Originally Published: September 26, 2013

Dallas Stars: Not afraid of change

By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

About the only thing the Stars didn't change in the offseason was the name of the city they play in. Otherwise, who can recognize this bunch? New GM, new coach, half a dozen new players, a blockbuster trade -- it's indeed a hockey rebirth in Dallas.

"A lot of changes," star forward Jamie Benn told ESPN.com. "I think we'll be good. We've brought in some exciting players, Tyler Seguin being the biggest. He's such a young and talented player, he's won a Stanley Cup and been in the finals twice. And we added some experience in [Shawn] Horcoff and [Sergei] Gonchar. We're really excited to get this thing going."

Where to start? Jim Nill and Lindy Ruff are now running this team, putting in place sweeping changes in the front office and behind the bench, a reaction to the Stars missing the playoffs for five straight years and, in doing so, seeing their ticket sales plummet. Nill's keen eye for talent was a big reason for Detroit's model of consistency for two-plus decades; Ruff's coaching prowess maximizing the talent out of small-market teams in Buffalo for years. On the ice, Nill has changed the roster dramatically, bringing in Seguin, Sergei Gonchar, Rich Peverley, Shawn Horcoff, Chris Mueller and Dan Ellis.

Gone are Loui Eriksson, Philip Larsen, Richard Bachman, Eric Nystrom, Reilly Smith and Tom Wandell.

The question is, what to make of it all?

"It seems like everybody is saying we're going to have a great year or we're going to be terrible," Seguin told ESPN.com. "It's going to start with how quick we all gel together, not even on the ice but off the ice as well, how all the personalities mix. I've seen it firsthand, it's the best team that wins the Cup. Boston was the closest group of guys that I've ever come in contact with and I think that's why we were so successful there. That's what everyone wants to establish in Dallas as well. There's a great group of young players in Dallas, Jim Nill's résumé speaks for itself, and Lindy on the bench -- it should be a great experience."

Certainly, having Nill and Ruff at the helm is the greatest strength of all for the Stars. Just how quickly, though, the duo can transform this team into a contender likely is going to take time. The team's ability to mesh all the new faces and new coach's system together before too long will be critical. In particular, finding chemistry between the top-line duo of Benn and Seguin will be paramount. To that end, the Stars made the early decision to move Benn back to wing, and give Seguin his first crack at center in the NHL, where he played most of his life before the pros.

"Very exciting," Benn said. "We're both going back to our natural positions. Chemistry is going to be a big part of our game on and off the ice. We're pretty much living together, we're in the same building and he's over every night."

Seguin relishes the chance to be back in the middle while acknowledging the challenges that lie ahead in living up to that task, particularly on draws as well as defensive coverage. He also changed his summer workout routine.

"I did a lot more core work this summer, a lot more Pilates," he said. "Just to help compete in the corners. I thought even though my statistics in the playoffs weren't what I wanted, I thought my compete level was better than it ever had been, and my positional play."

Benn, for one, enters the season a motivated player. He was surprisingly snubbed for the Team Canada Olympic camp, which could turn into an advantage for Dallas with a hungry player on its hands.

"You have to make a point that you thought you deserved to be there," said Ruff, who is coincidentally on the Team Canada coaching staff. "You go on the ice and you be the best possible player you can be. The door isn't closed yet. You try to open their eyes and make a point that you should be going."

That's the plan.

"For sure," Benn said. "It's the Olympics, it's a big thing, you want to be there for your country. The start of the year is going to be important for every player. Team Canada isn't an easy team to make, but I just want to put myself in a position where the management and coaching staff has to put me on that team."

Keep an eye, meanwhile, on rookie winger Valeri Nichushkin, drafted 10th overall in June. He's only 18 but he's already turning heads.

"He's ready to step into the NHL right now," Benn said. "He's very skilled, he's a big player, he's going to be a very good NHL player this year."

The Stars were leaky defensively last season, placing 24th in goals against per game. Some people will point the finger at goalie Kari Lehtonen, although his .916 save percentage was in the middle of the pack among NHL starters. And his teammates certainly believe he's been underrated around the league.

"He's the backbone of our team," Benn said. "I don't think people see how good he actually is. He's one hell of a goalie. He's flying under the radar, but he can definitely play, and he's one of the top goalies in the league in my mind."

Rather, I'd point the finger at a lackluster blue-line corps for the real reason for the defensive issues. It's just not a group that wows you. The addition of the veteran Gonchar should obviously help, as well as the hope that some of those youngsters who struggled last season will grow their game. But it's easily the Achilles' heel on this team.

"There's some good things that can happen," said Ruff of his blueliners. "Bringing Sergei in should really help shore up some situations. I think the maturation of a Brenden Dillon, for example, hoping he can take the next step, that should help us. And I think other kids will knock at the door."

Look for Nill to continue to make this a priority moving forward.

The Stars for years have pushed for a change in the league's alignment, tired of playing road games in later time zones in the Pacific Division and weary of the taxing travel. They got their wish with a move to the new Central Division.

"We're fired up and we really like it," Stars president Jim Lites told ESPN.com. "It's just so much more natural to us to play St. Louis, Minnesota and Chicago. Seems right to me."

LeBrun: It's going to take a while early this season for the new pieces to jell, and those points will be hard to get back. Fifth in the Central Division.

Burnside: Sixth in the Central Division.

Custance: Third in the Central Division.

Melrose: Seventh in the Central Division.

Strang: Seventh in the Central Division.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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