If there were an "offseason champions" banner passed out every season, the 2014 edition might belong to the Dallas Stars.
A couple of other teams, perhaps most notably the New York Islanders, could stake a claim to this fictitious honor as well, but the Stars became a media darling in short order when general manager Jim Nill traded for Jason Spezza, signed Ales Hemsky and retained Vernon Fiddler.
The Stars had a tremendous offseason in 2013 as well, first landing Nill and coach Lindy Ruff, and then adding Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, Valeri Nichushkin and Shawn Horcoff. Dallas has gone from mediocre to playoff team to potential Stanley Cup contender in two summers, and did it without needing a full-blown "rebuilding" phase.
Expectations are going to be higher in Dallas in 2014-15, but the talent level is as well. The Stars will be one of the most fascinating teams to monitor in the forthcoming campaign.
Here is the projected lineup for the Stars in 2014-15:
Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin made magic together, quickly becoming one of the top duos in the League. Valeri Nichushkin's birth certificate may have prevented him from going a little higher in the 2013 NHL Draft, but he looked like a future star as a rookie.
The trio of Antoine Roussel, Ryan Garbutt and Cody Eakin formed a nice second line for the Stars and could be one of the top third units in the NHL if someone else can play with Spezza and Hemsky. Veteran Erik Cole seems like a good bet to get the first chance to play with the ex-Ottawa Senators, but Colton Sceviour or highly-regarded prospect Brett Ritchie could slide in there as well.
Fiddler then would go from being a decent third-line center to an above-average fourth-line pivot. Rich Peverley's status is unclear, but he is trying to work his way back after collapsing on the bench during a game in March and having heart surgery.
Though the Dallas forward corps looks downright terrifying, here is the "pump the brakes on that Stanley Cup run" segment. Alex Goligoski had a strong 2013-14 season. He and Trevor Daley are a solid, underrated defense paring.
Brenden Dillon is one of the better young, physical defensemen in the NHL. His hits per game dropped in 2013-14, in part because the Stars had the puck more.
The problem for the Stars is those three players are not on the same level as the top three in places like Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis. It's the biggest weakness on the Dallas roster.
Jordie Benn, Kevin Connauton and Jamie Oleksiak can be solid depth players. Sergei Gonchar looks like he's near the end of a great career and could be the odd man out if he struggles, as he did at times last season.
Get prepared for plenty "will the Stars add another top-four defenseman" reading material.
Kari Lehtonen struggled to stay healthy during his time with the Atlanta Thrashers, and that was part of what prevented him from reaching his vast potential. But he's played in at least 71 percent of Dallas' games in each of the past four seasons and has missed more than five games because of injury just once.
Lehtonen has a .918 save percentage in his four seasons with the Stars. That is tied for 13th-best in the NHL in that span among goalies with at least 100 games played. The others at .918 include Jonathan Quick, Semyon Varlamov and Mike Smith. Lehtonen has actually played in 13 more games than Quick and faced 1,154 more shots while producing the same save percentage.
He has almost no postseason track record to speak of, but Lehtonen's resume is better than some lingering critics think, and he's good enough to help the Stars on a deep playoff run.
*Restricted free agent
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: STARS
Undervalued: Alex Goligoski -- The defenseman had 42 points and 141 shots on goal last season, more than enough to put him back on the fantasy map. Now, with Jason Spezza joining a power-play unit that already features Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, Dallas hopes to improve its 15.9 conversion percentage with the man advantage (23rd in NHL). Goligoski will have every opportunity to score 20-plus power-play points for the first time since he had 24 in 2010-11, especially considering Sergei Gonchar is on the decline.
Overvalued: Ales Hemsky -- Hemsky's connection with Spezza during his 20-game tenure in Ottawa is well-documented; they had common points on 11 team goals over that span. Those two will reunite in Dallas, but their production last season was based on a small sample size. Hemsky is a three-time 60-plus point producer, but hasn't totaled more than 43 in a season since 2008-09 (66) or covered shots or penalty minutes consistently in recent seasons. He's worth a flyer in the 13th round or later if you own Spezza, but don't reach for him on his own any earlier.
Sleeper: Antoine Roussel -- At the very least, Roussel should be a category specialist as a depth scorer who collects penalty minutes at a high rate. But Roussel has a chance to land a top-nine spot, meaning he could find himself in even rarer fantasy air. Roussel was the only player League-wide with 25-plus points (29) and 150-plus PIMs (209), so any potential for greater offensive production makes Roussel a can't-miss selection in the final round of your draft.
Follow Pete Jensen on Twitter: @NHLJensen
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer
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