Thursday, August 9, 2012
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - The Five Worst Dallas Stars of All Time
All five of these should be pretty much unanimous. No arguments expected here.
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we helped homeless gadfly Shane Doan narrow down his list of future homes. This week, rather than inappropriately touch the off-season's biggest story, we're going to shamelessly copy the real journalists over at Defending Big D and take a long, wistful look back at Dallas Stars history. Specifically, at the players who sucked the most.
Now this won't be yet another column ragging on the Valerie Kamenskys and Willie Mitchells and Ladislav Nagys of the world: Those guys were costly mistakes, but had a short time here so their non-draft-pick-going-the-other-way impact was minimal. Instead, we'll focus on the guys who were here long enough to raise fans expectations and spectacularly failed to meet them.
#5: Sean Avery
Any self-respecting "worst" list begins and ends with this smegtastic clown. While some brainless local imbeciles praised the signing at the time, it was clear from the start that the Stars celebrity co-GM Brett Hull had made the most co$$tly mistake in Dallas history. For $16 million, Avery put up a grand total of three goals, 77 penalty minutes, and a complete dismantling of a once-tight locker room. The Stars were primed for success after a memorable 2008 playoffs in which they soundly thumped reigning Cup champion Anaheim and heavy favorite San Jose before losing to the eventual Cup champs in Detroit: After splitting the team with a signing nobody wanted, the team has yet to make the postseason since.
But on the Plus Side: When Avery's play with the Rangers dipped so badly that he couldn't even hold an AHL job, his salary came off of Dallas' books and they were forced to go out and get a warm body making $2 million a season just to stay above the cap floor. They went out and got Eric Nystrom, who, besides being just generally awesome, also managed to score 16 goals from the third line last season.
#4: Bill Guerin
Guerin put up some respectable offensive stats in his first two seasons here, scoring 25 and 34 goals alongside fellow former Oiler Jason Arnott. He was a great interview, terrific with the fans and was the physical scoring forward Dallas needed at the time.
However, when it came to the playoffs, Guerin was the most noticeable player on the ice, primarily for imitating a green-and-black telephone pole. It's not just that he wasn't putting in 110%: he couldn't even be bothered to lay a single check. The guy who scored nearly 60 goals in two regular seasons amassed a grand total of one assist in 9 playoff games. Small wonder the team was upset by a much lower seed in all three years he played: hardcore Stars fans will never forgive or forget Guerin for accepting a breakout pass at the enemy blue line --while all five Avs were making a line change-- and, rather than skate in on the goalie all alone in a must-win playoff game that he was losing at the time... he stood straight up and lightly tapped the puck into the zone. Just like that. Tappity-tap-tap. If professional hockey had a white flag of surrender, that Guerin moment was it.
But on the Plus Side: Even while he was breaking fans' hearts on the ice, he was great on the air. Local sports radio gabshow The Ticket has a great bit, "Gay or Not Gay," which was partially invented by Guerin himself. If that's Guerin's lasting legacy in this town, well... it still sucks, but not quite as much.
#3: Jamie Pushor
Mike Ribeiro made a pass this last season -- a deft no-look centering feed from the corner to a streaking Flames forward all alone in front of Dallas' net -- which arguably was The Moment that started Dallas' late collapse from division leader to postseason-free chumpettes. It was an unforgivable gaffe that you might see once or maybe twice a season, or more if you're an Isles fan. Ribeiro wasn't being pressured, no one forced him to pass to the wide-open opposing forward directly in front of his own net ... but that's what happened, and Ribs is no longer a Dallas Star.
Now, imagine that unforced centering feed to a streaking enemy forward every other shift. That was Jamie Pushor. A former Red Wing blown draft pick, he came to the Stars for just one season as their #6 d-man and helpfully made Eddie Belfour into a human highlight reel. Very few, if any, of these ridiculous passes went in --as far as I remember-- but Stars fans held their collective breaths every time the other team dumped it into the corner for a line change, because Pushor would invariably launch a soft, slow pass to an area devoid of teammates directly in front of the net. Is that how they train defensemen in Detroit? Oh, I guess not. It takes a special breed of player to appear on two different teams "Worst of All Time" lists, and the reason it's only two is because Blue Jackets fans drink themselves into a stupor every time they try to narrow down their own list to just ten.
But on the Plus Side: If Youtube had been around in 2000, Belfour would've been elevated to godlike status. The constant in-game practice on stopping one-on-none breakaways helped The Eagle have the most dominant postseason of his career, with a .931 save percentage, 1.87 GAA and four shutouts in 23 playoff games.
#2: Matt Niskanen
While Pushor was never considered more than a #6 "stay-at-home ... no please, for the love of all that's holy, stay in your home" defenseman, Niskanen was a first-round draft pick with "the Next Sergei Zubov" written all over him. He was extremely impressive in his rookie season playing alongside Zubov, putting up 26 points and skating to a +22, and avoiding the usual puck-moving rookie d-man mistakes in 16 playoff games that year. He put up 35 points in his sophomore season, and things were looking up for the 22 year-old kid.
