The Dallas Stars had a good, if imperfect, week.
They slid past a desperate Arizona Coyotes squad with a 5-4 win Thursday night, extending their win streak to three games and boosting their record to 4-3-0. That’s good.
To get Thursday’s win, however, goalie Ben Bishop had to play the role of Bonasera in The Godfather, using all his powers and all his skills to hold the hungry Coyotes to four goals. That’s imperfect.
Saturday night, the Stars face off against the Carolina Hurricanes, who arrive in Dallas riding a two-game win streak powered by the league’s fourth-best goals-against average. The visitors from the East promise a tough test for a Stars club still trying to find the right forward line and defense pair combinations. Could the Stars’ search result in a significant change to the roster?
Stars Tweaking Middle Six, Shuffling Defensemen
Over the past week, the forward line combos of Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Alexander Radulov and Antoine Roussel – Radek Faksa – Tyler Pitlick have remained largely intact. The other two lines remain a work in progress.
Coach Ken Hitchcock has tried almost every imaginable combination of Mattias Janmark, Jason Spezza, Brett Ritchie, Devin Shore, Martin Hanzal and Remi Elie. Perhaps most concerning is that Spezza, Ritchie and Hanzal, who were expected to provide critical secondary scoring for the Stars, have combined for one (empty-net) goal and four assists through seven games. That has to change, and Hitch will undoubtedly continue to mix-and-match lines until it does.
Thursday night, big blueliner Jamie Oleksiak played for the first time since the Stars’ 4-1 loss to the Nashville Predators one week ago. He had a rough night, taking a holding penalty three minutes into the first period and allowing two breakaways in the third, including on Clayton Keller’s game-tying goal.
Following that disastrous shift, Oleksiak spent the remainder of the game on the bench. Afterwards, Hitchcock stuck up for his defenseman.
“We’ll live with the mistakes, but what we want to see is strong emotion,” Hitchcock said. “We don’t care who is in. We want to see strong emotion from that player and the rest we’ll take care and teach through the mistakes.”
Does that mean Oleksiak plays again Saturday? Does he sit while Julius Honka goes back in? Do both youngsters play while veteran Dan Hamhuis sits? We’ll find out Saturday. Hitch said during training camp that he wanted to nail down his top-six as quickly as possible. As October rapidly comes to an end, that goal remains elusive.
So Long, Spezza?
Jason Spezza’s ice time has fallen off a cliff under Hitchcock. Last season, the big centerman averaged 16:10 per game. Through seven games this season, Spezza’s averaging just 12:50 and has played less than 12 minutes in each of the last two contests.
Despite struggling through the disastrous 2016-17 campaign, Spezza still managed 50 points in 68 games. So far this season, he has three points, all assists. Not only is the 34-year-old capable of much more, he’s being paid accordingly, carrying a $7.5 million cap hit this season and next.
Back in August, I wrote about the possibility of trading Spezza. Though the season isn’t a month old, it’s worth noting that the New York Rangers are face-down in the Eastern Conference gutter and awfully thin down the middle of the ice. To fit Spezza under the cap, the Rangers would have to send another big contract back to the Stars.
Rick Nash fits the bill. He can play either wing and is quite familiar with Hitch, having played for him in Columbus for parts of four seasons. Nash has a cap hit of $7.8 million but will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, which would give the Stars plenty of flexibility going forward.
Speaking of Columbus…the Blue Jackets are another intriguing possibility. Like their division-rival Rangers, the Jackets could use a veteran top-six center. They also have an abundance of talented wingers the Stars could use.
I haven’t heard anything solid on the subject of trading Spezza, but smoke is beginning to rise. A source tells me the Stars organization has been well-represented at Nationwide Arena lately, with Les Jackson, Scott White and head pro scout Paul McIntosh all attending games in Columbus this month. Though nothing may come of this, a move makes a lot of sense for all parties.
Devin Shore is something of a strange bird, in that he shoots left but is naturally right-handed. He even golfs right-handed. When I asked about it, Shore explained that his dominant (right) hand is his “finesse” hand, so having it higher on the stick gives him greater dexterity when stickhandling.
I never thought about it before now, but this makes sense. Like Shore, my son is a left-shooting righty, while I’m a lefty all the way. And like Shore, my son can stickhandle circles around me. Good to know it’s not that I’m old, slow and uncoordinated.
New Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta caused a stir recently by expressing interest in bringing an NHL team to Houston.
Stars equipment staffers Steve “Sudsy” Sumner, Dennis Soetaert and Ryan Martin all spent time working for the since-relocated Houston Aeros of the AHL, so I asked for their thoughts on the subject. Not surprisingly, all three liked the idea of a team in Houston. Martin also pointed out that the Toyota Center is an NHL-ready building.
The league isn’t talking expansion right now, but you can be sure they’re paying close attention. It’s no secret that they would love to put a team in Seattle, the twelfth-ranked American television market. At seventh, Houston is the highest-ranked TV market without an NHL team. On top of that, the Bayou City has a long history of supporting hockey.
In the 31-team NHL, the Central is the only division with seven teams; all the rest have eight. Balancing out the league while giving the Stars an in-state rival would be a big win all around.
In the dressing room after Wednesday’s practice, Antoine Roussel said something unintelligible. Seeing raised eyebrows in response, the Stars’ Fighting Frenchman explained that he was trying out his “Texas accent.” As my mother would say, “at least he tried, bless his heart.”
When I told him that I was born and raised in the Lone Star State, he said, “That’s why your accent is pretty good.” Pretty good? Guess I just need to keep working on it.
Quote of the Week
“It’s the first games still, we are six games in the season, we’re still under a new coach, have a new setup and new guys. We’re just getting together and I feel like we’re coming together and it’s getting better and better.” — Radek Faksa, after Tuesday’s win over the Coyotes