In what has quickly become a trend, GM Jim Nill pulled off a huge summer trade to bolster his team’s offensive attack, a necessity in the powerful Central Division. Now the Stars have a great core of veterans to lead their team back to the post-season.
The Central is the only division in hockey right now in which every team has notched a win. The other three groupings actually have at least two winless squads each and though it’s very early, this was not unforeseen.
With Chicago up top, the Central has been a lethal division lately, with all seven teams making the playoffs within the past two seasons. So if you’re gonna come to the gunfight, you better be armed.
In three seasons as GM of the Stars, Jim Nill has made a habit of splashy summer trades. First it was Tyler Seguin from Boston in 2013, then Jason Spezza from Ottawa a year later. This time, it was Patrick Sharp from the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. Add in the homegrown Jamie Benn and skilled blueliner John Klingberg and that’s a lot of firepower.
But it’s not just about the goals.
“Adding a guy with the pedigree of Sharp was important for our team,” Spezza said. “We also signed Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi to bring a little more veteran presence to the room.”
Spezza, who tallied a hat trick last night in a 4-2 win over Edmonton, is also part of that presence. He had some incredibly successful years in Ottawa, culminating in a 2007 Cup final appearance that saw him tie for the playoff lead in scoring with mates Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson. Now he’s enjoying the challenge of the Central Division night in and night out.
“The competitiveness in our division – it’s unbelievable how good every team is,” he said. “It’s actually a good thing. It keeps you sharp and you’re always playing playoff-type games. If you can stay sharp as a team throughout the year, that’s an advantage.”
But it’s only an advantage if you actually make the playoff field. Dallas fell short last season, finishing sixth in the division. Spezza acknowledged that his team underachieved, but was also excited about the possibilities that 2015-16 hold for the club.
Bringing in Niemi not only adds another Cup ring to the roster (Oduya brought titles too), but also a pressure valve for incumbent goalie Kari Lehtonen, whom Nill admitted was overworked last season. It may seem like an odd arrangement to have two No. 1 goalies – but it’s certainly worth a try, especially given what Nill correctly notes is a tough travel schedule.
Getting used to the ways of the Western Conference was also a task for Spezza, though he’s not completely pessimistic about it.
“The travel’s definitely much tougher than it is in the East,” he said. “Teams play a little bit of a heavier game, a little tighter style. It suits my game.”
Playing tighter is probably good advice for Dallas in general. Last year, the Stars had no problem scoring, with 260 goals on the season. But they also gave up 261 – only bottom-feeders Arizona and Edmonton surrendered more in the West.
Will the infusion of former Blackhawks Oduya, Sharp and Niemi help? Whether it’s through their veteran presence, or on-ice talents, that’s the hope in Dallas. Because in the Central Division these days, survival is only the first battle.