After the most promising of summers and then a training camp where the newness of it all is there for any interested parties to see, we are finally to the week where it all starts fresh for the Dallas Stars.
As someone who is starting my 15th season around the block covering this hockey team, I can tell you that I haven’t been this anxious in quite a while. How long? Let’s just say that the annual tradition of opening up the national hockey publications and seeing their diminishing projections for Dallas as it pertains to the playoff picture in the Western Conference and not being able to argue with them has been going on too long.
Sure, I am a bit of a homer. And clearly, I want to go back to a time when playoff hockey was the norm and not the rarity, but I also watch enough hockey to have a reasonable feeling when I am looking at a local side that has the quality necessary to rank in the top half of the league or not. And honestly, I point back to the last season that started with Sergei Zubov in town as the last time I felt good about the chances to pass the tests.
This year, the Stars have so much new that to tell you I have a real feel for this thing would be disingenuous. There is just too much to factor in. There is a new general manager who has been putting his stamps on everything in the last 5 months that is, all by himself, reason to really get excited. Jim Nill is a man that the whole hockey world is aware of, and almost all admit that the Stars have a guy here running things that will figure this thing out in a reasonable amount of time.
Then, you have a new coach – hired by Nill – in Lindy Ruff who is certainly used to the challenges set in front of him and has a philosophy suited for a young team and finding the right combinations of personnel and tactics to get results. His reputation is also well earned in the NHL, both as a long-time player and a long-time coach of not backing down or suffering fools. This challenge is certainly not going to be too big for either of these two respected men.
After that, comes a new measure of elite. The Stars have lacked enough “top shelf” NHL talent in the last few years, and have made two significant splashes back into that end of the pool. And since both are as young and loaded with skill and ability, the excitement level of setting Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin in this organization next to Jamie Benn – knowing that they are all under contract for many years to come – is a real reason to hope that the rebuild has officially begun in earnest.
Seguin has been written about in hundreds of places, and his reputation precedes him in both his enormous speed and talent and in the way Boston decided to bet against him, so to put him in a new city with a fresh start and at the top of the Stars depth chart is worth the price of admission all by himself. And to know that the management team believes that pairing Seguin with Benn in almost all scenarios and situations could be a strike force that the entire league will take notice of when the Stars show on their schedules. The early reviews are promising, but there is no question that the expectations are off the charts because this is a player who everyone knows can be as good as he wants to be. And to pair him with Benn and to set them both loose to return the franchise to spring-time hockey together is going to be a fun project to track.
Meanwhile, the 18-year old Russian rookie puts the Stars in the Calder Trophy mix for the first time in decades. Nichushkin was a kid who many of us dreamed of going into the draft in June and when he fell in the Stars laps, it seemed too good to be true. There is no way that a top talent should last to #10, but because of a number of reasons – most having to do with fears of investing money in a player who has contract leverage that North American kids don’t – he fell to them. There is no question that he will require patience, but there is also no question that he has the ability to win games in the NHL right now. At 18. You might have to go back to Mike Modano to say that about a Stars’ prospect.
Then, they have a new captain in Benn. The responsibility has been with Benn since the Stars gave him the big money last winter and the top center’s role after the lockout ended. Now, he gets the fabric to go with it as he is shifted back to wing. He has already demonstrated his mentality and his talent plenty, but Ruff and Nill want to push him to that next level where he must drag the team into battle each and every night. With the margin for error so tight, the team cannot allow for nights when they just are not up for a battle. They must be legitimately difficult to play against in words and deeds, and Benn is a good candidate to be that man. As an added bonus, he has plenty of solid veterans around him who will act as leadership as well, but when it comes to the one player who will symbolize this new generation to those on the outside looking in, it shall be #14.
Beyond that, there is a new division. This is long awaited and exciting, in that many old rivalries will come rushing back with Chicago and St Louis on the schedule constantly. Then, trips to Colorado, Nashville, Minnesota, and Winnipeg will keep the Stars in the time zone plenty and back on your television screens at reasonable times of night. With 2 of the most common Stanley Cup contenders in the division, St Louis and Chicago, there is reasons to feel that only 2 playoff spots are available for the field. In St Louis, with old friends Ken Hitchcock, Doug Armstrong, and now, Brenden Morrow, those affairs will require no pregame hype. Then, in Chicago, the Blackhawks have 2 Cups and plans for more and are the model for any franchise looking to recapture the glory of a past generation. I am guessing that the Minnesota/Dallas divisional battles will be magnificent. We can only hope those new divisional playoff rounds include beautiful matchups that involve the local side this spring. The hockey giant will be fully awakened when that hits the front pages.
And, there are the new color and uniforms. I must admit that I didn’t know what to think at first, but seeing them on the ice in the preseason has calmed me down and has earned my full approval. Uniforms are not nearly as important to me as the team that wears them, but I like the green and I also like that all of this new combines to symbolically turn the page on what has been a tough haul for 5 years or so. The ownership change had to happen first, then the other changes could follow.
Make no mistake; this is the first year of this new direction. I suspect, as I look at the roster, that we will have to accept that this won’t turn on a dime or overnight. I still look at portions of the team and see that there are needs to get all of the way to the top. Personally, I still think the Stars need further overhaul of their defense, including the rarest of all birds, the 27-minute a night, every situation capable, #1 defenseman. In fact, I wonder if they might need two top defensemen to fill in the gaps. Maybe they can find that guy internally, with the Dillons and Oleksiaks still growing into their careers, but for now, the Stars appear to be decent on defense, but not able to match what the contenders can line up there.
But, those of us who have watched the franchise seem to spin their wheels for a while are now able to sink our teeth into real strides on paper. The elite acquisitions have followed the well-conceived hiring at general manager and then, coach.
Expectations need to remain reasonable, but at the same time, I am not willing to concede what the Hockey News or Sports Illustrated are saying as true. They are both pessimistic about the Stars returning to the playoffs.
I disagree. I know they have warts, and I know their depth cannot withstand serious attrition. But, I am so ready for the puck to drop and the action to begin, because I have very high hopes for this all coming together in rather short order. Huge portions of the city have forgotten about what meaningful hockey feels like, and I am excited about these changes bringing the attention back.
I know there will be plenty of bumps in the road, but the Stars are in the midst of getting it right, I believe. And while the bigger prizes will take a bit longer, I am anticipating a return to the playoffs this year.
But, like the Hockey News and Sports Illustrated, my opinion does not affect the standings. Only the quality of the hockey this group can generate will matter there.
And Thursday, it all begins. Let’s get it on.