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Column: NHL observations: Dallas gains momentum with revamped roster

The Dallas Stars came within a goal of reaching the Western Conference finals last season, losing to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in double overtime in Game 7 of the second round, but general manager Jim Nill was smart enough to realize that standing still would lead to losing ground.

Out went some veterans, notably center Jason Spezza and defensemen Marc Methot and Ben Lovejoy, who became free agents. Onetime top prospect Valeri Nichushkin’s contract was bought out. In came former Ducks star Corey Perry and former San Jose captain Joe Pavelski. There were a lot of moving pieces. A road-heavy early schedule and increased expectations on their young players placed additional obstacles in their path to start this season.

They’re still evolving, but they seem to be hitting stride. A 2-1 home victory over the Ducks on Thursday gave them a three-game winning streak and reinforced an identity based on goaltending, tight defense and grit. “I think we’re going to be a hard-working team and be a heavy team down low. Create chaos down low,” Perry told reporters in Dallas.

Perry and Pavelski haven’t been big contributors yet, but Nill expected they’d need time to get acclimated, though for different reasons. Perry underwent major knee surgery in September 2018 and returned ahead of schedule in early February but had only six goals and 10 points in 31 games. After the Ducks bought him out, it was a low-risk move for Nill to sign Perry to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, with up to $1.75 million in bonuses. The abrasive right wing was injured during training camp and has played only five games, contributing a goal and three points. All came in one game.

“If you back up a year and a half ago, he blew his knee out and those injuries, you don’t come back within a year and be the same player you are,” Nill said in a phone conversation last week. “I’m a big fan of Corey Perry. Any time you can add a player with that resume — MVP of the league, Stanley Cup, world championships, [Olympic] gold medals — it can change your room. He’s come in and done that.

“He’s been one of our better players. He’s got that great knack of he gets other players involved in the action, he’s always on the puck, he makes the right decisions with the puck. We added one more guy to our top six and really changed the dynamics of our top players, which is good.”

Pavelski had two goals and three points in his first 12 games. “Joe and I talked when we signed him and I said, ‘Joe, this is a big change for you. After 12 years somewhere, been the captain, there’s going to be an adjustment period,’ and I think now he’s realizing that,” Nill said. “But I think we’re really starting to see the real Joe Pavelski. … He’s coming around.”

Another addition that has had a positive impact is hiring former Kings coach John Stevens as an assistant to coach Jim Montgomery. Stevens was more effective with the Kings as an assistant coach overseeing the defense than as a head coach, though he didn’t have much to work with when he was in charge. Stevens and Montgomery were minor-league teammates and are longtime friends.

“It was a chance to add another experienced guy to our staff,” Nill said. “Monty, it’s only his second year, and I have to give him credit. He said, ‘I want to surround myself with the best people I can.’ A lot of times, coaches might go the opposite way, but he’s like, ‘I want to add guys that are going to make me better and push me,’ and, in John, that’s what we’ve got.”

They’ve got an interesting mix, one they hope will be energized by youngsters Roope Hintz (six goals in 12 games) and 20-year-old defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who was averaging a hefty 24 minutes and 21 seconds of ice time. They didn’t stand still, and they’ll learn in the coming months if they moved forward.

And the NHL scoring leader is …

Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson. Really.

Through Friday’s action Carlson had five goals and 21 points in 13 games. He had 20 points in his first 11 games, the second-fewest games a defenseman has taken to reach that mark. Only Paul Coffey, who had 20 points for Pittsburgh in the first 10 games of the 1988-89 season, did it faster than Carlson. Bobby Orr also scored 20 points in the first 11 games of a season, for Boston in 1974-75.

All of which leads to repeating a suggestion made here (and elsewhere) before: The NHL should create a separate trophy for the highest-scoring defenseman, so those who put defense first won’t be overshadowed in Norris Trophy voting by Carlson, San Jose’s Brent Burns — who led defensemen in scoring last season with 83 points — or San Jose’s Erik Karlsson, who has a tenuous acquaintance with defense. Call it the Bobby Orr Trophy or Paul Coffey Cup, but please do it soon.

Another defenseman makes the score sheet

The New York Islanders have had some pretty good defensemen over the years, but Nick Leddy on Friday became the first in team history to score on a penalty shot. It was his second goal of the game and the winner in a 4-1 victory over Ottawa that stretched the Islanders’ win streak to six. “He’s such a great skater. He’s the fastest guy we have on the team. It looks so effortless,” coach Barry Trotz told NHL.com.

Hawerchuk fighting his biggest battle

Hall of Fame center Dale Hawerchuk, who overcame his smallish size to finish with 100 points or more in a season six times, has been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Canada’s TSN reported Hawerchuk, 56, is getting chemotherapy and took a leave of absence from coaching Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League. “You don’t have anything without your health, your family and your friends and sometimes we underrate that,” Hawerchuk told TSN. “An illness like this can definitely put things in perspective.”

Here’s wishing the best to Hawerchuk, whose class is as great as his skills were.

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