We are now just days away from the start of Dallas Stars training camp on September 23. Heading into the first full season in years, there are a lot of questions this team will need to answer. Who will be in goal? Are their top players fully recovered from previous injuries? Which prospects, if any, will make the jump to the NHL? Can they score more goals while maintaining their elite defense? These will be the focuses for this team going forward and the top storylines to watch throughout camp in 2021-22.
Bishop, Khudobin, Holtby, and Oettinger: Four Goalies for Two Spots
Goaltending has been a hot topic around the Stars for the past two seasons. After possessing one of the leagues’ top tandems in Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, Bishop’s knee injury forced them into uncomfortable situations. While Khudobin stepped up and delivered a great performance in the 2020 playoffs, he struggled last season in his first experience as a starter. Rookie Jake Oettinger exceeded expectations, seemingly surpassing Khudobin by the end of the season and making the situation even more blurry. However, despite his strong performance, the goaltending was not good enough. Between both goalies, the Stars finished the season with a 2.45 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage.
When Jim Nill added veteran Braden Holtby in free agency, it seemed to confirm that Bishop will not be ready to return following his knee surgery. He has only played three games since his injury in May 2020 and missed the entire 2020-21 season. If he is not ready to go, he will be placed on the Long-term Injured Reserve list so his $4.9 million cap hit can temporarily come off the books.
Assuming he will not be ready, that leaves Khudobin, Holtby, and Oettinger to battle for two available roster spots. While all three have an equal opportunity, there is one key factor in place, Oettinger’s contract. He is entering the final season of his entry-level contract which allows him to be moved freely between the American Hockey League and NHL without requiring waivers. This means Dallas could elect to start him in the AHL while testing the veteran duo of Khudobin and Holtby. If those two are not performing, Oettinger can be called up at any time. However, if the youngster truly outplays both veterans in camp, he may get his chance at the start of the season as he has already proven he is overqualified for AHL hockey.
Where Will Benn, Seguin, Others Fit Into the Lineup?
With all of the injuries, rising stars, and aging veterans surrounding this team, it may be the most unknown Stars lineup we have ever seen. Much of it will be decided with the health of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Roope Hintz, Radek Faksa, Joel Kiviranta, and others. First, let’s look at what we do know heading into this season. In the forward group, the top line will start out as it ended last season with Hintz centering Joe Pavelski and Jason Robertson. That trio was the best line all season and looks to build off of that momentum with a fully healthy Hintz in the middle. On the second line, it is likely that Seguin and Radulov, who have had great chemistry in the past, will fill two of three spots. The third forward on that group will be decided throughout camp with options such as Jamie Benn, Kiviranta, and Denis Gurianov.
On the backend, the top four will feature John Klingberg, Ryan Suter, Esa Lindell, and Miro Heiskanen. While Klingberg and Lindell have played together for years, there are a couple of options as far as pairings go. With Heiskanen comfortable playing on either side of the ice, he will slot in next to either Suter or Lindell, lefties who are better on their strong side. The same can be said for Klingberg, the only right-handed shot in the group. Suter and Lindell are smart two-way defensemen that will allow Klingberg and Heiskanen the freedom to roam offensively. This is a huge key for those two as Dallas looks to continue to add more offense from the backend.
From there, things get very blurry. When filling the bottom two forward lines, Dallas can choose from Benn, Kiviranta, Gurianov, Faska, Luke Glendening, Blake Comeau, Tanner Kero, and Michael Raffl. Then, there are also top prospects Ty Dellandrea, Riley Damiani, Rhett Gardner, Joel L’Esperance, and Riley Tufte. Any of these forwards can perform at camp to find their place in the bottom six. Finally, the third pairing on defense will likely feature a combination of Jani Hakanpaa, Andrej Sekera, Joel Hanley, and young prospect Thomas Harley. These four seem to be on an even playing field to secure a roster spot. We will do a much deeper dive into the projected Stars lineup later this week.
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Stars Approach to More Offense
If you have watched the Dallas Stars since 2018, you know they struggle to score goals. Finishing below the middle of the pack in most seasons, a lack of offense has cost them in the regular season and in the playoffs. In 2020-21, they averaged only 2.79 goals per game, 16th in the NHL. While they won’t need to score four goals per game as an elite defensive team, these stats will need to improve if they are going to make the playoffs this season.
One big change came just before the 2020 playoffs began in the Edmonton Bubble. During Stars mini camp, Rick Bowness and his staff urged their talented defense to become more aggressive jumping up into the play. This resulted in a huge boost to their offense as Dallas was one of the higher scoring teams during their playoff run. On top of that, they finished last season fourth in the league with 32 goals by defensemen. With this change, however, comes more risk.
If you ask your defenseman to be more aggressive, you also need fluidity with their partner as well as the forwards on the ice. If there is miscommunication, it can lead to an odd-man rush the other direction. This is where the addition of Suter will really pay off. Now, Dallas will have one responsible defensive-minded option to cover for the more skilled defensemen on each pairing. Suter and Lindell will give their team the confidence to take chances without worrying about having backup. This can be even more of a factor if Dallas can have full confidence in their goaltending as they have in previous seasons.
The other factors that should lead to more offense are the return of key players from injury and the growth and development of younger players. With Seguin, Hintz, Radulov, and Faksa expected to be at full health and young players like Robertson and Hintz becoming more responsible, there should be more fluidity and production between defense and offense. If the Stars can find the proper balance and receive offense from both units, they should be able to score plenty of goals this season.
Now, it is time to stop talking and start producing. With camp only a few days away, the Dallas Stars need to start turning their potential into results. This season, they have the chance to roll out a highly skilled mix of veterans and youngsters that will be very tough to play against. As we have stated before, with multiple big contracts ending this summer and players nearing the end of their prime, the 2021-22 season is a vital one for the Stars.
Sam Nestler is a Dallas Stars contributor for the ‘The Hockey Writers’. Growing up in New Jersey, Sam has been playing hockey since he was 7 years old. Developing a love for writing in college, Sam uses his hockey knowledge to create analyses and articles on every aspect of the game. Sam also hosts his own podcast on Spotify, the “Slapshot Sammy’ podcast, breaking down action across the NHL and NCAA. Check out the podcast here, and give his latest article a read!