As the preseason rolls to a close this weekend and we start to look back at training camp to ponder what we've learned, some find they still have a few questions about the Dallas Stars and the 2011-2012 season. Questions. Not concerns. A 5-1 record (plus whatever happens in St. Louis tomorrow afternoon) that includes outscoring opponents 25-14 tends to alleviate concerns.
Most of the questions stem from the lines people (haven't) seen in the preseason and defensive pairings they've yet to witness more than once. Minor injuries have held Brenden Morrow, Jamie Benn and Adam Burish out of the lineup and that's obscured the finished puzzle these pieces will complete one week from tonight against Chicago.
Coach Gulutzan placed Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas together last night and paired Nick Grossman with Trevor Daley. These are things, I feel, that we will see next weekend, and that leaves Pardy and Souray together as the third pairing. We haven't seen it all in one place yet, but the defense is starting to come into focus.
The forward groupings seem intuitive and inevitable, but we haven't seen some of this... Morrow-Ribeiro-Ryder. Ott-Benn-Eriksson. Burish-Fiddler-Dvorak. Dowell-Petersen-Barch/Godard/Wandell. If that's the case, however, then why have we seen Loui Eriksson with Fiddler and Dvorak three times? Why not with Ott last night and someone to fill in for Benn? Mike Heika mentioned this last night...
I'm hoping this is just a shortage of bodies, and Gulutzan will put Eriksson back with Jamie Benn whenever the regular season starts, but there are some who believe Eriksson might start the year with Fiddler. [DMN]
A full week of practice awaits these guys, and then 82 games of line shuffling beyond that. It's hardly worth getting too excited over today on September 30th, but it is an interesting question. Loui Eriksson is the team's best goal scorer. The thought of putting him on a defensive minded line with Fiddler and Dvorak can be a little unsettling.
With Eriksson now likely out for Saturday's game with a bruise to go along with the continued absences of Morrow, Benn and Burish, it's unlikely we'll learn anything further about line combinations until practice next week.
Glen Gulutzan told media in PEI that he would try every possible combination to look for chemistry, and that's what the preseason has been about.
Some more detailed observations from last night's game after the jump...
Speaking of chemistry, let's look at the players on the ice last night for the seven Stars goals...
3 29 32 33 63 81
6 23 32 33 63 73
3 21 32 33 63 73
2 20 21 31 33 38
3 23 33 38 63 73
6 31 33 38 63 73
3 23 31 33 63 73
Only two of them were power play goals, but the triumvirate of 33, 63 and 73 that will be relied upon so heavily on the man advantage this year demonstrated tremendous chemistry throughout. Add Stephane Robidas and Brenden Morrow to the mix and your Brad Richards-less power play makes you feel pretty good about it, and that's without tinkering around with Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson (your two best players??) and Sheldon Souray. The second power play unit could be as intriguing as the first on some nights.
What's also intriguing is Glen Gulutzan's view on the power play, which does not always operate from the point like we've been accustomed to seeing. They've added a set used in Cedar Park the last two years that features a defenseman creeping down into the slot. This was Larsen with Texas and Stephane Robidas has been executing it on the NHL side of things. This has usually included Mike Riberio operating things from the half boards, and in the game that Jamie Benn played at home, we saw him drift out to the point while Robidas crept down. It gets the defense moving a little bit and opens up the possibility for the one timer Robi scored on last night, or that high tip play they liked last year. If someone remains near the crease as well it creates a double screen (or more, depending on the opposition standing around).
Another way to look at the Stars preseason as a whole so far is to say that they don't appear to be very dangerous unless that Ribeiro/Ryder combo is on the ice, and things are not going to be nearly as easy for them during the regular season. I think that's fair to say, but I also think that once Jamie Benn, Morrow and Burish are back in the lineup, they'll have a much different look that hopefully adds balance.
A couple of other things from last night and preseason in general...
- Vernon Fiddler is as good as we thought he'd be. He was (unfortunately) the only Star on the positive side of the faceoff ledger last night (8 of 14). He has been effective on the penalty kill. His setup of Loui Eriksson in the slot leading to that goal was nothing less than "nifty" (yeah, let's go with nifty). He went to the net hard and slammed home a rebound created from a Michael Ryder shot. We don't know why he was out there with Ribeiro and Ryder but it shows that if injuries force Gulutzan's hand, Fiddler is a guy that can scale up the lineup a bit and give you minutes there if you need him. He was the veritable jack-of-all-trades last night, and that's what the Stars need from him going forward if they're to compete night in and night out.
- Mark Fistric made a strong case for himself last night, be it only one game. His physicality stuck out in a game sorely lacking any (don't believe the ridiculous hit count of 45 for the game. It's always inflated at home). Still, the Stars seem high on Pardy and Souray so Fistric's involvement this year will likely depend on injuries. His fight last night was another one of those "fight after a clean hit" scenarios that drives us all batty. He put a perfectly clean, very beautiful open ice hit on Bradley last night and for some reason that warranted fisticuffs with a minute left in the game. There's no reason for it, but Fistric answered the bell anyway.
- Question for those who have been to games: How many 2-on-1's have we seen against the Stars? 3-on-1's? The two breakaways last night being an aberration, it seems Glen Gulutzan's system protects against odd man rushes pretty well so far. The Blackhawks could shatter that perception next weekend, but we'll reserve judgment for then.
- Tom Wandell: This is becoming a more and more frequent conversation around the metaphorical water cooler at games, practices and morning skates. Where does he fit? Last night he posts 6 SOG, a goal, an assist and a +3 rating while playing with Ribeiro and Ryder. He has speed. He has good hands. It just doesn't all come together very often for him on the scoresheet, and it seems as though he needs a top-six situation to grow and find his game. The Stars don't have that opportunity for him right now. There's no place for him there, so he'll have to earn his minutes on the third or (more likely) fourth line in a very different role. I've heard the words "Anti Miettinen" thrown around a time or two in the PB. The circumstances just might not be right here in Dallas to fully tap his potential. We'll see.