Thursday, December 29, 2011
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - A Look Back at 2011, the Year That Benn Wrought
Honorable mention: moving back to a Central Time Zone division, baby!
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we provided that perfect Christmas gift idea for that Dallas Star you've had your eyes on. This week, we casually dismiss our New Year's Resolution from last year and take a look back at the year that just happened: i.e., 2011.
As for most non-Green Bay Packers fans, it was a time of ups and downs. Here are the top five best and worst things that were bestowed/inflicted upon us last year.
The Bad Five
#5: Losing Brad Richards - Richards was an offensive dynamo that, simply put, made his linemates better. He scored just over a point per game for over 200 games with Dallas, and was instrumental in getting us to the Conference Finals in 2008. Having the primary reason why we lost him as "not having an owner" -- thanks to short-sighted team creditors who delayed the process by making prospective buyers jump through every hoop imaginable -- was especially harsh, and when Richards left so did every ounce of national credibility (although that's not necessarily a bad thing, see below). To be a Cup contender, you absolutely, positively need two top-flight centers, and Richards left a gaping hole in the middle of our top line ... all for a measly $60 million.
#4: Mark Fistric Suspended for Checking - When the unpredictable and very possibly biased Colin Campbell was put to pasture in favor of new NHL Suspension Czar Brendan Shanahan, Things Were Going To Be Different(tm). Unfortunately, other than the innovative idea of public explanations for each suspension, the wheel of unpredictability is still there. Original Six teams are let off scot-free, while smaller-market Western Conference teams like Minnesota, Nashville and now Dallas are hit with the double whammy of (a) getting players suspended for clearly legal hits, and (b) seeing their own players' heads targeted repeatedly without even a mention of suspension from the league office. A few days before Fistric's allegedly illegal check, Toronto's Luke Schenn threw a flying WWE-style elbow above his head while leaping off his skates to target the head of Dallas' young Tomas Vincour ... no suspension. Fistric shoulders an Islander falling backwards who knocks his head on the ice ... two games. I'm not sure we want to live in a world where both Don Cherry and Mike Milbury might be right.
#3: Marc Crawford - Crawford was a curious choice to follow Dave Tippett, seeing as his last taste of success was during the first Clinton Administration, and he had a terrible track record with young teams. Two years of missed playoffs later — including one season where they failed to win three games in a row for an entire season — and it was clear that not all of GM Joe's decisions are made of pure gold. Crawford was able to lead last year's team to within three points of the top spot in the Western Conference in mid-January, but a rash of injuries and some extremely questionable personnel decisions torpedoed a Cinderella season over the first few months of 2011. Pushing oft-injured Kari Lehtonen into 69 starts, despite the soul-crushing evidence that the big Finn was overworked and exhausted, and starting the turnover machine Jeff Woywitka over the game-changing physical presence of Mark Fistric were two of the worst coaching decisions in recent Stars history. And now the coach most known for sending out Todd Bertuzzi to end a guy's career has missed the playoffs for five straight seasons.
#2: No Pantera - When the Stars were routinely winning division titles and President's Trophies, the in-game experience was a jacked-up testosterone-fueled adrenaline circus in which heavy metal, '80s rock ballads and hardcore rockabilly were pumped over the AAC/Renunion Arena's massive speakers. Sadly, piece by piece those days have been retired, to the point where Justin Bieber and the Black Eyed Peas get more airtime than Metallica and the Reverend Horton Heat. Most criminally, however, is the complete lack of Pantera's legendary "Dallas Stars Theme Song," the single most effective, spot-on sports-related theme song in human history, which used to be played whenever the crowd needed a charge, then was relegated to the start of each period, and is now -- infrequently -- used after a shootout victory, if even that. Making it the goal song instead of the Chelsea Dagger-wanna-be New Kids On the Block-esque poppy crap they have now would go a long way towards pleasing the team's long-suffering hardcore fans.
#1: No Playoffs, Part III - The Suckening - As mentioned earlier, the Stars were first in their division by a comfortable double-digit margin this time last year ... then suffered an epic collapse even the Game Six Rangers would have found embarrassing. Injuries had a lot to do with it, of course, but more than that was simply shoddy play, careless defense, disintegrating goaltending, a pathetic lack of leadership from coaches and players, and the top players disappearing at the worst possible times. Missing the final cut by two measly points -- points stolen single-handedly by Teemu Selanne in the final seconds of two games down the stretch -- was even harder to take when the Stars had a lead over the Minnesota Wild in the final game of the season ... and couldn't get it done. In fact, they did quite the opposite of that, giving up a comfortable lead, then the game, to a team with nothing to play for. We Dallasites expect that kind of gutless season-long performance from the Cowboys, but from our own hockey team...? Inexcusable.
The Good Five
#5: $9 Seats - At one point in Dallas sports history, the Stars were the hottest ticket in town. The Cowboys, Mavs and Rangers annually languished in last place, while the Stars went to two straight Cup Finals and, until the Mavs won it all this summer, were the last DFW team to win a championship. Nowadays, the field is reversed: The Mavs have put together a decade of 50-win seasons and a ring, the Rangers have gone to two straight World Series and the Cowboys have won the last nine Superbowls by 40-point margins. The Stars, on the other hand, have missed the playoffs three straight years while at the same time losing all of their franchise players like flies. The AAC was getting emptier and emptier, until earlier this season it looked almost Phoenix-esque. Fortunately, along with the new owner came unheard-of new things like marketing and connecting to fans, and the ultimate result was hockey tickets for 9 bucks. Never before have casual non-hockey fans been so excited to attend a game. And why not? Nine bucks is cheaper than seeing The Expendables 2 and a million times more fun. For the Stars, it gets butts in seats and noise in the stadium, not to mention all the $9 hot dogs and $12 beers they no longer have to throw away after each game (and/or send to the Florida teams for their games next week). It probably won't last forever, but through the half-dozen or so games since they started it, it's already made a huge impact on home games.
