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September 30, 2013 | 1:42pm ET
2013-14 Season Preview: Dallas
By Tab Bamford, TheFourthPeriod.com

After finishing seven points out of the Western Conference playoffs in the spring, the Dallas Stars made a few bold decisions over the summer in an effort to extend their 2013-14 campaign beyond the regular season.

Consider that, when he signed his new five-year deal on Jan. 24, Jamie Benn was the only player on the Starsí roster with a cap hit over $5M, Joe Nieuwendyk was the general manager in Dallas, and two of the teamsí top scorers -- Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney -- were old enough to be Bennís father.

Fast forward eight months. Benn is now the third-highest paid player on the roster, one of the elder statesmen on the team -- Jagr -- was traded away at the deadline, and Jim Nill is now the general manager.

Nill came from Detroit with a stellar reputation, and he quickly went to work on an overhaul that included a new logo, new sweaters, a new coach and the additions of four key players that should bolster the Starsí lineup this season.

The first significant move Nill made was to put a seasoned leader behind the bench. On June 21, Nill introduced long-time Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff as his choice to lead the roster that would see significant changes take place in the days that followed. The addition of Ruff brings in a coach with plenty of experience (571 career wins) to lead a roster with a lot of new faces.

At least on paper, Nill evaluated some of the critical issues that had hurt the Starsí run for a playoff berth in the spring and made a couple deals to remedy the situations without hurting the long-term future of the organization.

With a busy summer of movement from Nill now in the rear view mirror, the Stars will jump into the new Central Division with the postseason within reach.

FORWARDS

Benn was one of only four Stars to eclipse 25 points last year, but two of those players will be elsewhere this season. Jagr, Eriksson and center Derek Roy (free agent; now in St. Louis) leave the top of the scoresheet as Nill made a number of moves to change the dynamics in Dallas.

Nill acquired three forwards this summer will make a direct impact some areas of need in Dallas. After finishing 27th in the NHL in faceoffs last year (winning only 47.2 percent of their draws), a blockbuster trade with Boston sent Loui Eriksson to the Bruins for centers Rich Peverley and Tyler Seguin. A subsequent deal with Edmonton to land veteran Shawn Horcoff now gives Dallas very good depth at the dot, and should improve the offense as well.

Horcoff, who turns 35 on Sept. 17, will join Ray Whitney and Vern Fiddler as the old men up front for a young Stars team that got faster over the summer with the additions of Seguin and Peverley.

Prospects Alex Chiasson and Cody Eakin combined to post 31 points in 55 games last year and will look to make a bigger impact in the coming season. Eakin, 22, registered 24 points in 48 contests while Chiasson, who turns 22 on Oct. 1, posted seven points in seven games. The 10th overall pick at the 2013 NHL Draft, 18-year-old forward Valeri Nichushkin, could make the roster in training camp as well. Nichushkin scored twice in the Starsí first preseason game.

DEFENSEMEN

Nill made another move to improve the club, dealing a sixth round pick to Ottawa for 39-year-old Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar signed a two-year, $10 million deal with Dallas and will lead a group that looks to improve upon their performance in 2013 the finished with the Stars ranked 24th in the league, allowing 2.94 goals per game.

Gonchar will join Alex Goligoski, Brenden Dillon, Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, Jordie Benn and Aaron Rome on a blue line that could be a strong part of the offense in Dallas this season. Gonchar (with Ottawa) and Goligoski each posted 27 points last year, as many as Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell and Mark Streit. Two 50-point producers would make a significant impact on the Starsí playoff chances.

With Robidas in the final year of his contract, the future of the blue line in Big D might be in the hands of Dillon and Jamie Oleksiak. Dillon, 22, jumped into a top-four role and averaged over 21 minutes per night while seeing action in all 48 games. He will be a restricted free agent next summer. Oleskiak, 20, appeared in 16 games last year.

GOALTENDING

The pipes in Dallas will be in the hands of Kari Lehtonen once again this season, and the Stars will be looking for improvement from their top netminder. After posting a .916 save percentage with one shutout in 35 appearances last year, Lehtnonen hopes an improved offense will lead to more victories and a postseason appearance this year.

Starsí management hopes for a postseason appearance from Lehtonen as well. He begins a five-year, $29.5 million deal this season that includes a no-trade clause for the first two seasons, during which time heíll likely be backed-up by free agent addition Dan Ellis. Ellis signed a two-year deal with Dallas this summer.

That two year number is intriguing in Dallas because itís also the number of years left on the entry level contract of top prospect Jack Campbell, who will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015 when Ellis is off the books and Lehtonenís contract holds only a limited no-trade clause. Many believe the future in Dallas is Campbell, but itís in the hands of Lehtonen for now.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Dallas wasnít great on special teams last year, but it wasnít their most glaring weakness either. Their penalty kill (81 percent) finished 17th in the league while their power play ranked 18th (17 percent).

Special teams might be the biggest area of need that was visibly addressed by Nillís moves over the summer. All four veterans he added will undoubtedly change the special team dynamics in Dallas in the coming season.

The addition of Gonchar on the blue line, who averaged 3:43 on ice with an advantage and 2:14 while short-handed for the Sens last year, should help both units. Similarly, Horcoff averaged over two minutes per night on both special teams for the Oilers last year, while Peverley and Seguin combined to score six power play goals for the Eastern Conference champion Bruins.

While different players on the ice could help scheme and effectiveness, the biggest key for the Stars special teams this year will be staying out of the penalty box. Only Colorado, Philadelphia and Edmonton spent more time short-handed than Dallas last season.

PREDICTIONS

With a new logo, new general manager and some new faces on the ice, the Dallas Stars will look to change their fortunes as they enter the Central Division. The moves made by Nill to specifically remedy some of the teamís most glaring shortcomings over the summer could make a dramatic short-term impact, while the addition of Seguin to a top line with Jamie Benn could prove to be a long-term home run.

Look for Jamie Benn and Seguin to put up big numbers this season, and both special teams to improve as well. The addition of a big-minutes playing Gonchar on the blue line should ease the work load of younger players like Dillon, and give Ruff options throughout the season.

The Stars have added some players and a coach with postseason experience, and the new playoff format could be just what Dallas needed to get into the playoffs. But do they have enough depth to make a run deep in the postseason? Only time will tell.

Tab Bamford is the Chicago Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period.


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