When the Stars hit the ice during the 2014-15 season, goal judges will be a lot busier. And, rival coaches will struggle to match their best checkers against one of two high scoring Dallas lines. Dallas begins skating through its 82-game gauntlet at home against Chicago on Thursday, Oct. 9
Coach Lindy Ruff’s offensive depth chart has been bolstered by the addition of talented forwards Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Suddenly, a team that scored at a 15% success rate with the man advantage and ranked in the middle of the pack with 235 red lights a year ago figures to become a prolific attack. And, a Dallas team that earned its first playoff berth in eight years during the final week of the regular season now has a chance to complete for the Central Division crown.
Does a rival coach send his best defenders up against Dallas’s top trio of team captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and second year pro Valeri Nichushkin? Benn is the acknowledged team leader who does everything well, including passing, scoring, penalty killing and controlling the flow of the game. Seguin is your old fashioned goal sniper who is expected to put up big numbers again, while Nishushkin is a 19-year old who has shown hints of greatness to come.
Or do the opponents’ best lockdown skaters match up against the second line of Spezza and Hemsky, who played together during the final months of the 2013-14 campaign after the latter was acquired from Edmonton. Veteran winger Erik Cole may complete that line, and he brings a nice scoring touch around the opposing net.
Opponents will want to stay out of the penalty box this season, since Hemsky, Seguin and Spezza have combined to score 169 power play goals during their careers. Last season, Seguin lit the lamp 11 times with the man advantage, while Spezza connected on nine occasions.
The recent signing of red-head pivot Cody Eakin will enable Ruff to keep his checking line together that features gritty Antoine Roussel and goal scoring threat Ryan Garbutt. Other forwards who will see action include Vernon Fiddler, Patrick Eaves, Erik Cole, Shawn Horcoff and Colton Sceviour.
ON THE BACKLINE, the depth and talent isn’t as definitive as it as the big “O”. Beyond Alex Goligoski (career high 36 assists and 42 points and a +9), there is little puck-moving ability among the most defensive defenders. Like Goligoski, Trevor Daley (career high 9 goals, plus 25 points and a +1- rating) continues to improve and is a threat to put the biscuit in the basket. Kevin Connauton (+16 in 36 games) and Patrik Nemeth (8 regular season and five playoff games) gave the defense a late boost and will continue to improve. Brenden Dillon (career highs with six goals, 11 assists 17 points and a +9a year ago) recently signed a one year contract and will certainly help with his physical style of play. Jamie’s older brother Jordie Benn (+16 and a shootout scoring threat) improved tremendously in his first full season, but you wonder how much 40-year old Sergei Gonchar has left in his tank. Six-foot-seven Jamie Oleksiak, who helped the Texas Stars win the AHL’s Calder Cup last spring, figures to stick this time around and could make a difference.
Between the pipes, Kari Lehtonen was a steadying influence a year ago with a 33-20-10 record to go with a 2.41 goals against average and a .919 save percentage. But the Big Finn suffered a concussion late in a preseason during which he was anything but impressive. His backup is Anders Lindback, a native of Sweden who played in three games for Tampa Bay last year and has just four NHL starts to his resume. If either gets injured, the Stars’ brain trust will put their trust in the unproven NHL talent in Cedar Park, Texas, home of the defending AHL Calder Cup champion Texas Stars.