After a five year absence, Dallas returned to the play-offs last year following an impressive campaign in which Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn established their star credentials.
The post season berth proved to be the icing on the cake for a franchise that made huge strides under new General Manager Jim Nill and veteran Coach Lindy Ruff.
Following a second summer of high profile acquisitions, can Dallas once again on the path to becoming Cup contenders?
Adding Seguin last summer proved pivotal in the Stars resurgence. The 2nd overall pick at the 2010 Draft scored 37 goals and 84 points, forming a lethal partnership with the 25-year old Benn (34 goals, 79 points) on the clubs first line.
But the criticism of Dallas remained a lack of secondary support for the two young stars.
Sergei Gonchar was a welcome, veteran addition to the blue line, and Shawn Horcoff and Rich Peverley, heart issues aside, provided depth at centre – but no other player passed the 20 goal mark (Ryan Garbutt had 17, Erik Cole and Cody Eakin 16); and when Anaheim shut Seguin down in the first round of this years play-offs, Dallas hopes of a second Stanley Cup faded fast.
Keen to continue the clubs progress, Nill moved again this summer – trading for skilled centre Jason Spezza and signing winger Ales Hemsky and goaltender Anders Lindback as a free agents.
But in the highly competitive Western Conference, is it enough to put Dallas over the top?
Adding Spezza and Hemsky certainly gives the Stars a strong secondary scoring threat, especially along side sophomore Valeri Nichushkin and the increasingly impressive Cody Eakin.
The Stars also have a legitimate #1 in Kari Lehtonen, who seems to have moved past the injury problems that dogged him in Atlanta, and Ruff finally get the best out of Alex Goligoski last year – providing an offensive output on an underrated by increasingly effective blue line (even without Stephane Robidas).
But health concerns still follow the 30-year old Finnish netminder, despite playing the bulk of games in each of the last four seasons, and both Spezza and Hemsky have their own checkered history with injuries.
Whilst injuries are a fact of life in the NHL, the loss of any would put a serious dent in the Stars campaign – particularly in a division likely to only to get stronger, again, next season with Pekka Rinne healthy and a new coach in Nashville.
The return of the giant Finn adds extra importance to Lehtonen’s role on the team, as both Dallas and Nashville are likely to be vying for the same places in the standings. Where Dan Ellis, and then veteran Tim Thomas, provided able support last year, Lindback endured a torrid time in Tampa and has much to prove at NHL level still.
The dynamic duo of Seguin and Benn are also likely to get increased attention this year, as opposing defences ‘get wise’ to their talents, pushing the Stars in to somewhat unpredictable territory.
Whilst their is little doubt Jim Nill has improved the roster once again this summer, the increased competition Dallas will likely see within the Division (as well as the high level of competition in the West in general) mean the club are still most likely to be fighting for a wild card spot – or at best 3rd in the Central behind powerhouses Chicago and St Louis.
The knock of this is that another tough first round matchup is almost certain, making that already difficult trip the the Stanley Cup Final that little bit tougher.
It doesn’t mean Dallas aren’t on the right path however, but they now need to ensure the quick progress they have made continues to ensure the remaining ‘prime years’ of players like Lehtonen, Hemsky, Spezza and Trevor Daley are not lost whilst they develop talents like Eakins.
The door is starting to open for the Stars – only time will tell if they can go through it.