There is a lot to like about the 2013-14 Dallas Stars, something that could not be said for most of the five preceding editions that failed to qualify for post-season play. For one thing, the franchise’s skaters will be sporting a new Stars logo as well as attractive new green uniforms replacing those hideous black home sweaters.
Fortunately, the colorful threads are only the start of a new look that north Texas hockey fans hope will be a more competitive squad. They also sport a new look in the general manager’s chair in the person of former Detroit assistant GM Jim Nill, behind the bench with former longtime Sabres’ boss Lindy Ruff (1997-2013), and on the ice with new acquisitions headlined by former Bruins’ centers Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverly, and ex-Oiler pivot Shawn Horcoff.
Needless to say, Nill, Ruff & Co. are intent on keeping their charges on the ice and off the golf course when mid-April rolls around.
If the Stars are to put their 2013 last place Pacific Division finish following a late-season slump in the rear-view mirror of the franchise’s psyche, it will be because they receive season-long star-quality performances from forward Jamie Benn and Seguin, the 21-year old super talent whom the Stars acquired over the summer for high scoring forward Loui Eriksson, and significant prospects Matt Fraser, Reilly Smith and Joe Morrow.
Seguin, who is expected to enable star-in-waiting Benn to return to his preferred position on the wing, is a gifted playmaker with outstanding speed. He won a Cup with Boston in 2011 before leading the Bruins in goals and points the following season. However, his production fell off in 2013; he scored 32 points as he shied away from contact and lost confidence shooting the puck, resulting in just one post season goal for a team that lost in six games to the Blackhawks in the Cup finals. He will work on regaining his aggressiveness in the corners and launching more shots goalward.
During preseason, Seguin was paired with Benn (who scored a team-high 33 pts. in 2013) and the pair took to each other like syrup to pancakes. Benn is developing into an elite-level skater – think James Neal prior to his trade to the Penguins (not one of the best swaps in Stars’ history) — and does not shy away from body contact or dropping the gloves.
Nill, who does not consider his moves part of a rebuilding process because he doesn’t want to limit the team’s short term benchmarks, has indeed implemented a movement which should’ve begun three years ago under the watch of a different GM and ownership situation.
Youth is also expected to be served in the person of 2013 first round Valeri Nichushkin. Selected 10th overall just a few months ago, this potential star brings a considerable array of talent, including speed and power to have drawn comparisons to Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin.
Nichushkin may very well begin the season on a line with Benn and Seguin, or could be the crown jewel of a potent second line centered by Peverly with a left winger such as 41-year old Ray Whitney (29 pts. in 2013), Cody Eakin (24 pts.), Erik Cole (13 pts.) or hard-nosed Antoine Roussel (14 pts., 85 PIM).
Prospect Alex Chaisson, who tallied six goals in seven games and teamed well with Whitney during a call up after the trade deadline, could be a key component of the second or third unit, which will probably be centered by the veteran Horcoff. Other candidates for the third unit include Vernon Fiddler (17 pts.), and Ryan Garbutt (10 pts.)
An improved defense would certainly enable the Stars to spend less time in their own zone while enhancing their puck possession skills. To upgrade the backline, Nill signed 39-year old Sergei Gonchar (27 pts. in Ottawa) to help keep the puck out of the Dallas net and quarterback the power play. The defensive corps will include veterans Trevor Daley, Alex Giligoski (27 pts.), Stephane Robidas, and Brendan Dillon, who came into his own as an NHL-caliber defenseman last season.
Between the pipes, injury-plagued veteran Kari Lehtonen has been the team’s MVP the last two years, but was 32nd in the NHL with a 2.66 goals against average. Former Stars’ prospect Dan Ellis has returned to provide a solid backup, and the franchise is grooming prospects such as Jack Campbell and Christopher Nilstorp as insurance against further injuries as well as to prepare for 2014 and beyond.
The Stars’ power play should improve with Seguin and Peverly winning face-offs and cycling the puck down low. The addition of Peverly and Horcoff will also help the penalty kill.
For what it’s worth, the Stars finished their recent pre-season schedule with five wins and no losses in seven games. When the regular season begin, they will have switched from the more competitive Pacific Division to the Central Division of the Western Conference in the first year of the NHL’s realignment, where only Chicago should be a fixture atop the circuit. Dallas matches up well with the remaining five squads, and may well finish the regular season in second or third place to secure their first post-season berth in six years.
And that would be the ultimate “new” feature for a franchise that has too often left its fan base out in the warmth of the springtime in north Texas.