Plugging Holes in the Dallas Forward Corps

Injuries allow for timely evaluation of prospects and borderline NHL forwards.

Two years ago, the Dallas Stars opened the season with a string of losses on the blue line. The team iced 14 different defenders, including Ben Gleason — a player who wasn’t even on the team’s radar until an unexpected showing at the Traverse City prospects tournament.

For the most part, players stepped up, and the team pulled through enough to get their top pairs reunited in the later portions of the season.

The current version of the Stars is on the verge of facing a similar situation within the forward group. Tyler Seguin was known to be out, and Blake Comeau is going through a prescribed protocol. Losing Jamie Benn, then Joel Kiviranta, and finally Roope Hintz at least temporarily puts the team in a position where they are missing five of their top nine contracted forwards.

When Dallas decided to not bring Corey Perry and Mattias Janmark back, it was generally understood that the Stars’ fourth line would be used to work AHL standouts and prospects into the mix. Jason Dickinson could center a changing cast of characters, all of whom would be given a chance to demonstrate how they could make an impact.

That is likely still the plan for later on in the season, but with the expanding list of players who are unavailable, the preseason fourth-liners are being asked to fill in further up the lineup.

Forward pairs are important to head coach Rick Bowness. While the FCC line may be a trio, the two top lines are anchored by the pairing of Roope Hintz-Denis Gurianov and Joe Pavelski-Alexander Radulov. The third forward joins to add balance or to plug a hole.

For Hintz-Gurainov, that means adding a player who can handle the speed, but also is defensively responsible. That’s why Jason Dickinson moved up to the left wing when Jamie Benn went down. Dickinson’s two-way game compliments that get-up-and-go game of the team’s speedy stars.

Pavelski-Radulov need something entirely different. They both bring offensive creativity, but they need a complimentary player who can contribute to the havoc that Radulov brings, yet can also take advantage of the offensive opportunities that get created by the imaginative veterans. Kiviranta fits that bill, and to a degree, so does Tanner Kero.

Jason Robertson may be able to take advantage of the offense that Pavelski-Radulov can create, but he doesn’t get on the forecheck, he is slow on his skates, and is a major defensive liability. Believe me, I just watched every single second that Robertson has been on the ice so far this year (okay, I literally didn’t watch them all, because Robertson is out of frame so much that you can’t verify why he isn’t making an impact).

Robertson is a work in progress, but he’s a player who needs success in the AHL, not failure in the NHL. He’s not ready for a top-six role, and he’s not going to shine on the fourth line the way Dallas has it configured.

If there is a diamond to be found in the Stars’ decimated forward group, it’s Ty Dellandrea (and mea culpa, I was completely on the wrong side of this going into opening night). He’s been great in the Comeau role on the FCC line and on the penalty kill. When Dallas gets everyone back, he’s probably a fixture on a reliable fourth line, likely with Jason Dickinson and a rotating third forward depending on who’s making an impact.

Given that Dallas has come out of the gates with three straight wins, it’s really an advantage that the coaching staff has been able to rotate through most of the taxi squad forwards. It puts them in a good place to make decisions over the next week when minor league rosters will need to be filled out.

The Texas Stars begin play on February 5th, and several current taxi squad players will probably be top contributors for the AHL club. Given what they’ve shown so far, I fully expect Rhett Gardner and Jason Robertson to be part of that group.

For the taxi squad, L’Esperance and Nicholas Caamano are both waiver-exempt, but should join Tanner Kero (who isn’t) as fixtures for the entire season. Justin Dowling stays on the NHL roster as the 13th forward.

At some point, the Stars are going to need to figure out how to score at even-strength. Riding Anton Khudobin while sporting a power play hitting at >50% is not what I’d call a sustainable strategy, but I’ll take it — along with the knowledge that Dallas has a mix of veteran and young forwards who can keep the team competitive even when they lose important pieces.