The Dallas Stars opened training camp this month exactly one year after they were still playing in the Stanley Cup Final in the NHL bubble in Canada.
In between was another exhausting, condensed season that ended without a return to the playoffs.
"This team has been through so much the last 14 months," coach Rick Bowness said. "The break, they obviously took advantage of it, but also missed playing in the playoffs. They missed being on the ice."
Dallas still has most of its core group from that Stanley Cup Final run in the pandemic-interrupted season that ended with a Game 6 loss to Tampa Bay. Some key players like six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov have had time to get healthy, and the Stars added three-time All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter and former Stanley Cup champion goaltender Braden Holtby.
"We're built to win, and win right now," said Jamie Benn, the Stars captain who went through the playoff run while still recovering from shoulder surgery.
General manager Jim Nill said there is a sense of unfinished business, and reminded players on day one of camp where the Stars had been a year earlier. That was before a 23-19-14 season when their NHL-high shootout/OT losses accounted for exactly one-fourth of their 56 games.
Seguin played through a torn labrum in his hip in the 2020 playoffs before surgery. He scored two goals in his only three games at the end of last season, but didn't feel nearly as good as he does now going into his 12th season.
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"When I came back, I was still missing a lot of explosiveness, a lot of confidence, especially mentally in different situations," he said. "I still was a little more hesitant back then, and now I have that confidence. ... I feel really good."
The 35-year-old Radulov had 12 points in his 11 games last season before surgery for a long-lingering core muscle issue finally got so bad that he couldn't accelerate or skate fast without pain. Like Seguin, Radulov is feeling the best he has in a long time.
Veteran goalie Ben Bishop, who has a career .921 save percentage, missed most of the playoffs and all of last season because of a right knee issue that twice required surgery. The three-time Vezina Trophy finalist was back for the start of camp and said he "absolutely" anticipates playing this season, though it is still unclear when.
Anton Khudobin and 22-year-old Jake Oettinger, who made his NHL debut in the 2020 playoffs, are both back after splitting time last season. Holtby, the goalie for 2018 Stanley Cup champion Washington, signed a one-year deal.
YOUNG AND OLD DEFENSE
The Stars kept 22-year-old restricted free agent Miro Heiskanen by making him one of the NHL's highest-paid defensemen ($67.6 million, eight-year contract). They then signed the 36-year-old Suter to a $14.6 million, four-year deal.
"This team is primed," Suter said. "We have a chance to win. With the young guys, the older guys, the leadership here, the coaching staff, the front office staff, it just seems like everybody's in it together. I've never been in an organization that has this good vibe like this."
Dallas has one of the league's top group of defenders and is also returning veterans John Klingberg and Esa Lindell.
ROBERTSON AND ROOPE
Young forwards Dennis Robertson and point-a-game player Roope Hintz both got time on the first line last season with Seguin and Radulov out.
Hintz had 43 points in 41 games while dealing all season with a lingering groin injury since the 2020 playoffs, and had surgery in May. Robertson was the runner-up in the NHL rookie of the year voting after 17 goals and 28 assists.
Robertson has a much different perspective now, trying to be a big player on the team instead of trying to make the team.
"I'm trying to embrace that and trying to be confident in that," he said.
EMBARK ON A TRIP
Dallas opens the season Oct. 14 at the New York Rangers, the first of four road games in six days, before the home opener Oct. 22 against the Los Angeles Kings. The regular season is set to end with a four-game homestand.