There was a whole lot of smiling go on as the Stars got to work getting ready for the season.
That’s how Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin greeted the media when asked how he was doing. As with every other player that came out and spoke with the assembled media at the Comerica Center, the training headquarters of the team, this weekend, Seguin had a grin splitting his face from ear-to-ear.
After a full calendar year that saw the team play in a Stanley Cup Final series, have a COVID-19 outbreak, a shortened season due to the ongoing pandemic, a storm that was a “once-in-a-lifetime” wintry apocalypse that nearly crippled the state’s electrical grid, an even-further compressed schedule, and a whole host of injuries, standing in front of the fully-vaccinated media in attendance at training camp had a sense of normalcy — even if the media wore face masks and stood six feet away — that hasn’t been around any NHL team in over 18 months.
Seguin has more reason to be excited than most. He went through some pretty grueling injury rehab after the team was eliminated from the Stanley Cup Final last fall, describing “losing kind of my whole quad muscle” to The Athletic earlier this spring. But the time off, as unexpected and unwanted as it may have been, has Seguin feeling nearly at 100 percent for the first time in a few years. Because, as he rehabbed his big hip injury after surgery, other things that had been chronically bothering him – minor in relation to the hip, of course – also got time to heal.
“I never wanted this – to have that reset,” Seguin said. “But having it has been a blessing physically and, honestly, mentally. You’re remembering how much you really do love this game and how much I miss the routine of it and miss the lifestyle of being an NHL player. Being around the team and going on planes, and being part of something bigger than yourself. I had a lot of dark days not being a part of that and watching on tv and just sitting on my ass. So I’m excited to be back and be around all the guys.”
Seguin isn’t the only one that’s back to full health for the Stars, either. In fact, Dallas is getting a solid top line healthy this season, a line that was out or played through injury for much of last year.
Alexander Radulov had surgery to repair an injury that dates back to his KHL days, before he returned to the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens. A muscle ripped back then, but it was a small tear. He said it was something that had been managed in years past, but he pulled it again in the bubble last year. Again, it was managed to allow him to get on the ice for the Stars’ playoff run. But this past year, it got to the point where daily management became ineffective, and it needed to be surgically repaired. “To go on the ice and be 60, 70 percent isn’t enough,” the forward told the media this weekend.
Anyone that has ever watched Radulov play knows that he doesn’t do anything less than full tilt. He celebrates goals he scores on his goalie teammates in practices as hard as he does in front of full buildings and in clutch moments, like the Winter Classic in the Cotton Bowl.
He’s feeling more like himself these days after getting the time needed to recover from the core injury. “I would say it’s a great feeling when you can go and compete as a normal hockey player instead of always thinking ‘what if I do this, what if I do that’.”
It’s not unlike his teammate, Roope Hintz, in that regard. Hintz has not officially been cleared to play (a designation that really means that if a NHL game was played today, he wouldn’t be in the lineup but does not keep him from being a full participant in training camp.) But general manager Jim Nill expects him to be ready to go before the start of the regular season.
“I’ve been doing rehab after that and feeling pretty good,” Hintz said of the surgery to repair a groin muscle that had basically disconnected from the bone last year. “I don’t see any difference how I skate right now. It’s just the time I need to get to the point I can play at my best.” Hintz will get that time during training camp and throughout the preseason. “I’ve been feeling better each time I’m on the ice.”
Those three guys – Seguin, Radulov, and Hintz – would be a pretty lethal top line for a lot of NHL teams. “Getting those guys back on it [the power play] really fills out two full units, and each unit can be dangerous,” Joe Pavelski said when talking about his teammates returning to the lineup healthy this camp. “That’s important, down the stretch and in the playoffs especially, it’s huge when another group can go out and score.”
That’s right, the Dallas Stars are talking about playoffs already. “The team needs to get into the playoffs,” head coach Rick Bowness said. “Any way we can get it, we need to get back in the playoffs.”
