Dallas Stars outlook: Forwards

FRISCO -- Read a lot of the previews of the Dallas Stars heading into this season and the talk is about how much the Dallas Stars lost with the departure of Brad Richards. Talk to new Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan and he likes to focus on what the Stars still have remaining.

“When you’ve got Loui Eriksson, Mike Ribeiro, Brenden Morrow, Jamie Benn and Steve Ott, that’s a pretty good solid five players,” Gulutzan said. "I’m excited. I’m excited.”

Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk agreed.

“I think most teams that have looked at us the past few years have said there are some good players in their top grouping,” said Nieuwendyk. “We still have that even though we’ve lost Brad Richards. … If you look at our top six – however you want to slice it – with Ribeiro, Morrow, (Michael) Ryder, Benn, Eriksson and Ott, I think that is pretty healthy. I think if you look around the league I think we stack up pretty well.”

Still, Richards leaves a void. He led the team in points the last two seasons. He was the Stars’ third leading goal scorer over the three full seasons he was in Dallas. So the Stars will need some players to move forward with their play and others to perform to expectations.

“Jamie Benn has to take that next step. Loui Eriksson has to take the next step. Michael Ryder has to come over, perform and do well for us. He’s going to get every opportunity to do that for us," said Nieuwendyk. “I think Steve Ott is an important player for this year. I really believe Steve has to take the next step, and he’s capable of it because he has shown it – to play in a top six setting. That’s the message we’ve given him this year. We fully anticipate that he is prepared to do that.”

With Richards departing via free agency and James Neal, the team’s second leading goal scorer over the last three seasons dealt last season for defenseman Alex Goligoski, Nieuwendyk dipped into the market and bolstered the team’s depth with the addition of five forwards.

He added some scoring pop with the right-handed shooting Ryder, an excellent two-way forward in Vernon Fiddler, speed and penalty killing prowess in Radek Dvorak, grit and versatility with Jake Dowell and toughness with Eric Godard.

“I think where we are really balanced this year is that we have people in their proper roles,” said Nieuwendyk. “We can put (Adam) Burish where he needs to be. We can put Radek Dvorak, who I know quite well from my Florida days, in his role - penalty killer, good speed, hardworking. Probably the biggest key will be Vern Fiddler. Here’s a guy that will be our third line center, kind of solidify that line and give us an identity on the bottom grouping of our lines. Then we have the mixed bag on the fourth line.”

The question is how all the pieces Nieuwendyk has assembled will fall together. Training camp and the preseason will help determine that. A year ago there weren’t a lot of questions about the top six. Neal, Richards and Eriksson were one line and the question was who would play on the right side with Morrow and Ribeiro. This year, with all the turnover, there are a few more questions.

“What we have left is Ribby and Morrow that worked together and you try to find a piece there to fit in,” said Gulutzan. ”Jamie Benn is going to play center and we’ve got to see what works for Benny. Tommy Wandell we feel can have a big year, and we want to give him opportunity.”

Ryder would seem to be a good fit on the right side with Ribeiro and Morrow. Ryder and Ribeiro played together in Montreal. That could leave Ott, Benn and Eriksson as a trio. Gulutzan said he’s thought a lot about line combinations, and while some things might look good on paper he’d rather see how it plays out on the ice.

“I don’t think chemistry is something you can force as a coach. If I knew what was going to work I wouldn’t put lines together, I’d go buy the Texas Lottery,” he said. “So we’re going to see what develops, but also I am a big believer in player input because players know who they like to play with, and sometimes psychologically if they like to play with a guy you can create chemistry.”

And there’s the piecing together of the lower two lines, where the Stars think they’ve made big strides with the offseason acquisitions, especially Fiddler, who was a top priority in free agency. There are a lot of options there with players like Dvorak, Dowell, Burish, Wandell and the versatile Toby Petersen. Godard and Krys Barch who will vie for time on the fourth line, are in the mix as well.

“We’ve talked about it, sometimes you don’t know what three might just end up having great chemistry,” said Gulutzan. “So we are going to try a few different things and see how it works.”

And no matter how Gulutzan ends up putting the lines together, Nieuwendyk thinks the Stars have the pieces in place to help offset the departure of Richards.

“[Brad] was a point producer for us,” Nieuwendyk said, “but I feel very confident that our team is a deeper team now than we were a year ago.”

Pushing for NHL time

While the Stars seem set at forward with 14 players who played in the NHL last season, there’s always a chance someone could push his way onto the roster. Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan knows it can happen.

In his first season as head coach of the Texas Stars Gulutzan expected Jamie Benn and Tom Wandell on his roster in Cedar Park. Didn’t get either one of them because both ended up making the Dallas Stars. So, a lot can happen between when training camp opens and when that opening night roster is finalized.

“We have Tomas Vincour, who is coming in to make this club. Travis Morin is coming in here. Colton Sceviour is turning the corner as a young guy who now has to bring his game to the next level,” Gulutzan said. “We’re going to have room for some of those guys possibly, so they have to come in here and have good camps and see where they end up.”

Vincour played 24 games last season. Morin and Sceviour also were called up, although briefly.

Francis Wathier and Ray Sawada – both AHL veterans at this point –have been called up to Dallas before and could be in the mix for call ups again this season.

Two prospects turning pro this season are worth watching. One is Scott Glennie, the team’s first round pick (eighth overall) in 2009. He played a few games with the Texas Stars late last season and will play his first full AHL season in 2011-12.

“He may get an opportunity depending on how he does down there, but I think it is important for him to establish himself at the American Hockey League level,” said Nieuwendyk.

The other is Matt Fraser, a free agent signing who played with the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League. He had an impressive season in 2010-11 in helping the ice make it to the Memorial Cup.

“He shows real good promise. Quality kid,” said Nieuwendyk. “It will be interesting to see how he does, but I think he’ll do very well.”

Here's a look at the Dallas Stars forwards for the 2011-12 season.

Dallas Stars Forward Depth Chart

Dallas Stars forwards for the 2011-12 season.