During his introductory press conference back in June, new Dallas Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan repeated a mantra-he wanted the 2011-12 Stars to be much tougher to play against than they had been in recent years.
Gulutzan has only been on the job for several months but with the signing of players like seasoned veteran Radek Dvorak, center Jake Dowell who brings energy and aggression to the ice as well as a knack for doing the little things that are necessary to any team's success, face-off and penalty kill specialist Vernon Fiddler along with big and physical defenseman Sheldon Souray, brought in to beef up the club at the blue line, it's clear that Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk made those signings with that specific goal in mind.
To their credit, the Stars fared well in preseason play, losing only once. But on Friday night at the American Airlines Center, the puck will officially drop on the NHL regular season against 2009 Stanley Cup champion Chicago.
How much tougher will this club be to play against once the games start counting? Well, that's anyone's guess but if the early returns are any indication, the Stars figure to be far from an easy out this season for any foe.
But according to their coach, becoming a tougher foe is something that remains a work in progress.
"We're getting there for sure," Gulutzan said. "The players have embraced it a little bit. It's not always in-your-face hockey with the cheap stuff or the dirty stuff. It's details in being a team that other teams find hard to deal with and it's not fun to play this way. That's what we're trying to get across to our guys. That's how we're going to have to win, by being hard to play against and using everybody to get that done."
Stars center Steve Ott, who is being asked to take on a bit of a more offensive role under the new regime, is already seeing signs of his club being a tougher foe.
"I think if you look at our lineup and critique it, every single line has someone extremely hard to play against. If it's Brenden's line, you have big Brenden Morrow playing hard. If it's myself, Burish, Dowell, Barchy and Fiddler, you look around the room and all these guys are hard to play against and are competitive, competitive guys," Ott said. "I truly believe that the will always outplays the skill."
One of his new teammates agrees and likes the mix of grit and skill players this year's roster currently has to offer.
"We have a lot of players who are competitive and not afraid to get their noses dirty," Souray said. "We have a group of guys that have established or shown they're not afraid to play a little gritty and you need to. We've got a lot of skill players too and some of our gritty players are our skill players. So, we've got a good mix of everyone. It's good to have that depth because over the long haul, wearing teams down with the game we're going to play of being physical and being fast, that's going to wear other teams down. So, it's going to suit our game well."
The veteran blue liner whose most recent stint in the NHL was with Edmonton two years ago knows he was brought in for a strong physical presence thanks to a 6-foot-4 frame. However, he also realizes that using his physicality to his advantage can also lead to other good things for his teammates.
"If I don't play physical and create room for myself, then it takes away from my game. So being a physical player helps me. In turn hopefully that gives me a little room and helps other guys," Souray said. "That's the way I look at it. I don't look at it like I'm the big brother policeman out there. I need to play like that to allow other parts of my game to come through."
Fellow blue liner Alex Goligoski is also already starting to see Gulutzan's mantra beginning to become a reality. But he's also noticing one big difference compared to how things were under Marc Crawford last year after he came over from Pittsburgh before the deadline.
"I think with the way we want to play, everyone is asked to work a little harder. It's definitely a little different," Goligoski said. "A big thing with us is our back pressure. We're not going to give teams free entrances into the zone and things like that. It's a lot of skating. We're going to be skating all over the place. We're going to be harder to play against and at the same time, have structure so we're not just going to be running around out there. We're going to be working a little harder and we will be harder to play against."