The Dallas Stars hit the ice on Friday officially for the first time since the Game 6 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in April, in what was a rather lively and energetic practice for Group A that then rolled into a scrimmage between Groups B and C. A contingent of about 900 elementary students from Fort Worth ISD were in attendance to provide vocal support on top of the other fans also present, providing the perfect atmosphere for the start of the new season.
The practice portion was tough to really gain any insight from, as it was mostly breakout drills and positioning drills with the players in jerseys without numbers, making it a bit difficult to really observe players on an individual basis. Valeri Nishushkin looked fine -- in fact, he had a couple of pretty nifty plays with the puck -- but then left early with what we now know is a sore groin. He's expected to keep practicing.
Jamie Benn looked like he hadn't lost a step since last season, just picked up where he left off and was very clearly the best player on the ice for his group. As he's expected to be.
The practice was then followed by a Green & White scrimmage between Group B and Group C. The two sides were rather evenly split in NHL firepower, but Team White -- led by Tyler Seguin -- definitely had the upper hand most of the game. The final score doesn't matter much, but it was a great chance to see some truly competitive hockey across three 15-minute periods complete with referees. We're told to expect the same again tomorrow.
Here are some more detailed observations from the scrimmage:
- I'm ashamed to say it, but this was my first real close-up look at Jason Spezza as a hockey player. I've always admired him from a distance in Ottawa but never really knew his game all that well. I think it's safe to say the Stars got one hell of a hockey player in the trade, and someone who at least looks like he could fit very well into the system that Ruff has established in Dallas.
- Spezza played on a line with Hemsky and they definitely have chemistry together (Garbutt was their linemate but it didn't matter much, almost the same as Benn and Seguin from last year). Both are slick, slick players with the puck but what really stood out about Spezza was his aggressiveness when the puck wasn't on his stick. This was just the first true skate of a very, very long season but he had all the energy and speed that you'd expect of a player with his pedigree.
- Best goal of the game came from Spezza, who picked up a puck out of traffic in the slot and sniped a shot in a 2-inch space above Lehtonen's shoulder. He also hit the pipe on a similar shot later in the game.
- The one prospect that really and truly stood out to me was Radek Faksa, the first round pick from 2012 whose stock had dropped a bit since then. While the focus is always on how flashy the offense from a center can be, or their overall production, Faksa shows how a focus on the two-way game can also take a player to another level. His game is complete up and down the ice, he has the size and strength to play in the NHL and he's incredibly smooth with the puck -- and smart with it as well. Very intelligent, and showed all the promise we saw last season in the AHL playoffs.
- Brett Ritchie's broken finger could potentially cost him if he can't start getting into competitive action soon. Matej Stransky, who some felt might have taken a step back after his jump to the AHL, continued his strong play in Traverse City with a rather dominant performance on Friday. His size is his best asset; his ability to use his size to keep possession along the boards was impressive and while his skating is still not super strong, it's not nearly as noticeable as it was just a year ago.
- Second-best goal of the game? Stransky with a rocket of a slap shot off the far pipe past Jack Campbell from the high circle. Definitely a "wow" moment during the game.
- Everyone wants to know about Julius Honka and here's your answer: This is someone who could rather quickly become a very special player for the Stars, but he's still a bit of a ways away.
- When the puck is on Honka's stick he's absolutely electric; he's one of the better skating 18 year-olds I've seen in quite some time and he can get up and down the ice exceptionally fast. Several times he would lead the rush up the ice only to quickly track back and break up a chance the other way. Playing with Jyrkki Jokipakka, he was clearly constantly looking for that one shot to break off and shoot up the ice, and sometimes that instinct was a bit too premature.
- Honka also, which is understandable for his size, can rather easily be knocked off the puck in the corners. He's competitive, though, and doesn't back down from being physical but his best defense is his deft use of his stick and positioning to break up chances. Imagining him set up in front of his own net for any amount of time is scary, but goodness gracious can he move the puck with skill, poise and accurate ferocity.
- One player I was a bit disappointed didn't stand out as much was Curtis McKenzie. After a big year in the AHL last season he was expected to compete for an NHL spot out of camp. so it will be interesting to see how he progresses over the weekend and into the preseason.
- If you were to ask me who has the upper hand on that final defenseman spot, aside from Gaunce or Connauton (by default), it's Jyrki Jokipakka. He looked very good in Traverse City and was outstanding on Friday in the scrimmage. His game reminds me a lot of Stephane Robidas, although with a bit more size -- he's so calm with the puck, can play physical and is just smooth and calm up and down the ice. Very well-rounded defenseman.
- Antoine Roussel was his usual self, and he's definitely taken on the moniker of "fan favorite." The arena went absolutely nuts when he scored on a breakway goal (off a pass from Seguin) that included one heck of a move in tight on the goalie (I think it was Kiviaho). He was also the most physical player on the ice, and introduced Honka to the NHL with a big hit early in the game.
- I really, really liked Hemsky's play in the scrimmage -- including when he had a big chance on offense but the puck deflected back up ice for a rush the other way. Hemsky tracked hard on the backcheck and then broke up the play before it could turn into a chance on goal. It was everything the Edmonton media told me he'd never do.
- Tough to really judge the goalies in games like this, but Lehtonen looked sharp and Campbell looked a bit rusty before settling down to make a few stops. I'm expecting Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas to get play in the scrimmage tomorrow.
- Jamie Oleksiak has one hell of a lumberjack beard going on.