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Stars rising quickly in the loaded West

9/8/2014
Valeri Nichuskin appears ready to take a big step in his second year in the NHL, says Stars GM Jim Nill. Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

In a league where one of the most common refrains is that it’s next to impossible to acquire top-end centers, Jim Nill picked up Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza just over a year on the job as general manager in Dallas.

Mercy.

No wonder the Stars are a trendy pick ahead of this season to continue their onward climb in the tough Western Conference.

"I think Dallas is ready to take a leap in with the big boys,’’ one Eastern Conference GM told ESPN.com last week.

"It's no surprise to anyone in the Western Conference that watched Jim Nill and his staff quietly weave his magic in Detroit ... that the same culture of excellence is evolving quickly in Dallas through solid drafting and astute trades and FA signings,’’ another rival Western Conference team executive told ESPN.com via email.

"Another contender in the West."

The forward combinations may very well change, but for now, the thought of having Seguin reconnect his magic with stud winger Jamie Benn and having Spezza and fellow newcomer Ales Hemsky continue what they began late last season in Ottawa certainly provides Dallas with an awesome top-two line attack.

Then again, the Stars weren’t alone in stocking up in the West. The Blues got better, the Ducks got better, and the list goes on as the Western Conference arms race continues.

"That was the message to the players at the end of the year last season, 'We've got to get better,’’’ Nill told ESPN.com last week. "I went through every team in the conference, and they’re all getting better. So we have to get better, too. With that comes expectations, if you want to be a winner, if you have to learn how to deal with that.’’

But it’s all good, Nill said. It’s a good kind of pressure. And the market in Dallas has responded after the Stars made it into the playoffs last season for the first time since 2008 and followed up with the big Spezza trade.

"Our season-ticket base is up. I know our season-ticket and marketing people have had a great summer. There’s a nice buzz down here,’’ Nill said.

Stars spokesman Tom Holy said the team right now has gone from about 6,000 season tickets last season to more than 10,000, and the hope is that they can use this month with camp opening to push that up to 12,000.

Those fans should see an improved Valeri Nichushkin, the 19-year-old Russian who electrified at times in his rookie NHL season and now has an important year under his belt.

"I think Nichushkin is going to be even better,” said Nill, not one for hyperbole. "Last year was just a brand-new year for him, for a kid who’s 18 to come over here and go through the NHL not knowing the language, the rinks. He stayed here all summer, trained here, his English got better, so I think you’ll see a big step from him.’’

Where the critics wonder about the Stars’ viability as true contender is on the back end. On paper, the blue-line corps doesn’t stack up with Los Angeles, Chicago, Anaheim or St. Louis.

And yet, that’s exactly the area where Nill feels much improvement is coming.

"I’m excited about our young defensemen, we have a group of young defensemen who won the Calder Cup, I’m excited to see what they can do,’’ said Nill.

Nill is referring to the likes of Patrick Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrki Jokipakka -- all AHL champions last season -- plus John Klingberg is coming over this season from Sweden.

"We think we’ve added some depth to our back end,” said Nill. "I’m looking forward to the steps all these guys make.’’

The Stars allowed 30.4 shots per game last season, a number that needs to go down; they were 17th in goals against per game at 2.72 -- OK, but not great -- and that’s despite super-solid goaltending from Kari Lehtonen, who sported a .919 save percentage while facing the second-most shots (1,888, behind only Semyon Varlamov) of any goalie in the NHL.

Like Varlamov in Colorado, a goalie can help mask issues on defense by standing on his head. It’s just that it’s not a recipe for long-term sustainability. The Stars need better play from their back end this season.

If the kids on defense don’t make the kind of step the Stars hope, one suspects that’s where Nill will focus ahead of the trade deadline. But that’s looking way down the road.

There’s lots of hockey to be played, and while there’s excitement for the Stars, leave it to Nill to also bring into perspective.

"People forget, we’re all two or three wins from being a top team and we’re all two or three losses from being out of the playoffs,” Nill said. "Nashville only had two fewer wins than us last year, Winnipeg just three or four. There’s not much difference from being in or out of the playoffs.’’

No question the parity in this league makes many of us overestimate at times the reasons why some teams get in and some don’t when the reality, as Nill suggests, is that a hair separates so many of the NHL clubs. Still, in trying to get that sliver of separation, acquiring two stud centers over 13 months is one heck of a way to go about it.

Not sure the Stars have what it takes on the blue line to truly contend for an NHL championship yet, but they will be must-watch TV all year long with that offense. You can bank on that.