“Remembering that a year ago today, where we were, and looking at the team, and who’s still here – pretty much everyone. And the additions we made, we’ve only gotten better,” Seguin said. “That’s in everyone’s mind and it’s being talked about amongst the group, and that gives us a lot of confidence going into the season.”
It’s not just the confidence of having gone to the Stanley Cup Final with the majority of this anticipated starting lineup intact from a year ago that has the Stars thinking about another magical run. Nearly to a man, players noted how deep the team is at every position heading into the year.
“I’ve been here for going on close to a decade and this is by far the deepest team I’ve seen for the Dallas Stars through the lineup,” Seguin said. “But especially up front, usually we’ve had a top four, maybe a top six, now we’ve got more than a top six.”
“Every team that wins, doesn’t have a weakness – every part of their game, you don’t rely on one area to win a game,” new addition Braden Holtby said about the Stars. “You have to find different ways, whether it’s defensively, speed game, physical game, offensive game, and this team has everything. There’s no holes in it. If you look at it, high-end skill, the defensive depth, the forward depth – it has everything, and that’s hard to find.”
Braden Holtby’s turtles made it into the US with a “much shorter holdup at the border this time.”
— Taylor Baird (@taylordbaird) September 23, 2021
As Nill said about the return of his team to relative health, having the Seguins and Radulovs and Hintzs of the world allows everyone to slot into the lineup where they are most effective. While it’s very early into training camp and a lineup isn’t near close to finalized for the season, there were some pairings and forward combinations that got some consistent looks early on:
- Jamie Benn at center between Denis Gurianov and Michael Raffl.
- The trio of Pavelski, Hintz, and Jason Robertson were kept intact.
- Radulov and Joel Kiviranta rode shotgun on Seguin’s line.
- Esa Lindell and Miro Heiskanen were paired together in one group, while John Klingberg and Ryan Suter were paired together in a different group.
Preseason games should give Bowness and company time to tinker with the lines and pairings and see where chemistry naturally develops. But even bigger in those games will be ice time for the four NHL-ready goaltenders the Stars currently have on the roster.
They’ve got Jake Oettinger, who is waiver-exempt and could find himself playing big minutes in the AHL after backing up Anton Khudobin all of last season. Khudobin will need reps. Holtby is looking to recover his game and get back to the Stanley Cup-quality backstop he has been in the past. “My job is just to come in and try and do all I can, and help this team in any way I’m asked,” the former Canucks goalie said. “I think the group we have here seems pretty special. When you have the opportunity to have a team like this, where you have an option to win a championship….my focus is – and our goaltender group is – we’ll all do as much as we can and give our team a chance to win as many games as possible.”
Then there is Ben Bishop, the Stars’ number one of years past, has been dealing with a major knee injury since the end of the 2019-2020 season. “I had the surgery to clean it up before the bubble, so right when COVID happened I had the first surgery,” Bishop said. “Had that, went into the bubble, and it wasn’t feeling great. But being in the bubble, you couldn’t go get second opinions or go out and find out what was going on. And obviously we were on a great run, so we just kind of did it and after the season was able to go get a couple of opinions and have another surgery. They went in there and the meniscus was kind of torn again, so they were able to repair it and kind of clean it up again. And that repair required I was on crutches for six weeks with no….I couldn’t step on my leg for six weeks, which was a long time. After that six weeks, you got to learn how to walk again. As crazy as it is, it takes a couple weeks before you even feel comfortable walking again. Then the process is trying to make it stronger. As we went through last year….they said six months, but they didn’t know how long it would take to get better.”
His goal – his plan – is to play for the Stars again this year. When (or if) he is ready to return to the crease, Nill will have quite a bit of salary cap gymnastics to complete to fit his $4.9 million cap hit under the limit. Seeing as there is no timeframe for a return, and that Bishop is not currently cleared to play, there’s no telling what could happen between now and that day.
If Bishop doesn’t return this season, the options moving forward sound pretty grim in terms of his playing career. “As far as the knee itself, I think it’s about as good as it’s going to get,” Bishop said. “There’s not really anything else we can do after this so it’s kind of all or nothing right now.”