Dallas Stars Ramping Up Through First Week Of Training Camp

DALLAS, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 05: Ben Bishop #30 of the Dallas Stars takes to the ice during pregame warm up before taking on the Colorado Avalanche at American Airlines Center on November 05, 2019 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 05: Ben Bishop #30 of the Dallas Stars takes to the ice during pregame warm up before taking on the Colorado Avalanche at American Airlines Center on November 05, 2019 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Five practices down, five practices to go. The Dallas Stars are well underway with their summer training camp as the NHL pushes towards a Return To Play. But with camp halfway through and the Stars a week away from heading for Edmonton, where does the team stand?

When the Dallas Stars took the ice at Comerica Center in Frisco on Monday morning, there was no telling how it would pan out.

It had been 124 days since the team last skated together in a formal practice setting. Instead of spending the month of March wrapping up the 2019-20 regular season and digging into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from April to June, the NHL (and the rest of professional sports) had paused its season on March 12 due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

But when the players and coaching staff reconvened on the ice to kick off Phase 3 of the NHL’s Return To Play Plan, the focus shifted back to Stars hockey. How much rust would need to be shaken off? Would interim head coach Rick Bowness have new ideas and strategies to strengthen the team’s offense and increase scoring production? What would the team focus on the most in their two weeks of training camp before heading to Edmonton to gear up for the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

What would the Dallas Stars look like after an unexpected four-month break? No one knew for sure. All we knew was that the team did not have long to get back up to game speed and prepare for meaningful postseason games. To be exact, they only had 13 days, 10 of which Rick Bowness had decided to fill with practice.

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And just like that, five of those practice days are complete. The Stars are halfway through training camp and one week away from flying to Alberta.

It’s gone by rather quickly. And while that may sound like a cause for uncertainty and caution when it comes to setting expectations, they aren’t alone. Each of the 24 teams returning to play are in the same boat. A lot has to be covered and there’s not a lot of time to do so.

That’s why the Stars have broken things down piece by piece over the first five sessions. While trying to ramp players back up to their peak levels of energy and conditioning, they are also attempting to focus on the team’s various aspects.

In addition to reemphasizing and reinforcing what the team did well prior to the pause, they are also trying to polish the rough edges that contributed to their struggles during the 2019-20 regular season. But instead of trying to do it all at once, they are segmenting it.

It’s a delicate balance, but one that Bowness wants to find.

“We’re trying to break down the game a little bit in increments,” Bowness said on a Zoom call on Tuesday. “We’re trying to work on something specific every day.”

And so, through the first five days, the Stars have zoned in on a little bit of everything. Five-on-five offense, puck possession, offensive zone time, generating scoring chances off the rush, power play breakouts and zone entries, penalty kill, one-on-ones and two-on-twos, physicality, defensive structure. The list goes on. Each component is worked on in an effort to make the Dallas Stars as well-rounded and prepared as possible by the time the round-robin begins.

That preparation took another step forward on Thursday evening when the Stars shuffled their training camp groups. Group 1 is now comprised the 22 players that ended the 2019-20 season on the Dallas roster plus Joel Hanley to fill in for Roman Polak, who opted out of the Return To Play. Group 2, on the other hand, is the prospects that are also known as “black aces” come playoff time.

“We have to get our team together and practice as much as we can,” Bowness said about the shuffling. “If we hadn’t made the progress that we saw or the conditioning that we saw and we liked, we probably would have kept it going for a little longer. We liked what we saw and we want to get our team together.”

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And now that camp is halfway over, it’s all still a work in progress.

But progress is being made.

The Stars have begun looking into fixing their scoring woes by activating their defense in the offensive zone. The coaching staff shuffled the defensive pairings for camp, putting Jamie Oleksiak alongside Miro Heiskanen and linking Andrej Sekera and Stephen Johns together to complement the top pairing of Esa Lindell and John Klingberg.

“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.”

The hope is that these pairings will not only provide the Dallas Stars with more balance, but also allow the right side of the blue line (Klingberg, Heiskanen, Johns) to get involved in the offensive zone more often in an effort to maximize puck possession and scoring chances.

“That’s three very good pairings with really good offense on that right side,” Bowness said. “There’s good balance there and we like the way they look. The big thing with those pairings is you’re not so worried about match-ups. We can play any one of those three pairings against any line in the league. We like the balance.”

With another defenseman in the rush acting as a fourth forward of sorts, Dallas should have the ability to sustain more zone time and opportunities at the net.

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  • In addition, the Stars also spent part of Friday focusing on battle drills in the corners. It started as a one-on-one, before turning into a two-on-two, and finally a three-on-three. The offense dug in and tried to create scoring chances from deep in the zone, while the defense tried to shut them down and eliminate any chances at the net.

    More often than not, the defense won the battle. The results proved that even after spending the first three days of training camp focusing on offense, defense is still the backbone and identity of this team.

    There has also been a lot of focus on special teams through the first five skates. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the Dallas Stars spent the window of time between Groups 1 and 2 by working on their power play and penalty kill.

    The units had a sense of familiarity to them. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Joe Pavelski, and John Klingberg made up the first power play unit. Denis Gurianov, Roope Hintz, Radek Faksa, Corey Perry, and Miro Heiskanen composed the second unit. And on the penalty kill, the Stars used a mixed bag of forwards and defenders, though Jason Dickinson, Blake Comeau, Esa Lindell, and Andrej Sekera always took the ice first against the top power play unit.

    They focused on breakouts and zone entries through the first few sessions and switched over to a special teams scrimmage on Saturday morning. The second unit tallied a couple of goals and the top unit got one as well, though Blake Comeau sprang on a loose puck during a kill and set up Taylor Fedun for a shorthanded goal on the rebound.

    Throughout the special teams sessions, the Stars have also shown a high level of competitiveness, enthusiasm, and energy.

    “What we liked out of that whole [special teams session] is that it got the competitive juices going,” Bowness said on Tuesday. “You could tell that the penalty killers were excited when they frustrated the power play, and the power play got really excited when it scored a goal. We’re going to feed off of that energy.”

    And while Dallas has spent a great deal of time working on its game plan and efficiency at even strength and on special teams, there is still the need to ramp up the physicality. But more of that should come out in the scheduled scrimmage on Sunday morning.

    “We’re going to have to get some physical play in practice to get the intensity up,” Bowness added.

    That scrimmage should be very telling for how much the first five days of training camp have sunk in for this Dallas Stars team. Can they apply all of the new strategies without missing a beat? Will it translate into more scoring chances and offensive zone time as hoped? How will the special teams units look?

    And what about the lines? Will the new top line of Denis Gurianov, Roope Hintz, and Tyler Seguin be able to turn their inherent speed into high-danger chances? Can the Jamie Benn, Jason Dickinson, and Corey Perry control the puck and ramp up possession time?

    All of these questions should be answered in some form or fashion over the final five sessions. But as of now, the Dallas Stars are halfway through Phase 3. They have gone over a lot in addition to working their way back to game shape and game speed.

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    “You can see that the rust is coming off and the chemistry is coming back,” Bowness said.

    We’ll see what session six and a scrimmage has in store for the Stars on Sunday.