting to see how GM Jim Nill views this position as the trade deadline gets closer.
It’s on defense and up front where the Stars have truly seen change from last season. The defense, so maligned during the playoffs, has seen the most turnover from the unit that finished the season. Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Kris Russell were all let go to free agency (Goligoski was technically traded, but it amounts to the same thing) and while the Stars did sign veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, this is the year the young defensemen the Stars have developed will be expected to truly step up.
Stephen Johns (14 career games), Esa Lindell (4 games), Jamie Oleksiak (78 games) and Patrik Nemeth (68 games) will all see significant time this season, especially with the Stars appearing to want a balanced defense with minutes spread evenly across the pairings. Johns has proven to be a mainstay on the roster already, while Nemeth and Oleksiak are looking for consistency after multiple healthy scratches last season.
The defense should be more balanced and more physical this season with these changes; Hamhuis brings a steady and intelligent defensive approach that should perfectly protect the attacking the Stars want their defense to engage in. Despite their inexperience, the young defensemen are big, motivated and all had strong showings during camp and the preseason.
With Goligoski now departed, John Klingberg will see his role increase this season. Already the lead point man on the top power play unit, Klingberg will be asked to kill penalties and play in more defensive situations this season. The young defenseman should again rack up the points, but his development into an all-around defenseman that will be key for the Stars.
Up front the Stars have seen the departures of Vernon Fiddler, Colton Sceviour, Valeri Nichushkin and Travis Moen and as with the defense will ask for young players to step up in their place. Brett Ritchie, Devin Shore, Curtis McKenzie -- and likely Jason Dickinson once he’s healthy – will see significant time in the NHL this season for the Stars (and for more on them, check our Stars prospect rankings). Jiri Hudler was the surprise signing of the offseason and provides incredible experience and playmaking ability to offset the loss Nichushkin on the wing. Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp bring first-line skill and production to a dangerous second line, with rising star Radek Faksa anchoring a dangerous and effective third line.
The key to everything, however, will once again be on the shoulders of the Dynamic Duo. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are both recovering from offseason surgeries or injuries and their ability to hit the ice and avoid a slow start will be key the Stars getting out ahead in the incredibly competitive Central Division.
Seguin’s absence from the postseason last year due to an Achilles cut that led to a calf injury was never an excuse for the Stars in their loss to the Blues, but it was plainly clear just how much he was needed. Seguin is the key to the speed attack of the Stars, a blazing playmaker with one of the best shots in the league – it’s uncertain, however, how he’ll perform to start the season after his injury in the World Cup led to him missing the entire preseason.
Benn is considered one of, if not the best players in the NHL. After coming so close to the Western Conference Finals last season he’ll again be expected to lead the Stars through the gauntlet of raised expectations. The Stars captain is in the prime of his career and at the top of his game and the window for the Stars to seriously contend for the Stanley Cup is wide open.
The Stars have been building for this season ever since Jim Nill arrived – a perfect combination of veteran experience and grit with a dangerous arsenal of young, hungry and skilled players. The goaltending will remain a question until proven otherwise but the Stars have the pieces to not only repeat last season’s success – but expand on it.
It all starts tonight.
For more Stars wisdom, follow Brandon Worley on Twitter at @BrandonWorley