The Dallas Stars hit the ice in Frisco on Monday morning to open up their 2020 summer training camp. And while the first day yielded no surprising developments, there was plenty to mull over.
124 days had passed since the Dallas Stars last skated in a formal practice setting at Comerica Center. That streak reached its long-awaited end on Monday morning when the Stars opened their 2020 summer training camp session in Frisco.
The 13-day window for camp is part of Phase 3 of the NHL’s Return To Play Plan.
Dallas, along with the other 23 teams that qualified for the return, will have a little under two weeks to rebuild chemistry and momentum, as well as fix any issues they faced prior to the pause of the 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus pandemic. On July 26, the teams will head to either Edmonton (Western Conference teams) or Toronto (Eastern Conference teams) to begin Qualifying Round play.
On Monday morning, the Stars took their first steps towards getting ready for meaningful hockey. It certainly wasn’t done through a traditional format, though.
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While the play on the ice was largely typical, the surroundings of the rink were eerily unfamiliar. The glass windows that connect the rink to the lobby at Comerica Center had black curtains in front of them. There were no clusters of media, but instead a small handful of writers and team media that were socially distanced at the top row of the bleachers.
Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness was not on the ice with the team during practice, but instead watched the groups skate from the benches while wearing a mask. Bowness, 65, said in a Zoom call that it was a decision made out of caution.
“I would say that I was erring on the side of caution,” Bowness said. “I’m still very nervous about the COVID and we haven’t tested our players since last Thursday.”
The entire team was tested on Monday morning, but with the results not being available tomorrow, Bowness will likely not be on the ice until Wednesday (assuming all tests are negative).
“It wasn’t a change of strategy,” Bowness added. “It was me being 65 years old and erring on the side of caution. I just want to make sure I’m cautious and very careful, which we’ve been since this virus started, and I will continue to do that. Hey, I’m a grandfather now. I just got my first grandkid. I intend on playing some golf with that kid down the road. I intend on being here a lot longer.”
Bowness mentioned that he prefers being out on the ice as opposed to watching from the bench, but reiterated that he will do so once he knows that it’s safe.
Meanwhile, the assistant coaches and the rest of the team took the ice for about three hours on Monday.
30 skaters and four goaltenders from the Dallas Stars organization were on the ice at some point during the first day of camp.
The only player on the official roster that did not participate in camp was goaltender Colton Point. Bowness said that Point was still waiting for the results of his first COVID test on Monday. Meanwhile, Ben Bishop worked out with goalie coach Jeff Reese before camp began. He is expected to join the team on Tuesday.
The other 33 players each participated in at least one session, though Ty Dellandrea, Gavin Bayreuther, and Jake Oettinger skated with both groups. Bowness mentioned that more players will be rotated through those spots as camp progresses.
“That’s going to rotate,” Bowness said. “We realize that we’re working off a time limit here. We want six [defensemen] in each group and one group will have 10 every now and then. There’s no real science to that other than balancing it out as best we can. I think [Joel] L’Esperance and [Thomas] Harley will be doing double duty tomorrow.”
Each group had about 45-50 minutes on the ice, while the power play units also took about 30 minutes to run some drills between group sessions.
For the first day back in over four months, the Stars were rolling at a pretty good rate.
“It was good,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said about the first day. “We had a pretty good tempo flying up and down the ice. I thought, overall, the guys looked good.
“It’s pretty exciting and a lot of guys had a smile on their face the whole day. We’ve been stuck at home and cooped up for a little bit. It was an exciting day and it was great to be out there with the guys again.”
The Dallas Stars spent much of the two group sessions focusing on the offensive zone and generating better puck possession and more scoring chances. That makes sense when you remember that Dallas had the second-best defense (2.52 goals against per game) and sixth-worst offense (2.58 goals per game) during the 2019-20 regular season.
Offensive consistency has been a problem for the Stars for much of the past two seasons. But with Bowness having four months to assess his team’s offensive structure while also analyzing other teams around the NHL, he’s come prepared with a few new tricks to implement.
One of those tricks is having a defenseman involved in the offensive rush.
“We want a [defenseman] up with every rush,” Bowness said. “You look at all of our goals for and all of our best offensive opportunities and it’s a been a four-man rush. You look around the League, it’s all a four-man rush. With a skater back there, we’re going to put a lot of pressure on our defense to jump up in the play.
“We’re going to make plays and we’re going to be jumping. All of that being said, there’s a lot of onus on the forward with the puck. He has to make better plays. If you’re going to bring up your defense, you have to respect the fact that they’re coming and you have to make high percentage plays coming through the neutral zone.”
It’s part of the reason why the Stars’ pairings looked the way they did on Monday morning. While Esa Lindell and John Klingberg remained paired together, Jamie Oleksiak filled in alongside Miro Heiskanen and Andrej Sekera paired up with Stephen Johns.
Bowness mentioned that he wanted Johns and Heiskanen to have more of an opportunity to jump into the offensive rush while knowing that there is a steadying force behind them in case of a turnover and potential odd-man rush.
In addition, the Stars also focused on zone entries in an effort to work on puck protection and sustaining offensive zone time.
While the lines were staggered across two groups and won’t square off with each other until Wednesday (when the team’s first scheduled scrimmage takes place), the makeup was interesting.
Esa Lindell — John Klingberg
Gavin Bayreuther — Thomas Harley
Jamie Oleksiak — Miro Heiskanen
Andrej Sekera — Stephen Johns
Dillon Heatherington — Gavin Bayreuther
While the well-known “FCC Line” of Cogliano, Faksa, and Comeau and the trio of Janmark, Pavelski, and Radulov remained unchanged after spending much of the second half of the season together, the top two lines saw a shakeup.
The thought process behind the shuffle, per Bowness, was to give the Stars a line for speed as well as a line for physical play.
“That’s a very fast line,” Bowness said. “Denis [Gurianov] and Roope [Hintz] are having great years along with [Tyler]. That’s great speed up front. We want to take a look at it and see what it looks like. We won’t know for a few more days, but what that line has in terms of speed is going to intimidate a lot of teams.”
Gurianov led the Stars with 20 goals in his first full season in the NHL and quickly transformed into one of the Stars’ biggest threats in the offensive zone. Hintz was close behind in second with 19, while Seguin finished fourth with 17.
The trio had a good pace on Monday morning and possesses plenty of scoring power off the rush, so they could end up being a solution in the Stars’ search for offensive consistency.
On the other hand, the line of Benn, Dickinson, and Perry provides Dallas with a bigger trio that can play a heavier style.
“The other line with [Jason], Corey [Perry], and Jamie [Benn], that’s a big, heavy, and physical line. We need them to get the puck in the offensive zone, protect it, and spend some more time in there.”
The Dallas Stars could end up reverting to old line combinations as camp goes along, but Bowness wants to see how these lines progress and if they can generate good chemistry.
Finally, the session between Groups 1 and 2 taking the ice was spent working on the power-play with no penalty killers involved. The Stars cycled through three different power play units and spent much of the 30-minute session practicing breakouts and transitions into the offensive zone when on the man advantage.
The first unit consisted of Benn, Seguin, Radulov, Pavelski, and Klingberg. Gurianov, Hintz, Faksa, Perry, and Heiskanen made up the second unit. The third unit included Janmark, Dowling, Robertson, Lindell, and Johns.
Overall, the Dallas Stars spent the first day of training camp adding new things to their game plan and trying to rev back up to game speed while also adapting to a new normal. With the revised playoff format comes new protocols and procedures intended to keep all NHL players, coaches, and staff involved as safe and healthy as possible in a small timeframe before traveling to the hub cities.
Nine days of camp remain.