In two days the Dallas Stars will officially hit the ice for the first time in the 2014 season, with training camp set to kickoff at the Fort Worth Convention Center on Friday, Sept. 19. New additions Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky and Patrick Eaves will get their first true experience with their new team and it's time to really start to see come together what has been built since the Game 6 loss to Anaheim in April.
A long summer has finally given way to the fall and training camp and with it, answers to some burning questions we're hoping to at least start to have answered this coming weekend in Fort Worth:
1. Which defenseman will step up?
John Klingberg. Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Jlyrkki Jokipakka. Julius Honka. Cameron Gaunce. Kevin Connauton.
Seven players, two spots open on the defense. Ostensibly either Gaunce or Connauton will have a near-lock on the sixth defenseman spot due to their waiver status but that still leaves a very important 7th spot open for one of the remaining five. Honka is as long a shot to make the NHL as they come but he's at least in the conversation -- right now, it seems that Klingberg and Nemeth have the upper hand heading into camp on that final spot.
It's a heck of a competition and exactly the sort of atmosphere Jim Nill wants on his team -- a number of young prospects ready to make the jump to the NHL and now it's a matter of going out there and earning it. The only question on this -- more so for after camp -- is if the Stars feel it best to carry just six defensemen and only call up one for the extra spot as needed; the benefits of having your AHL affiliate just a few hours away.
2. Will Rich Peverley be cleared to play?
Any discussion about forward line combinations is almost impossible to have without knowing the status of Rich Peverley being cleared to play. In regards strictly to hockey: Peverley was one of the best forwards for the Stars last season until his situation arose and could be one heck of a boost on an already-deep forward group should he be able to fully return.
The reality of the situation is that it's clear they are being cautious and it's likely Peverley could make his debut later in the season; the important thing here is that the Stars and Peverley take their time to ensure that getting back on the ice is not a life-threatening exercise.
3. Which goaltender secures the backup position?
Right now money is on Anders Lindback having the lead on the backup position, but Jussi Rynnas is coming off a big season in Europe and has already proven he's regained his confidence and form after an NHL meltdown; Lindback's is much more recent in memory.
This is the first time in quite some years that the Stars will have a true battle for the backup position during camp and the preseason, the Stars have always had a backup secured well before camp began. This year is different, which each goalie acknowledging that they'll have to earn their spot in the NHL and be more than happy to further prove themselves in the AHL should that be necessary.
Where Jack Campbell comes into the mix is unknown. Campbell had a great season last year but it was cut short by injury on two occasions and he was limited in games played. The Stars want to see Campbell play an entire season as the main starter and true No. 1 goaltender in Cedar Park before pulling him up to the NHL, but it's clear that the young goalie feels he is close to making that jump.
4. Can Val Nichushkin take the next step?
Last season Nichushkin was a young rookie playing in North America for the first time in a country he'd never visited which spoke a language he didn't understand. He was already worn down by the long season before it ended and clearly went through bursts and lags of energy throughout last season because of it.
This year, Nichushkin has a year of NHL experience under his belt and a full offseason to properly rest and train himself. By all accounts he's added even more muscle and size to his considerable frame and has been focused on making his sophomore effort in the NHL a success. It all starts in training camp, where Nichushkin will now be expected to not only secure a top six position but prove he belongs to stay there.
It will be interesting to see how Nichushkin of 2014 camp compares to the one from a year ago.
5. Where will Ales Hemsky play?
This question is loaded and a bit moot, as we all know that line combinations in Game 1 of the season won't exactly be what we ultimately see in Game 82. Nonetheless...
When Hemsky was signed by the Stars, just an hour after trading for Jason Spezza, immediately the narrative became "the Stars acquired them to play together on the second line behind Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn -- brilliant!" This is assuming that it's Nichushkin on the top line and the Spezza, Hemsky and random winger on the second line.
The reality is that the Stars were eyeing Hemsky well before the trade to Spezza came to fruition and had long slotted him to play on the top line with The BennGuinn. It was clear last season that a goal-scoring winger didn't work all that well with the dynamic duo -- it's why Rich Peverley was ultimately the best fit from last year's team.
The Stars believe a pass-first, playmaking winger like Hemsky could do wonders for their top line and that all begins to come together in camp.