Think about the season you'd like to see from the Dallas Stars. Considering the content of this blog, that's very probably a good season. A playoff season. Now think about how the Stars get to good. Ask yourself questions. There are certainly plenty circling around this squad, but three seem to stand out more than all the rest.
1 - How many games will Antti Niemi start?
These days, questions about Dallas' goaltending are an annual rite. Really, Stars fans have been casting wary glances towards the crease since Marty Turco left town after the 2009-2010 season. Heck, even Turco struggled at times to win over a fanbase that had grown accustomed to annual appearances in the later rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The fact the Stars were willing to swap Ivan Vishnevskiy (a Julius Honka-like prospect at the time) and a pick for an uneven, injury-plagued netminder was deeply concerning. How on earth, fans wondered, could they hand the keys to a goaltender from a bad team dogged by questions of maturity and work-ethic? More to the point, was the guy any good?
For the next four seasons (2010-2014) Lehtonen played with a pair of middle fingers extended towards anyone who ever doubted his ability. Unfortunately, the Stars themselves continued to exhibit signs of decline. Fans began to wonder about the quality of the offense, the inability of the defense to prevent shots, and when the bill would come due for Lehtonen's heavy workload. To their credit, Stars management tried a wide range of things to address those concerns, including NHL Center Jamie Benn, NHL Goaltender Andrew Raycroft, and Marc Crawford's "yeah, but they're not good shots" philosophy.
Then came 2014-2015.
Kari coughed up an odd goal against the Blackhawks and really never looked back. While the Stars blossomed around him, the Big Finn stumbled to his worst full season as a Star, and quite possibly, at the NHL level. It was a brutal thing to watch a player so integral to keeping the wheels on for four years suddenly become the team's glaring weakness. It was also brutal, for the fans, to wonder how far the 2011-2012 version of Lehtonen (.922 Sv% / 2.33 GAA) would have taken last year's team. Even 2013-2014's numbers (.919 Sv% / 2.41 GAA) would have looked great behind the league's second-best offense.
So why, then, is this year's question not as straightforward as "has Kari lost it?" Well, history, for one. Last year was Lehtonen's first stumble as a Star. The second reason is an offseason move that pushed the 2015-2016 Dallas Stars over the $10 million mark in terms of goalkeeping salary. The Stars moved aggressively to sign former Chicago Blackhawk and San Jose Shark Antti Niemi. It was a deal absolutely dripping in subtext. Niemi has the resume (.916 Sv% / 2.39 GAA for his career, 2009-2010 Stanley Cup Championship) to suggest he is more than just Lehtonen's latest backup, but how much more?
Either of Niemi's last two seasons are likely good enough to get the 2014-2015 Stars into the playoffs. Then again, throw out one bad year and the same could be said of Lehtonen. Meanwhile, an influx of talent has supercharged the rest of the Dallas roster. That's great news. Mostly. Lehtonen may be the only person in the organization who does not stand to benefit. Without that stacked lineup, GM Jim and Co might have been able to give Lehtonen another season to get his game back on track. They went shopping instead, which suggests they think this team is ready to compete, with or without their big Finn.
So how many games does Niemi start? If Lehtonen truly is viewed as the incumbent #1, you have to think he'll be given a chance to stake his claim. A more even early distribution of workload could suggest the Stars aren't quite ready to anoint either player. Niemi will likely have a say in this as well. It seems unlikely he signed without some expectation of a chance to start. What if he runs with that chance? Lights-out play from Niemi (or Lehtonen for that matter) could tilt the scales on a team hungry for success. Injuries might also play their part. It's a critical question, and Stars fans might see the fate of their team spelled out in its answer.
2 - Are the new Stars for real?
As easy as it is to wallow in the pain of a playoff-less season, such a negative focus is likely a bit unfair to the Stars. In a lot of ways, last year's team was excellent. Its offense boasted the league's leading scorer (Jamie Benn) and a dynamic young center (Tyler Seguin) who might have challenged his linemate were it not for a late-season knee injury. Meanwhile, on the prospect front, John Klingberg was a 65-game revelation on the Dallas blueline, and fans even got fleeting, post-injury glimpses of what life might look like with Valeri Nischushkin locked into the lineup. All four will be healthy heading into 2015-2016, and all four will, presumably, be huge parts of Dallas' on-ice success.
Right? Well, maybe. So much ink has been spilled talking about how good each of those players can be that it's easy to get distracted from the fact that such success is not a given. That's an awfully negative claim to make, I know, but 29 other teams just spent their offseasons thinking about how to stop the Dallas Stars. There's also the big, nasty regression monster lurking. It's only responsible to wonder if these prominent Stars will continue to dominate.
