The Dallas Stars are bristling with offense, but their goaltending could be their Achilles heel in 2015-16.
COACH: Lindy Ruff
2014-15 RECORD: 41-31-10, 92 points (sixth in Central, missed playoffs)
VITAL SIGNS: 3.13 goals-for per game (2nd); 3.13 goal-against (27th); 19.0 power play pct. (12th); 80.7 penalty kill pct. (19th); PDO: 99.5 (22nd); Corsi For %: 52.0 (8th); Fenwick For %: 52.0 (9th); face-off pct.: 51.7 (8th)
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Patrick Sharp
Valeri Nichushkin – Jason Spezza – Ales Hemsky
Antoine Roussel – Cody Eakin – Patrick Eaves
Travis Moen – Vernon Fiddler – Colton Sceviour
Johnny Oduya – John Klingberg
Patrik Nemeth – Alex Goligoski
Jyrki Jokipakka – Jason Demers
OUTLOOK: After another active off-season orchestrated by GM Jim Nill, the Stars are the sexy pick to make the jump from the lottery to the playoffs in 2015-16. The question is: Is this a team that will settle for making the dance or is it capable of doing something special?
The strength of the Stars will be their best-in-the-West offense. Led by the one-two punch of 2015 Art Ross winner Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin—who might have won the award if not for a late-season knee injury and is a favorite to top the scoring charts this season—Dallas boasts a deep and dangerous group of scorers. Patrick Sharp (trade with Chicago) will add versatility and a veteran presence to the top six. Although he is coming off a down campaign, Sharp had scored at least 30 goals in each of the previous three full seasons. A change of scenery could get him back to that level. Valeri Nichushkin is virtually a new face after losing nearly all of last season to hip surgery. The promising power forward can be Jagr-esque at times, but he needs to find consistency to reach his potential. He could slot in on the second line beside Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky if he can make the switch to left wing. Cody Eakin doesn’t draw much attention, but the team’s third-line center is on the verge of a breakthrough season. Scoring 25 goals isn’t out of the question.
While the offense is a beast, the Stars needed to tighten up a defense that allowed too many easy entries, too many shots (29.9 per game, 19th) and struggled to get the puck out of the zone cleanly. The addition of Johnny Oduya, signed as a free agent from the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, is a step in the right direction. A strictly defense-first blueliner, he’ll likely be paired with emerging superstar—no hyperbole—John Klingberg on the top pair. Oduya’s presence should free up the youngster to make the dashing, Erik Karlsson-style offensive sorties that kickstart Dallas’s quick-strike offense. The one question: How many minutes can he handle? Oduya averaged 18-plus last season, but could see 22 or more. Can the 34-year-old take on that workload? If he struggles, look for Patrik Nemeth to assume some of the burden. The 23-year-old lost most of last season to a severe arm laceration, but he has the defensive savvy and imposing presence to handle important minutes for the Stars. He’ll make a difference, limiting with his physical play down low the quality of shots that challenge the Stars’ keepers.
Dallas goalies can use all the help they can get. Kari Lehtonen ranked among the NHL’s worst starters last season: 35th in GAA (2.94) and 38th in save percentage (.903). Newcomer Antti Niemi was better, but hardly a world beater: 28th in GAA (2.59) and 22nd in save percentage (.914). If the Stars struggle, it’s a good bet their play will be at the root of the team’s problems.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Kari Lehtonen
For all the bold, splashy additions that Nill has made during the past two years, he’s stood behind the one guy whose position most required an upgrade. Granted, he added a veteran fallback option in Niemi and replaced netminding coach Mike Valley with Jeff Reese, a widely acclaimed goalie whisperer. Ultimately, though, this team’s success will come down to Lehtonen’s ability to regain the mental edge that eluded him on too many nights last season. If he can’t (he struggled ominously in his first preseason outing, a 6–0 loss to St. Louis, and committed a gaffe that cost the Stars a game against Florida), Nill will regret his decision to gamble on a pair of fair goalies rather than one good one.
PREDICTION: 101 points, second in Central