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Dallas Stars Practice Update: Cody Eakin Skates at Wing on Top Line; Valeri Nichushkin Leaves Practice With Injury

The Dallas Stars looked at shaking things up a bit in practice on Monday—will the changes stick?

Ronald Martinez

The Dallas Stars have had a bit of a bumpy ride to start the season, with a tough loss against Chicago in the shootout in the opening game and then a rather uninspired effort on Saturday night in a 4-1 loss to the Nashville Predators. The reason for the struggles after the second period against the Blackhawks have been multi-faceted, and now the Stars coaching staff needs to determine how to get things quickly on track with a couple of tough games ahead on the schedule.

Going through training camp and the preseason, Lindy Ruff kept the lines relatively the same: Benn and Seguin on the top line, Hemsky and Spezza on the second line and third line was always the most consistent—Cody Eakin, centering Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Roussel. In fact, the third line is the only forward group that has scored so far this season.

However, the Stars chemistry right now is still questionable, especially in the top six, and Ruff spent the practice on Monday in Frisco looking at some rather different line combinations in the hopes of looking at some fresh options for deploying his players.

Here were the lines in practice, roughly (understand that practice is a bit different than morning skate, and defensive pairings are sometimes jumbles).

Benn - Seguin - Eakin
Eaves - Spezza - Hemsky
Garbutt - Fiddler - Roussel
Cole - Horcoff - Sceviour

This is perhaps the biggest shakeup Ruff has considered yet, especially considering how much he openly likes the third line that Eakin centers. There's also the fact that Ruff has shown in the past that he'll shake things up in practice and then revert to the normal combinations for the next game.

However, this is a change that could certainly happen—even if it's just at times during a game instead of a permanent shakeup of the lines.

"It's a possibility," said Ruff. "It's something we may want to look at. I was really happy with the effort that went into game one, but game two not so much. I think, with matchups sometimes on the road, this might give me some other options. It's something I want to look at in practice, and we'll look at it on the road."

Ruff was focused on the matchup issues he faces on the road and how this gives him some different options in deploying his team as well as giving the top line a completely different dynamic with Eakin moving to the wing next to Seguin.

"This is a look where we could have Eakin and go head-to-head, with Eakin down low, against the top lines," said Ruff. "Sometimes on the road, they were seeing the Weber unit, they were seeing the Gaustad unit a lot. And I'm doing my best to help [Benn and Seguin] out as well.

"We're going to live with the reality that we're going to get more attention than in the past," said Ruff, on how the duo of Benn and Seguin are getting more attention now. "It's the battle to get through that, the battle to push through. I still think, in that game, the best opportunities came from those guys. But we need finish, too."

The Stars coach, while he's been faithful to certain combinations, has also shown the willingness to make changes in order to find the best options for his team. The combinations that started the season last year were very close to what was used in the playoffs against Anaheim, other than perhaps the top line.

It's something that Ruff says could be used to light a fire of sorts in his team, even if it's just changing the combinations in practice to shake things up and create a little life in the team. The Stars looked rather out-of-sorts in the game in Nashville, although Ruff notes that it was more about execution at times against the Predators.

"I think that you're trying to create hope, sometimes inside of a game," said Ruff. "If you looked at Chicago after two periods, none of the lines were the same for the third period. It's just some of the stuff you try to do to light a fire under your team. There's no fire that needed be lit in game one, game two we were ok for a while—we weren't generating a lot but weren't giving up a lot. A Hail Mary kinda-loopty-loop went in. I thought we had a couple of great opportunities to go ahead, and I think we got a little frustrated when things weren't going our way and we took a few bad penalties we don't need to take.

"But I want to have options at the same time."

Curtis McKenzie Assigned to AHL; Valeri Nichushkin Still Dealing With Injury

The big news of the weekend was the call up of Curtis McKenzie, the exciting and physical young winger who was the AHL Rookie of the Year last season for the Texas Stars. McKenzie had a great camp and preseason and definitely earned the right to be the first forward called up when needed.

On Monday, however, the Stars assigned McKenzie to the AHL once more—confirming thoughts that the call up was insurance because of a nasty bug going around the Stars locker room. Tyler Seguin, Ryan Garbutt and Valeri Nichushkin have been sick at one point over the last week or so and the team definitely looked a little ill in the third period against Nashville.

Ruff said, however, that that had cleared up a bit and they were optimistic that the injury/illness concerns were addressed and hence McKenzie was returned to the AHL.

Unfortunately, Nichushkin left practice early after apparently re-aggravating that same injury he's been fighting through to start the season and there's a good chance he doesn't play on Tuesday.

"He's trying to push through a groin/hip flexor issue," said Ruff. "He's struggled with it through camp; I don't think he's been skating well. I thought he started off today really well, but he again felt it and couldn't skate anymore."

No word on if McKenzie has been recalled once more, seeing as how Nichushkin left practice after the move was announced, but right now the Stars still have 12 healthy forwards and could roll the dice with what they have—however, the Texas Stars don't play again until Friday and there's no harm in bringing McKenzie along on the road trip in case that bug starts going around again.

We'll see.