After a disappointing 2016-17 season exposed the Dallas Stars’ flaws, changes were in order.
Stars general manager Jim Nill took care of business between April and July, replacing Lindy Ruff with Ken Hitchcock as head coach, drafting top defense and goalie prospects Miro Heiskanen and Jake Oettinger, trading for franchise goalie Ben Bishop and veteran defenseman Marc Methot, and signing free agent forwards Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal, among others.
The Stars also allowed veteran forwards Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky and Jiri Hudler to depart via free agency, lost red-headed centerman Cody Eakin to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft and bought out the final year of netminder Antti Niemi’s contract.
The dust kicked up by Nill’s roster renovations hasn’t settled completely. A few roster spots won’t be finalized until the Darwinistic process that is training camp and the preseason slate of games plays itself out. Which spots are up for grabs? What will the roster look like on opening night? Let’s take a look.
On the Roster: Ben Bishop, Kari Lehtonen
On Speed Dial: Mike McKenna
The Stars spent a fourth-round draft pick to acquire pending UFA Bishop from the Los Angeles Kings back in May, then committed to spending another $29.5 million to keep the giant netminder in Victory Green for the next six years; he’s the starting goalie, now and for the foreseeable future. Lehtonen has one year remaining on his contract. As Bishop’s backup, he’ll likely have 20-30 games to earn a new NHL deal, either in Dallas or elsewhere.
Should injury or illness strike, who makes the drive up I-35 to fill in? Veteran AHLer Mike McKenna is the most likely suspect. Signed by the Stars on July 1 to mentor their younger netminders in Cedar Park, the journeyman has had several cups of coffee in the NHL and should be fine for a short stint with the big club. If McKenna gets called up, he and forward Adam Cracknell can reminisce about their time together with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers.
On the Roster: Marc Methot, John Klingberg, Dan Hamhuis, Julius Honka, Esa Lindell
Fighting for Spots: Dillon Heatherington, Stephen Johns, Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Greg Pateryn
Getting a Good, Long Look: Miro Heiskanen
The Stars’ top two defense pairs of Methot-Klingberg and Hamhuis-Honka are virtual locks. Lindell has all but carved his initials into the fifth spot. The last two defense corps slots are up for grabs.
Though the Stars thought highly enough of Johns to protect him in the expansion draft, his place in the lineup isn’t guaranteed; he’ll have to earn it. That said, the combination of Johns’ past performance, his right-handedness and his history with Lindell (they were the Texas Stars’ top defense pair for much of 2015-16) makes him the front-runner at 6D.
Nemeth, Oleksiak and Pateryn will come to camp highly motivated, as the last two weeks in September will be the last chance for any of them to stick with the Stars. Though a trade can’t be ruled out, the most realistic scenario is that two of the three will be sent down to the AHL. All would have to pass through waivers. Losing Nemeth or Oleksiak via waivers wouldn’t be surprising, as I believe both could be a fresh start away from a decent NHL career and offer low-risk, low-cost and potentially high-reward blue line options.
Heatherington’s waiver-exempt status and left shot makes him a long shot for this year, but a great camp for the big, stay-at-home defenseman could move him to the head of the call-up line.
Last, but not least, the Stars’ top draft pick will get a good, long look at camp. The highly-skilled Finn, who turned 18 after attending development camp in early July, is expected to play one more season back home. The club will use the preseason to gather data on their top prospect, with an eye toward answering one question: Will Heiskanen begin the 2018-19 season in Cedar Park or Dallas?
On the Roster: Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Mattias Janmark, Martin Hanzal, Jason Spezza, Antoine Roussel, Radek Faksa, Brett Ritchie, Devin Shore
In a Dogfight: Adam Cracknell, Curtis McKenzie, Tyler Pitlick, Brian Flynn, Remi Elie, Gemel Smith, Jason Dickinson, Denis Gurianov, Roope Hintz
Forgive the pun, but much hinges on Janmark’s knee. If he’s fully healed, expect the smart Swede to patrol the left wing on a line with Hanzal and Spezza while Shore centers the fourth line. Should the worst-case scenario come to pass, Shore will likely move into Janmark’s spot and a fourth-line free-for-all will begin in earnest.
Assuming Janmark is healthy, the only real training camp battles will be on the fourth line wings. If the Stars carry 14 forwards in 2017-18, six players will battle for four roster spots (4LW, 4RW, 13F and 14F). Returning skaters McKenzie and Cracknell have their work cut out for them fending off challenges from newcomers Pitlick and Flynn, as well as Elie and Smith, who impressed many during brief stints in Dallas last season.
Youngsters Dickinson, Gurianov and Hintz should play big minutes in the AHL in 2017-18, but a surprising training camp which ends in an NHL roster spot isn’t out of the question for any of the three. Hintz in particular has the potential to play his way onto the big club, just as Janmark did two years ago.
The Stars Opening Night Roster
When the Stars face off against the Golden Knights on October 6, I believe they’ll do so with the following lineup:
Scratches: McKenzie, Cracknell, Oleksiak
That lineup brings to mind four words: fast, skilled, deep, dangerous. Nothing is guaranteed in life or hockey, but Jim Nill has done everything in his power to put the team in the best possible position to succeed. If the Stars play to their potential, 2017-18 could be a very interesting season, indeed.