I took a hiatus from my regular Tuesday column last week as I was on the tail end of a vacation, but I am now back and ready to share some thoughts on the first few games for Dallas.
Thanks to NHL Center Ice, I have caught almost every Stars game this season, and I have been pretty impressed by the play of the team considering the rookies on defense, a constantly-changing group of forwards due to injuries and the Jamie Benn holdout, and a unique situation in goal with early season injuries to Kari Lehtonen and Cristopher Nilstorp.
Read on for 10 thoughts on the Stars from the first week of the season.
10. I was really impressed with Reilly Smith's play through the first few games of the season. He isn't the biggest or fastest player on the ice, but he is very slippery and really smart. He will learn a lot from Ray Whitney, who has had a very impressive career relying on hockey sense and puck skill to succeed. Smith will probably bounce up and down between the NHL and AHL this season, and I'd expect him to make the full time jump this fall.
9. How awesome is it watching Jaromir Jagr in the green and gold? Jagr has looked very good this season (obviously including his four-point performance on opening night). So much of why Dallas signed him will never be seen by fans and media - Jagr had a tremendous impact on Claude Giroux in Philadelphia, and he is going to have the same impact on Jamie Benn this season (and perhaps beyond if he chooses to come back for another year).
Jagr is regarded as a fitness fanatic and one of the strongest players in the league - it is funny watching the top defensemen in the world struggle to even move him a bit once he sticks that big butt out along the boards and behind the net.
8. Last night's game against Columbus highlighted the importance of Derek Roy. I really like Cody Eakin, but he isn't ready to be a top six NHL center right now. After Jamie Benn, there just wasn't enough push back or creativity from the Dallas pivots last night. Hopefully Roy's groin issue is minor (and it sounds like it is). His ability to distribute the puck off the rush will be key - it is hard to generate much with the dump-and-chase as the go-to strategy.
7. Jordie Benn and Brenden Dillon have both looked like NHL defensemen through the first week of the season. Putting two rookies into the top six at the same time is a risky proposition, but both have shown the ability to make plays at this level. Benn is a bit more polished and has been seeing minutes in all situations, and it is easy to see Dillon's upside. Once he gets more comfortable on the NHL ice, I'd be curious to see if he and Robidas end up forming the shut down pairing on the back end, freeing up Goligoski to create offensively a bit more. Dillon's ability to close on opposing forwards is really impressive.
Ideally the Stars find a way to add a veteran defenseman, but there aren't many of those available right now.
6. The importance of depth has already been shown with minor injuries throughout the lineup. Dallas has an impressive collection of young players, and that will serve them well as the season continues on. The Stars don't want a repeat of last season when the team was decimated and overmatched down the stretch.
5. Kari Lehtonen has been really, really good. His work in the second period last night against Columbus showed why the team committed so much money and term to him last summer. They believe he is an elite goaltender in this league, and through the first few games of the season he sure is playing like one.
Some of Lehtonen's work on display last night:
4. Jamie Benn looked good last night. He made several good plays on the outlet, he moved the puck quickly and decisively, and he used his size to create separation from opposing defensemen. It will take him a few games to get comfortable and to get his legs back, but it was a solid debut from Dallas's best player.
3. I am excited to see Matt Fraser make an impact this season. It may take an injury or two for that to happen, but there aren't many players in hockey (any league) that have Fraser's combination of size and shooting ability.
2. If Tomas Vincour commits himself to improving as a two-way player, he is going to have a very long career in this league. He's a great skater for his size, and looks stronger on the puck compared to last season. His versatility is also going to be very important as Gulutzan looks for some balance on his forward units. I saw some of Vincour during his WHL career, where he was more of an offensive contributor. His smarts have allowed him to provide value in other areas now, too.
1. This will be an up and down season for Dallas (and many other NHL teams). The condensed schedule will increase the number of injuries, and it will also increase the relevance of randomness and luck in the outcome of games. At the end of the day, this is a transitional period for the organization, both on and off of the ice. The team isn't ready to contend for the Cup now. They could sneak into the postseason with a strong season from Lehtonen and Benn, but playoffs should be considered a bonus right now (although no one in the organization would be caught saying that).