Stars General Manager Jim Nill’s third straight summer of fun enabled him to add a second recent Stanley Cup winner in Patrick Sharp to the likes of previous off-season acquisitions Tyler Seguin (who won the Cup in 2011 with Boston) and Jason Spezza. Those three standout skaters, along with team captain Jamie Benn, will make the Stars one of most dangerous teams when they have the puck this season.
Truth be told, Dallas enters the 2015-16 NHL season resembling a Chicago Blackhawks alumni chapter with high hopes for a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Two years ago, they ended a five-year skid in which the team failed to play past the tax deadline. Unfortunately, their goaltending and defensive play last year prevented the high-scoring squad from a return to the Western Conference playoffs.
But Benn, who appears to be on the verge of superstardom, ended the 2014-15 season by serving notice that the Stars will be a force this year. He netted five goals and 10 points in the final three games after Dallas had been eliminated from playoff contention – including three goals in the regular season finale and an assist with :09 left in a Hollywood-like script – for a career high 87 points and the franchise’s first Art Ross (scoring champion) Trophy.
Seguin, who has teamed very nicely with Benn the last two seasons to become one of the NHL’s most powerful duos, accumulated 37 goals (5th in the NHL) and 77 points despite missing 11 games with an injury. Seguin, Benn and Sharp could skate on the same explosive line, or share their significant talents among the Stars’ top two trios.
“(Benn and Seguin) are incredible players,” said Sharp. “I played in Chicago with some pretty good individual players. I know how good and competitive they are (after) playing against them. Being able to skate with them, you really see their skill level and their maturity. They want to be great players. They want to be leaders. They want to take that next step.”
Spezza added a credible 62 points last year while Sharp added a third Stanley Cup despite missing 12 games with an injury and becoming the subject of rumors involving his personal life. He also finished with his lowest per game production (0.63 ppg) since his first full season in Chicago (2006-07).
Nonetheless, the Dallas brain trust regards Sharp in high esteem as a clutch two-way skater who has never shied away from the pressure or spotlight. He contributed 22, 16 and 15 points to the Hawks’ playoff runs in 2010, 2013 and 2015, respectively, and his regular season numbers are eye-popping — 526 points (249 goals, 277 assists) in 745 games.
The Stars also are hopeful that a healthy Valeri Nichushkin, the 10th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft who missed all but eight games due to a hip injury that required surgery last season, begins to fulfill his potential. The 20-year old scored 14 goals as a rookie two years ago and is expected to provide 25-30 red lights, possibly by this year.
The Stars’ forward depth chart includes center Cody Eakin, the third line pivot who sometimes moved up to the second trio while scoring a career high 19 goals and 40 points, as well as gritty fourth line veteran center Vernon Fiddler.
The team’s blueline added an offensive spark in the person of John Klingberg, who netted 11 goals and 29 assists following an early-season callup.
However, it will be the defenders’ success at stopping rival offenses and making life easier for their goalies that will be the difference maker as to whether Dallas returns to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The team signed Sharp’s Stanley Cup winning teammate, free agent Johnny Oduya to provide a steadying hand on the backline.
And, young 6-foot-4, 220-lb. Stephen Johns – acquired from Chicago with Sharp for scrappy forward Ryan Garbutt (part of the “Pit Bull” line with Eakin and Antoine Roussel) and veteran defenseman Trevor Daley — may be ready to help immediately.
Other key cogs in the defensive zone are Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers (acquired from San Jose in November). Youngsters Jyrki Jokipakka and Patrik Nemeth (who missed much of last season with an arm laceration) have also played well in their brief NHL tenures. If they are able to step up, the netminders will be able to catch their breaths and square to the shooters.
GM Nill also acquired and signed goalie Antti Niemi (from San Jose) to take some of the burden off Kari Lehtenon. Neither netminder had a great season in 2014-15. Lehtonen played 65 games for the second straight season and struggled, compiling a 2.94 goals against average, his worst since 2008-09 when he posted a 3.06 for the Atlanta Thrashers.
However, the hope is that these fellow Finns will push each other to perform better. Niemi, who was in goal when the Blackhawks won their first of three recent titles in 2010, replaces Anders Lindback and Jhonas Enroth, neither of whom inspired enough confidence to enable the coaching staff to rest Lehtonen appropriately last season.
The quartet of Sharp, Seguin, Benn and Spezza should improve on the Stars’ 12th best power play a year ago. And their 19th best penalty kill should benefit from fewer exposures as the team plays smarter hockey and avoids taking bad penalties, something they were able to do as the season continued.
Lindy Ruff, starting his third season beyond the Stars’ bench, is highly regarded as a “players’ coach” who has achieved “buy-in” from all of his charges.