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Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Dallas Stars

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season andPuck Drop Preview offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page.  Today is the 2014-2015 Dallas Stars.

Last Season

2013-14 was a roller coaster season for Dallas. With a new head coach in Lindy Ruff (who parted ways with the Buffalo Sabres after fifteen years of service), and a new GM in Jim Nill, change was abound for the Stars.

Management wasn’t the only thing that was different for last season, however. There was a newly-anointed face of the franchise in captain Jamie Benn. Tyler Seguin was acquired by Nill in a blockbuster trade with the Bruins, to become the team’s first-line centre. The Stars even rebranded themselves, with sharp new “Victory Green” jerseys. All these were just the latest in a plethora of changes brought in since Jim Gaglardi purchased the team in 2011.

The Stars were pitied by a lot of fans, due to the inconvenience of their division placement. The Central was the toughest in hockey this season, with the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and resurgent Colorado Avalanche. However, they maintained a winning 13-11-5 record against their own division, as well as an impressive 14-3-4 against the Pacific, which included the Anaheim Ducks, L.A. Kings and San Jose Sharks.

The season was filled with highs and lows. At some points, they looked unbeatable, including one special game against Vancouver, in which Seguin had a hat trick (plus two assists) and Benn had four points, en route to a 6-1 drubbing of the Canucks. However, there were also times during the campaign when the Stars looked more like the 2012-13 team, which finished last in the old five-team Pacific Division. It was times like these when goaltender Kari Lehtonen stepped up, often stealing games for Dallas. He finished the season with a decent .919 save percentage.

Benn had a career year, proving to fans and management alike that he was the perfect choice for captain. His leadership shone through when teammate Rich Peverley collapsed in a scary moment on the bench with a cardiac event during a game against Columbus. He carried the team the next night when the Stars played St. Louis, scoring the overtime winner. Benn’s play early in the year was good enough to make the Canadian team for the Olympics, where he won a gold medal and played an important role.

Ultimately, the good certainly outweighed the bad, as Ruff was able to coach the exciting young Stars to their first playoff appearance in six years. They held on to the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference, beating out the Phoenix Coyotes by just two points. Unfortunately, that spot meant they were in for a date with the Ducks, one of the major Stanley Cup contenders. The Stars put up a good fight in their first round matchup, evening the series at home after going down 2-0 in California, but were eventually bumped from the postseason in overtime in Game Six.

Overall, it was a good season for Dallas. Benn and Seguin ended up with 79 and 84 points, respectively, which put them both in the top ten of NHL scoring. Rookie Valeri Nichushkin had a great first year, scoring 34 points while being shuffled around the lineup. Alex Goligoski silenced a lot of the critics who had been hanging around him since the Stars traded James Neal for him, by scoring 42 points from the blue line and being the team’s best defenceman. Dallas was a very interesting team to watch in 2013-14 and surely have a very bright future ahead.

Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Dallas Stars

Offseason Changes

This summer, the Stars were once again involved in one of the biggest off-season blockbuster trades. Long-time franchise player Jason Spezza requested a trade away from the Ottawa Senators and many teams became suitors for the star center. However, it was Nill who beat the competition, acquiring Spezza in exchange for just one roster player in Alex Chiasson, some mid-tier prospects, and a second-round pick.

Spezza, as the second-line center behind Seguin, will be part of one of the best one-two punches down the middle in the entire NHL. Last season he scored 66 points, and should be able to produce somewhere near that again in 2014-15.

To complement Spezza, the Stars signed winger Ales Hemsky from free agency. Hemsky, after being traded to Ottawa last season, played on Spezza’s line, where the two had great chemistry (Hemsky scored 17 points in 20 games – a small sample size to go on, but it can’t hurt to try it). Dallas’ second line is now a very strong offensive force, in addition to the dominant first line.

Nill managed to refrain from making any foolish big-name signings, making some smaller moves. He signed goalies Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas to add to the Stars’ depth in net, as well as Patrick Eaves, who will be a decent depth forward. Other than that, Dallas didn’t do much.

Actually, the Stars did add one more important member to the team…

2014-15 Lineup Projections

It’s yet to be decided whether Nichushkin is ready to play on the top line, however the Stars aren’t likely to put Hemsky there and sacrifice his potential chemistry with Spezza (to start the season, at least). He will probably line up along with Benn and Seguin on opening night, although Hemsky could well move up there later. His playmaking ability could work well with Seguin. Unfortunately, it’s unknown whether Peverley will be able to return to hockey this season. He could fit in well on the second line. Instead, Erik Cole will likely play there. The third line will likely feature fan favourites in the fiery Cody Eakin and effective pest Antoine Roussel, reuniting the second line that worked so well last year. Cole will be on the second line to avoid splitting up the third.

Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Valeri Nichushkin

Erik Cole – Jason Spezza – Ales Hemsky

Antoine Roussel – Cody Eakin – Ryan Garbutt

Shawn Horcoff – Vernon Fiddler – Colton Sceviour

On the blue line, Goligoski and Daley will be a very strong first pairing. Brenden Dillon will probably play most of his time with Jamie Benn’s older brother, Jordie BennSergei Gonchar will command the third pairing, along with either Jamie Oleksiak or Kevin Connauton.

Alex Goligoski – Trevor Daley

Brenden Dillon – Jordie Benn

Sergei Gonchar – Kevin Connauton

Lehtonen is a reliable starting goaltender for the Stars and seems to have gotten over some of the health and inconsistency issues that plagued him earlier in his career. Should he falter, Lindback has the experience and skill to hold the net for a while, though his last two seasons in Tampa Bay weren’t exactly stellar so the Stars will hope that Lehtonen stays healthy.

