There are still a lot of questions about the upcoming 48-game NHL schedule. While it's fairly clear that teams will play 18 games within the division and 30 against the other teams in their conference, the management of teams traveling across time zones and the number of back-to-backs and 3-games-in-4-nights along with many other details are still up in the air.
What is known is that the Dallas Stars will open their abbreviated scheduled Saturday, Jan. 19, at the American Airlines Center. Rumors are swirling that their opponent could be the Phoenix Coyotes, though that has yet to be confirmed.
But who should the Stars play, at least if fans had their choice? With the obvious Eastern Conference marquee teams out of the mix for this season, the NHL schedule-makers are likely to try pick some sort of rivalry game to maximize fan interest.
With a playoff drought at four seasons and counting, the Stars haven't had a chance to work up the good lather that comes with a bitter post-season battle. So that leaves the division rivals and their former home state. Here's the case for the four usual suspects and the one obvious non-Pacific division opponent:
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks have lost some of their luster in the past few seasons and struggled mightily last season. But there are still plenty of reasons Stars fans dislike, and therefore would enjoy a season-opening win over, the Ducks. The ageless Teemu Selanne is back for one final trip through the NHL, and he has been one heck of a Star-killer over the seasons. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are a highly irritating combination of big and skilled, and don't even start on Cam Fowler with those who follow the draft closely. And from a historical perspective, the Ducks handed the Stars one of the most painful playoff game and series defeats in 2003 as John-Sebastian Giguere was unbeatable in a 5OT win.
Los Angeles Kings: Among Stars fans, there's a significant amount of distaste for most of the Pacific Division teams but no clear-cut, least-favorite consensus. But I think I'm safe in saying Dustin Brown is the most universally loathed player in the division and the individual Stars fans most like to see lose. The Kings captain has a well-earned reputation as an embellisher which has driven Stars fans wild for years, including this gem with the late Karlis Skrastins. If there is one player most Stars fans would like to see lose the opener, it's him. And the Kings have a history with the Stars and a lockout - they were the team that traveled to Dallas to open the 2005-06 season. But as the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Kings are almost certain to open at home for their banner-raising ceremony, possibly against the Chicago Blackhawks. Kvetching about Brown will have to wait.
Phoenix Coyotes: If there's one thing Dave Tippett seems to know how to do, it's beat the Dallas Stars. It makes sense - the Stars long-time coach is familiar with many of the key players even on this current roster and employs a tight-checking system that frustrates almost every team in the league. And with former Stars goalie Mike Smith in net, who brings that forecheck-killing puck-playing ability, the Coyotes have been a big thorn in Dallas' side for the past several seasons. What they lack is the villain-esque player like Brown or Perry, and there is a distinct lack of recent playoff history between the two teams. Perhaps the best way to prepare for this rivalry is to break out your videos from 1999, when Derian Hatcher showed Jeremy Roenick what happens when you mess with Mike Modano on his watch.
San Jose Sharks: At once the class of the division and long-suffering playoff also-rans, the Sharks have been involved in several memorable moments with Dallas. From a San Jose perspective, I'm sure there's still a little lingering bitterness over the 2008 Western Conference Semifinals, when the Stars rode a hot Marty Turco and strong special teams play, not to mention a little overtime magic, to stuff the Sharks in six games. And the Sharks, with several of their mainstay forwards moving into the back ends of their career, have been feeling the heat for the past several seasons as their window of opportunity has started to slip closed. That type of desperation makes for intriguing games. I will admit, this matchup lost a little of its spark for me this offseason when Steve Ott was traded to the Buffalo Sabres, as his antics always seemed to get under the skin of Joe Thornton. But I'm sure Adam Burish, now with the Sharks, can't wait to try and start some fun with his old teammates.
Minnesota Wild: This one is a little odd because, much like the rivalry with the Edmonton Oilers of years past, it's a little bit one-sided in the fan investment. Correct me if you feel differently, but my impression is that the Wild fans feel a lot more angst about losing to Dallas than Stars fans do about losing to Minnesota. Still, the two have played recent games with playoff implications that have left Stars fans with bad tastes in their mouths, and there's an undeniable appeal about a match-up of the current and former residents of the north end of I-35. The Wild have also loaded up with premium free-agent talent, which makes them a fun representative of the best and worst of the now dearly departed CBA. But no matter how appealing the game might be, they're probably not coming to Dallas on the 19th. The current rumor is they're headed to Colorado for the season opener.
The two teams below, both residents of the Central Division, would definitely be fun but are far less likely
Detroit Red Wings: Ah, the team almost everyone in the Western Conference loves to hate and the team that last dismissed the Stars from the playoffs. The Red Wings are going through a transition period of their own right now, having lost the irreplaceable Nicklas Lidstrom and legendary crease weasel Tomas Holmstrom to retirement as well as a little of the mystique of invincibility. And the Wings are a big draw in Dallas as displaced Michigan natives and others riding the Red Wings bandwagon always turn out. This team would probably bring the largest crowd to the AAC, but with the Wings having no shortage of rivalries in closer proximity to home, they were never going to head down South to play. The latest news is they'll play host to the St. Louis Blues in their season opener.
Nashville Predators: I'll admit this one is a little bit off the grid, but when I think of a non-Pacific team that gets Stars fans hackles up, the Predators immediately come to mind. Sure, they won't be the same without pest and notorious edge-walker Jordin Tootoo (now with the aforementioned Red Wings) and missing a very solid Ryan Suter on the back end. But Barry Trotz always has his boys playing a frustratingly efficient system with a physical edge, and there have been some very memorable, very nasty contests with the Preds in recent seasons. And like the Stars, the Predators are a little bit of an outlier in the division, fairly removed geographically from their rivals without a real historic grudge against any of the other Central teams. The knock on them, at least from a season-opener perspective, is they're not a huge draw in this market. But personally, I would enjoy an opening win over the Predators more than almost any other team in the league.
Got any thoughts on who you would like to see as the season-opening opponent, at least given the Western Conference restrictions of this season? Let us know in the comments below.