To get Dallas Stars fans ready for the 2014-15 season, the Defending Big D staff will be taking an individual look at each probable player on the opening day roster in reverse order of their likely "impact" on the team's success this season. The way we chose to interpret that was this is a ranking in order of the individual's importance to the Stars this season and this season alone. Thus, players who have high potential but are not being counted on to reach it this season are further down the list. We also limited it to the players who are most likely to be on the opening night roster at this point, which means a few Texas Stars candidates won't show up.
Every Stanley Cup contender has some elements that are better than other teams (or that other teams are lacking altogether). One of these elements is a skilled fourth line that the coach can rely on to skate 8-10 minutes a night and not be a disaster in their own zone. Some fourth lines are kind of 'energy' lines, bringing a physicality to the bottom six forward group. Other fourth lines are relied on to add scoring depth and to help push the puck possession game forward.
So which type of fourth line will the Dallas Stars have this season?
The answer to that is the key to understanding Shawn Horcoff's impact on the upcoming campaign, since he's likely to play that role again this year as he did last season.
Given who is theoretically penciled in on the fourth line -- Vernon Fiddler, Horcoff, and probably a younger winger like Colton Sceviour to start the season -- we wouldn't expect this line to be one of pure energy, like a line of young guns often are, but more likely a hybrid of energy and scoring. The biggest characteristic of this line, though, will be their two-way game.
During the Stars' playoff series versus the Anaheim Ducks, Horcoff and Fiddler were placed on the fourth line together and Horcoff saw a resurgence in his overall game. He scored a point a game in the playoffs -- something no one is expecting to be replicated over the course of a whole season -- but it showed that the scoring is still there and that he can take advantage of his chances when he gets them. Popping in about 20 points or so from the fourth line over 82 games like he did last year is pretty decent production from a bottom six line.
The chemistry between Horcoff and Fiddler helped their possession numbers to come out on the positive side of most metrics, which should help the Stars as a whole to push the play into the offensive zone as much as possible. And as we all know, you can't get scored on if the opposition doesn't have the puck to begin with, so that should help out his teammates on defense.
This kind of energy/scoring depth line will also allow coach Lindy Ruff to roll four lines throughout the season as he likes to do.
Outside of his role at even strength, Horcoff should be a fixture on the penalty kill again -- you know, when he's not in the penalty box. Not committing those silly penalties to draw his team onto the PK in the first place will go a long way to his contributing in shorthanded situations. With any luck, he'll help to pull the team's penalty kill rate out of the pedestrian and more towards the top end instead.
Both on and off the ice, Horcoff will be a leader on the team. An alternate captain last year, Horcoff will be joined by plenty of other leaders (like ex-Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza) to help the Stars build on their playoff success from last year.
And, if we're lucky, maybe another funny moment or two...
It's important to note with Horcoff that some will always complain that a guy getting paid $5.5 million in cap dollars to contribute at this rate on the fourth line is a vast overpayment. To that I say, we shouldn't really be judging Horcoff's production versus that number. His actual salary this year is only $3 million (per CapGeek.com) which is $2.5 million less than his cap hit.
While that is still more than you expect to pay on a fourth line guy, the insurance of having a skilled depth center as well as the leadership he brings to the locker room was worth taking on a large contract when the trade was made; the team had thin NHL veteran center depth and Jamie Benn was about to be made captain at a relatively young age on a roster that lacked playoff experience in general.