Questions Remain as Stars Approach The Brink of Cup Contention

The Dallas Stars appear to be on the brink of serious Stanley Cup Contention.

However, questions remain about whether their goaltending and defense are championship caliber.

The Stars earned the best record (50-23-9 for 109 points) in the Western Conference last year, finishing second to only the Washington Capitals in the President’s Trophy race and coming within a Game Seven second round showdown at home vs. St. Louis of reaching the conference finals last Spring.

The disappointing 6-1 Game Seven loss to the Blues at the American Airlines Center still packs a considerable amount of sting as the 2016-17 regular season approaches.

The defense appears to be undergoing a transformation with wily veterans such as Jason Demers, Kris Russell, and Alex Goligoski having been dealt or let go during the off-season.

In goal, Dallas fans celebrated the fact that Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi were stellar during the regular season. But those same fans were disappointed in the netminders’ less than acceptable performances during the post-season, each one struggling while attempting to find his rhythm.

In the aftermath of the Stars’ 4-3 record during the recently concluded preseason schedule, let’s take a quick look at all three units of this year’s squad.

The O: Dallas has built one of the preeminent offensive attacks in the NHL, with a league-leading 267 goals (Washington’s 252 red lights were the next closest total). Team captain Jamie Benn has developed into a bona fide superstar after winning the 2014-15 NHL scoring title with 87 points, and finished second to Chicago’s Patrick Kane last season with team 89 points (including a team-high 41 goals). Benn combines an intimidating style of play with soft hands and a Wayne Gretzky-like vision for the unfolding play as the team’s unquestioned leader. Benn had offseason surgery to repair an injured core muscle, but is hoping he’ll be ready to play at full throttle by late-October.

Tyler Seguin’s talented scoring ability makes Benn even more dangerous, and he contributed 73 points and tied with Jason Spezza for second in Stars’ goals with 33 before suffering a season ending injury in March. His presence and explosiveness probably would’ve helped the Stars advance deeper into the post-season toward a Cup Finals appearance.

Seguin suffered a heel injury in Team Canada’s first World Cup pre-tournment game in September, and coach Lindy Ruff is hopeful he will return for the season opener Oct. 13, or shortly thereafter.

The offensive depth is further bolstered by Spezza (63 points), defenseman John Klingberg (58 points) and forward Patrick Sharp (55 points). Klingberg finished fifth among all NHL defensemen with 58 an improvement from the 40 he accumulated in his rookie season (2014-15). The former Chicago sniper Sharp turns 35 in December and is in the final year of his contract, so there’s plenty of incentive for him to continue playing effectively as he seeks a xxth career Stanley Cup.

GM Jim Nill continued his trademark trend of compelling off-season acquisitions with the August signing of forward Jiri Hudler (one year, $2 million). The Czech scorer could help pick up the slack in the wake of  Valerie Nichushkin’s sudden impulse to play in Russia.  The veteran netted 31 goals and 76 points just two seasons ago in Calgary and is looking to improve on last season’s 46 point “slump” with the Flames and Panthers.

The D: This is the unit that makes or breaks the team. With mainstays such as Goligoski and Demers gone, Ruff will be relying on newcomer Dan Hamuis, former Blackhawk Johnny Oduya (also in the final year of his contract),  Hamuuis is regarded as a steadying force who can have a calming effect on the youngsters’ nerves. It is time for Patrik Nemeth, Stephen Johns and Jamie Oleksiak to step up and earn their keep. In particular, former Chicago prospect Johns looked NHL-ready last year in a Stars’ uniform with his thundering bodychecks and an ability to read and react to the unfolding play.

In addition, the Stars are very high on Esa Lindell, who scored 42 points with the AHL Texas Stars last season. The talented Finn also had a four game cameo with Dallas last season.

BTP (Between the Pipes): Both netminders enjoyed star-studded regular seasons, but things took a turn for the worse once the playoffs began. Nieme – who won a Cup with Chicago – was 25-13-7 with a 2.67 goals against average during the regular season but posted a 1-3 mark and a ballooning 3.29 goals against average in the playoffs. Lehtonen was 25-10-2 with a 2.76 GA average in the regular season, but 6-3 with a 2.81 average in the post season.

The Stars’ front office does appear to be satisfied with the status quo. However, rumors abound (i.e., Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, etc.) that general manager Nill would not be averse to upgrading the puck stopping department via a trade if the right one presents itself.

The I (Infirmary): In addition to Seguin, winger Ales Hemsky is nursing a groin injury, center Cody Eakin’s knee injury will keem him on ice until early November, and forward Mattias Janmark is lost to the team for five-six months due to a knee disorder. Each skater adds a measure of experience and achievement at the NHL level, and their presence in the lineup is key to the Stars’ continued strong regular season play.