We are just five days away from the Dallas Stars kicking off the truncated 2013 season at home against the Phoenix Coyotes and despite the lockout now being over for a week, it feels as if we're still attempting to remember just who this Dallas Stars team was and attempting to figure out just who they might be.
The Stars are a team in flux, an organization undergoing a transition both on the ice and in the front office, as owner Tom Gaglardi and general manager Joe Nieuwendyk took to pull this team out of a four-season skid. The Stars have missed the postseason now four years in a row and have lost relevancy in a tough sports market; now, the playoffs are the goal with a healthy mix of rugged veterans and inexperienced but skilled youngsters.
The team has worked to improve on a squad that narrowly missed the postseason once more and while some issues have certainly been addressed, there are more than a few burning questions the Stars must answer this season.
1. Will the defense hold up?
The Dallas Stars focused on completely revamping the forwards group in the offseason, adding more depth to the top six and creating a more palatable situation where certain players were not forced to play over their heads in the lineup. The addition of Jaromir Jagr, Derek Roy and Ray Whitney will go far in attempting to turn around the historically-horrible power play from last season.
What was not addressed, however, was a defense corps that lost Sheldon Souray and looks to continue to play Stephane Robidas in the top pairing against top competition. The Stars likely targeted several defensemen via trade and/or free agency but the prices for top d-men were astronomical over the summer and it's tough to fault the Stars for not overpaying, especially with a number of young defensemen on their way up the organizational ladder.
Can this undersized defense hold up this season in front of Kari Lehtonen? The Stars have Aaron Rome and Mark Fistric to provide physical backup in their own end, and Brenden Dillon and Jordie Benn will help add more size to the group, but the defense of the Dallas Stars will be the absolute No. 1 question mark for this team this season.
2. Can Ray Whitney continue his late-career surge?
The Dallas Stars signed Whitney over the summer to a two-year contract and not just because of what he can do on the ice. Whitney carries himself with an energy and confidence that is absolutely infectious and already the team and coaches are speaking of how he's making a difference in the locker room. The Stars leadership has come into question the past few seasons and Whitney is a big part of the solution.
On the ice, Whitney will be asked to help further grow Jamie Benn as the top center on the team. Scoring 77 points last season as a 40-year old, Whitney has shown that he has no desire to slow down as his career has now spanned more than two decades since his debut with the San Jose Sharks in 1992. The big question will be whether Whitney can continue his torrid pace of 50+ points in each of the past seven seasons.
3. Will Kari Lehtonen be able to carry the team?
If there is one thing that everyone agrees on about a shortened and compacted season, it's that goaltending and defense will make or break a team far quicker than in an 82-game season. Lehtonen has been a rock in net for the Stars the past two seasons and earned a lengthy contract because of it; there are some that feel that Lehtonen is approaching "elite" status in the NHL and that while long-term contracts for goaltenders are tough to live with, Lehtonen's value certainly lies with some of the highest-paid in the league.
The past two seasons Lehtonen's play has allowed the Stars to survive slow starts and carried them through the middle of the season. As the team wore down late so did Lehtonen, however, who was unable to continue to put the team squarely on his shoulders and drag the team into the postseason. With just 48 games on the schedule Lehtonen figures to play in nearly 40 and while the compacted season will test his fitness and health, the hope is that Lehtonen will remain fresh as the crunch of late March and April approach.
4. Which young prospect will make an impact this season?
The Dallas Stars are making a transition into a "youth infusion" as the drafts of the past few years under Nieuwendyk begin to pay off. While the top six on the forward lines are supposedly set in stone, the bottom six figure to host a good amount of competition and will test the depth the Stars feel they are finally building once more on the roster. For a team in such a transition, however, the Stars will need some sort of contribution from a young player that figures to make a legitimate difference on the season -- and such an impact has not been made since Jamie Benn's rookie season.
5. Will Jamie Benn start the season on the ice for the Dallas Stars?
While the thought of Jamie Benn missing any games is painful for Stars fans, the impact of his absence will be even greater in such a short season. Given that a fast start is incredibly important this year each game without the best player on the team will be tough to live with, especially if the Stars struggle out of the gate. More importantly, Benn will likely be playing with two new players on his wings -- Jagr and Whitney. While both veterans are likely to be able to seamlessly play with nearly anyone at this point, finding chemistry with Benn sooner than later is still a fairly important necessity.
What is important, however, is that fans remain patient this week. While the instinct is to lay blame on the Stars and cry "just pay him what he wants," the fact remains that there are two parties in these negotiations and a number of other factors to consider. There are a few big-name restricted free agents who don't want to be the first to sign and set the standard for the others, as well as the fact that Benn's age in relation to unrestricted free agency doesn't make this situation as easy as just giving him a contract similar to that given to John Tavares or Jeff Skinner.
Getting Benn signed and on the ice in Dallas sooner than later is imperative, although it might not go as quickly as most would like.