The Dallas Stars walked out of 2014-2015 with a mission. They posted a 41-31-10 record, good for sixth in the Central Division and not good enough for a playoff spot. They had qualified for the post-season the previous season, but it was not a feat they could repeat and that was a deeply frustrating thing considering how hard they tried.
Dallas was firing on all cylinders for much of 2014-2015. They averaged a second-overall 3.13 goals per game. They scored 261 goals, tops in the Western Conference and only one goal behind the Tampa Bay Lightning. The trouble was that the Stars allowed 260 goals, with only the Edmonton Oilers, Arizona Coyotes, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Buffalo Sabres allowing more.
In the off-season, Dallas set their sights on changing their defensive fortunes. They traded for goalie Antti Niemi and signed defenceman Johnny Oduya, plus they traded for former Blackhawk Patrick Sharp. These upgrades should help a great deal, especially in terms of giving the Stars some much-needed stability on the back end.
Up front, this is a dangerous team. Jamie Benn is coming off an Art Ross Trophy win and will once again lead the charge offensively. He may not have averaged a great deal of points per game (1.06), but his offensive efforts in a season where the Stars missed the playoffs were certainly notable. Benn finished with 35 goals and 52 assists.
Centre Tyler Seguin also had a good year. He had 77 points in 71 games, including 37 goals. He continues to amaze with his overall skill and he can play one-on-one like nobody’s business. Seguin also had 280 shots on target and finished with 13 power play goals. The 23-year-old will continue to power this team and having more options on his wings won’t hurt his point totals.
Forward like Sharp, Valeri Nichushkin, Ales Hemsky, Jason Spezza, Antoine Roussel, and Cody Eakin give the Stars plenty of opportunities to stir the pot. The club is very excited about Nichushkin in particular, with the 20-year-old Chelyabinsk-born winger set to emerge. Hemsky can still dangle with the best of them, too, and he put up solid totals in his first season in Dallas.
It’s no secret that the Stars have needed to tighten up on the blueline. They allowed a ton of goals last season and very nearly exhausted goalie Kari Lehtonen right out of the starter position. Alex Goligoski is still the top defenceman on the club, but his offensive skills have led to some deficiencies in his own end. He can power the attack from the back, but he can also get outworked in front of his own goal and that’s a problem.
John Klingberg is another offensive defenceman with significant quarterbacking abilities. The 22-year-old Swede had 40 points last season, including two goals on the power play. He’s a sleek and confident skater, but he lacks the sort of aggression the Stars need. Luckily, Oduya can pick up the slack. He’s capable of slipping into the shutdown role and he seldom makes mistakes in his own zone.
23-year-old Swedish defenceman Patrik Nemeth is another shutdown option. He’s a good-sized player with sound positional skills, plus he excels at moving the puck. The issue is with his consistency, however, and he can be injury-prone. Offensive defenceman Jason Demers adds more options, but he struggles with his physical game and could use more consistency.
Niemi will likely assume the starting role for the Stars and that’s a good thing. He can log big minutes without straining and covers a lot of the net with his big frame. He won 31 games last season and has top-tier reflexes, even if his glove hand leaves a lot to be desired. Still, Niemi will help share the load with Lehtonen and that’s a good thing.
Lehtonen is a workhorse, no question about it. The 31-year-old Finnish netminder logged 65 games last season and recorded 34 wins, posting a goals against average of 2.94 and facing well over 1,800 shots. He had five shutouts. Lehtonen has the knack for challenging shooters and he likes to play the angles, which can present some problems from time to time.
The Stars have a nice mix of prospects in the system and should be in good hands for years to come. Defenceman Julius Honka is often considered near the top of the heap. The 19-year-old blueliner is a terrific skater and he can score, plus he’s a solid presence on the power play. Some consider him a little on the small size, but his aptitude makes up for it.
Centre Devin Shore is also worth a look. The 21-year-old from Ajax is a sturdy two-way pivot with quality hockey sense. He’s an aggressive player, even if he will need to fill out his frame a little. There’s a great deal of upside for Shore, however, and he should start showing up in key situations as Dallas works him into the roster.
The Path Ahead
The Stars are hoping their upgrades in goal will make the difference. Niemi and Lehtonen should form a decent tandem. While they can both handle large workloads, a little moderation will help in the end. And having stability between the pipes should open things up even more for Dallas, which could see them scoring even more. Imagine that.
The addition of Sharp is a difference-maker. He gives the forward group more options, which in turn makes them more dangerous. Sharp can either slot in with Spezza or play between Benn and Seguin on a top unit. The possibilities are awesome and having these sorts of opportunities might just volley the Stars into playoff position once again.