I've got the shakes, man. We're so close. Agonizingly close. Why do other teams get to play tonight? Why not the Stars? It isn't fair. But I'm not going to complain (much). I'm going to channel my disquiet to focus on the coming season. I love lists. So here's a quick one.
The Dallas Stars enter the 2016/2017 season on an upward trendline. Last season saw the squad win their first playoff series since 2007/2008. It also saw them come within a game of advancing to the Western Conference Finals. AKA, expectations are high, and with those expectations comes anxiety.
Last week, Taylor wrote about some of the questions facing this year's squad. We're going to need a full 82 games (and hopefully more) to truly answer those questions, but there are some things we can learn immediately. Here's what I'm going to be watching Thursday night.
1 - Jamie Benn & Tyler Seguin
Obviously, right? Show me a Stars fan, and I'll show you a Stars fan that's spent the summer jonesing for another dose of Dallas' dynamic duo. Thing is, I'm not going to be watching for highlights. Well, I am going to be watching for highlights, but I will be equally interested in body language. Seguin has, effectively, been off the ice with a series of leg maladies since late last season, and Jamie, once again, went under the knife during his offseason. I want to see Seguin make a sharp cut and then accelerate. I want to see Jamie absorb contact along the wall and make a play. How are the hands? Is their timing off, in particular with Seguin, near the wall, on the power play?
Both are supposedly ready to go, but it's hard to not be anxious. The Stars begin their season with a revamped defense, the same old questions in net, and a number of significant injuries on offense. Seguin and Benn could circumvent a lot of those questions. Goals are like body spray. Jamie's already got his scoring title, and with a little health luck there's every reason to believe Tyler could join him soon. If the pair start strong, Stars Nation is going to exhale in a big way.
2 - Jason Spezza
Which brings us to the third amigo. With so much chaos elsewhere in the lineup, where is coach Lindy Ruff going to deploy his other all-world center? In previous seasons Spezza has spent significant time on and off the Seguin/Benn line. Spezza is experienced enough to handle change, and well-rounded enough to serve as either a playmaker or a goal-scorer. That kind of versatility makes him supremely valuable, and gives the coaching staff undeniable options.
Think of Spezza as the canary in the Stars' coal mine. There will be Ruffling, but if he's mostly on a line with Benn and Seguin, there might be cause for concern around the Stars' ability to generate offense outside of their top line. Conversely, if he's fronting his own three man band, it could be a sign that injuries (Mattias Janmark, Ales Hemsky,Cody Eakin) and departures (Valeri Nichushkin) aren't going to derail the goal-party.
As an added bonus, Spezza could give us insight into how the Stars view their prospects. Anyone seeing time on Spezza's flank is expected to contribute offensively. An early look at Devin Shore or Brett Ritchie could be telling. Similarly, if it's more of a Jiri Hudler / Patrick Sharp jam, that might be a sign the young guns need more time to marinate.
3 - The Defense
All of it. Seriously. What do you think the game 1 pairings are going to be? As of this writing, there are seven names on the Stars' official website: Johnny Oduya, John Klingberg, Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Jordie Benn, Esa Lindell, and Dan Hamhuis. There's a second, much longer list of prospects in varying states of readiness. In fact, fans are eagerly anticipating the final round of roster cuts to start the season. It seems almost impossible fans will not see rotation and turmoil among this unit.
Which is fine. Really. If the Stars finish the season having deployed eight or nine defenders, that does not necessarily mean a lost season. What it does mean is that decisions are coming. We saw the first last year with Jyrki Jokipakka leaving town, and he may well be followed by Oleksiak and/or Nemeth in the coming months. Watch for partners, zone starts, and situational play from those two.
The power play seems unlikely (though props to Nemeth's weekend in Vegas), but both could give the Stars something on the penalty kill. Watch their minutes as well. Who does Ruff play in the defensive zone while the score is close, or on a critical offensive faceoff needing a goal? The answer is mostly "John Klingberg" but watching the way his colleagues are deployed could give insights into what promises to be a season of questions.
And, finally, the omission. We're not going to learn anything about the relative standing of either Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi Thursday night. One of the two will play, and both are going to see time this season. That's just the way this roster, right now, has been constructed.
So buckle up. The Go-Go Dallas Stars are at it again. Best take a breath now, it's going to be a crazy season.