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How to Read into the Preseason without Getting Bent Out of Shape

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None of it means anything, except for the things that do

Dallas Stars v St Louis Blues - Game Seven

Just because something takes a lot of time—this is Ravel’s longest work—doesn’t mean there aren’t points of meaning within it.

***

The Stars are playing a hockey game tonight, and it’s about ding-danged time.

Sure, you can say it’s a meaningless game. You could also say it’s a game fraught with significance, what with the Stars facing the defending champs (who also eliminated them, you may recall).

But training camp and the preseason—heck, even the offseason—are equal parts meaningless and crucial. Tonight’s game, likewise, will be nothing but reps for some guys, and an extremely critical match for others.

Anyone who follows professional sports is familiar with the paradox of the preseason, how you talk about the importance of getting on the same page and up to speed, and yet how some guys end up missing it entirely without skipping a beat.

I remember Jamie Benn’s new contract back in 2013, for instance. After going through the process of waiting for a new CBA under which to negotiate his new deal, Benn ended up missing the first four games of the season. Then things got done, and all he did was score seven points in his first seven games, including two game-winning goals.

We remember frantic discussions about how R.J. Umberger could be taking a promising rookie’s spot, or how certain defense pairings were going to submarine things before opening night was anywhere close.

We also remember training camp talk of how a player like Julius Honka or Phillip Larsen was poised to step into a big role, and how that talk quickly dissipated once the year got rolling.

But then you have things like Roope Hintz’s camp last year, when he ended up forcing the Stars to waive (and subsequently lose) Remi Elie with what he showed before opening night. That was a genuine competition, and Hintz won the battle, even if he did end up spending some time in the AHL last year to regroup. Now, Hintz is a solid lock for the top-six, and it all started with last year’s camp. Coaches are evaluating players, and decisions are being made. This time is critical, but it isn’t equally critical for everyone.

The trick, of course, is figuring out which players stand to gain (and lose) by what they do in mid- to late September. Sometimes it’s obvious, as in the case of Stefan Noesen, which Taylor covered this morning. Or with Joel Kiviranta, who led the Stars’ offense at Traverse City and looks ready to be a depth NHLer right now. With Corey Perry’s unfortunate stairway to purgatory incident, there’s a decent enough chance that yet another forward spot is up for grabs when opening night arrives. For Noesen, it all depends on his knee and body showing the form of a couple years ago. He could well turn into a solid third-liner if things break (and don’t break) right. For Kiviranta, it’s just a matter of staying the course and staying ahead of the other guys you’re fighting for a spot.

Sometimes it’s less obvious, as in the case of Denis Gurianov. Surely the Stars aren’t giving him reps with the big boys for no reason, right? It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to deduce that the Stars would very much like for him to have a good season, what with the two first-round picks Jim Nill took before him making ignominious departures from the organization this summer. So does that mean Gurianov will get a solid tryout in the regular season regardless, or will his waivers-exempt status get him sent back down if he doesn’t look like late-2019 Roope Hintz?

Gurianov’s roster future is a tough one to predict, but I think it’s safe to say that the Stars would very much like him to make the decision an easy one. And that means he’ll get every chance to show his stuff. But Jim Montgomery hasn’t been shy in the past about scratching kids who aren’t getting the job done, so Gurianov still has just as much to prove as he has to lose. If Gurianov can’t get it done with prime minutes and prime linemates, that’s going to lead to some really tough discussions in Texas this year.

On the other hand, if he can take a step forward? Then the Stars’ forward depth starts to look a lot better. It’s something to root for, and you can bet the whole organization is hoping to see it.

***

The defense has its own areas to discuss; yes, it surely does. Roman Polák has been skating with Thomas Harley, and of course that pairing lends itself to two discussions: whether the Stars would prefer to pair Miro Heiskanen with someone else this year (like Andrej Sekera), and whether Harley could realistically make the team out of camp.

We’ll get to that in a minute. It’s early days yet—coaches tend to put a lot more weight on a skater’s ability in a game performance than a good set of drills—but it’s safe to say that the Stars would very much prefer to have Roman Polák playing sheltered minutes on the third pair at most, as they should. Miro Heiskanen has proven that he can play with and against the best in the NHL, which is an absurd thing to realize about a defenseman who still can’t buy his own beer in the states. That means the Stars could legitimately think about Heiskanen carrying a player on his pairing instead of vice versa. To that end, Sekera seems a potentially interesting choice, as the Stars probably wouldn’t want him and Polák together against younger, faster lines (though Sekera’s skating did look pretty good in camp from what I saw). And given the Stars’ hopes for Jamie Oleksiak to be a big contributor, you really have to play for him on the third pairing rather than put him or Miro on their off-hand on a pairing together.

