On July 1st, Jim Nill reached back and pulled the trigger in obtaining two essential pieces to the Dallas Stars’ forward group. In a matter of just two hours on Free Agent Frenzy Day, the Stars’ General Manager added perennial scorer Jason Spezza and ultra talented winger Ales Hemsky, transforming a questionable top six forward group into one of the most dangerous one-two scoring punches in the league.
Today, we will sit back and discuss what we might expect to see in terms of potential top six forward combinations. Lindy Ruff has a myriad of different scoring options to employ, so let’s take a look at possible combinations of top trios that may elicit the most production.
We can start by getting one thing straight. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin will not be separated. The two combined together to form one of the greatest scoring duos in the league last season. Both Benn and Seguin, having registered 79 and 84 points respectively, established themselves as cornerstones on the Stars’ top line. That will not change.
The two elite young forwards, while carrying different scoring approaches, have an outstanding ability to find open teammates. Both Seguin (11th) and Benn (13th) were in the top 15 in assists in the NHL this past season.
Despite possessing such top-notch playmaking ability, the two players can adequately be labeled as true goal scorers. They have an uncanny capability to terrorize opposing goaltenders with their tantalizing wrist shots. They’ll pick a corner off the rush, in the slot, or off a one-timer. The Stars’ two leading scorers carry a shoot-first mentality and in order to build off such excellent seasons, they need to be surrounded by a player highly capable of feeding them the biscuit on a regular basis.
This past season, players such as Rich Peverley, Valeri Nichushkin, and former Star Alex Chiasson, were effective at times on the top line, but were just unable to find true chemistry with the pair. Nichushkin spent the bulk of the season up on the line, despite never really looking comfortable. Instead, Lindy Ruff just cycled back to his revolving door, never finding the right fit.
Enter Ales Hemsky.
When acquired on July 1, many believed the Stars’ had signed the Czech playmaker to compliment recent acquisition Jason Spezza and build off the budding chemistry the two formed in Ottawa following last year’s trade deadline.
However, we learned late last month from CBC’s Elliotte Friedman that Hemsky might be used elsewhere.
“The Stars’ plan for Ales Hemsky is to start him with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. “They are shooters,” GM Jim Nill said. “We need a passer with them.”
Hemsky seems like a perfect fit for Seguin and Benn. He has the elite speed to not only be able to skate with the duo, but he may even be faster (Check out highlight video here). He has remarkable hands and possesses a playmaking ability that has allowed him to flourish since he entered the league back in 2002. He might be the highly desired final piece to the top line puzzle and it will be interesting to see if the trio can come together and form immediate chemistry. But as we sit patiently awaiting training camp, it sure seems that Hemsky’s skill set fits perfectly with the top scoring duo of Benn and Seguin.
Scoring line 1A, check. Scoring line 1B?
Let’s now turn our attention to the conundrum that is the Stars’ second line, also known as the line of Jason Spezza, also known as scoring line 1B. Hemsky’s projected arrival on the top line shifts 19-year old Valeri Nichushkin down to the team’s second scoring line. This move might just be exactly what the second-year Russian needs to break out and build upon a very impressive 32-point rookie season. Spezza’s first-class playmaking ability may help take Nichushkin’s game to the next level if the two can build some chemistry right from training camp.
Nichushkin’s place in the top six comes as no surprise at all, but the real overlying question lies in who is going to fill up the final spot in the top six, the second line left wing?
I’m glad you asked. Let me introduce my solution: Erik Cole.
As the excitement explodes this offseason due to such welcomed additions, many are overlooking the former 35-goal scorer of just two years ago. Despite being scratched for three of the Stars’ six playoff games following questionable performances, the 35 year-old winger still tied for 4th on the squad with 16 goals last season. He’s a bull on the ice. Elite speed and acceleration, an ability to finish and strength on the walls characterize Cole’s game and he may just be a great fit playing alongside Spezza and Nichuskin.
In addition, Cole will be out for vengeance, looking to rebound from his trips to the press box during the playoffs. On top of that, Cole enters a contract year. The winger will be looking to prove to not only the Stars, but to other teams in the league that he still has plenty of gas in the tank to be a legitimate NHL top six option.
I think Cole has a lot to prove once September rolls around and I expect him to bounce back from his ugly finish last season. He could be quite an asset to Spezza, creating opportunities off his and Nichushkin’s strong play in the corners and speed off the rush. I’d definitely pencil him as the top candidate to get time in the final top six spot and we will see if he can take advantage if given the opportunity.
If Cole can’t grab the spot on the second line, Dallas still has plenty of options in waiting including Colton Sceviour, promising prospect Brett Ritchie, and Rich Peverley.
Peverley is probably your top second line option with the exception of Cole, but his impending health status remains in question. We surely hope Peverley can return to his playing form, and if he does he will be a regular contributor, but there are serious doubts. Sceviour is a strong option as well, picking up eight goals and four assists in just 26 games with the big club this past season. He proved to be very capable of playing anywhere in the lineup and he will definitely be an option for the spot. Lastly, Ritchie shined in his rookie season down in the AHL with Texas and may very well be the leading candidate from the AHL to get a callup should an injury in the top six occur.
As you can see, the top six forward group has come a long way in just a short amount of time. Lindy Ruff is fortunate to now have plenty of different options in crafting his top two scoring lines, but there are still some significant questions regarding the group. Only time will tell as to what these potential line combinations may end up being, but as of now I believe the following configuration will create a well-balanced and dangerous attack.
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Ales Hemsky
Erik Cole – Jason Spezza – Valeri Nichushkin
What says you?
Keep a look out for next week’s column on the other half of the forward equation, the bottom six group.