After a long, busy offseason, the Dallas Stars' training camp is just around the corner, beginning on September 19th.
The Stars were active over the summer, making a number of moves aimed at addressing weaknesses from last year's team, with Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky being the two premier additions.
For the most part, Dallas' roster appears set for the upcoming season. The majority of lineup spots and team roles, such as the duo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin on the first forward line or the pairing of Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley as the top defensive unit, are already assigned and unlikely to change, barring any major surprises.
However, there are a few questions about the team that remain unanswered. With the regular season beginning for the Stars on October 9th, the upcoming training camp and preseason will be deciding factors in finding answers.
"We have six (exhibition) games, and we want to use them wisely," said Stars general manager Jim Nill, as quoted by Mike Heika. "We have a lot of decisions to make."
At forward, almost all of the pieces are already in place. Seguin and Benn were dynamite together last season, and will play together again. Who flanks them on their right side remains a mystery, though. Nill said over the summer that one of the main reasons that Hemsky was signed as a free agent was because of how well he might mesh on that top line, but sophomore Valeri Nichushkin showed flashes of brilliance and chemistry with Seguin and Benn last season. The two will probably each get a chance on that line to see who fits best, with the other dropping down to the second line.
Spezza was brought in to anchor the second line center position, and should help to maximize the production of either Hemsky or Nichushkin. Beyond these aforementioned five forwards, however, the battle for the last Top 6 spot will be the biggest one among the forward core.
Erik Cole is the current front-running candidate. Despite being a Top 6 forward for the majority of his career, notching a career-high 35 goals with the Montreal Canadiens in 2011-2012, Cole has struggled to establish himself as a top offensive forward since coming to Dallas. To his credit he scored 16 goals last season, good enough for a tie for fourth on the team, and did so while bouncing around the lineup and playing with a revolving door of centers. The problem is that Cole's offensive production would disappear for long stretches, and far too regularly he became a liability when it came to puck possession and defensive play. There's a very real chance that the 35 year-old Cole has enough left in the tank to pot a steady 20 goals this year, especially if he plays the entire season with a talented playmaker like Spezza as his pivot, but it's far from a sure thing.
Contesting Cole is 25 year-old rookie Colton Sceviour, who will be entering his first full NHL season. Sceviour is coming off of an impressive 2013-2014 season that saw him be the most dangerous goal-scorer in the AHL, with 32 goals in 54 games, before coming up to Dallas permanently late in the year, where he chipped in another 8 goals and 12 points in 26 games. Sceviour isn't a flashy offensive player, but is highly versatile and finds a variety of ways to get the job done. He's also consistently improved his game every single year of his hockey career so far, which is a good sign for the future. Making the jump from a 1st line AHLer to a second line NHLer in one season isn't an easy thing to do, but players have successfully done it before. Could Sceviour be next?
Brett Ritchie deserves a mention here as well. The 2011 second round pick already has pro-level size, at 6'4", and is coming off of an impressive rookie season in the AHL where he scored 48 points in 68 games. It's unlikely at this point that Ritchie even makes the team, especially on the second line, but there is still an outside chance that he could force the team's hand with a tremendous camp and preseason, like Benn did in 2009.
On the blueline the Stars already have six defensemen on one-way contracts penciled in, but interestingly enough, this position could be the one with the most intriguing competition. Almost all NHL teams carry seven defencemen on their rosters, but the Stars often carried eight last season, meaning that there's at least one spot open on the back end, and possibly even two. This competition has been talked about a lot already this summer, but for good reason, as there are a whopping five talented young defenders coming up from the AHL, all with a real, legitimate chance of cracking the roster. Patrik Nemeth, who came up to Dallas late last season and stuck around, is the leading candidate, but John Klingberg, as Brandon wrote recently, is another strong contender. Cameron Gaunce would have to pass through waivers in order to be sent down to the AHL once again, which could be a deciding factor in keeping him in Dallas, while Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrki Jokipakka are considered the longer shots out of the group. All of these young defenders will get plenty of playing time in the preseason to see which ones truly stand out.
The same story echoes in net. Instead of signing just one goalie over the summer to replace departing free agent Tim Thomas, the Stars signed both Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas to one-way deals. Lindback is coming off of two mixed seasons in Tampa Bay, but still possesses a nice set of skills that Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley believes can be smoothed out. Rynnas, meanwhile, is a bit more of an unknown, playing last season in Finland, but put up a staggering .939 save percentage to lead the SM Liiga. The winner of the head-to-head battle will get the backup job behind Kari Lehtonen. Jack Campbell, Dallas' 1st round pick in 2010, is coming off of a stellar season in the AHL and will get a good look, but the Stars' management seems to prefer the young goalie to get starter minutes in the AHL this year opposed to limited backup minutes in the NHL.
The idea of having a deep team with multiple players competing for only a handful of spots, forcing everyone to constantly perform to the best of their abilities for the benefit of the whole team, is a theme that Nill has expressed since he took over the GM job in Dallas last summer, and Stars fans will get to see it in full effect in the coming weeks.