So the Dallas Stars offense is elite now, right? At least the forwards. That glaring hole marked "Secondary Scoring?" Gone. Crushed. After watching Jim Nill turn the early days of the offseason into his own personal episode of Supermarket Sweep we can all sit back and order our Ales Hemsky replica jerseys. Arena staff, undoubtedly, will spend the next few months stocking up on extra red lightbulbs.
Or will they?
Well, yes. There’s no doubt the team is better. Jason Spezza and Hemsky solve a major problem. Spezza alone emphatically pushes Dallas into comparisons with other league powerhouses. Hello Chicago, goodbye Winnipeg. Funny thing though, if that’s the comparison we want (pro tip: it is), the standards against which our Stars are measured get a bit tougher. Even funnier is the fact that, the more I think about it, the more I find myself focusing on Erik Cole as the critical piece.
Spezza to Hemsky to…
If everything goes according to plan, the Stars have officially rendered line-matching a waste of time. Why bother? Jamie Benn (34g, 79pts) and Tyler Seguin (37g, 84pts) didn’t exactly need any help last season, and you have to think Valeri Nichushkin (14g, 34pts) spent at least a long weekend working on lifting the puck. Spezza brings his own pedigree, and a recent understanding with Hemsky. Cole brings speed, a direct style, and a deceptively soft touch. He brings options, six pieces to intermix, glorious flexibility.
December Cole (11pts) keeps the engine purring. Post-February Cole (3pts) drives it into a ditch. If he starts throwing up zeroes, it puts more pressure on Spezza to acclimate quickly, on Hemsky to understand what playing to win feels like, on Ruff to juggle. It makes it imperative for Benn and Seguin to remain top 10 scorers, and for the trainers to keep everyone healthy. Erik Cole is, almost single-handedly, the margin of error for Dallas’ offense.
Because really, what’s waiting behind him?
The fact Colton Sceviour was a point a game player in his last two AHL seasons (53g, 116pts, 116 games) is intriguing. There’s also a 26 game cameo that produced another eight goals with the big club to consider. That’s a 25 goal pace, playing smaller minutes with less skilled players. You have to think he gets at least a shot. Heck, he might win the job outright. Twenty five isn’t exactly ancient.
As far as the current roster goes, he may well be the only option. The Garbutt/Eakin/Roussel combo seems set, and even it it wasn’t, which of those three screams scoring line winger? Eakin is a center, and the Stars seem to love him there. Make that move and the whole ‘center depth’ thing we’ve been crowing about goes out the door. Meanwhile, Garbutt and Roussel feel much more suited to the occasional cameo, like their whole exceeds the sum of their parts. No dice.
The Cedar Park crew, meanwhile, is long on promise, but painfully raw. Curtis McKenzie just wrapped up rookie of the year honors, and posted 65 points in 75 games. Not too shabby considering his Miami (OH) high was 24. Brett Ritchie’s playoff rampage (7g, 13 games) is still fresh, and this very site lauded Brendan Ranford’s potential earlier in the summer. Lots to like, but wouldn’t you rather see this group as the offensive nucleus of a defending champion just a little bit longer?
That’s without even considering the strange case of Travis Morin. Sure, he’s a center, and yes, he is no longer even remotely a prospect, but more than any player in the Stars system, he’s had to carry the responsibility of consistently producing for a championship team. Is it possible an AHL scoring title, regular and post-season MVP honors, and league championship might earn another long look in training camp? Even a few months worth of production could buy enough time for someone else to get ready.
Barring a trade, there’s really not much else. Benn and Seguin aren’t sneaking up on anybody this season. They’ll get fits and starts from Eakin and Co, but true contention in a brutal Western Conference comes from the second unit. That’s Spezza, sure, and Hemsky, but it’s also a whole lot of Erik Cole. Either he finds quick chemistry and consistent production, or someone else gets a shot.