NHL Preview: Dallas Stars

Everything’s bigger in Texas—and that goes for expectations as well. Tyler Seguin can’t wait to surpass them.

Problem Child. Immature. Underachiever. Tyler Seguin had quite the summer; got called a lot of things. It happens when the Boston Bruins cite “off-ice” issues among the reasons they decide to ship a 21-year-old future star and the 2010 second-overall draft pick out of town. After all, you don’t trade the kid who led the team in scoring two seasons ago just because his play dipped during a shortened regular season or because he was relegated to the third line during a heartbreaking Stanley Cup playoff run. There has to be more to the story.

Seguin knows all this. He’s sitting in the stands at an arena, wearing a black T-shirt that says “You’ll figure it out”—quite appropriate, really—across the back. The way he talks about his friends, his sisters and his tattoos, you could be talking to any twenty-something. Except for reminders of the microscope he’s under. “There are definitely mistakes and turns that I wish I didn’t make,” Seguin says, still sweating after a weight-room session. “But,” he adds, “people do exaggerate. And they can exaggerate all they want, start rumours and let them fly, that’s fine by me. Anyone asks me a question, I’ll answer it straight.”

The speedy, highlight-reel goal scorer from Brampton, Ont., has answered a lot of questions since that July 4 deal. No, he says he didn’t tweet a homophobic slur; his account was hacked and has since been shut down. No, he didn’t see the trade coming; he’d just bought a house 20 minutes outside of Boston. And yes, even if the news of the Bruins trading him was “a little depressing,” even if it ruined his day at the beach with friends and his chocolate lab Marshall, even if he’s leaving a Cup contender for a team that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2008—yes, even with that—the move is a positive one. “I think there’s a much bigger personal opportunity in Dallas,” says Seguin, “for a fresh start.”

Dallas is full of new. After finishing seven points out of the playoffs last season despite the efforts of their best player—massive yet agile goaltender Kari Lehtonen—you’d barely recognize this version of the Stars. It’s not just the revamped logo or the “victory green” uniforms devoid of gold trim; Seguin was part of a massive off-season overhaul. Lindy Ruff, a veteran of 15 years on Buffalo’s bench, will now hammer home his two-way play mantra for a team that will struggle with defence. Newly installed GM Jim Nill, who owns four Stanley Cup rings from his nearly 20 years with the Red Wings organization, hired Ruff in part because he’s looking to establish stability on a team that in five years has had three different coaches, declared bankruptcy and changed ownership. This edition of the Dallas Stars is young, poised for growing pains and a struggle to make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. But you have to like the look of the future.

In gaining Seguin, the Stars did give up a lot in Loui Eriksson, a virtual lock for 30 goals and 70 points. With the added exits of Jaromir Jagr, Derek Roy and Brenden Morrow, Dallas signed leadership presences in former Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff and 39-year-old Sergei Gonchar, a skilled power-play quarterback who will provide firepower from the point. Gonchar is coming off a 27-point season in Ottawa that put him 16th among all NHL D-men and signalled he’s definitely still got it, though defensively he’s a bit of a pylon. Still, Gonchar’s experience will help out a blueline that includes offensive-minded Alex Goligoski, speedy and reliable Trevor Daley and 22-year-old Brenden Dillon, who sees the ice well and is coming off a breakout season during which he played all 48 games.

Up front, the Stars will be a lot younger—and a lot more exciting—with the addition of 18-year-old Valeri Nichushkin. The top rookie in the KHL last season and the No. 10 pick in June, he’s a six-foot-four right-winger with a knack for finding the back of the net and play-making confidence beyond his years. The fact Nichushkin hails from Chelyabinsk, the same Russian hometown as Gonchar, can only ease the adjustment. Cody Eakin, the 22-year-old Winnipegger with fire-engine-red hair, was a pleasant surprise last year, proving he’s a solid two-way player capable of being a top-six guy at either centre or wing. And the Stars will count on added production from six-foot-four right-winger Alex Chiasson, the 22-year-old from Montreal who made his debut for seven days this past April and put up a point a game.

Dallas’s top point-getter and new captain, Jamie Benn, is also on the heels of a career-best season. With the added presence of Seguin, who’s moving back to his natural position at centre, Benn can shift back to left wing. The 24-year-old is coming off a 33-point season playing out of position, because Dallas needed a big body up the middle and he’s fast with a solid frame. But Benn is at his best when he’s tearing up the wing and creating opportunities. He’ll continue to prove he’s a franchise player, and improve on his 63-point career best two seasons ago. “Jamie’s at that point where it’s kind of time for him to take over the team,” Nill says.

Seguin studied Benn on video this summer, and he’s excited about the prospect of their pairing on the No. 1 line. He also moved into the same building as Benn, a downtown two-level loft with three bedrooms and its own movie theatre. “It’s pretty cool,” he says. The transition back to centre won’t be easy for Seguin, and in limited time there last season, he didn’t look comfortable in the defensive end—a big reason he fell out of favour in Boston. “It’ll take me a little time to get used to,” he says.

Nill knows that. He’s not asking for the kid to be a leader right away, either, despite the fact Seguin has been through more in his three-year NHL career (won the Cup, lost the Cup, got traded) than most ever will. Easing Seguin’s transition to the Lone Star State is that unlike Boston, where most of his teammates had families to go home to, he’s surrounded by players his age. “They can go out and take care of each other,” Nill says. It’s exactly what Seguin needs. “Anytime I have glimpses of trying to act like a normal 21-year-old, people are going to criticize me,” he says. “I understand that.”

Franchise Player. The Future. All-Star. Seguin could be all of these in Dallas. For now, he’s looking forward to getting back on the ice. “I don’t try to over-think it like all the media does,” he says, with a wry smile. “Just kidding.” Seguin isn’t a normal 21-year-old, except in all the ways he is. Right now this big brother is worried that his 18-year-old sister Candace, a good hockey player, won’t take advantage of Ivy League scholarship opportunities. “If she can just focus on school,” he says, “she could bear down a little bit more. I hope she reads this.” Was Tyler the type to bear down in school? He smirks, then laughs. “No.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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