Thursday, October 27, 2011
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Get to Know Your Dallas Stars
Is it smoke and mirrors? It's just smoke and mirrors, right?
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we offered some helpful suggestions to the attendance-starved Stars. (Steps One Through Ten: Tell major league baseball to stop scheduling the World Series during Stars games.) This week, it's time to take a good, hard look at the team with both the lowest payroll in the NHL and the most points in the Western Conference. I'm talking, of course, about the Detr--wait, what?
Nope, one-ninth through the 2011-12 season, the Dallas Stars are alone in first place.
Of course, there's plenty of reason to tap the brakes here. "Plenty of hockey to be played... Stars fans have seen these hot streaks before... let's see where they're at in March and April... don't have the talent to maintain this pace... these boogers are delicious..."
The nittering nabobs of negativism would helpfully point out that last year's playoff-missin' Stars were just three points out of first place overall last January. And, that's, like, January.
All valid points. Realistically, had this 14-points-in-9-games streak come in December or February rather than the start of the season, no one would care.
Of course, it did happen at the beginning of the season, and people should care.
It's early, but the Stars have played just one team with a losing record — the unstoppable Columbus Blue Jackets — and beat them twice. Every other team they've gone up against is a potential playoff team. They're still the only team this season to beat the Chicago Blackhawks in regulation, and at least one infallible expert considers the Blackhawks to be the best team in the West this season. They're 5-1 in one-goal games. Fourth in the league in GAA and third in save percentage.
People who make considerably more money than hockey writers often say the same thing: An organization rises and falls with its leadership. (Hockey experts, on the other hand, primarily seem to think everything rises and falls on powerplay assists.) And nine games in, it seems like the Stars are finally rounding into the team GM Joe Nieuwendyk and head coach Glen Gulutzan want them to be.
This is a very different team than last year's Easy Crumble Stars that folded under pressure, were never prepared for the first period and surrendered a dozen games in the final minute, usually to divisional foes that squeaked into the playoffs ahead of them.
Things the Stars lost in the offseason:
Brad Richards, a playmaking (a.k.a., pass-first) #1 center who gave up 12 SHG on the point last season.
Karlis Skrastins, who unfortunately lost his life in the Lokomotiv crash
Some promising but ultimately unproductive fourth liners
A head coach who last won something when Slash was still with Guns N Roses and Phil Collins was still with Genesis.
Things the Stars gained in the offseason:
Michael Ryder, a streaky top-six winger for our second line
A full season of Alex Goligoski, who is quickly becoming our most reliable defenseman
Sheldon Souray, who seems to be the best non-Vokoun free agent signing of the summer thus far
Vernon Fiddler, our new third-line checking center and PK stabilizer
Radek Dvorak, a solid, if scoreless, third line checking winger
Jake Dowell, another solid, physical energy guy for the fourth line
Adam Pardy, a defensive defenseman that switches out with Mark Fistric on the top D-pair with Goligoski
And most importantly, Glen Gulutzan. Who is Glen Gulutzan? Only one of the most successful coaches in ECHL history. A guy who has spent his entire coaching career taking less-than-impressive rosters to the Conference Finals. A guy who is 5-0 in Game Sevens. A guy who was probably a considerably cheaper hire than Ken Hitchcock or Craig McTavish.
More importantly than the offseason additions has been the in-house promotions. With Richards gone, the #1 center spot has gone to Mike Ribeiro, who then passed it back to Jamie Benn, who's line is outperforming most #1 lines in the NHL despite being given the toughest minutes/zone starts on the team.
Richards' place on the power play has been replaced by Goligoski and Souray, to a slight dip in production (and yet, strangely better than the Rangers...).
With Fiddler and Dvorak taking charge of checking line duties, Steve Ott has been promoted to the top line, where he takes defensive zone faceoffs (and wins them) while providing a crease-crashing, corners-working, 7-points-in-9-games beast alongside Benn and Loui Eriksson.
With Goligoski taking on an expanded offensive role, it's allowed Stephane Robidas to slip into a more comfortable #2 or #3 position on the defensive depth charts. Robidas will never be favorably compared to most of the league's other #1 defensemen (despite decent production), but definitely stacks up nicely against other teams' second lines.
The result has been to go from a top-heavy team that was slow out of the gate and had to scramble in the third to win games after leaving their goalie out to dry ... to a deeper, more spread-out, defensively-responsible team that gives up lots of perimeter shots, clears the lane for the goalie and builds early leads.
Of course, having one of the top two goalies in the league certainly helps.
So what can Stars fans expect from the Stars the rest of the way? The shots-against have gone down considerably in the past three games (unfortunately for Lehtonen's stats). So have the scoring-chances-against. The d-lines seem to be gelling. Ribeiro's line seems more comfortable in the secondary position. Benn's line continues to take key defensive faceoffs and turn them into scoring chances 10 seconds later. And Lehts fills up the net unlike any Stars netminder in recent history.
Who knows? Maybe in 60-70 games, all those sportswriters who picked the Stars to finish 12th will finally be forced to pay attention to this team.