#4: We Have An Owner! - The single best thing about Tom Gaglardi is that he exists. For three miserable years, this team has had no ownership, no marketing, no financial direction, thanks largely to one of the worst owners in professional sports history, Tom Hicks (although his mismanagement of the Stars pales in comparison with his legendary bumbling of Liverpool F.C.). Now with Gaglardi in the fold looking to build a winning NHL team, Stars fans can be cautiously optimistic once again, and the team can return to its glory days of being one of the biggest cash cows in the American NHL.
#3: Leadership - While Crawford was decent when things were going well, he was worse than terrible when things started going south. Every team has its ups and downs, and last season's Stars crumbled at the first sign of adversity. This season, new head coach Glen Gulutzan stormed out of the gate with an 11-3-0 record and the top spot in the entire NHL ... before some key injuries hit on a tough road trip, and the team dropped five straight. Gulutzan, ignoring cries of "bag skate" and other tired coaching methods popular in the 1940s, guided the team back from the brink and once again has them playing well at the top of their division, alongside (or ahead of) preseason Cup favorites like the Sharks and Kings. Even when star netminder Kari Lehtonen went down — causing many pessimistic Stars fans to gnash their teeth, rend their garments, and wail that their season was over — the team went 7-5 without him and remained in the chase. Gulutzan's had plenty of reason to get red-faced and scream at his players (and the refs, for that matter) this season, but the first-year coach has been a rock behind the bench. That bodes well for a team that might not have the lowest payroll in hockey soon. Which brings us to ...
#2: GM Joe's Midas Touch - Three years ago this team had no owner, a poor prospect system and a rapidly-declining payroll. The team lost nearly all of its non-Morrow franchise faces (Modano, Turco, Lehtinen, Richards) and was given zero wiggle room at the bottom of the NHL's salary cap floor to make personnel moves. Faced with these problems, Nieuwendyk could have made safe, risk-free moves like keeping Modano/Turco, trading Richards for picks or mortgaging our own draft picks for big-name veteran rentals. But with his career and reputation on the line, GM Joe made some bold but calculated risks, trading James Neal for Alex Goligoski, Ivan Vishnevskiy for Lehtonen, and essentially swapping one Brad Richards for a host of cheap free agents with small contracts and huge chips on their shoulders. The result has been startling: The team no one in the hockey media (coughcoughexcept onecoughcough) said had a chance is competing for a title in one of the league's toughest divisions. The free agents brought in have, with one exception (Adam Pardy) produced far beyond expectations. The risky trades have paid off handsomely, even if Neal is lighting up the Eastern Conference (with Malkin at center, it'd be hard not to). And the prospect pool, particularly at defense -- where the Stars had literally nothing to write home about when he took over -- is now clogged with NHL-ready potential. Most (least?) surprising of all was the ridiculous acquisition of Eric Nystrom, who was added to the team for the sole purpose of keeping the team above the cap floor when old nemesis Sean Avery sucked so much that he was sent down to the minors. GM Joe picked Nystrom and his contract for nothing ... then saw the oft-ignored winger explode for 12 goals in just 30 games. From the third line. With zero powerplay time. That's as many goals as Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk, and more than Dany Heatley, Ryan Kesler, Rick Nash, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Patrick Kane ... and all of those guys get 2-4 minutes a night playing with an extra guy.
#1: Losing Brad Richards - While it sucked to lose Brad Richards, losing Brad Richards more than made up for the loss of Brad Richards by actually being pretty awesome. A point-a-game guy who spent all two minutes on every powerplay last season, Richards was going to have to get replaced in a lot of areas: most notably, scoring and passing. When the Stars didn't/couldn't sign another $12 million center to replace him, the hockey media -- with its single-minded obsession with powerplay assists as a valid measurement of a player's worth -- wrote off the Stars as a basement-level joke. But in many ways, Richards' departure was the best thing for a young, up-and-coming team. No longer saddled by his $7.8 million/year contract, the team was able to splurge on a number of cheaper free agents like Michael Ryder, Sheldon Souray, Vernon Fiddler, and Radek Dvorak, all of whom have slid into important depth roles up and down the lineup. Souray and Goligoski replaced Richards on the point on the powerplay, and while the powerplay percentage is slightly less than it was last season (dropping from 18% to 14.7%), the sheer number of soul-crushing shorthanded goals allowed (15 with Richards lazily whiffing at pucks last season, just two with a d-man at the point this season) has translated into significantly more effective-at-winning special teams play. Most importantly, the vacuum left by Richards has allowed 22 year-old wrecking ball Jamie Benn to assume the #1 center duties. While not a flashy passer like his predecessor, Benn is actually significantly more productive: not just in points, where he is currently outscoring Richards 32-26, but also in terms of defensive responsibility, timely goals, highlight-reel scoring, physical play, hits, working in the corners, and leadership. Not bad for a guy a whole decade younger and 1/15th the price. Bonus #1: Loui Eriksson, who many pundits claimed had his offensive stats artificially pumped by Richards, is also outscoring his old center. Bonus #2: Second line center Mike Ribeiro is also outscoring Richards, albeit only by a single point. So much for Dallas not having two top-flight centers anymore. Bonus #3: Not having a $12 million albatross on the payroll means that the Stars have more cap space than anyone else in the league. Some pretty attractive free agents will be on the market shortly ... although perhaps it's best if GM Joe uses that cap space to find seven more Eric Nystroms. 2012 will tell.