James O'Brien

Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn

Poll: What to expect from the Dallas Stars

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Forecasting the way NHL seasons will play out is almost as much of a fool’s errand as, well, forecasting the weather.

Even so, there are certain teams who feel like “rain in Seattle”-type locks. One way or another, the Colorado Avalanche are expected to produce cringe-worthy possession stats. Even with some significant losses, many will predict that the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks will hog the puck.

What do we make of the Dallas Stars?

Few doubted their offense in 2014-15, yet that explosive group stands as a great chance of being even scarier next season.

However you feel about the value of Dallas’ $10.4 million goalie duo, it’s easy to predict better results than the shaky work from before.

The defense is the real wild card, as there are so many young pieces that a huge improvement isn’t that outrageous to ponder, especially if Lindy Ruff’s decades of experience pay off.

One might reasonably pencil them in for a playoff berth – maybe? – but they’re suddenly spending like a contender. What kind of outcome do you expect from this team?

Under Pressure: Lindy Ruff

Lindy Ruff
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The Dallas Stars were a fun dark horse candidate for some time, but this summer ensured that they can’t get away with being a “work in progress” any longer. Much of the pressure to advance falls on Lindy Ruff’s shoulders.

Plenty of questions remain on defense

When you look beyond the flashy set of forwards and the gaudy prices on goalies, one cannot help but wonder if Dallas will still struggle to keep pucks out of its net.

Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi should (potentially) at least give them average-to-good goaltending most nights, but will the Stars’ hyped defensive prospects mature in time to patch up a leaky group of blueliners?

For one thing, it’s a little odd that Tyler Seguin wasn’t shaken off of his belief that Stars couldn’t just outscore their opponents in 2014-15.

“We felt we had all these top players, all this firepower that could score a ton of goals. Automatically in training camp we were scoring a ton, but we weren’t focusing on defense,” Seguin told Sportsnet in early August.

“That’s not the on the coaches or GMs at all. That was all on us. We felt we could outscore every team.”

Yes, Seguin lets management off the hook, but it still seems a little strange.

Rising expectations

On the bright side, the Stars were a pretty strong possession team. Defending Big D goes deep on that front.

To some extent, the formula might not be ideal, though; the Stars’ blistering offense (third in the NHL in “SAT For”) in some ways camouflages the fact that Dallas also gave up far more scoring chances than they would have preferred (20th in “SAT Against”).

How much can we reasonably expect the Stars’ defense to improve from there? Again, it’s difficult to say which prospects may make an impact (and when), so the blueline may be largely similar to the shaky one from last season. Johnny Oduya serves as a nice upgrade over Trevor Daley, but only to a certain extent.

Fair or not, Ruff will absorb plenty of blame if the same problems blot out the Stars once more.

Stars’ biggest question: Will the goalie gamble work?

Antti Niemi
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If you were putting together a list of the best goalies in the NHL, how long would it take you to get to Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen?

Niemi won a Stanley Cup with Chicago back in 2010 despite some up-and-down playoff performances. He’s been a Vezina finalist once and is 31 years old.

Despite being the second pick of the 2002 NHL Draft, Lehtonen (also 31) has never been a Vezina finalist. He has eight (mostly lousy) games of playoff experience in his career and is associated as much with injury issues and any great on-ice accomplishment.

Neither Niemi nor Lehtonen is a “bad” goalie, but it may be optimistic to call either one of them “elite.”

Well, unless you’re working for the Stars, perhaps.

“In the end, I think it’s going to be a split situation. I think it’s going to work well,” GM Jim Nill told The Ticket back in early August. “Like I said, we’re fortunate because of our cap situation that we can do it. I know that if other teams had the cap room, they’d do it. You can’t get any better than having two No. 1 goalies in your lineup.”

Here are a few bottom-line statements about this situation.

Dallas is spending $10.4 million on this combination, and at any time, they’ll either have a $5.9 million goalie (Lehtonen) or a $4.5 million one (Niemi) watching on. Niemi and Lehtonen make up about 15 percent of the Stars’ cap spending as of this moment, according to General Fanager’s numbers.

Tyler Seguin hints at the Stars at least acknowledging their defensive issues, but do they possess the personnel or system to make life any better for their netminders? The Stars have reason to brag about a deep pool of defensive prospects, yet you have to wonder if that only means they’ll get to that point sometime after 2015-16.

The Stars have a lot riding on their unusual two-headed monster in net, and there’s a significant risk that this experiment may backfire.

Looking to make the leap: Stephen Johns

2010 NHL Draft Portraits
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To some Dallas Stars fans, the Patrick Sharp trade was as much about grabbing Stephen Johns as anything else.

(Granted, that might be a small sampling, but there was such chatter.)

Following the move, Stars GM Jim Nill probably summarized the most exciting takes: he’s the sort of defenseman the franchise might just be lacking.

“Stephen was a big part of that trade,” Nill said. “We’re trying to change a little bit of the dimension of our back end … he’s 6-foot-4, 220 lbs. and can skate.”

That’s what makes the 23-year-old especially interesting: while he packs some punch and snarl – relevant factors on a blueline that leans more toward finesse – it sounds like he’s swift enough that he won’t bring the Stars’ high-octane attack to a crawl.

Of course, it’s a big assumption that Johns can make the roster.

The Stars currently have eight defensemen under contract, and while some seem like they could be trade fodder if needed (Jason Demers?), Johns would need to impress to force the Stars’ hand.

Johns thinks he has what it takes, at least.

“Personally, I think I’m ready but it’s not up to me,” Johns said in July, according to the Dallas Morning News. “I’m going to do the best that I can, play the best hockey I can, and try to impress them.”

If you’re looking at young players who have the highest odds of making the team, Johns isn’t that guy.

One would think that Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrki Jokipakka would have a significant head start after playing quite a few NHL games in 2014-15. To some extent, they made their leaps – or steps up – already, however.

Johns is a more interesting story to follow during training camp. There’s a good chance that he’s not even the prospect with the highest ceiling hoping to make an impression – Julius Honka fits that bill – but Johns is at the age where he must be getting awfully antsy for a longer look.

For all we know, he may prove that he’s just too useful to send to the AHL.

Rangers say Zuccarello should be ready for training camp

Mats Zuccarello
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Even on the “hockey players are tough” scale, recovering from a skull fracture and brain contusion is pretty astonishing.

It sounds like New York Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello is pulling that off.

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault told NHL.com on Friday that Zuccarello should be ready for training camp in September.

“I’ve heard he’s 100 percent from our medical staff,” Vigneault said. “He’s been cleared to skate and have contact. He’s made a full recovery so we’re very pleased about that. He’s a big part of our team.”

A Ryan McDonagh shot hit the 27-year-old in the head during Game 5 of the Rangers’ first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Here’s a video clip of that very unfortunate moment:

To little surprise, the small scorer didn’t return to the playoffs, although it appeared as though he gave it multiple tries.

That’s a courageous showing considering symptoms that included the following: loss of speech, brain bleeding and a three-day hospital stay.

Seriously, when you consider all he went through, let’s hope that he’s genuinely 100 percent before he returns to the ice. If so, it’s a truly remarkable recovery, even by hockey standards.