Seven preseason games are in the books for the Dallas Stars and now four straight days of practice await them as Thursday night and a date with the Florida Panthers looms. Real hockey for real points. In October, no less.
We'll spend much of the week looking forward, no doubt, but always with those seven contests as a new foundation for what we think we know about this team. Yet gleaning useful information from preseason action and a 5-0-2 record that includes beating the Panthers and Avalanche twice is probably a fools errand.
But, we're fools for the Dallas Stars, so what is it we think we learned?
More than anything else I am sure of this one fact: The Dallas Stars will be an entertaining team to watch. The youth and the skill the forward group now possesses will keep them in games. They will transition out of their own zone with more facility than we've seen in some time. They will attack, and could have the chance to do so with three lines and real balance.
Exciting doesn't mean successful, however. 27 goals in seven games is hopefully in some way indicative of offensive competency, but their desire to attack and have defensemen pinch will cut both ways. A defense that's not yet evidently improved will make for some high scoring games.
They won't be on the winning end all of the time, but it should be fun. Look no further than 199 shots for and 199 shots against in the seven games.
Erik Cole is going to have a better year
When the Stars traded for Erik Cole and his considerable salary in favor of Michael Ryder Stars fans cried foul. He proceeded to have a bumpy ride here, practicing and then playing on as many as 10 different lines in about 30 games, which is enough to throw anyone off their game.
Alex Chiasson and Valeri Nichushkin were the objects of affection where a top-line right winger was concerned before camp started for most fans, but Cole was placed there immediately and never gave an inch. Playing alone side Seguin and Benn he has flourished, reaping the benefits of their creativity and facilitating it by making some space all at the same time.
It appears as though he'll get first-unit power play time. It appears as though he'll be comfortable playing his off-wing, and Tyler Seguin is a right shot, so it still gives the line options.
After his orphaned situation last year, floating around Glen Gulutzan's lineup like a wandering gypsy, riding shotgun with Benn and Seguin must feel like karmic payback from the universe, and gives Ruff options to use Nichushkin and Chiasson elsewhere.
When Lindy Ruff used a four-forward look in the first preseason outing against the St. Louis Blues, including Alex Chiasson, it piqued the media's interest, and afterward he said it was something that they were "willing" to look at.
Fast forward to the last home preseason game (the "dress rehearsal" of sorts) and find not one, but two whole power play groups that both boasted four forwards. Sergei Gonchar and Alex Goligoski are the lone d-men in their respective groups, each of which boasts a rookie (Chiasson, Nichushkin). It's all about skill on the man advantage, and Rich Peverley is still coming back on that front.
The puck movement was pretty crisp early on. Seguin can run it from the half boards and Gonchar can run it from the point, so it has some different looks to it. A bigger sample size will be fun to look at.
Very little about the defense
This was an area of concern coming in, given the two most recent seasons with the same faces, and now injuries continue to make it so entering the opener. Sergei Gonchar appears to have settled in with Alex Goligoski and the preference continues to be that Brenden Dillon and Stephane Robidas play together.
That's fine if Trevor Daley is on the third pair, anchoring Connauton, or Jordie Benn, or Aaron Rome, or Jamie Oleksiak, but that's uncertain right now. Even the veteran pairings had more than one fire drill in the preseason and there were passages where the Stars couldn't dig their way out of their own zone.
This is where the new veteran coaching staff gets its chance to shine. Teams that make the right adjustments go far.
Nichushkin and Chiasson are ready
Off-season excitement is fine, but the sink-or-swim moments that follow are nerve-wracking. Alex Chiasson could have followed up his hot start last season with something very easily Brunnstrom-esque. Valeri Nichushkin could have failed to score, or shied away from physicality, or been torched mercilessly on defense.
Both had moments of concern, and those will continue, but so will the learning. So will the goal scoring. The Stars threw Brenden Dillon into the deep end of the pool last year and he handled it magnificently. Getting lucky on that same count twice more the following season would be a bit of a dream for most GMs, statistically, so we'll see. So far it's more encouraging than otherwise on this front.
In the end it's a crap shoot. The numbers reset to zero Thursday night and full NHL rosters square off. The hitting will pick up. The traveling begins. The three-in-four night stretches take their toll. The bumps and the bruises (and much worse) add up.
Only then will we see. We're ready. Bring it on.