30 in 15: Stars seek success after major makeover
Saturday, 09.21.2013 / 3:00 AM
By Tal Pinchevsky
NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
No team saw more wholesale changes over the summer than the Dallas Stars. After missing out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, new ownership decided to make major changes, starting with the hiring of Jim Nill as general manager. After years of serving in the front office of the Detroit Red Wings, Nill's first act as Stars GM was to hire longtime Buffalo Sabres fixture Lindy Ruff as coach.
The changes didn't stop there, and the end result is a roster featuring a mix of young skill players and experienced veterans.
The defense will be bolstered by the addition of Sergei Gonchar, who enters his 19th NHL season after being signed days after his rights were acquired from the Ottawa Senators. The offense will be propelled by Tyler Seguin, a potential franchise player who was acquired along with center Rich Peverley from the Boston Bruins in exchange for a package highlighted by veteran wing Loui Eriksson.
"We've got some great young players here. I think we've built a team here that is fun to watch," Nill said on the opening day of training camp. "We've got really entertaining star players that are going to be exciting to watch, and we've surrounded them with some great veterans that bring the right presence. We're excited about the mix of this team."
The Stars offense hasn't ranked among the NHL's top 10 since the 2007-08 season. Not coincidentally, that was the last time the Stars made the playoffs. So it stands to reason that jump-starting the offense could translate into a playoff berth.
Ruff hasn't had much time to integrate his reanimated roster into his system. But he made it clear from the opening day of training camp his team would bear some resemblance to the ones he led in Buffalo.
"We're trying to implement how we want to play in a very short period of time. Playing more puck pressure, being more aggressive with our defense, trying to spend more time in the offensive zone," Ruff said at the beginning of camp. "When you start scoring the ugly goals, I know you're getting to the right place."
Ruff wouldn't commit to any line combinations, admitting he had "burned up quite a few napkins." But every indication is the offense will rely heavily on Seguin, who will be playing at his natural center position alongside All-Star wing Jamie Benn. In the first few scrimmages, they were paired with veteran power forward Erik Cole on the other wing.
"I know he's a big body, but I didn't know he was that quick. He's an explosive player," Seguin said of Cole, who led the Montreal Canadiens with 35 goals in 2011-12. "It's exciting. I'm looking forward to the chemistry building."
The second line could see a healthy mix of veteran savvy and youthful energy, as Ruff was experimenting with 41-year-old Ray Whitney playing alongside youngsters Cody Eakin and Alex Chiasson. The bottom two lines should combine youth and experience with the center spots being taken by offseason acquisitions Shawn Horcoff and Peverley, who will miss much of the preseason following a procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat.
The real wild card will be rookie Valeri Nichushkin, a 6-foot-4 Russian wing who fell to Dallas at the No. 10 pick in this year's NHL Draft. Stars brass has made it clear the 18-year-old will have every chance to make the team. If he does, he'll benefit from the veteran presence of Whitney, Cole and Gonchar, who hails from Nichushkin's hometown of Chelyabinsk.
"Gonchar mentored [Evgeni] Malkin [in Pittsburgh], so we're looking for that same mentorship now with Nichushkin," Nill told NHL.com. "That's another exciting piece to the puzzle. We're excited about Nichushkin. Physically, he's ready."
An aging defensive corps got a boost of youth last season with the emergence of Brenden Dillon and Jamie Oleksiak. Despite that combination of youth and experience, the Stars ranked 24th in 2012-13. In the end, it had to get older in order to get better.
By acquiring Gonchar's rights and signing him to a two-year contract, Dallas added an element to its blue line that was lacking. Not only does Gonchar provide the Stars with a defenseman who can join the rush and make plays from the back end, he should improve a power play that ranked 18th last season.
"He gives us a dimension we don't have a lot of. We have a couple of power-play guys but not as high-end as Sergei," Nill said. "I think he's really going to solidify the back end for us."
Gonchar's unique skill set should prove particularly important in the system Ruff is looking to install. As the active leader in points among defensemen, Gonchar is perfectly suited for that aggressive system.
Gonchar's veteran savvy will be especially important with young defensemen Oleksiak and Dillon, who established himself as a workhorse in his rookie season. Throw in established veterans Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski, and the Stars should have strong depth.
Other than altering the design of his goalie mask, franchise goaltender Kari Lehtonen didn't make too many changes this summer. Lehtonen has been one of the League's busiest goalies during the past three seasons and has been re-energized since being traded from the Atlanta Thrashers to Dallas in 2010.
The Stars filled a hole that has plagued them for several seasons by signing veteran backup Dan Ellis over the summer. Ellis started his career in Dallas before establishing himself with the Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks and Carolina Hurricanes. The hope is he provides a suitable insurance policy should Lehtonen get hurt.
As for Lehtonen, Dallas' starter is so far enjoying the view of his remade team from the crease.
"As the goalie, you get to see right away what kind of players these are. It's exciting, these guys that we got," Lehtonen told the team's website at the beginning of camp. "They can really score, are really skilled guys. I'm excited to see what they can do in games."