After So Many Off-Season Changes, Now Seems The Perfect Time To Start Following The Dallas Stars.

It's hard for any sport to come back the year after a work stoppage.

Often, it takes fans — who view the labor disputes between players and owners as “millionaires fighting billionaires” — years to warm back up to a sport. For hockey, a sport coming off its fourth major work stoppage since 1992, things are exponentially worse. We get it: Hockey is the fourth most-popular sport in the country for a reason. But with the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement signed by the players earlier this year, we'd argue that now is the perfect time to really get into the sport — especially for folks who live in Dallas.

That's because, not only did the league's new realignment plan and divisional playoff system dramatically shake up the structure of the entire league, but the Dallas Stars' new owner has made over the team from bottom to top heading into what will technically be his first full season at the helm. Almost every aspect of the club will be different this year. Really, short of the city of Dallas building a new arena for the team to play in, this year's club feels completely new — almost as if it were an expansion team, which we mean in the best possible way.

All of these changes make for a lot to digest, to be sure. So, before the puck drops in the Stars' season opener against the Florida Panthers tomorrow night at the American Airlines Center, we thought it best to really breakdown what's going on with the new-look Dallas Stars.

Because if there was ever a time to start getting into hockey, it's now, as this fiery young bunch is just the team to start rallying behind.

New General Manager: Jim Nill.
Nill replaces Joe Nieuwendyk, who served as the Stars' GM the past four seasons and never managed to assemble a playoff team during his tenure. Conversely, Nill's previous employers, the Detroit Redwings, won four Stanley Cups since he joined that team's front offices in 1994. Since his hire in April, Nill's drastically shaken up the roster, landed a few big-name players and moved new team captain Jamie Benn from center back to his original position at the left wing. Winning breeds winning, and certainly no team's achieved as consistent a tradition of winning as the Wings' organization has over the past several decades.

New Head Coach: Lindy Ruff.
The bulk of Ruff's playing and coaching career was previously spent with the Buffalo Sabres. As a head coach, Ruff took over the Sabres in 1997 and led the team to the Stanley Cup finals in 1999 against the Stars. Before he was relieved of his coaching duties with Buffalo in February, Ruff was the longest-tenured coach in the NHL by a mile,second only to the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich as the longest-tenured coach in all of the four major American sports.

New Team Captain: Jamie Benn.
The 24-year-old Benn was given the captain “C” just a couple weeks ago, but the forward, who is entering his fifth year in the NHL, has been serving as an assistant captain to Brenden Morrow for the past two seasons. He's also coming off a year in which he accounted for 33 points in 41 games and was selected for his first All-Star game.

New Players.
The full crop of new talent this year includes forwards Erik Cole, Lane MacDermid, Rich Peverley, Tyler Sequin, Shawn Horcoff, defensemen Kevin Connauton and Sergei Gonchar, and backup goalie Dan Ellis.

Of course, some of these gets are major question marks. At 39 years old, five-time All-Star defenseman Gonchar's best days are potentially behind him, but he did average nearly 24 minutes of ice time per game last year with Ottawa –more than any other player on the Stars' current roster did. Similarly, while the 34-year-old center Horcoff definitely isn't the player he once was, the Stars are banking on the fact that he's also not as terrible as the seven points and five assists he racked up in 31 games as the captain of the Edmonton Oilers last season indicates.

But at least one of the new acquisitions appears to be a sure thing: In trading away Loui Eriksson, the Stars received Seguin and his more-than-serviceable former Boston Bruins teammate Peverley in return. In particular, the 21-year-old Seguin, a two-way potential superstar center, is thought to be a top-line scoring talent, and Ruff expects him to help unleash some of Benn's still-untapped offensive potential, too.

In addition, the team's first-round draft pick Valeri Nichushkin, who might potentially see some playing time this season, has all the makings of a Rookie of the Year candidate, and, according to most NHL scouts has a similar offensive skill set to veteran forward Evgeni Malkin.

New Division Opponents.
Thanks to the NHL's new realignment plan that was approved back in March, the Stars will now share a division with some new foes, including the Chicago Blackhawks, the Colorado Avalanche, the Minnesota Wild, the Nashville Predators, the St. Louis Blues and the Winnipeg Jets. As a result, the more geographically-friendly setup also means most that division games will now start between 7 and 8 p.m. By the same token, it'll cut out the once frequent 9:30 p.m. start-times that Stars fans had to deal with during the team's road games against former division opponents in Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.

New Logo and Jerseys.
Because it wouldn't have been right for third-year owner Tom Gaglardi to make sweeping changes throughout every level of the organization without giving the team's entire image an entire makeover, the Stars have adopted a new logo and jerseys for the upcoming season as well. While the logo has been panned pretty harshly for coming off as a sort of mix between a ninja throwing star and the Starbucks logo, the new jerseys are actually pretty sweet. Not only do they bring back the long-missing green as a primary color, but the overall design also just looks more like a classic, timeless hockey sweater, and less like scientific diagram of the female anatomy.

New Schedule.
In addition to realignment — or, rather, because of it — the league is changing the way schedules are set up this year. For starters, the Stars will play each of the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference twice (once at home and once away). The team's remaining 50 games will also be divided into 29 games against its new division rivals and 21 games against the rest of the Western Conference. The best part? Every team in the league will now play at least one game in every arena in the league every year — or, in other words, every team in the league will make at least one appearance at the American Airlines Center this year.

New Playoff System.
In still more realignment-related changes for the league this year, the new division-based playoff system may also help the Stars clench its first postseason berth since the 2007-08 season. Under the new system, the top three seeds in each division automatically qualifies for the playoffs. Then, the two teams with the next highest records, regardless of division, become Wild Card teams. In other words: It would be possible for up to five of the Western Conference's eight playoff teams to come from the same division. And, in a division with only seven teams, one would have to think that would improve the chances for a rising team like the Stars to squeak into the postseason this year.

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