Opening night is nearly upon us and a patchwork forward group is preparing to take the ice. The Dallas Stars have dealt with some substantial injuries up front during training camp along with the World Cup of Hockey, and the opening night line-up is likely looking strange to many of you.
Jamie Benn had his second straight offseason of surgery, and he will be ready for opening night. Tyler Seguin suffered a hairline fracture in his heel during the World Cup, and he should be ready for opening night. Radek Faksa appeared to suffer a concussion courtesy of Ryan Getzlaf during the World Cup, and he looks ready for opening night. There’s the “good” news.
Ales Hemsky hurt his groin during the World Cup, and has been ruled out for opening night player. Mattias Janmark underwent knee surgery and is expected to be out for five-to-six months (or basically the entire regular season). Cody Eakin is going through a knee injury as well and is expected to be out for six weeks, with his return pegged somewhere around early November.
But wait, there’s more!
For just two easy payments of “large sack of money”, Val Nichushkin is back in Russia with CSKA Moscow.
So that is where Dallas stands for the beginning of the season. We all saw how critical quick starts can be last season and with how competitive the Central is, the Stars will need a similar beginning to this year. To do that, they will need to optimize the lines with the forwards they have available.
Will Lindy Ruff rely on previously established chemistry for the opening stretch? Let’s examine some of the options he has available to him.
This one should be relatively simple for Ruff. Benn and Seguin are cemented here for the foreseeable future leaving the right-wing slot open to two realistic options and perhaps a wild-card option.
Patrick Sharp has had mountains of success playing with Benn and Seguin and would be an easy pick. They have previously established chemistry (they were the only trio in Dallas to play more than 165 5v5 minutes together last season, according to Corsica.hockey) and had many stretches of play last season where there was simply no counter to them. However, practice lines are indicating Sharp will start on a line with Jason Spezza in hopes to spread more of the scoring talent around. That decision is made easier by the fact that our next option has performed well on the top line in the past.
Patrick Eaves is the likely choice to slot in next to Benn and Seguin and if the latest practice is any indicator, he will get the start there. Although Eaves played with the dynamic duo for a much smaller sample size, potentially skewing his numbers, his results with them are slightly better than Sharp’s overall. The line put up points at a slightly higher rate with Eaves than with Sharp, although the difference is minimal. The thought here could be that Sharp on his own can have a bigger impact than Eaves on his own, so putting Sharp on the second line with Spezza would allow for a more balanced attack.
One wild-card option out there is Brett Ritchie who has found himself with Benn and Seguin in the past. He would add a physical element to the group and could be a nice change-of-pace choice should it not work out with Eaves.
Spezza is obviously going to be here, but who joins him?
Jiri Hudler was brought in to score goals and play in the top-six, so he’s got to be there. The two players with the most sustained success with Spezza (Janmark and Nichushkin) are both essentially gone for the year so finding some previously-acquired chemistry with Spezza is going to be tough.
After that, it is much like the situation for the top line. Choose between two Patricks and you really can’t go wrong.
Spezza saw just over 130 5v5 minutes with Sharp and just under 200 5v5 minutes with Eaves last season and was incredibly effective with both of them. The Stars won the shot attempt battle 186-134 when Spezza and Sharp were on the ice together, good for a 58.12 Corsi-For-% at even strength. Dallas also had an absurd 4.03 goals-for/60 with those two on the ice.
If the goal is to spread the offense around, Sharp is the best option to play alongside Hudler and Spezza. It appears that is the route Ruff is taking.
Third and Fourth Lines
Was there a better trio for Dallas than Antoine Roussel, Radek Faksa, and Ales Hemsky after they were put together last season?
They instantly clicked and became a go-to line for Ruff down the stretch. Although Hemsky will be missing from the lineup to start the season, putting Roussel and Faksa together on the third line is a no-brainer as it is the last bit of established chemistry available to Dallas after taking care of the top two lines.
Faksa and Roussel saw almost 200 5v5 minutes together last season and it was a major boost to Roussel’s overall game. Without Faksa, Roussel posted a 49.77 Corsi-For-% which is one of the rare occasions that any Star falls under 50%. With Faksa, however, Roussel and the Stars held a shot attempt advantage of 231-184, good for a 55.66 CF%.
Ruff appears ready to use Ritchie on this line and on paper it’s a great fit. What you end up with is an ultra-physical line with three players who have all proven they can find the back of the net.
Outside of Ritchie, there isn’t much to say about anyone else to be the right wing on this line. They will likely use Shore or Cracknell at the center position and Korpikoski and McKenzie really don’t belong anywhere outside of a fourth line role.
With Korpikoski, Shore, McKenzie, and Cracknell you essentially have the “who else isn’t hurt?” fourth line without many other options out there. Gemel Smith looked like a potential opportunity after he had a good training camp but he will see more ice time in the AHL.
Ruff and the Stars are wanting a fast start and the head coach has really optimized what he has available to him. It certainly isn’t easy to deal with this many injuries to open a season so it looks like Dallas will have to rely on a previously built foundation to kick things off. We’ll see how long it lasts before Lindy revs up the Line-Ruffler.