The 2013 season of Dallas Stars hockey is destined to offer more promise than any of the previous three or four years. The roster is in flux. The Stars are playing with five rookies. Jamie Benn remains unsigned as of the writing of this post. The lockout has wiped out 34 games from the schedule.
But, despite all these questionable circumstances, the Stars now have stable ownership at the beginning of a season. The hope for a better tomorrow can actually exist again whether you agree with the direction of the franchise or not.
The Stars hope that a better tomorrow begins later tonight, but 2013 is going to be bumpy. The Stars have some serious questions to answer.
The Stars have struggled defensively for years now. Early last season the team relied on Sheldon Souray and Stephane Robidas to be defensive rocks for them. That didn t exactly work out. The pairing bled shots on goal. Robidas was eventually moved into a more offensive role with Souray injured. The Stars tried Mark Fistric as a shutdown-type defender, but we see how they liked the idea of doing that again this season.
The Stars will be relying heavily on young defenders to carry the load. Philip Larsen is going to need to continue to develop. Jordie Benn will need to be ready to play when his name is sporadically called to give someone a rest or fill in for an injured teammate. The player to watch, though, is Brenden Dillon. The Stars love him, and the team needs someone who can play both a solid defensive game and move the puck in transition. They think Dillon fits the bill, but if he doesn t mesh relatively quickly one has to wonder how long of a leash the Stars will give him with potential replacements waiting in Austin.
The Stars' special teams were a mess last year. The power play generated the fewest shots per 60 minutes of ice time of any NHL team since the 2007-08 Edmonton Oilers. If the Stars are going to make the playoffs, the power play must be fixed - and quickly. The additions of Jaromir Jagr, Derek Roy, and Ray Whitney should go a long way toward mending what ailed them last year.
Two wild cards to consider are the Stars' two prized rookie forwards: Reilly Smith and Cody Eakin. The duo have been on a tear in the AHL. Smith has a laser of a shot. He put it on display early in camp by beating goalie Kari Lehtonen for two goals in a scrimmage. Eakin is more of an all-around offensive guy, but both have boatloads of talent. Both could figure in on the power play before all is said and done.
The penalty kill was also very poor, but the results looked much better. Kari Lehtonen saved the unit from looking much worse than it actually did. The Stars finished 13th in the NHL in penalty killing percentage, but only three teams averaged more shots against per 60 minutes. The Stars won t be that lucky again this year.
Further muddying the waters is the fact that the Stars removed a sizeable chunk of their forward penalty killers from last season to this season. One could easily point out who cares, they stunk anyway , and it would be hard to argue against. But, for the sake of conversation, Steve Ott, Adam Burish, and Radek Dvorak are no longer with the team. The Stars will need to find replacements.
A good place to start is with superstar Jamie Benn. He was the Stars' best penalty killer, but rarely played on the unit. While short-handed, the Stars gave up only 36.3 shots per 60 minutes with Benn on the ice, compared to 50+ with Ott, Fiddler, Dvorak, or Burish on the ice. Benn s penalty killing effort was on par with that of Henrik Zetterberg, Zach Parise, and Matt Cooke. It really isn t possible to overstate his value.
The big question facing the Stars this season is the ice time distribution. Who exactly are the Stars going to use to play the tough minutes? The score is tied late and the Los Angeles Kings throw Anze Kopitar on the ice for an offensive zone draw. Where do the Stars turn to repel the attack?
Last year the Stars couldn t answer that question reliably. Eric Nystrom, Radek Dvorak, and Vernon Fiddler took some of the load. Defensively, Robidas and Souray did for a while. None of these players did particularly well. A late-season game against the Sharks comes to mind when the Sharks continually matched Joe Thornton s line against Fiddler. At the end of the night the Stars trio was a -10 in shot differential. That can t happen in the NHL. Dallas has to figure out how to stop the opposition defensively.
As of right now the Stars are probably again turning to Fiddler, but this time he and Nystrom will likely have Brenden Morrow with them. He isn t known for his defensive game. If healthy, he might be able to provide a counter-attack solid enough to help ease the defensive issues, but carrying the puck isn t his game. It s a questionable proposition, at best.
As for the blueline, who knows? The pairing of Alex Goligoski and Robidas isn t going to see those minutes, at least not in their own end. The Stars could attempt to have them working against tough match ups away from their own net, but that doesn t answer the question as to who draws the tough assignments in critical defensive territory. The most logical answer is Aaron Rome and Trevor Daley. By the end of the season it could be Philip Larsen and Dillon.
The Stars have the goaltending to be a solid team. They have the forward depth to compete in any game offensively. Defensively - up front, things will be a challenge. Both the defense and special teams are also considerable concerns. If the offense has an incredible season and the team gets a legitimate top year out of Lehtonen the Stars could make the playoffs. As is? I ll go with 10th place and a real shot at contention in 2014 if the Stars get the development they expect from their prospect group.
Josh Lile loves steak, puppies and the Stars. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshL1220. At WFAA Sports, we love... well, everything that relates to DFW sports. You can follow US on Twitter at @wfaasports.
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