Dallas Stars owner Tom Gaglardi watched his team practice Friday and expressed optimism about the upcoming season.
“I like our team,” Gaglardi said. “We’ve improved our club from a year ago. We acknowledged our top six wasn’t as deep as it needed to be, so most of our moves were focused on improving that. I think we’ve done that. Obviously, it would be nice to have (unsigned restricted free agent) Jamie (Benn) here, and hopefully he’ll be here very soon. In the meantime, I think we have a deeper team and better top six. I expect our club to do better than last year.”
The Stars believe that the additions of Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney and Derek Roy provide a boost to their top six, and that Jagr and Whitney bring valuable experience. Both players have been in the league a long time and both know how to win.
“We went after established leadership,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “When you get guys that have won Cups and played 20 years, and you’ve got Ray Whitney, who is a real strong personality and a great leader for us, and you add it to the mix here, I think that is what (GM) Joe (Nieuwendyk) wanted to solidify.”
And leadership could be key for the Stars, who are injecting a dose of youth into their lineup this season.
“It’s exciting. These young guys can play,” said Gaglardi. “We always knew that they could, but the good news is that some of these young defensemen playing down in Austin are ahead of where we thought they would be. It’s exciting. Brenden Dillon is a big guy and Jordie Benn has had a great season in the AHL. He’s ready to play here.”
Up front, the Stars are adding 21-year-old forwards Cody Eakin and Reilly Smith to the mix. Eakin, acquired from Washington over the summer, and Smith, one of the top goal scorers in college hockey last season, were the top two scorers for the Texas Stars before being called up at the end of the lockout.
While the Stars hope the personnel changes can provide a boost, there are other areas where they think they can improve. One is the power play, which was dead last in the NHL last season.
“We think we can make our greatest percent jump in that area,” said Gulutzan. “You’d love to have a 21 or 22 percent power play, but the reality is that if you get to 17 or 18 percent that’s a big jump from the year before.”
Another is discipline. The Stars were minus-59 when it came to power plays vs. times shorthanded last season.
“We took way too many minors compared to what we drew,” Gulutzan said. “We think we can skew that back into our favor this year with personnel.”
The Stars are also hoping to be better defensively, and cut down on the goals against average.
“We think we can be a lot more efficient defensively, and be a little stingier to play against,” said Gulutzan. “We’ve put in a couple of things to do those, not things to out scheme the opponent, but just simple things to make sure we’re better defensively.”
The Stars hope improvements in those areas and the personnel changes will combine to help take them where they haven’t been since 2008, and that’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The additions of Jagr, Whitney and Roy have revamped the Stars’ top six set of forwards.
Jagr and Whitney, both 40-years-old, are coming off solid seasons. Jagr put up 55 points with the Philadelphia Flyers. Whitney ranked 12th in the league in scoring with 77 points and was a 2nd Team NHL All-Star.
The 29-year-old Roy was acquired from Buffalo to offset the departure of Mike Ribeiro, whom the Stars shipped to Washington in exchange for Eakin and a second round draft pick. Roy struggled last season due to injuries, but he had offseason shoulder surgery and is fully recovered. He’s been a 60-70 point guy during his career.
Those three will join Jamie Benn, when he signs a contract and joins the team, Michael Ryder and Loui Eriksson in the team’s top six set of forwards. With Benn still not signed, Tom Wandell has slipped into the top six during camp.
“The biggest thing is depth, more so up front,” said Gulutzan. “If you look at our lineup last year and you look at our top six this year… we have more depth up front.”
“We should be able to score more, we should be more of a threat, tougher match-ups to play against us in that regard,” said Nieuwendyk. “And we probably put people in their proper spots, which should be good for (Eric) Nystrom and (Vernon) Fiddler. And I think it’s good for Brenden (Morrow) too. We’re not asking Brenden to score 35-40 goals. We’re asking him to do the hard parts he’s done throughout his career, be that front presence guy on the power play. I just think with the veterans we’ve added, it alleviates the pressure off of him as well.”
Morrow struggled last season due to a variety of injury issues, but he appears healthy this season. He, Fiddler and Nystrom have been the team’s third line in training camp.
Eakin, Ryan Garbutt and Reilly Smith, who played briefly with the Stars after wrapping up his college career last season, have been the fourth line in camp. Eakin and Smith have been a key part of Texas Stars this season, playing on the top line and ranking one-two in points. Garbutt earned himself a two-year, one-way contract last summer with his solid play late last season with Dallas.
Colton Sceviour is currently the 13th forward on the roster. He’s played well with the Texas Stars and should be a capable player filling in on the bottom six.
The Stars defense looked similar to last season when camp opened, but the trade of Mark Fistric to Edmonton for a third round pick opened the door for more young players to step into the Dallas lineup.
Dillon and Jordie Benn, thought to be competing for the final roster spot, both made the opening night roster. Benn played three games with Dallas last season, and Dillon played one.
Aaron Rome, a free agent signing over the summer, was the lone offseason addition and is the other new face. Rome, a physical defensive defenseman, had been with the Vancouver Canucks.
Rome will help offset the departure of Fistric, who brought size and physical play to the Dallas blue line. Dillon has size (6-3, 228 pounds) and is a physical player as well.
Back from last season are Alex Goligoski, Trevor Daley, Stephane Robidas and Philip Larsen, who are all very mobile defensemen.
“I think we’re a real mobile defense, which is the way we want to be. It’s the way the game is heading,” said Goligoski. “We have a lot of youth, which is nice. There are drawbacks to that, too. We have a lot of smart hockey players. It’s different, but it’s going to be fun. I think all these guys are going to be comfortable with each other, which is huge.”
Asked to sum up his group of defensemen, Gulutzan also stressed mobility.
