With the five year playoff drought broken last year, the expectations for the Dallas Stars are assuredly raised this season. The acquisition of a legitimate second scoring line built around Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky to take the pressure off of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn having to carry the offensive workload signaled to the fanbase that the Stars were ready to take the next step.
But just what is that next step?
Is it just simply making the playoffs again this year, in what is widely regarded as the most difficult division in the NHL? Or is a first round series win that is the bar for success this year? Is it a serious run at the Stanley Cup?
Of course the Stanley Cup is the ultimate prize, but teams don't just get there overnight. It's built up to with a roster that is constructed well, player development, good play on the ice, a dash of luck, and a winning culture that is established in the years leading up to it.
With that in mind, here is what the Defending Big D staff is predicting for the Stars this season as they make their way back to perennial contenders.
Brad: 5th in the Central, 8th in the West
The Stars enter the season with alarming question marks from the blueline back as they return the same group in front of a starting netminder who has not been good this training camp and preseason. The division got tougher in the off-season. The conference got tougher in the off-season. They will be better than they were last year with their improved offense, but with a stronger field around them it will help them only to keep pace rather than move up in the pack. 8th again, and another pretty good shot at playing spoiler in the first round.
Brandon: 3rd in the Central, 5th in the West
I think we're likely to see an inconsistent start from the Stars with another year where the entire picture for this team isn't clear until around mid-season. The trade deadline will be a very interesting time for the Stars this season and I'm going to just go way out on a limb and say the blueline that starts the season for the Stars, won't be the one that we see in Game 1 of the postseason.
David: 3rd in the Central, 6th in the West
The defense plays better than we feared, Kari shakes off the pre-season rust, and the Stars waltz into a first round playoff matchup with the Blues. Although if they could figure out a way to get wildcarded into the Pacific Division again I wouldn't mind all that much...
Derek: 5th in the Central, 8th in the West
The new additions of Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky fit in well, and give the Stars an even more potent offense. The young defensemen become comfortable at the NHL level and make an impact, which helps overcome disappointing seasons from Kari Lehtonen and Anders Lindback. The West as a whole gets stronger, but the Stars do too, and fight their way into a well-deserved playoff spot as the 8th seed. The team plays incredibly well against the 1st-seed Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round of the playoffs, but ultimately lose in seven games.
Erin: 3rd in the Central, 6th in the West
The division hasn't gotten any easier, but the Stars have gone all-in with the offense this time around, which will be enough to help them mask some of the more glaring holes on defense. The loaded first power play unit will help production in that area, and the trio of Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt becomes one of the most effective, and annoying, shut-down lines in the league. Still, goals against will be the Achilles heel of the team, which should make it a heck of a first round battle for whoever draws them.
Huw: 5th in the Central, 8th in the West
Well. I'm a pessimist. Despite the Stars upgrading their centre depth (again) I think its going to be the inexperienced blue line that is going to hurt. Plus if Kari can't shake the rust early then it might be a very painful start to the season. That's something that will be punished out in the wild west.
There's a need to upgrade that back unit and if the Stars are in the hunt near the deadline expect them to use the pieces they have (and they have them) to make a move on a top blue liner. Who's that? We'll have to wait and see.
Josh: 3rd in the Central, 6th in the West
The goals against will be better than people think because the Stars now have a second line that will keep opposing teams out of their own end more often. Val goes HAM.
Patrick: 4th in the Central, 7th in the West
An improved power play, more seasoned defense and playoff tested Lehtonen have the Stars' arrow on the up. Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky's impact on the depth, helping Cody Eakin, Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Rousell slide into a third-line checking role is paramount. If they stay healthy, I think the Stars edge out the Minnesota Wild for the fourth spot in the toughest division in hockey behind St. Louis, Chicago and Colorado. The Stars will make progress and reach the 2nd round of the playoffs, where I think they lose out to the top teams in St. Louis, Chicago, LA and Anahiem.
Robert: 4th in the Central, 7th in the West
Stars start hot, but a 2nd-half fade sees them wind up fourth in the Central, seventh in the West, and only that well thanks to some key contributions from the young defense corps after a chunk of man games lost to injuries in the top four. Jamie Oleksiak looks surprisingly similar to Trevor Daley at times, which frustrates and placates different sets of people during his 58 games up with the big club. Kari Lehtonen again plays more games than he should have to after the backup goalie spot sees rotation throughout the year thanks to an inability to string good starts together by Lindynnasbell, inc. Seguin and Benn both hit 80 points, but neither challenges for any hardware this year.
Taylor: 3rd in the Central, 6th in the West
The offensive upgrades this offseason are enough to have the Stars comfortably seeded this year, instead of having to sneak in on a wild card spot. They'll edge out a series win in the first round, and then lose in the second this year. But, two important things will come of that result: Kari Lehtonen will put to rest any idea that he can't backstop this team to a playoff series win and they'll take round two to seven games and scare the pants off that opponent, putting the division on notice for the 2015-2016 season.
Wes: 4th in the Central, 7th in the West
This isn't the year for Dallas to make any leaps. The D is still far too unsettled. That said, Nashville and Winnipeg are not good situations, Minnesota has questions in the crease, and Colorado is due for a major statistical correction. All of those factors make this year's playoff run a bit less stressful.
Dallas still checks out in the first round, but it's closer. 2015/16 is when things get really fun.
For the first time in our memory the staff unanimously predicts the Stars to make the playoff, even winning over the more cynical among us. Now you tell us - where do you see the Stars finishing this year?