Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, for the first time in six months there is Dallas Stars' hockey this week.
I can't stop reading that sentence with anticipation.
What an offseason. Free agents, trades, speculation, and expectation. Last season is officially behind us, and the Dallas Stars are set to begin their quest for a Stanley Cup with a blank slate this Thursday, Oct. 8th, when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins. Today, we are going to look ahead at what's in store for the team this week.
Final Roster Battles
Barring an unforeseen trade, it appears that general manager Jim Nill was not bluffing when he said the team was prepared to carry eight defensemen, at least for the short term. With 14 forwards on the roster and 3 goalies, that means there is technically a cut to be made at each position. There is little suspense behind which goalie will be sent to Cedar Park (Jack Campbell) once he comes off injured reserve from a hand injury, but which forward will be on the roster Thursday night?
Most people would assume the battle for the final forward spot has come down to Curtis McKenzie and Mattias Janmark. Both have had nice showings in the preseason, each providing a different angle of "upside". McKenzie offers (limited) NHL experience and fills a nice roll on a checking line, while Janmark has shown a nose for goal in the preseason to go with fabulous skill.
Jim Nill insists that the spot is more "up for grabs" than that, implying that there are more than two players fighting for a final spot on the roster. Looking at the team though, it would be hard to imagine Nill allowing Travis Moen or Colton Sceviour to clear waivers.
McKenzie would not have to clear waivers to be sent to Cedar Park, and Janmark would like to honor his contract in Sweden if he were not to make the final roster in Dallas. With Janmark's production in the preseason and the flexibility of McKenzie, signs would seem to point to McKenzie starting the season with the Texas Stars. But, this is Jim Nill, so who really knows?
Thursday 10/8/15 - Pittsburgh Penguins @ Dallas Stars
Game number one. No more prognosticating, no more speculation; on October 8th, the team will put up or shut up as potential finally becomes reality. The home opener will provide an excellent test for the Stars right out of the gate as the Pittsburgh Penguins come to town.
The usual suspects are still on the team, with names like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Kris Letang the Pens are not lacking in skill. With the addition of Phil Kessel in the offseason, this team is looking to score a lot of goals in a hurry.
Perhaps one of the only teams in hockey matching the Stars' talent in their top six, the game against the Penguins should be a high-flying and entertaining affair.
Questions surrounding the Penguins this offseason are not so different than those asked of the Stars. Can they stay healthy? Can their goaltending stand up? Will the blue-line offer enough resistance to unleash the offense?
The Penguins are expected to house one of the premier power plays in the league this year, so Dallas staying out of the box will be a key to winning this game. It will be interesting to see how Lindy Ruff wants to lineup against the Penguins, as he will have last change in the American Airlines Center. The Stars will have to push their game and win the key battles on the boards to win this one. Tough test out of the gate.
Player to Watch: How could it not be No. 81, Phil Kessel?
Saturday 10/10/15 - Dallas Stars @ Colorado Avalanche
On Saturday, the Stars will travel to Denver to face the division rival Colorado Avalanche. Both of these teams fell prey to lofty expectations last year, and both will be looking for an early leg up on their Central Division counterparts.
The Avalanche made several big roster moves this offseason and are hoping to get a bounce-back year from Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon. The Avs are still a young team, but they gained some experience this offseason with the additions of Francois Beauchemin on defense and Carl Soderberg at forward.
This team gave Dallas fits last year, sweeping the season series with the Stars. Denver has never been kind to the Stars, and they will look to change that on Saturday night.
Colorado has struggled with possession the last few years, but Semyon Varlamov in net has been their equalizer. The 27 year old Russian has stolen more than one game from the Stars in his time with the Avalanche.
The key to this game will be to weather the early storm of a night game at altitude, and to grind one away from the energetic Avalanche. Responsible zone-exits and capitalizing on their looks at the net will determine the Stars' fate in Denver.
Player to Watch: No. 6 Erik Johnson. The Avs All-Star defensemen is coming off of a long stay on the IR last season and will be looking to find his game again on a young blue-line.
One of the biggest offseason questions about the Stars was defensive improvement, and the team will get two quick tests from some video game offenses to begin the season. Nothing like a little trial by fire, eh?