“Quick, very fast, a very good skating defense,” Gulutzan said. “We’re not the biggest back there, but Brenden Dillon gives us a 6-3, 230-pound defenseman. Aaron Rome gives us some size and strength back there. But the common factor in all those guys is they can move. We’ve got to play fast and we’ve got to defend fast. We’ve got to get the pucks up to those forwards and we’ve got to hunt and pursue. That’s going to be our game.”
Kari Lehtonen has established himself as a solid No.1 over the past two seasons, and is coming off a stellar 2011-12 campaign that saw him put up some career best numbers. He ranked eighth in the NHL with a .922 save percentage and tenth in the league with a 2.33 goals against average.
The Stars rewarded Lehtonen with a five-year, $29.5 million contract extension in September, and believe there is more to achieve for the Finnish netminder, who has been to the playoffs only once in his NHL career, and that was with Atlanta back in 2007.
“The next step for him is to have playoff success,” said Gulutzan. “That is coming.”
Goaltending coach Mike Valley said it is a matter of coming up big when the team needs him most.
“The difference between the very, very top guys and kind of the tier right below is who can absolutely steal you that game at that crucial time,” Valley said. “That’s regardless of the chances they get in front of them. Kari has stolen a ton of games for us, but now it is taking it to the next level and putting the team on his back when they need it the most.”
The Stars like their depth behind Lehtonen. Richard Bachman took over the backup job from Andrew Raycroft in the middle of last season and performed well in his first season, posting an 8-5-1 record, 2.77 goals against average and .910 save percentage.
The Stars gave Bachman a one-year, one-way contract worth $625,000 this summer.
Neither Bachman nor Lehtonen played during the lockout, but the Stars do have a goaltender who has played a lot and played well. That is Cristopher Nilstorp, signed as a free agent out of the Swedish Elite League in the summer.
Nilstorp, 28, has been superb for the Texas Stars this season, posting a 16-10-0 record, 2.13 goals against average and .916 save percentage.
Nilstorp will start the season backing up Lehtonen, while Bachman heads to the AHL to get some games under his belt.
The big focus in the special teams area is the power play, which was dismal last season, ranking 30th in the league at 13.5 percent.
The additions of Jagr, Whitney and Roy should help. New assistant coach Curt Fraser, who will oversee the power play this season, brings a fresh look.
But the Stars’ philosophy will be a pretty simple one- get pucks and people to the net.
“We’ve added those guys that have played on power plays for years and they know how to run power plays. We have guys here that are going to mesh nicely. We have a couple new things we are going to do,” said Goligoski. “There’s going to be no secret to it – we are going to fire the puck and we are going to have a guy in front of the net all the time. We’re going to outwork the other team, getting them running around a little bit and have the skilled guys make those plays. There’s only one way to go.”
The Stars are hoping to draw more penalties and take fewer, which should help tilt things their way this season on the special teams front. They were shorthanded 59 more times than they were on the power play last season, and ended up allowing 52 power play goals while only scoring 39.
“If you look at goals against and goals for, power play goals for, power play goals against and the minutes you are spending on each, if we are going to be minus-80 or minus-90 minutes or take 40 or 50 more penalties, then all of our numbers are going to be skewed,” said Gulutzan . “Your goals against, your shots against, everything is skewed. Discipline is a huge factor in specialty teams.”
Gulutzan and assistant Paul Jerrard were both NHL rookies last season, and the one year of experience will be valuable.
So should the addition of Curt Fraser, who joined the staff after associate coach Willie Desjardins took over the head coaching job with the Texas Stars.
Fraser, who joined Dallas after a stint as head coach of Detroit’s AHL affiliate, brings NHL head coaching experience (Atlanta) and he’s been an assistant with the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues. He also played in the NHL for 12 years.
“Glen’s a terrific coach and has benefitted from a year of coaching in the NHL,” said Nieuwendyk. “Nothing will be new to him this year. Curt will be a good voice for him, a good support for him. I think he will have a lot of credibility with players because of his experience.”
A shortened season will bring challenges. The Stars have several new faces and how quickly they mesh will be key, as will a strong start to the season.
“Everybody knows the start is very important,” said Jagr, who played during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. “I look at the schedule and we have seven games the first eleven nights. It’s going to be a tough schedule. A good start can guarantee you’ll make the playoffs. It isn’t going to be easy, especially for the guys who didn’t play any games this year. It’s a tough schedule.”
Things could be sloppy at first as many players shake off the rust. The Stars hope that the influx of players from the AHL – guys who already have been through a half a season of games – will help offset that rust.
It’s a 48-game season, all played within the Western Conference. The Stars will play 18 games against the Pacific Division and 30 games against teams from the Central and Northwest Divisions.
“It creates a playoff-type atmosphere. When you are playing only within your conference and only eight teams make it, then every game is really a four-point game. It adds to the intensity,” said Gulutzan. “For the fans, they are going to see a brand of hockey that is ramped up a little more than it is during an 82-game season because the guys realize the importance of each game.”
Like any season, a lot of things will have to go right for a team to have success. The Stars’ top players will have to perform up to expectations. The young players stepping into the lineup will have to prove that the decision to bring them to the NHL was the right one. The Stars will need luck to be on their side when it comes to the injury front.
And the Stars aren’t operating in a vacuum. There are 14 other teams in the Western Conference vying for those eight playoff spots and with 48 games left everybody is dead even. There won’t be a lot of margin for error.
“What I remember is that the teams that did get into a little bit of a slump never recovered from it,” said Whitney, another veteran of the shortened 1994-95 season. “Not getting off to a bad start is going to be big for everybody. It’s a pure sprint right to the finish here.”
And the race gets underway Saturday night.