With Top End Scoring Assured, The Dallas Stars Look For Depth
Good teams have top end skill, great teams have top end depth. How close are the Stars to the latter?
A couple of years ago, it seemed like Jamie Benn might have to carry the Stars' offense all by himself. Thanks to some deft maneuvering from Jim Nill, that is far from the case today. First he went and traded for Tyler Seguin who had an okay season last year. Then, he took advantage of the squeamishness of seven other NHL GMs and took Valeri Nichushkin with the tenth pick in the draft. This summer, he's been able to add Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky.
The top end skill, at least on the offensive side of things, is undeniable now. Even last year, the top line alone was enough to bury teams on many a night. If all goes according to plan, the Stars will have one of the best top-sixes in the entire league.
They have the star power, excuse the pun, to fight their way into the playoffs again. Now they need to solidify another important part of every good team - depth.
Depth was a bit of an issue last season. The Stars had trouble with their depth at every position at some point or other last season. Dan Ellis quickly showed that he didn't have what it took to give Kari Lehtonen the rest he needed, the defense fell on its face in December-January when Robidas and Daley went down, and the bottom-nine forwards had some trouble winning games for the team when Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin couldn't light up opposing goaltenders.
This season, their depth looks better. In the crease, they have two young goaltenders in Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas battling for the backup role. Whoever wins that battle will have to keep a high level of play in order to keep the job. In the AHL, whoever loses out on the NHL spot will have to fight Jack Campbell for starts. Having 3 young goaltenders all fighting for a future position as an NHL starter gives the Stars plenty of depth in the crease.
The Stars opted to focus on offense rather than defense this offseason. If they suffer defensive injuries like they did last season, it will be a big challenge. However, their defensemen in the AHL who were close last year are even closer to being NHL-ready and should serve as much better short term replacements.
Jamie Oleksiak had an up and down season last year but came on strong in the Calder Cup Playoffs. He'll be knocking on the door in camp; and if/when he gets some NHL time he should look more comfortable than he has the last two years. John Klingberg and Jyrki Jokipakka are both close to the NHL as well, and they should get some looks in the NHL if injuries occur. Jokipakka, like Oleksiak, is coming off a great Calder Cup Run and has been told he's close to the big leagues. John Klingberg is still an unknown because of his lack of AHL experience, but he's a confident, offensively gifted defender who should also be in the mix for some NHL minutes.
On top of those three potential NHL rookies, Patrik Nemeth and Kevin Connauton are two young guys with some NHL experience who will be able to play serviceable minutes if the situation calls for it. Nemeth will likely start the season in Dallas as he had a very strong showing at the end of last season and in the playoffs. As for Connauton, he'll have to be more focused and driven than ever, as he might have to take his first opportunity and run with it if he wants to stick in the NHL.
The forward group is where the Stars have the most depth, and it makes things a bit less scary for next season. Every team goes through injuries, so there will be times when guys have to play up in the lineup.
Unlike last season, when Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt were forced into the role of second line wingers, the Stars' roster is much more suited for that this time around. Garbutt and Roussel will start on the third line and most likely stay there. If someone in the top six gets injured one of them might have to move up to the second line for a bit, but as long as it is only for the short term, it shouldn't be a problem. If one of Tyler Seguin or Jason Spezza gets injured, Cody Eakin can fill in as a solid second line center.
The problem that loomed with the possibility of Eakin slotting into the second line at the beginning of the season was that, while he was a fine option for the second line, that killed the team's depth. If Seguin were to go down, there would be a potentially disastrous drop off in talent from the first to second line which could cost the Stars an opportunity to make the playoffs. With Jason Spezza in the mix, that is no longer as big a concern.
On top of that, Lindy Ruff can plug Colton Sceviour, Shawn Horcoff, or even Patrick Eaves into the mix in the top six. None of those players are bona fide top six NHL players, but in a pinch they would not be much of a liability. Eaves in particular has had experience playing all over the lineup.
Recently, both Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill have stated that he's valuable as a player who can slot in anywhere when needed. While Eaves may not be a big impact player by himself, it's good to have a lot of versatility in the lineup. He's in the same mold as Horcoff and Vernon Fiddler, and having those guys around is only a good thing for a team that hopes to get into the playoffs and make a deep run.
The Stars have much more depth than they have in years past. The top six is absolutely terrifying, and the bottom six is full of guys who can play anywhere in the lineup and contribute positively. The question now is whether or not that depth is good enough to win the extra two playoff games that it couldn't last season.