Today we kick off our week long season preview of the 2011-2012 Dallas Stars leading up to Friday night's opener against the Chicago Blackhawks. We'll preview the defense, goaltending, special teams and more, but today we start with the forward group...
Go back and read the story lines from last two Octobers and you'll see they all went something like this: "The Dallas Stars are all set at forward, hurting on defense, and have a big question mark in goal." With Mike Ribeiro, Brenden Morrow, Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn, Steve Ott, James Neal, etc, the forward group wasn't considered an issue.
Fast forward a year and the team's confidence in Kari Lehtonen is sky high, the defense has seen improvement both in personnel and philosophy, and it's the forward group that's thought to be their undoing, owing to the perceived gaping hole that Brad Richards and James Neal leave up front. It's that perception that caused ESPN, for example, to rank the Stars 27th out of 30 teams earlier today.
Last October the Stars' defensemen talked about proving perceptions about them wrong. This year it's the forwards turn to show that perceptions about them are wrong. They want to show that Joe Nieuwendyk made this a deeper, more balanced team with his July moves in Dowell, Dvorak, Fiddler and Ryder and that guys like Mike Ribeiro, Steve Ott, Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn are ready to take another step forward and lead this team sans Richards.
I spent a few minutes with Craig Ludwig recently and we'll be coloring these previews with his comments here and there. We barely got thirty seconds into it when, without even having to ask, he started on the subject.
"How are we going to replace Brad Richards?" said Ludwig. "I'm looking at a guy like Mike Ribeiro who wants to take on that challenge. I think he wants to have that [challenge]," said Ludwig. "Hopefully there's some chemistry there with Ryder."
That chemistry has been abundant in preseason as Ribeiro and Ryder combined for goals in Montreal, an overtime game winner in Florida, and several more in the 7-1 defeat of Florida at home, where Ribeiro registered six points.
"One of the things I am going to look for is the chemistry between all these guys and I think we've seen some of that," said Ludwig. "Any time you bring in seven players, you're talking about a third of your team but, we've got guys now that are hungrier, and that are sick of not making the playoffs."
Let's take a look at where we think the chemistry might form, and what this forward group is shaping up to be as opening day approaches...Subtractions: Brad Richards, Brian Sutherby, Brandon Segal, Jason Williams, Jamie Langenbrunner
Additions: Vernon Fiddler, Michael Ryder, Radek Dvorak, Eric Godard, Jake Dowell
Even as I type this, Jamie Benn is practicing with Tomas Vincour and Loui Eriksson. Steve Ott is practicing with Fiddler and Dvorak. Adam Burish remains out with a minor groin tweak. All of this is to say that things have not come into focus yet with all of the preseason injuries preventing certain chemistry experiments, but this is what we expect on opening night, or something close to it...
The wild cards in this discussion are Tom Wandell and Tomas Vincour. The latter was kept rather than Eric Godard, who cleared waivers and was sent to Cedar Park. Vincour's shown well in preseason again, uses his size effectively, hounds the puck quite well on the forecheck, and looks like he could be a real player in this league if he can finish a little more often. Wandell had a rough season last year after a knee injury the campaign before it, and notched only nine points in 75 games last year. His speed and hands have been encouraging for years now but the production has not matched his potential percieved by a fan base that largely still gives him the benefit of the doubt.
Both of these players need the same thing to bloom, if you will: Regular ice time with talented linemates (top six minutes). Do the Stars have room for such an experiment? Do they have the patience to try? Can they afford to?
Gulutzan has glued Fiddler and Dvorak together in the preseason so it's difficult to imagine them separating now. If you were to try to fit one of these on the second line, how do you then rearrange the third line? Does Adam Burish get pushed down to the fourth? You start to see the problem. Loui Eriksson has been placed on a line with Fiddler and Dvorak throughout the preseason, and one almost wonders if it's in an attempt to establish scoring depth on three lines, if Vincour could be effective with Benn and Ott (though that might raise some concerns about that lines defensive prowess).
The assumption has been that Fiddler, Dvorak, and presumably Burish would constitute a trio with a very defined role of the quintessential checking line. As the week unfolds we'll see if the Stars are challenging that notion, or if when Adam Burish gets back on the ice, we'll see what we thought we would.
Whatever unfolds in the top nine, the fourth trio will draw from a pool of more than capable players that can go high energy while at the same time possessing the ability to create offense unlike any other fourth line seen in Dallas in some time. The depth that Joe Nieuwendyk felt they needed and so succesfully built over the summer should help the team to stay more competetive down the stretch after two seasons of fading in February and March.
Glen Gulutzan said after practice on Monday that everything apart from Morrow-Ribeiro-Ryder is still up in the air until Friday night.
Biggest Question Mark:
Replacing Brad Richards is job number one, and the Ribeiro line gets to do it in more ways than one. Matchups on the road, with the home team getting the last change haunted the Richards/Neal/Eriksson line the last two seasons, and now Ribeiro's trio inherits that issue. Can they be as effective on the road as they no doubt will be on home ice, and can Jamie Benn, playing his first full year at the center position, generate enough offense on the road to provide a consistent threat to teams that want to load up defensively against Ribeiro/Ryder/Morrow?
Defense, depth, details. We'll talk about this more when we preview the defense, but the Stars hope that sprinkling Loui Eriksson, Vernon Fiddler, Radek Dvorak, Steve Ott and Adam Burish evenly throughout a forward lineup that has adopted a more "responsible" forecheck will greatly reduce quality chances against.
Vernon Fiddler and Radek Dvorak add two quality penalty killing forwards to a group that badly needed the help last year. With Petersen, Benn, Ott and Burish as well, the PK is protected from injury. Fiddler, Ott and Burish also constitute what should be one of the best faceoff groups in the league
Add it all up with an improved group of defensemen and a confident Kari Lehtonen and what this Stars forward group should get is fewer goals against, and thus less demand and pressure on them to produce and play from behind as they so often did under Marc Crawford. If they're to replace a center like Brad Richards successfully and navigate the frightening Western Conference, this must be the case.