Thursday, January 13, 2011
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Grading Big D’s Big D
So much for the idea of tanking this season for a lottery pick.
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we helped a doddering pop culture legend do his job; this week, with the Dallas Stars at the midpoint of the 2010-11 season, it's time to take stock of what exactly has transpired thus far. As of this second, the Stars are slightly ahead of most preseason pundits' predictions in the standings. Particularly in the Pacific Division, where they trail the far more talented San Jo--wait, no. Where they trail the Cup favorite Los Ange--ah, nope. Where they trail the rock 'em sock 'em former Cup champ Anaheim Mighty Du-- sheeet, for reals? You mean it?
First place in the Pacific Division by five points?
And that's over the Ducks, who have played two more games and have been getting a Vezina-worthy stretch of games from goalie Jonas Hiller. The real twin giants of the toughest division in hockey, the Sharks and Kings, are 10 points behind the Stars at this point.
Apparently Nabokov wasn't the problem over there after all. Huh. Who knew?
But not all of Dallas' success can be laid at the feet of the other Pacific teams proverbially sh**ting the bed. Yes, the Stars have some of the credit too. We all knew from last year that this was a roster that could put up goals. Similarly, we all knew from last year that this was a roster that would allow significantly more goals than they would score. And it all came down to Defense. _allas simply _i_n't have any _.
Stars fans annually drool all over themselves when it comes to signing a bona fide #1 defenseman, because as we all know from watching Detroit and Chicago, teams simply do not win Cups without Lidstroms and Keiths.
Since Zubov left for greener tundras out East, the #1 duties have fallen to Stephane Robidas, the diminutive punching bag who can't man the point on the powerplay and is too small to clear the crease and too slow to keep up with the West's skilled forwards and too Robidasian to be Nick Lidstrom.
Beyond that, there are no good 'offensive defensemen' on the roster, unless you count massive disappointments like Matt Niskanen. All but two of the seven d-men are under 28, and most tellingly, the Stars are spending less than $12 million this year on their entire defense. Detroit spends more than that on it's top defensive pairing alone, while Chicago will soon spend significantly more than even Detroit. Hell, the Stars are spending the same amount as the Islanders and way less than the Oilers, and those defenses suck. What hope did Stars fans have for this season?
Fast forward to 44 games in, and the Dallas defense is top ten in the NHL. Even more surprisingly, they're letting in fewer goals per game than any of those teams mentioned above, including the Red Wings and the Blackhawks. I'm far too lazy to calculate some BS stat delineating "Bang For The Buck" --which, incidentally, was my nickname in college-- but a cursory glance at the improvement in this group of seven from last season to this tells you all you need to know about why they're third overall in the Western Conference right now.
But Todd, how do you maintain those rugged good looks and how did the Stars accomplish that with the exact same group of guys that failed last season? I'm glad you asked: I've got a part-time job on the side as the Avatar of Apollo and because of two drastic changes outside the narrow realm of the defensive roster and a poorly-understood truth about human psychology.
First, this past offseason saw the Stars unload Marty Turco, replacing him with Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft, in essence dumping a "proven" #1 NHL record-setting goaltender for a couple of castoff draft busts. It was a bold, cost-saving move by fearless GM Joe Nieuwendyk, and thus far, it's holdin' up pretty good.
The second drastic change is in the way the Dallas forwards have played. Last season was especially frustrating for Stars fans for one primary reason: The team had lost its identity. For a decade and a half under Hitchcock and Tippett, the team played a tough-in-the-corners, defense-first, scrappy style of hockey that won games and won fans. The Stars sold out arenas with tense 2-1 games (are you listening, Gary Bettman?) featuring physical defensive play, stellar netminding and hard-working goals in and around the crease. In Crawford's first year as head coach, all that disappeared: Suddenly Dallas was in a 60-minute end-to-end footrace in which three forwards hung out near the defensive blue line, waiting for two overmatched defenders to make a perfect breakout pass that never came.
The result? infinite suckage. Fewer wins, and this season, entire sections of empty seats. Which is too bad, because the forwards actually backcheck this season, covering opposing players and making the defense's job much, much easier. No more getting angry at Trevor Daley because he can't make a simple half-rink backhand exit pass while getting mugged by three Avalanche forwards. Now that the five guys on the ice are playing as a unit, the results are somehow better.
The third reason is simple group psychology: High-functioning teams don't just appear out of thin air. All groups progress in stages; a group that knuckles down and bares through the process will, invariably, be a better team than one that just throws talented players together like a fantasy hockey team. Crawford and Assistant Coach Charlie Huddy are now in their second years with the team, allowing the roster time to find their roles and their niches, on and off the ice.
Also, the fact that two disgruntled vets were swapped out --one for a team-first roleplayer and the other for talented young former #2 overall draft pick with something to prove-- made all the difference in the world. This Stars team is a young team, with next to no players in their 30s. When young players see older vets taking shifts, periods and entire games off, their motivation disappears. A simple eyeball test will confirm that our third line is no longer a laughingstock of half-hearted poke checks and lazy holding penalties: Rather, it's the "energy line" that all teams desperately crave, preventing top lines from scoring, putting shots on net and drawing penalties for the two skilled lines to cash in on.
The end result? Dallas' defense is getting top-of-the-league results with bottom-of-the-league dollars. Interestingly, the team that pioneered that method seems to have forgotten all about it.
Better goaltending, forwards backchecking, and a team-first philosophy seem to be working well for the Stars once again. Let's hope they can keep it up for the remaining 38 games and beyond.