After a successful first season of the Jim Nill and Lindy Ruff era, the Dallas Stars look to continue their ascension back to the glory days of the late 1990’s. Raised expectations and a newly-found sense of confidence and hope among the players and fans set the stage for a very interesting second season under the new management. The 2014-2015 season provides an opportunity for the rising franchise to take another big step toward becoming Stanley Cup contenders.
As with every season, especially with a young and promising team, there are questions regarding the Stars that will be addressed for better or worse throughout the course of the season. Below are five questions that will play a large role in the Stars’ success or failure of the upcoming season.
How do Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin Follow Up Last Season?
The Stars are fortunate to boast one of the best duos in the entire league. Benn and Seguin’s instant chemistry helped propel both players to career highs in goals, assists and points. They finished last season in the top ten in goals and points in the NHL. The duo also finished among the five best even strength scorers in the league, and they were two of the Stars’ best possession players. They managed all of that with the opposition’s best defensemen trying to shut them down last season.
In 2014-2015, the duo might see softer matchups with newly acquired Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky forming a dangerous second line. Benn and Seguin have the skills, chemistry and team playing style to repeat last season. Also, last season’s experience at their natural positions should help both of the young superstars even more.
Will the Goaltending Issue Finally Be Solved?
For his first three full seasons in Dallas, Kari Lehtonen’s play dictated the team’s fate. He carried the team and gave the Stars a chance to win most nights. Because of all the pressure and playing time, Lehtonen was worn down by the end of the season. Playing nearly three-fourths of a season will do that to you, especially when the team in front of you has a tendency to allow tons of shots every game. Last season, the offense took some pressure off Lehtonen, but the lack of an efficient back-up didn’t help. Dan Ellis struggled, resulting in one of the worst statistical seasons of his career. Tim Thomas was brought in at the trade deadline, but that experiment was not very successful either. Lehtonen ended up playing 65 games in the regular season, putting him right back to where he was the previous three seasons.
Nill hopes to have found a solution with his signing of Anders Lindback. He takes up a lot of the net with his six-foot-six-inch and 210-pound frame without sacrificing agility and positioning. Lindback struggled with the Tampa Bay Lightning last season, but he has posted decent numbers over his four-year, 85-game career. The hope is that he can finally be the back-up to take pressure off of Lehtonen and give the Stars a fresh starting netminder for the end of the regular season and playoffs. Though maybe not the ideal back-up, Lindback has more potential than the likes of recent back-ups Ellis, Andrew Raycroft, Richard Bachman and the aging Thomas, especially with Cristopher Nilstorp in Sweden now and Jack Campbell in need of a little more seasoning.
Can Jason Spezza Provide the 1-2 Punch as Expected?
One of Dallas’ most glaring needs last season was a second-line center. It’s not that Cody Eakin was bad, he just fits much better on the third line. Nill addressed the need by trading away Alex Chiasson, two prospects and a second-round draft pick for Spezza and a prospect. That’s a hefty price to pay, but if Spezza can live up to his expectations this season, it could be just what the Stars need to return to the playoffs and try to make a deeper run. Spezza has been a point-per-game player over the course of his career. In addition to his production, he brings more leadership to the Dallas locker room after having been the captain of the Ottawa Senators.
If Spezza can stay healthy and continue to produce as he has his entire career, the Stars will have a really dangerous second line. Nill also brought in Hemsky, who had great chemistry alongside Spezza for 20 games last season. If Spezza and Hemsky can continue their strong play together in Dallas, the Stars will have two ferocious lines to wreak havoc on opponents.
Will Special Teams Improve?
Both the power play and penalty kill were in the bottom half of the league last season for the Stars. The power play went through embarrassingly long dry spells last season, and the penalty kill seemed to constantly suffer from mindless offensive zone penalties and missed defensive coverages. Adding Spezza and Hemsky should help strengthen the power play, and a slightly more experienced and comfortable Valeri Nichushkin should help as well. Defense is still a big question on special teams, though. Sergei Gonchar does not man the point on the power play as well as he used to. The Stars need a more consistent and confident Alex Goligoski to step up with the man advantage.
As for the penalty kill, bringing back Vernon Fiddler and adding Patrick Eaves will be extremely valuable. Jordie Benn and Brenden Dillon are strong defensively, but they are still relatively low on experience to be the big-time shutdown penalty killers. Last season was easily the best of Benn’s career. If he can keep up his elevated play, and if Dillon can continue the same, perhaps the Stars won’t find themselves digging the puck out of the net on the PK as much. If rookies Patrik Nemeth or Jamie Oleksiak make the roster, the hope is that they can carry over their strong defensive play from the AHL to the big club. Nemeth already showcased his strong defensive play in 13 games with Dallas last season.
How Will the Defense Hold Up?
This is possibly the biggest and most debated question of the upcoming season for the Stars. The offense received massive upgrades and has lots of depth. The defense… well, it pretty much stayed the same. Again Goligoski and Daley are the top defenders on the roster. Jordie Benn and Dillon are still developing nicely. Connauton showed some offensive potential last season but wasn’t as effective defensively, and Gonchar constantly struggled with and without the puck. Four rookies are NHL-ready or nearly there, but their inexperience is a worry. Though there is potential on the blue line for the franchise, it’ll take more time and seasoning to get it all together.
Last season, the Stars survived a short while with three injured defensemen. If it happens again, or if someone is sidelined for an extended period of time, could the current blue line survive? A look at the roster on paper and the answer is probably no. Then again, there is hope in the way Goligoski and Daley played down the stretch last season as well the continued growth of the youngsters.