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After flurry of moves, questions remain about Stars’ blue line

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The Dallas Stars are in go-for-it mode.

Of that, there can be no debate, after GM Jim Nill hired Ken Hitchock as head coach, traded for and signed goalie Ben Bishop, traded for defenseman Marc Methot, then added forwards Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal in free agency.

Combine those new additions with Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, and John Klingberg, and expectations will be rightfully high next season.

Certainly, with all that talent, scoring goals shouldn’t be an issue in Big D.

Defensively, though, the Stars will not only need to be better, they’ll need to be much better. In 2016-17, they had the NHL’s second-highest goals-against average (3.17). Only the dreadful Avalanche got scored on more (3.37).

Hence, the Hitchcock hiring and the Bishop signing. The former knows how to structure a team to defend. The latter has a .919 career save percentage.

But in terms of importance, don’t sleep on the Methot acquisition. Next season, Nill expects the 32-year-old to pair with Klingberg, in the same way that Methot paired with Erik Karlsson in Ottawa.

“Marc has proven to be a capable and steady defenseman that can play well with an offensive-minded partner, and he will add a tremendous amount of leadership and experience to our blue line,” Nill said, per the Dallas Morning News.

Of course, even if Klingberg and Methot strike a good balance, there are two other pairings to worry about. Perhaps Dan Hamhuis could skate with Julius Honka: one steady veteran with a more offensive-minded youngster. Then put Esa Lindell with Stephen Johns.

In theory, it could work.

In theory.

Dallas learned last year that a plan doesn’t always come together. The Stars entered the season with Stanley Cup aspirations, only for almost everything to go wrong. When it was over, they’d gone from the best record in the Western Conference to missing the playoffs by 15 points.

Though the goaltending took much of the blame for all the losing, the defense was a real issue. Last summer, the Stars bid good-bye to Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers, a couple of top-four guys. In response, Hamhuis was brought in as a free agent; however, he struggled right off the bat.

It is not easy to fix a defense in today’s NHL. Just ask all the teams still trying to do it. To have success, much of the improvement has to come internally. So, yes, Methot will have to be a complement for Klingberg. But also, Lindell will have to avoid a sophomore slump, and Honka will have to prove he’s ready for the big time.

“We like what we have on paper, but in the end the goal for us is to be a contender every year, to get in the playoffs every year,” Nill said, per the Associated Press. “This game can humble you pretty quick, and it’s a tough league.”

Plenty of opportunity on revamped Blackhawks defense

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For almost a decade, Niklas Hjalmarsson was a mainstay on the Blackhawks’ back end, quietly providing some of the most effective defense in the league.

But with Hjalmarsson in Arizona now, traded to the Coyotes for the younger-though-less-proven Connor Murphy, it remains to be seen how Chicago’s blue line will roll out next season.

In addition to Hjalmarsson, the ‘Hawks also bid adieu to Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, and Trevor van Riemsdyk this offseason.

Add up all the good-byes, and that’s a lot of minutes to replace.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we’re going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

The way it looks right now, the top four will be comprised of Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, and Michal Kempny. That’s two left shots — Keith and Kempny — and two righties — Seabrook and Murphy.

Read more: After major changes, Bowman thinks Blackhawks are in ‘good spot’

The bottom pairing, though, is anyone’s guess. Newly signed Czech defenseman Jan Rutta is in the mix. But so too are Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Forsling, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, and possibly even Luc Snuggerud.

Once training camp starts, it’ll be up to those young players to prove themselves.

“Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more,” said Oesterle, whom the ‘Hawks signed July 1. “I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Veteran Michal Rozsival is also under contract for next season. However, he turns 39 in September, and with all that youth champing at the bit, the Blackhawks will be hoping they won’t need him much, if at all.

Chicago’s defense in 2016-17, ranked by total time on ice

Sheary’s agent — who’s also Dumoulin’s agent — hoping to avoid arbitration

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Conor Sheary‘s agent is hopeful that an arbitration hearing won’t be needed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And that same agent has reason to be optimistic, since he’s also the agent for Brian Dumoulin, who settled at the last minute today.

“Each (case) is so different,” Andrew Gross told the Post-Gazette this morning. “Ultimately, though, team and player would like to avoid going in that room. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

Sheary’s hearing isn’t scheduled until Aug. 4. The 25-year-old forward is coming off a 53-point regular season. In his young NHL career, he’s already won two Stanley Cups.

That said, the Penguins can’t afford to break the bank on an extension. After all, a big reason for their success has been having players like Sheary on affordable deals — a necessity with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang taking up so much cap space.

Sheary wasn’t all that productive in the 2017 playoffs either, scoring just two goals with five assists in 22 games, while finishing a team-worst minus-5 for the postseason.

“We’re prepared to go to arbitration,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said last week.

Of course, Rutherford was also speaking about Dumoulin, and the two sides were able to reach an agreement on him.

You can probably expect a similar outcome with Sheary.

Just don’t bet the house on it.

Preds avoid arbitration with Austin Watson

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Another narrowly avoided arbitration to pass along.

The Nashville Predators have signed forward Austin Watson to a three-year, $3.3 million contract that will pay him $1 million next season, $1.1 million in 2018-19 and $1.2 million in 2019-20.

Watson’s hearing was scheduled for today.

From the press release:

Watson, 25 (1/13/92), set career highs in goals (5), assists (7), points (12), penalty minutes (99) and games played (77) during the 2016-17 season as he established himself as an integral member of the Nashville roster. The 6-foot-4, 204-pound winger then added four goals and nine points in 22 postseason contests as the Predators advanced to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Watson also appeared in 57 games for the Predators during the 2015-16 season, recording three goals and 10 points.

The Pittsburgh Penguins also avoided an arbitration hearing today by signing defenseman Brian Dumoulin to a six-year contract.

Spooner seeking $3.85 million in arbitration

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Ryan Spooner‘s arbitration hearing with the Boston Bruins is scheduled for Wednesday. And if it goes ahead, it could be a rather contentious one.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Spooner is seeking $3.85 million on a one-year deal, while the B’s are thinking almost half that at $2 million.

Spooner, a 25-year-old forward, will certainly be able to sell his offensive statistics. He had 49 points in 2015-16, then 39 points last season.

“Ryan’s a talented player,” said GM Don Sweeney, per CSNNE.com. “He’s had a lot of success. Our power play is better when he plays as well as he’s capable of playing, and he can really be a good complement to our group.”

But the knock on Spooner has always been his defensive play. The past two seasons, he’s a combined minus-17. Back in May, it was reported that the B’s were entertaining trade offers for him.

Spooner’s last contract paid him $1.9 million over two years.