Unfortunately, once Zubov left for greener pastures across the Bering Strait, Niskanen's game completely went to pieces. In his third season he put up just 15 points despite getting tons of powerplay time and a -15 +/- despite getting the most favorable minutes imaginable. More importantly, he was an absolute turnstile on the ice, getting punked by opposing forwards in all three zones. He wasn't physical, he couldn't make a decent pass, he couldn't hold the puck in the zone, and seemed afraid to shoot. It wasn't just that he was biding his time, waiting for the right moment: no, when Nisky had a clear lane to the net and no pressure on him, he froze up, and would awkwardly half-a** a wobbly pass to a nearby teammate in terror. And somehow, in his fourth season, he got even worse. Knowing full well that rookie Philip Larsen was gunning for his role on the team, Niskanen responded with some of the worst hockey you will ever see in a million lifetimes. It wasn't just that he only put up 6 assists in 45 games... he had one game of those 45, one game, in which he was slightly better than mediocre: and the Stars world erupted in shock. We were stunned, frankly. "You mean Niskanen... Matt Niskanen... actually has the potential to be a serviceable #6-7 defenseman, like, professionally?". But then his next three games were predictably godawful, so all was right in the universe once again, and any game where Nisky was listed as one of the pre-game healthy scratches was a game we had a chance to win.
But on the Plus Side: In one of his most shrewd moves as a GM, Joe Nieuwendyk was somehow able to dump Niskanen on an unsuspecting Penguins team and get Alex Goligoski in return. Sure, we had to give up on James Neal in the process -- but Gogo has actually been the offensive defenseman we've lacked since Zubov left. As for Niskanen? He's carved out a niche on the Penguins blue line, which may explain why their defense was so epic against the Flyers last season.
The face of the franchise, highest scoring American, jersey rippling behind him, etc etc blah blah blah. There's no questioning the stats, the male model good looks, or the painfully awkward car commercials. But no Dallas Star gets as much of a free pass as Modano, and no Dallas Star deserves it less: his accomplishments simply don't measure up to his contemporaries, and his incredibly selfish, pouting, me-first attitude sank his team for nearly a decade.
Before giving Stars fans the finger and proving GM Joe right in his one terrible season with Detroit, Modano was often mentioned in the same breath as Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic, two longtime team captains, first-line two-way centers who led their teams to multiple Stanley Cups and played with just one team for their entire careers. However, by taking a cool million to fail with the Red Wings, Modano lost the only real accomplishment he had in common with Yzerman and Sakic: staying with one team.
Modano never once won a single NHL award, although he probably should've won the Calder. Yzerman and Sakic won multiple league MVP, Selke and Pearson awards. Modano never once even came remotely close to leading the league in scoring. Yzerman and Sakic regularly did it. Modano never once broke the 100-point barrier, even in the early nineties when 20-25 players were accomplishing that feat every season; Yzerman did it six times, outscoring Modano by 44 points in Modano's best season, and Sakic six more times, including his final full season in 2006-07, when Modano was pouting on the second line. And both Yzerman and Sakic had multiple Stanley Cup victories, while Modano won "just" one. Mike was actually far more comparable to Pierre Turgeon than Stevie Y.
But just as there are thousands of Cowboys fans who think that Troy Aikman was "good for 4-5 touchdowns a game" (Aikman's actual passing stats are about as impressive as David Garrard's), casual Stars fans consider Modano to be one of the most prolific scorers in hockey history. And he was, for an American: but his attitude, his declining effort with each passing year, his constant complaining to the press, his failed experiment as team captain, his reluctance to use his physically-large frame to throw more than one or two checks a season, his obvious disgust at skating into the corners, his backhanded insults to the press regarding his own teammates, his admission that he didn't really try all that hard in his last five seasons in Dallas... if just one or two of these had been applied to, say, Richard Matvichuk or Mike Keane or Benoit Hogue, they'd be run out of town on a rail. But Mike "Face of the Franchise" Modano can sit and stare, open-mouthed, at Steve Ott getting jumped by all five Ducks after the final whistle of a game while not lifting a finger to help ... and then complain about how the captaincy was stolen from him?
The Dallas Stars, when they were winning division titles, were epitomized by hard work, strong defense and a willingness to sacrifice individual glory for team success. By any means possible. Not just when they "felt like it," or were gifted good wingers to play with. The true face of the franchise was Jere Lehtinen, not Modano. The most offensively-gifted Dallas Star was Sergei Zubov, not Modano. And the real #1 center on those Cup teams was Joe Nieuwendyk, not Modano.
But on the Plus Side: He was pretty awesome in those two long Cup runs. Couldn't have done it without him.