On September 18th the Dallas Stars will open training camp at the Cedar Park Center. That's less than one month away. One interminable, unending month tacked onto an endless, no-hockey summer. The wait is particularly unbearable because training camp is one of my favorite times of year. It's the bizarre limbo wedged between the baseless roster speculation, thrown-dart line projections, and outright hopefulness of the offseason and the factual, #fancystats, often grim reality of the regular season. In training camp, everybody has potential, anything could work, and this can still be the year the Stars break through. What's not to love?
For the Stars themselves, training camp is the season's first critical point. Roster spots are legitimately up for grabs across the entire organization. There are injuries to overcome, roles to define, and a pecking order to establish. To me, a few stories stand out as especially critical.
Who is the third amigo?
Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin seem like mortal locks to resume their dual rampage across the NHL. They'll anchor the Stars' top line, the Stars' power play, and an incalculable number of homerific Stars-themed fantasy rosters. Thing is, most teams choose to deploy three forwards at any given time, not two. So who gets the job? New boy Patrick Sharp (16 goals last season) is the shiny toy in coach Lindy Ruff's toolbox, but he might have to contend with the now-healthy Valeri Nichushkin (14 goals in 2013/2014). Recency bias could give Patrick Eaves (14 goals last season) an opportunity, and who knows what Brett Ritchie looks like after another summer of development.
That is, of course, assuming Ruff is set on establishing a second scoring unit around the skills of last season's marquee signings: Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Those two could hold every bit as much influence over the Benn/Seguin line as any other player on the squad. The bottom line is that the second best offense from last season has a surprising number of questions to answer.
How many defensemen will the Stars carry?
Alex Goligoski? Sure. John Klingberg? Yup. Johnny Oduya? Absolutely. Jason Demers and Jordie Benn? Check and check. Then it gets crazy. The remaining one (or two, or three) slots on the Stars defense could fall to any combination of Patrik Nemeth, Jyrki Jokipakka, Jamie Oleksiak, Stephen Johns, Julius Honka, or even Esa Lindell. That's a big list of names, and honestly, I might have left someone out. All are hoping to fill out a unit that has drawn its fair share of criticism in recent years.
Underlying metrics point to a unit that improved as last season wore on, but the big numbers say the Stars surrendered more goals than all but Arizona, Buffalo, and Edmonton last year. Nemeth, Jokipakka, and Oleksiak are the more traditional ballyhoo'd prospects. We've been saying for years that one (or two, or three) of the group will represent the next great leap for Dallas' backline. Then again, none have really grabbed a roster spot, and all have been overshadowed by Honka's recent emergence. There's also the fact that this offseason will be Dallas' first look at the supposedly-close Johns.
Nobody really knows what's going to happen. Very likely, nobody is going to know the Stars' final defensive lineup until well into the season's first quarter. By that point, the Stars will have either found combinations that work, or will be using a wheel or of some kind psychic animal to cycle through pairings at random.
Ten million bucks of goaltending!?
That's what the Stars are spending in an effort to be decent. That's a real kick in the pants for an organization that has seen the brilliance of Eddie Belfour, Marty Turco, and pre-2014 Kari Lehtonen. Post-2014 Lehtonen remains in the mix, but he'll be joined this year by Stanley Cup-winner Antti Niemi. Joined, backed up, battling, there are a number of ways in which the pairing could play out over the season.
Last year's Stars obituary was written on Lehtonen's waffle board sometime around December (or October if you're mean-spirited). The brutal truth is that goaltending kept Dallas not only from making the playoffs, but very likely from making some noise once they got there. The Stars cannot afford to be that bad again, both in the sense of a dire need to improve, and the statistical unlikelihood a team so competent elsewhere could whiff so badly on goaltending for so long. In most cases, ten million bucks looks like Henrik Lundqvist. Here's hoping the Stars haven't bought and paid for the league's most spectacular tire-fire.
There will be other surprises, of course. There's also every chance the team isn't quite done dealing. The most important thing is that it is once again an exciting time to be a fan of the Dallas Stars.