So, yeah. Assuming Taylor Fedun hasn’t magically vaulted over Roman Polák on the right-handed defensive depth chart since his healthy scratches in the playoffs, it’s probably safe to draw up an opening night blue line of:

Lindell-Klingberg

Heiskanen-Sekera

Oleksiak-Polák

Fedun

No, this isn’t set in stone. Fedun is on a two-way deal, and he knows those bigger paychecks won’t earn themselves. Still, I’d say he still has a half-step on other guys who saw time last year, at least for now. But that battle for the seventh spot could be yet another TBD to keep an eye on. Jim Montgomery wasn’t shy about scratching Fedun for bigger players against the Blues, after all.

No, training camp isn’t meaningless for the other blueliners, especially when it comes to decisions down the road. Most teams end up recalling a couple blueliners due to injuries and whatnot throughout the year, and the Stars know that better than anyone after last year’s battlefield casualties. That means that Ben Gleason’s solid and skillful showing in Traverse City will stick in Jim Nill’s mind, and that Emil Djuse’s stay-at-home approach could get him a look he might not otherwise have gotten (though I’d tend to put him behind a few guys as it stands now).

It means that even someone like Reece Scarlett, if he acquits himself well, could be closer to the NHL than you think. Again, there isn’t a lot separating most of the mid-twenties blueliners that are going to be in Texas. If the Stars need an early recall, now is the time for one of them to make his case.

Which brings us to Thomas Harley, who Jim Montgomery seriously compared to Miro Heiskanen (while obviously not equating the two by any stretch). Some Stars fans have started wondering if that makes Harley a dark horse to win a spot out of camp, and you can see how a Heiskanen comparison could have that effect.

Well, yeah. Sorry, but I would charitably call Harley’s making the team an extremely long shot. After all, the Stars loved Miro after his draft year, too. He probably could have played in the NHL, but they chose not to rush him, and it’s fair to say that didn’t hurt his development any. Likewise with Harley, I think the Stars will be perfectly content to let him continue to solidly his play in the defensive end for a year instead of asking a second teenage defenseman in as many years to skip right to the bigs (and burn a year of his ELC) when they aren’t exactly hurting for NHL-capable blueliners as it is. Again, I suppose Harley could score five goals a game in the preseason and force the issue, but context matters. The Stars can play it safe by not risking a premature call-up, and most organizations tend to prefer the safe route when things aren’t on fire in the bigs.

To a lesser extent, that’s the situation with Ty Dellandrea, too. The difference there is that the Stars would love a good reason to keep Dellandrea as far from Flint as possible. If that reason is his dominant play, so much the better. But at the end of the day, if Dellandrea isn’t NHL-ready, they aren’t going to burn a year of his ELC (or have him sitting out weeks’ worth of games) in order to prevent him from playing for a bad OHL team for a couple months before he gets traded to a contender. Dellandrea’s bar is still high, but it’s a bit more surmountable than Harley’s right now. That’s true for forwards over defensemen even in a vacuum, let alone in the Stars’ particular situation.

Finally, you have players like Jason Robertson, who is probably a year or two away from being in Denis Gurianov’s position. The Stars have high hopes for him, but a quiet showing at Traverse City threw some water on the fire, which I seem to recall happening with Gurianov once upon a time, too. A productive Robertson in the preseason could mean the world for him this year, even if it doesn’t lead to a Dallas roster spot right out of camp. Show that you aren’t a liability, and you’ll get to show your capability now or later. Robertson’s skating isn’t a giant question mark anymore, but scoring is always a blank at the next level until you fill it in. If Robertson can fill a couple of nets in the pros, he’ll find his way up the ladder. I’ll be watching closely for Robertson’s scoring chance generation over the next week or two. If he looks like an offensive threat in any sense, that’s going to go a long way when the Stars look to boost their offensive depth this (or next) season. Consider the mixed level of competition in most preseason tilts, one would think Robertson will have ample opportunity to make a statement against far from the best the opponent has to offer.

The final thing to remember is that these showings will have an effect on where players get used in Texas, too. If Derek Laxdal has to choose between a couple of younger forwards for the Texas Stars’ first power play unit, you can bet the Stars’ braintrust will want to see the forwards on that unit who can get it done, rather than the one who are only supposed to score. Make a statement now, and you’ll get more air time down the road, in one league or another.

So, yeah. Watch the preseason, and remember that it matters. It just doesn’t matter for everyone equally. That doesn’t make it a waste of time, especially if you’ve a grasp upon the individual contexts for each player. Which, I suppose, is true about sports all the time. As far as we know.