Seguin and Benn feel like the safest bets. Tyler Seguin is a Stanley Cup Champion with 130 career regular-season goals under his belt. Benn, meanwhile, can boast an Olympic Gold medal and 359 points of his own. Both have played in excess of 300 games (354 for Seguin, 426 for Benn) which is ample sample size to dismiss either's performance to-date as a fluke. At some point if something looks like a superstar, it is a superstar.
What they aren't, however, is impervious to harm. Seguin missed 11 games last season, mostly as a result of a nasty knee-on-knee hit. Benn hit the full 82, but only for the second time in a career spanning parts of six NHL seasons. Even last season comes with a bit of a caveat for Benn, as he battled through a pair of hip complaints that needed off-season surgery to correct. Seguin is a clear focal point of the Stars offense, and as such, a natural target of opposing defenses. Benn, meanwhile, kills penalties and has been lauded before for his willingness to fight. Benn plays a physical style, Seguin is a kinetic marvel. Bad things happen sometimes.
Their colleagues carry even more in the way of question marks.
Klingberg, as mentioned in the lead, was marvelous last season. His addition to the Stars blue-line transformed that unit from a mismatched collection of parts into a coherent, competent defensive corps. The slick Swede allowed the rest of the group to slot into more appropriate places. Klingberg's high-end skill set suited the Stars' offense perfectly, and produced a solid statistical output (11 goals, 29 assists, 40 points). You know who else had 29 assists for the Stars once upon a time? Matt Niskanen.
Now, that's an absurd cheap-shot to take for a couple of reasons. First, Klingberg never played with a player as good as Sergei Zubov. Klingberg had help, but he wasn't carried. Not by a long shot. Second, Niskanen has actually turned into a pretty decent NHL defenseman, but it got you thinking, right?
While you're thinking, ponder the fact that the last time Valeri Nichushkin scored a goal as a Dallas Star was March 28, 2014. It was his 16th that season and went along with 22 assists. More than that, Nuke was comfortable in all zones, responsible defensively, and did so as a 19-year old. The last bit is especially important. If the young Russian was that good then, Stars fans could be forgiven for imagining how much better he could get once he got a little experience under his belt.
Unfortunately, Stars fans are still waiting. A pre-season hip injury kept Nichushkin on the shelf for all but eight games last year. In retrospect, it was the first in a season full of disappointments. He's healthy now, so that means last year's hype just carries over.
To what degree do expectations of the Dallas Stars revolve around those four players?
3 - How quickly will Lindy Ruff settle on a lineup he likes?
That last bit clearly weighed on the minds of Stars management. GM Jim Nill delivered yet another summer of presents for the franchise. Last season brought Ales Hemsky and Jason Spezza. This year it was Patrick Sharp, Antti Niemi, and Johnny Oduya. Throw in Big Val coming back from injury, Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt heading out of town, plus a pick 'em of defensive prospects vying for time, and there's a surprising amount of turmoil around a team that is, yet again, a pre-season darling. In the hyper-competitive Western Conference, the Stars will need to gel and gel quickly. Can Coach Lindy Ruff pull it all together?
A pre-season as Seguin's primary wingman suggests Patrick Sharp could be the new third amigo. Then again, Patrick Eaves seemed fine, when healthy, in the role last season. Maybe Sharp adds potency to the Spezza line instead. Maybe Nichushkin's deceptive play-making ability is a better fit with Seguin and Benn. Maybe Hemsky doesn't start this year in a miserable slump. Maybe the unthinkable happens and Coach Ruff decides to force teams to defend Benn or Seguin rather than both at the same time.
Yes, things like lines are fluid in the modern NHL, but decisions still have to be made. Seguin, Spezza, Hemsky, Nichushkin, Sharp, and Benn are the six obvious names. Less obvious are Cody Eakin, Eaves, and even Antoine Roussel each of whom spent time in scoring roles for the Stars last season. There will be hot streaks and slumps, last changes and back-to-back nights, even injuries. That goes double for the defense.
While the problem up top is one of sorting, the problem on the blueline is better described as one of sifting. As mentioned in the previous section, we're just kind of assuming Klingberg doesn't wobble. Tack on Jason Demers and Jordie Benn continuing their unheralded solidity, Oduya adapting quickly, Alex Goligoski remaining healthy, and some combination of Jyrki Jokipakka, Jamie Oleksiak, and Patrik Nemeth rounding out the group. Or one of the Stars' other numerous defensive prospects.
Along the way Lindy will also need to figure out the proper distribution of starts between his two goaltenders. Performance could make that decision easy, or it could make it hard. What if both play well? What if they don't? The good news is that there will be options, the bad news is that there will be options.
So questions, big, important questions. It's enough to drive a guy crazy. Just drop the puck, already.