With Richards gone, is Eriksson ready to shoulder the load?

The season opener(s) is upon us, and to help preview the home-and-home with the Dallas Stars is ESPNDallas.com’s Mark Stepneski, who discusses last season’s letdown, the departure of Brad Richards and the Stars’ gameplan for the weekend against the Blackhawks.

Bartl: After missing the playoffs on the final day of the season and allowing the Blackhawks to sneak in, has there been any talk around the team about that near miss providing added motivation for this season, or has the team moved on?

Stepneski: I think missing the playoffs for a third straight season is a big motivation. But the sense I get from the team is that this season is kind of a fresh start. There’s a new head coach in Glen Gulutzan and several new players have been added via free agency. Not many in the national media are giving them much of a chance – hardly anyone is picking them to make the playoffs – and that is providing a little extra motivation as well.

Bartl: Losing Brad Richards via free agency obviously is a major blow. Are Loui Eriksson and Mike Ribeiro capable of replacing his production, or is there someone else you think can fill his role?

Stepneski: Ribeiro and Eriksson are two players that will help fill the void. So will Jamie Benn, who is expected to center the second line. He’s a young player the Stars expect to take another step forward this season. There also is Michael Ryder, whom they signed in free agency. They’d like to see Steve Ott chip in some more as well. Brenden Morrow is coming off a career-high 33 goals. Depth scoring from the lower lines, something they’ve been lacking the last couple years, will be key. Sheldon Souray’s shot from the point should help on the power play. Bottom line: They hope the void left by Richards’ departure will be filled by committee.

Bartl: The 95 points were Dallas’ most in the past three seasons. What are some of the positives to build off of from last season to help the Stars reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08?

Stepneski: The play of goaltender Kari Lehtonen was a big positive. He had a very good season and the Stars expect him to take a step forward this season. The progress of Benn was another positive. Morrow is healthy again and looking like the Morrow of a few years ago. They were in a pretty good spot midway through the season and then they got hit hard by injuries and tailed off in the second half. Except for Richards, the core that had that very first half of the season is still here and the belief is they have improved their depth, especially on the lower lines. They now believe they are better equipped to handle the long season, even if injuries hit.

Bartl: That being said, is this a playoff team in your mind?

Stepneski: As you know, the Western Conference will be highly competitive again this season. I expect the Stars to be one of those teams to be in the mix fighting for a playoff spot. It’s a long season and a lot can happen and the difference of whether a team is in or out can come down to a few points, but I do believe they can be a playoff team this season.

Bartl: The Stars went 3-1-0 against the ‘Hawks last season, including a comeback from three goals down in February and a 5-0 blowout win in March. Why was Dallas so successful against Chicago last season, and will they have a similar gameplan heading into this weekend?

Stepneski: I don’t know if there was one formula for those wins. I thought special teams were a pretty big part of those Dallas wins. They were 3-3 on the power play in one of the victories and in the three games they won I believe they were a combined 12-13 on the penalty kill. I thought the Blackhawks were just flat in that 5-0 game.

Bartl: The Blackhawks obviously possess some offensive firepower with Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, etc. What will be the key for the Stars in order to keep the ‘Hawks off the scoreboard on Friday and Saturday?

Stepneski: New Stars coach Glen Gulutzan has put big emphasis on defensive structure since the beginning of training camp, so I am thinking the Stars will need to be on top of that aspect of their game to deal with Chicago’s firepower. Dallas could be down two of their top six defenseman (Nicklas Grossman and Adam Pardy), so it will be a challenge.

Bartl: Any predictions for the two games?

Stepneski: I’ll play it safe and go with a split.

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