Kari Lehtonen

Anders Lindback

Players On The Rise

  • Tyler Seguin
  • Valeri Nichushkin
  • Cody Eakin

It’s easy to be taken aback at the notion of Seguin being “on the rise”. However, it’s also easy to forget that he’s only 22 years old. With an 84-point season under his belt after his fourth NHL season, he’s already a superstar. The exciting part (or scary part for all other teams) is that he’s only going to get better.

This year will finally see the return of the All Star Game, in which Seguin will almost certainly, barring injury, take part. In fact, if he’s able to stay healthy (a big “if” if ever there was one), it’s not out of the question that he could challenge for the Art Ross Trophy this season. There are some doubts about Sidney Crosby’s wrist, and, if he gets out to a slow start because of it (as Claude Giroux did last year), it will be a close race to the top. Ryan Getzlaf and Claude Giroux, the other two players above Seguin in scoring last season, were only separated from him by three and two points, respectively. In addition, Seguin is the only one who hasn’t hit his prime yet, and thus is most likely to significantly improve from last season. He could well be on his way to becoming one of the best points producers in the NHL.

As mentioned earlier in this article, Nichushkin had an unbelievable rookie year in 2013-14. The Stars effectively stole him at 10th overall in the 2013 draft; the only thing that reportedly caused him to drop so far was speculation that he might choose to play in the KHL. However, he did decide to join the Stars, who won out huge. The spot alongside Seguin and Jamie Benn is his to lose now.

Nichushkin is big (standing 6’4″), and thus is a good physical presence, but also has some significant speed and skating ability. He will be looking to avoid the sophomore slump, trying to hold on to the first line spot (with Ales Hemsky surely trying to take his place). Nichushkin is going to be a very interesting player to watch this season. Playing with Seguin and Benn is bound to give him a substantial boost in offensive production, as seen last season.

Finally, Eakin has quickly become a fan favourite in Texas. The “Ginger Ninja”, as he is affectionately called, was the centerpiece of the Stars’ energy line, with  Roussel and Ryan Garbutt. He repeatedly showed he was able to handle very tough minutes, at the age of just 22. Eakin will be the most important piece of one of the NHL’s best third lines this season, especially as he too continues to improve. He’s well on his way to becoming an excellent two-way forward, with the ability to score when needed (he scored 16 goals last season).

The only potential sticking point is that Eakin is still, as of the writing of this article, a restricted free agent. Training camp is due to open soon, and he could well miss the start of it.

There are certainly other young Stars on the rise, such as Roussel, Brenden Dillon, or Colton Sceviour, but these are the three who will be key to future success in Dallas.

Players On The Decline

  • Sergei Gonchar
  • Ales Hemsky
  • Shawn Horcoff

Hands up, who forgot Sergei Gonchar plays for the Stars? The former All Star has slipped into obscurity at the age of 40. He was traded to Dallas a year ago, and was signed to a 2-year, $10 million contract. Fortunately the Stars have significant wiggle room under the salary cap, or else that would get more recognition as one of the worst contracts in the league.

Often, Gonchar looked like the worst Star on the ice last season, despite playing about 17 minutes a night. One has to think this will be his last season, with his deal expiring next summer. He will be a good veteran presence on a very young team, but his value doesn’t stretch very far beyond that.

Yes, Hemsky was praised earlier in this very article, but he too is on the decline. He likely does have at least another season or two as a good playmaking forward, but Stars fans shouldn’t be too surprised when his production falls off a cliff. It remains to be seen if he can carry over his chemistry with Jason Spezza to Dallas. If he can’t, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see some very vocal critics emerging. He will likely still be much more useful than Gonchar, but gone are the days of him being a go-to forward in Edmonton. Fortunately for the Stars, Hemsky is on a reasonable contract, for three years at $4 million per.

Oh look, another former Oiler. Shawn Horcoff, similarly to Hemsky, should’ve left Edmonton long before he did. Unfortunately for the Oilers, by the time they did get around to trading him, they didn’t get much return (a prospect and a 7th rounder). Horcoff mostly centered the fourth line in Dallas last season, and looked very slow a lot of the time. However, he was like a different player in the playoffs. In the series against Anaheim, he was very strong at both ends of the ice, and scored six points in six games. Nevertheless, he definitely isn’t worth the $5.5 million cap hit. At 35 years old, he’s definitely on a downward slope.

2014-15 Season Expectations

It would be logical to expect an improvement over last year for Dallas. All their main stars are due to get better, and they’ve added another dangerous offensive threat in Spezza. Last year’s core alone would be expected to improve this year, so a good year can be predicted for the Stars when their additions are factored in.

There’s nothing about Dallas’s stats that would suggest otherwise, either. Their Corsi and Fenwick are both reasonable for a team in the top half of the NHL (14th and 12th in the league, respectively). Their PDO is 12th as well, so they have probably been playing pretty close to their potential. Kari Lehtonen didn’t play at an unsustainable level last year, either.

All the signs point to the Stars being right in the thick of things in the Western Conference. They will likely be hungry to return to the playoffs and make a deeper run, and they have all the makings to be a perennial Cup contender in a few years. They probably will feature in the 2015 postseason, either in a wildcard spot or (if things go well) 3rd in the Central Division.

Of course, this is all assuming things go decently well for the Stars. Their depth hasn’t been tested all that much, and an extended injury to Seguin or Benn could well put them out of the playoffs. However, if their best players can stay (mostly) healthy, and play to their expected standards, one would think the Dallas Stars will be playing in late April of 2015.

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