As the Dallas Stars begin training camp on Thursday morning at the Tarrant County Convention Center in downtown Fort Worth, it’s time to look at how things might shake out for the Stars as they embark on year one of not only the Lindy Ruff era behind the bench but also of the Jim Nill era as the club’s general manager. Here’s a look at two areas of strength and two areas of concern as we head into the season:
AREAS OF STRENGTH
More Accountability and Experience behind the Bench Former Stars coach Glen Gulutzan was definitely an affable fellow who knew the game, but it was clear that there were frequent occasions when he was in over his head as the man behind an NHL bench. He’s now an assistant in Vancouver under John Tortorella and with some good years as an NHL assistant could get another shot at a head coaching job in the league.
However, when the Stars hired Ruff, a guy who has had success both as a player and a coach in the NHL, they solved two glaring problems from last year-a lack of credibility for the coaching staff and a lack of accountability. Ruff has the instant cred as both a former player and coach in the league and he is also someone who besides commanding respect, also preaches accountability.
And bringing over his top assistant from Buffalo James Patrick, also a guy who has both played and coached in the NHL, also not only adds some additional credibility to the coaching staff, but it also gives the Stars someone with NHL coaching experience. Dallas added former Atlanta head coach Curt Fraser as an assistant prior to last season and his presence definitely benefited Gulutzan as well as the entire team.
Goaltending Was Addressed in the Off-Season There’s no doubt that when healthy, Stars No. 1 goaltender Kari Lehtonen is among the top 10 netminders in the entire NHL. But the problem is that the veteran Finn usually seems to pick up an injury at least once during a season, at least that’s been the case since he came to the Stars in a trade with Atlanta back in 2010. So that’s why the club adding veteran Dan Ellis, who was originally a second-round pick of Dallas in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, makes total sense.
Ellis spent last season with Carolina, where he split time between the Hurricanes and their AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, proof that he remains a great team guy who will do whatever he’s asked and whenever asked to do so. Nothing against now former Stars backup Richard Bachman, who is now in Edmonton, but Ellis gives Dallas something they didn’t have in “Bachs” a proven backup.
And should the Stars need Ellis to start if Lehtonen picks up a knock, they can always dip into the minors and bring up either Cristopher Nilstorp, who showed well in limited action last season, or 2011 top pick Jack Campbell from their AHL affiliate in Cedar Park.
AREAS OF CONCERN The Stars Remain Pretty Much the Same at the Blue Line For all the moves Nill made during the off-season, just one was designed to improve the club at the blue line and that was acquiring and then signing veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Other than that, the Stars are pretty much the same in the back as they have been over the last few years. The core group of Trevor Daley, Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas return along with Trevor Dillon, who turned heads as a rookie and now heads into year two of his NHL career.
However, the Stars do have an interesting group of younger players at the blue line, a collection of talent including Kevin Connauton, acquired in the April trade that sent Derek Roy to the Canucks, along with ex-Avs d-man Cameron Gaunce as well as Dallas holdovers Jordie Benn, Jamie Oleksiak, who showed flashes in his limited time in the NHL last season, and veteran Aaron Rome, who battled injuries for much of the year.
But one reason to be optimistic about this group going forward is that Patrick, himself a former NHL defenseman and a guy who did a great job working with the Sabres’ blue line during his time in Buffalo under Ruff, will now be tasked with coordinating the Dallas defense, an area which has needed some improvement for several years now.
Blending New Players with Old Players Takes Time It’s been an exciting and very busy off-season for the Stars. Whether it’s the hiring of Nill, Ruff, the acquiring of young talent like Tyler Seguin or more experienced players like Gonchar, Shawn Horcoff or Rich Peverley, who came over from Boston with Seguin, there are a lot of moving parts with this roster.
Of course, that’s what training camp is for, so that everyone who is new to the club can get acquainted with the players who have been here for a while so that everyone is hopefully on the same page by the time the puck drops on another season on Thursday October 3 against the Florida Panthers at American Airlines Center.
But not only are the players getting accustomed to skating with one another and still learning the nuances of each other’s game, but the entire group will also be getting acclimated to playing under a new head coach in Ruff and not only learning the ins and outs of his personality but also of his system, which has been called adaptable by the man himself according to the personnel he has on his roster.
Quick starts have been a calling card of the Stars over the past few seasons, but those teams had a great deal of roster continuity. This year’s club may not start off the year in similar fashion, but if this group and gel and there isn’t any reason to think they won’t, then those changes will pay dividends when it really counts, down the stretch and hopefully into the playoffs, somewhere the Stars haven’t been since 2008.