The Dallas Stars took full advantage of an easy schedule through the first quarter of the 2015-16 campaign, exploding out of the gate to the best 20-game start in franchise history. Can Dallas equal last season’s stellar 16-4-0 kickoff? Though possible, three key reasons make it unlikely.
Last year, save for a one-off trip to Colorado for the second game of the season, the Stars played every other road game (ten in all) in the Eastern time zone. Those games were split into well-organized, almost leisurely, trips. The first “roadie” is a prime example: at Tampa Bay, one day off, at Florida, two days off, at Philadelphia, one day off, and at Pittsburgh. Through the first 20 games, the Stars rolled up a 9-1-0 record on the road against Eastern Conference teams.
The Hockey Gods, or at least the NHL schedule-makers, weren’t nearly as kind this time around. Through the first quarter of the 2016-17 season, the Stars have road trips of two, three and five games. The first two trips feature games in two different time zones, while the five-game roadie in early November features two back-to-backs and four different start times, spread across three time zones. As if that wasn’t daunting enough, the first back-to-back is a home-and-home against Dallas’ top division rival/mortal enemy, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Speaking of division rivals, the Stars face Central foes in 11 of their first 20 contests this season, compared to just three of 20 last year. After finishing atop the division last season, the Stars have targets on their backs. For the other teams in the Central, those will be “measuring-stick” games. They’ll be ready to prove themselves; will Dallas? Schedule aside, two human factors will impact the Stars’ readiness.
With Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Kris Russell moving out of Dallas and Dan Hamhuis moving in, the defense corps won’t just be younger and bigger; it will also be dramatically different.
Beginning in training camp and likely lasting through October (and possibly longer), the Dallas D-pairs will be subject to “Ruffling” as head coach Lindy Ruff tries to find the best combinations. Patrik Nemeth, rookie Esa Lindell and Hamhuis could all “audition” as John Klingberg’s partner. Johnny Oduya could be paired with Stephen Johns again, or perhaps Ruff will prefer Lindell with Johns, as those two spent much of last season skating together in Cedar Park. And so on.
The longer it takes for Ruff to find three defensive pairs he likes, the longer it will take for those pairs to develop chemistry. Mistakes will be made; it’s just part of the process of getting to know your partner’s style of play and habits. When defensemen make mistakes, scoring chances – often of the “high-quality” variety – result. When that happens, the last line of defense has to step up.
Will the Stars enter the 2016-17 season with the Finnish tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi in net again, or will general manager Jim Nill pull off a late-summer trade? Through game 20 last season, Lehtonen’s save percentage was .923 and Niemi’s was .911. By game 82, those numbers had fallen to .906 and .905, respectively. In the playoffs, their save percentages fell even further, to .899 and .865.
Nill can’t assume Lehtonen and Niemi will rebound and begin this season like they did the last, particularly with a younger (and potentially more mistake-prone) defense in front of them. A goalie unburdened by the memory of last spring’s Game 7 collapse against the St. Louis Blues could shake off a turnover-induced goal or two, inspire confidence in his teammates and help the Stars to a good, if not record-setting, start to the season.