1) Can the team find their chemistry quickly enough with the shortened season?
There’s a lot of roster turnover on the team and the lack of a real training camp really hurts, but I’m going to say yes. Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney have been around long enough that they should be able to pick up the system quickly. Jagr’s been sort of a mercenary for the past decade so he’s more than used to change.
The youngsters on the team are AHL buddies so they should be fine on the depth lines and the defense only has one real change.
The biggest question mark will be Derek Roy. He was off ice for a while before training camp due to surgery and has to find a way to click with his teammates. The lack of Jamie Benn in the shortened training camp puts some more uncertainty for him (at least for a short while) as the wings keep fluctuating around him. With his down season last year and the fact that he’s playing for a contract, there’s a lot of motivation for him this year. If he can get into the swing of things within the first few weeks of the season, it’ll be a huge boost for the Stars.
2) Can the power-play even look slightly capable this year?
The biggest reason for the Jagr and Whitney signings was for this part of the team. With the addition of players that actually look like they belong on the power-play, there’s no way this team can be worse than last season right? Alex Goligoski should be more comfortable as much of the pressure is off of him and the snipers should have more chances to snipe. Honestly, if this team can just have around the 20th best power play in the NHL, it’ll be a success.
3) Who needs to really up their game this season?
The main (and really only) target here is the aforementioned Goligoski. The trade with Pittsburgh has looked progressively worse by the year and there’s even more pressure on him this season now that he has a shiny new contract. He showed a short flash of how important he could be last season in February but he trailed off quickly at the end of the season.
His future is locked in with this team so he needs to show some prolonged consistency in his play and provide some scoring from the point. If he can’t do that, the flood of tears from Stars fans every time they see James Neal will just increase.
4) Can Kari Lehtonen stay healthy (knock on wood)?
Lehtonen has suffered some kind of injury every season in his career. Like Goose, he got a giant contract near the end of last season (5yrs/$29.5M) that he now has a lot to live up to.
He was overworked last season and it really showed at the end of the year. The defense in front of him didn’t exactly improve (it’s probably worse) so the shots will be flying in hard and fast again this year. It may be a shortened season, but Kari will find his work just as strenuous this year. The injury risk is just as high for him this year.
That’s where Richard Bachman and Cristopher Nilstorp come in. Bachman was an excellent backup last year and Nilstorp has been great for the Texas Stars this season. Both of those guys have to be ready to go at any time (especially the back-to-backs) just to keep Lehtonen fresh and healthy.
I had Lehtonen starting 42 games in my predictions but that was a best case scenario. With the schedule now official, I’d be worried about Lehtonen’s health if he has to start more than 40 games year. Dallas has to be careful about his workload because he’s easily the most important player on the team.
5) Just how bad is the defense?
Ehhhh, it looks bad. The Stars had enough trouble last season and now they don’t have two of their most physical guys from last year in Sheldon Souray and the recently traded Mark Fistric. Aaron Rome didn’t do a whole lot with Vancouver (though he was just a part-time guy) and who knows how he’ll do with extended minutes. He’ll be the main physical defenseman on the team now.
Jamie Oleksiak isn’t quite ready yet for the NHL and while Brenden Dillon is a fine prospect, he’s still an unknown at this level (one game, a career does not make). The same can be said of Jordie Benn (who could be a big power play component). Stephane Robidas is a year older, slower and less agile. He looked really bad during his time in Finland with HIFK Helsinki during the lockout and he’ll be counted on here for minutes and to be a physical presence.
I’ve already detailed how important Goose is this year. The only two guys I don’t have many issues with coming into the season are Trevor Daley and Philip Larsen and even they aren’t exactly known for their stout defense. The goalies on this team should be ready for a lot of action (as usual) this season.
6) Can Michael Ryder be the same player he was last year?
This one is tricky. Ryder was a very pleasant surprise last season and was one of the league’s top goal scorers. While I’d be shocked to see him with a huge regression, his numbers should see a dip this year. It’s mostly just due to the fact that he’ll most likely be seeing less ice time this season with the additions of Jagr and Whitney.
Last season, it was only Ryder and Loui Eriksson out there as wingers the team could count on. Ryder was run out there on the ice more and more as a result of this and he subsequently played the most minutes he’s ever had in his career. His time on ice per game last season (17:23) is over a minute more than his previous high and he ran out of gas at the end of the year (only two goals in the last seven games). He had the most power play minutes of any forward on the team (second only to Goligoski overall) and he was the team leader in power play goals.
He’ll see less time on ice now with Jagr and Whitney (and to a lesser extent, Roy) around and a lot less time on the power play unit. Ryder should still be a fine player for the team, but just don’t expect the same kind of impact that he had last year.
7) What can fans expect from Brenden Morrow this season?
I’m one of those that has positive expectations about Morrow this year. He’s in a more comfortable situation as a third line banger forward and won’t be pressured to provide offense to the team. He should be as healthy as he’s ever been and should have an easier time running interference on the power play. The one thing he has to do tough is avoid the stupid penalties. If he can do that, the captain should be a more effective part of the team this season.
8) The physicality problem
This is one of the biggest problems with the team this year and a real concern. Gone are Souray, Fistric, Adam Burish, Steve Ott, Jake Dowell, (heck, even Mike Ribeiro was willing to hit) and in come skill forwards.
The team will be relying on a lot of flash and very little bang this season and that’s worrisome. There could be very little protection out on the ice to protect the new additions to the team and the last thing any fan wants to see is Jamie Benn forced to be a the most physical presence on the team.
Antoine Roussel was kept on the roster so he could help in that area on the team, but he’s a young guy that can’t be really be counted on for significant minutes. The same can be said for Luke Gazdic, a physical in-your-face type of player with the Texas Stars.
Whether or not lack of physical guys on the team is a big issue will be evident within the first two weeks of games.
9) The face-off issues
This one is a big problem. The two best face-off guys on the team last year (Ott and Burish) are gone. Vernon Fiddler is now suddenly the best face-off guy on the team (he’s around 50%+ success on his career). Derek Roy is around 50% for his career as well but he was not counted on for the important face-offs while he was with the Sabres (it was mostly Paul Gaustad then). Jamie Benn is still working on that part of his game and can’t be counted on just work for the big face-offs.
Basically, expect a lot of defensive zone face-offs from Fiddler and Roy on the offense and the Stars to lose the face-off battle nearly every night.
10) Soooo, what are the playoff chances?
First, let’s check off the teams clearly better than Dallas and will finish in front of them: Los Angeles, St. Louis, Vancouver, and Chicago.
Phoenix was a Western Conference finalist last season and retains most of their core (aside from Whitney). They’re solidly coached and still have that stingy defense so I have them ahead of Dallas. Minnesota made some huge moves in the offseason and certainly looks better than the Stars. Detroit has major defensive issues but they’re Detroit and Pavel Datsyuk is still around so they’re ahead of the Stars
That leaves Dallas in a big group of teams fighting for the last playoff spot with Nashville, Anaheim, Edmonton, Colorado, San Jose and Calgary (basically everyone except Columbus). As much as I like what the Stars did last offseason and how improved their offense should be this year, I just don’t see the Stars finishing ahead of all of those teams. I have the Stars finishing 10th in the West behind Nashville and Anaheim.