CEDAR PARK, Texas — The opening of Stars training camp was a lot like the first day of school Thursday.
New principal Pete DeBoer set down some rules and explained his expectations for the upcoming year.
New kids like Mason Marchment and Nils Lundkvist got to know their new classmates.
And upperclassmen like Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski and Tyler Seguin tried to help out the younger students while still tending to their own assignments.
It was a pretty exciting return for everyone at HEB Center.
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“It was great. It was great energy, we got a lot done,” said DeBoer, who was hired in the summer as the team’s new head coach and given a four-year contract. “They tried to implement some things we’re starting to talk about, which for the first day I thought was excellent. There was a lot of good stuff.”
DeBoer has a history of coaching a puck possession game, and the Stars have been middle-of-the-pack in that area. The past three seasons in Vegas have been plus-4.5, plus-5.4 and plus-5.2 in shot differential, placing them in the top five in the league each season.
Pavelski, who played for DeBoer for four seasons in San Jose, said the key will be transitioning to a new style, but doing it quickly and confidently.
“I think just an understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Pavelski, who led the Stars in scoring last season. “It’s not just one or two guys going. It’s all five guys on the ice, playing a little bit quicker in certain areas, stretching areas of the game out. Certain little areas and details that we’re trying to accomplish out there that he sets up for us.
“I think that understanding allows you to be a little bit quicker and allows better support, at times.”
The trend in the NHL is to a faster more aggressive game, and that has opened the door for younger players to step in. Dallas already has trusted players like Miro Heiskanen23, Jason Robertson, 23, and Roope Hintz25, to take over a huge part of the core of the team, and this season we could see big steps forward from Lundkvist, 23, Jacob Peterson23, Thomas Harley21, and Ty Dellandrea22.
In fact, the Stars could actually open the door to a couple of 19-year-olds Wyatt Johnston and Logan Stankoven if they play well enough during the exhibition season. That’s the exciting part of camp this year, and players said they could feel that from the start.
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Benn, 33, was on a line with Johnston on the first day.
“It was great,” Benn said of the assignment. “You can already tell that he is well beyond his years. Smart player, sees the ice well, and is not afraid to make plays. It is fun to see and great to be alongside him.”
That sort of discovery makes the new year energetic. Dallas made the playoffs as a wildcard team last season and lost in seven games in the first round to Calgary. They would like to place higher in the standings this season and get a better seed in the postseason.
“The last years we started a little bit slow, and then we chased a little bit and were in the wild card,” said the defenseman. Esa Lindell. “That’s something we don’t want. We want to be in the top three (in the division). I thought we played really well defensively last year, and now if we improve the offense, I think it’s going to make an impact. “
Getting the defensemen involved in the game and increasing puck possession were two aspects of the practice Thursday, and that will continue throughout the year. DeBoer said his history is to practice with pace and create an environment where players think fast and play fast.
“We spent a lot of time on breakouts today,” DeBoer said. “I think it starts there for us. If we can get out of our own zone cleaner and more often with better spacing and more possession, I think it sets up the rest of our game.”
The preseason will go quickly. Dallas will have an intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday and then will play exhibition games Monday and Tuesday. The roster will get cut down quickly and then the real battle for positions will get heated up.
Robertson is out as he has yet to sign a new contract, so the top line was broken up in practice. DeBoer said the coaches also wanted to look at a few things because now is the time to do that.
“It’s an initial look at some guys together,” DeBoer said of lines like Pavelski with Seguin and Peterson, as well as Hintz with Marchment and Denis Gurianov. “This is the time when you can really experiment with different things. As the season gets going, it gets tougher to just throw stuff at the wall and hope something sticks.”
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.