The Dallas Stars cruised past a Minnesota Wild squad made up mostly of ‘bubble’ players and AHLers Tuesday night. With the 4-1 victory, the Stars improved to 3-2-0 in September. They’ll close out the preseason Saturday in the Twin Cities, where they’ll likely face a dramatically different Wild team.
It’s easy to dismiss preseason games; after all, they don’t ‘count,’ right? Just don’t say that to the guys battling for a roster spot, knowing that every shift can potentially make or break their NHL dreams. For those players, their toughest opponents wear the same jersey and share the same dream.
The Stars entered training camp with a few roster spots up for grabs, and the number of players grabbing hold has been astounding. Ken Hitchcock said recently that he had six NHL-caliber lines, and the coach wasn’t exaggerating. The club brought 37 forwards to camp. Seventeen remain as of Wednesday morning, which means three or four more cuts will come over the next few days.
Forwards aren’t the only players stepping up. The battle of the blue line continues, with Jamie Oleksiak, Julius Honka, Stephen Johns and Patrik Nemeth all making cases for inclusion. Unless the Stars choose to carry eight defensemen for a third consecutive season, at least one of these players must go.
The level of competition for roster spots speaks directly to the Stars’ organizational depth. Hitchcock and general manager Jim Nill have some tough decisions to make this week, and that’s a good thing.
Devin Shore: Just Winging It
Watching Devin Shore lately, it’s hard to believe he scored his first NHL goal just last year. The 23-year-old University of Maine alum has had a great preseason, picking up three assists in five games.
Monday night, Shore found himself on the left wing of a line with rookie Roope Hintz and Brett Ritchie. In a losing effort against the Colorado Avalanche, he assisted on the Stars’ first goal, a strike by Ritchie. Tuesday against the Wild, Shore took Jamie Benn’s left wing spot on a line with Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov. He assisted on Seguin’s first goal of the preseason and created multiple opportunites which his linemates failed to finish. Shore’s efforts drew praise from his coach after the game.
“…Shore is the type of player that has got such a tremendous work ethic, he sets the table no matter what line he’s on,” Hitchcock said. “He’s going to help anybody from a working standpoint.”
Adaptability is a key to the Ajax, Ontario native’s success. Shore is a natural center, but the Stars’ impressive depth at that position has forced him, like teammate Mattias Janmark, to the wing. Though he’s played the last two games on the left side, the left-shooting Shore spent some practice time at right wing of late and could find himself there on opening night. How hard is it to switch from one forward position to another?
“It’s not too hard,” Shore said. “I think the good thing is that I’ve had some experience with it before. In a lot of ways, with the style we play, it’s you’re filling the next lane, you’re reading off your teammates.”
The forward elaborated: “Something I’ve got to make sure [of] when I’m on wing is that I’m really good on the walls on the breakout. You’re looking for the D to pinch. The breakout’s a bit different when you’re coming across to support, whereas [at] center, you’re always worried about being under the puck and supporting down low. But once you get out of your own end, you’re supporting the puck.”
Shore continued: “The forecheck’s the same; it doesn’t matter which position you’re playing. Then on the backcheck, if you’re the first guy back you’ve got to play low, regardless of if you’re lining up on wing or not. It’s an adjustment, but it’s very doable.”
Switching positions is harder for some players than others. Shore is making it look easy.
Based on preseason game line combinations and Hitch’s comments, the Stars’ top two lines should look like this on opening night:
The bottom half of the lineup remains murky, due to both Martin Hanzal’s absence (a pre-camp ankle injury severely limited the offseason acquisition, who’s expected to make his Stars debut in the final preseason game) and the notable play of Hintz, Jason Dickinson, Gemel Smith and Remi Elie.
Questions abound: Does Radek Faksa center the fourth line or play wing with Hanzal? If Faksa’s on the wing, who centers the fourth line, Shore, Hintz, Gemel Smith, Adam Cracknell or someone else? And so on.
I’ve been trying to work it all out. The result? My office now looks like John Nash’s secret workplace in A Beautiful Mind and my wife is growing concerned. Only Hitch knows what the bottom-six will look like, and at this point, I’m not sure that his mind is made up. That said, here’s one intriguing possibility:
Such a combination would give the Stars a truly loaded top-nine, the importance of which Hitchcock has stressed since camp began. What about Hintz and Dickinson, then?
Asked on consecutive days about the possibility of youngsters playing top line minutes in the AHL versus fourth line minutes in Dallas, the coach refused to tip his hand, stressing the need for such up-and-comers to “play regularly,” as opposed to playing top-nine minutes. The Stars obviously like what they see from Hintz and Dickinson, but both they and the organization will benefit in the long run from a season on the top line in Cedar Park.
Stars fans who love to yell, “Shoot the puck!” during the power play can save their breath when Julius Honka’s on the ice. Against the Avalanche Monday, the talented Finn fired 13 shots at the net, many of which came on the power play. Six were blocked, six were saved and one found its way through for a goal. Honka was held to four shot attempts Tuesday night, but has one goal and two assists in four preseason contests.
Scouts from 15 NHL clubs attended the Stars-Avs game Monday night. I don’t think they were all there to kick the tires on Matt Duchene. The next night, 13 scouts showed up to watch the Stars play a bunch of AHLers. The Stars have an abundance of defensemen. If Nill can get something in return for a player rather than losing him via waivers, he’ll do it.
How deep are the Stars at center? Deep enough to expose Cody Eakin in the June expansion draft, where the Vegas Golden Knights wisely snapped him up. The expansion team played their first home game of the preseason Tuesday night, and the “Ginger Ninja” scored their first goal in front of a home crowd. Eakin has one goal and two assists in two games and is expected to center the second line. He’ll return to Dallas next week for the Stars’ season opener, which will also be the first regular-season game in Golden Knights franchise history.
Quote of the Week
“He’s on the right side of everything. He’s on the right side of pucks, he’s on the right side offensively, he understands concepts, he understands how to create offense from his own plays. He’s a very smart player.” —Ken Hitchcock on Devin Shore