Thursday, January 19, 2012
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Sunshine-Pumpin’ Rainbow Time for the Dallas Stars
Do you need a hug, Dallas? Do you? Well bring it in, big guy!
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we looked around the league and pointed our trembling fingers at the NHL's five most overrated players. This week, rather than follow that up with the logically-coherent sequel of the league's five most underrated players (I'll save you some time -- Bolland, Eriksson, Thornton (Joe), Hossa, and Backes. There), it's time to talk, once again, about the Dallas Stars.
But why?, you might ask. Why put us through even more suffering, more anguish? Have you no morals? No shame? No... humanity?
Of course not! Morals and shame are for the weak and whoever's currently playing the Bruins. But that's not important right now: As both my my regular readers will attest (thank god they still have computers at the Vermin Emporium. Paco and Uncle Dad, you're tops #1 in my book!), it's a tough time being a Stars fan right now, what with the team's slide into .500 mediocrity, their position just outside the playoffs and not, y'know, having a top-two center until after the All-Star break. The streets of Dallas are flowing with the salty tears of legions of Texas-sized hockey fans.
To this I say: Turn to the nearest person, and just slap them across the face as hard as you possibly can, preferably just under the jaw line near the ear, using a telephone book if you must (and you will). After all, things may not look as bright as they did for Packers fans a week ago, but there are some pretty thick and juicy silver linings for Stars fans to look forward to in the coming playoff stretch.
Also, to pump you up while you read this, I've included several inspirational posters for you to print out and hang on your office wall.
Awesome Fact #1: The Stars, when healthy, are actually pretty good at hockey. You may recall how they started the season: with the lowest payroll in the NHL and zero expectations of being anything other than a lottery pick. They also, by complete coincidence, started the season 11-3-0 and were the top team in said NHL up to that point. Then injuries to their #1 d-man hit, then another went down, then Morrow, then Lehtonen, then half our d-corps, then both our centers, and so on and so forth.
Point being: This roster is the sh#t. How well do you think the Red Wings would've performed if Lidstrom, Howard, Zetterberg, and Datsyuk never played more than a dozen games together? Or if both Sedins, Bieksa and Cory Schneider were MIA for large chunks of the season?
Last season, the Stars were where the Blues are right now: riding near the top of the NHL in points, the surprise toast of the league, with coach Marc Crawford mentioned in Jack Adams conversations. Then injuries hit, and the team went into a tailspin and never recovered.
This season? The injuries have already hit, and the team seems to have responded with some pretty decent play, even if they're not playing .750 hockey anymore. That, of course, is where the "lowest payroll" hurts the most: roster depth. With a new owner willing to spend more than the bare minimum, that shouldn't be a problem moving forward.
Awesome Fact #2: The Stars, even when not healthy, are deeper than last season. On this day last year, the Stars were one point behind the Red Wings for first place overall in the NHL, and had a commanding six-point lead over the Coyotes in the Pacific Division (the Sharks, if you'll remember, were 10 points out). James Neal already had 19 goals and was, once again, on pace for a 40-goal season (get used to it, Pens fans). Brad Richards had 56 points and was on pace for a 90-to-100 point season (no point in getting used to that, Rangers fans).
Then ... the bottom dropped out. Or rather, the top did. Neal and Richards stopped producing, and Neal was traded. Injuries hit the top two lines, taking out 4 of 6 of the top scorers. Kari Lehtonen, a guy so injury-prone he makes Rick DiPietro cringe every time he makes a pad save, was forced to start some 25 games in a row. The Stars' first taste of adversity became their last. A minor winning streak in the final week gave Stars fans some glimmer of hope, which the team promptly dashed in the final game against Minnesota.
This season, the adversity has already hit a few times. The worst damage? The five-game losing streak at the beginning of the season to bring the team back to earth. Other than that, things have been surprisingly well-weathered: Lose Kari Lehtonen to injury? No problem, they went 7-5 without him. Playing the Red Wings while missing three of your top six d-men? A one-goal loss in which they nearly came back from two three-goal deficits. Playing the Red Wings without your top two centers? A shootout loss that only got that far because of a freak goal off Goligoski's skate.
Early in the season, the Stars took pride in being "just a team of guys." That wasn't the case in an ego-stuffed locker room last season. This year, it seems to be working, especially in the face of adversity. That's a good sign moving forward.
Awesome Fact #3: The teams around the Stars have plenty of problems themselves. Despite everything, Dallas sits in ninth place, one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot, with games in hand on everyone ahead of them except the Sharks. The three teams immediately in front of them — LA, Colorado, and Minnesota — have more losses than the Stars, especially the Kings, who have gained a whopping nine points from games that they lost. Phoenix and Calgary, both of whom have played more games than Dallas, sit right below them in the points standings.
Most importantly, all those teams have significant on-ice issues. Compare that to last season, when the Stars were competing with a Western Conference where nine of the top 11 teams played above-.600 hockey in the second half. The charity point played a role in that, as did a weaker Eastern Conference. The only team in Dallas' weight class that is doing "well" right now is the Kings under new head coach Sutter, and even they have gone to overtime in 8 of the 14 games he's coached, and have scored an average of two goals a game in that span (in other words, they're playing the same as they did under Murray but also getting lucky). Hell, Minnesota is starting Warren Peters as their #1 center — yes, the same Warren Peters who couldn't cut it at our AHL team — and beyond that, have lost nearly all their games since mid-December. The West may not be the buzzsaw it has been in recent years, and Dallas should benefit from that.
Awesome Fact #4: Our prospect system is no longer a total joke. The Stars had four draft picks playing in the World Juniors, three of whom were lights-out, two of whom won the Gold Medal and one, Jack Campbell, who played poorly against the Czechs but well against a stacked Canadian team. Jamieson Oleksiak is undoubtedly the most exciting prospect the Stars have had since ... uhh ... hmmm ... Mike Modano? — and he is just one of four or five guys on the defensive depth charts waiting for a crack at the bigs. Richard Bachman has proven he's a capable goaltender at the NHL level even as Campbell pushes him in the near future. And finally, it seems like GM Joe' most controversial #1 pick, Scott Glennie, is rounding into form down in Austin. Dallas could use some more forwards in its prospect pool, but at least there's plenty to look forward to ... something Stars fans haven't been able to say since the team moved down from Minnesota.
Awesome Fact #5: Even if none of these things holds true, there's still oxygen in the air and water in the oceans. Not for long, of course, but long enough to squeak into the 6th seed, beat up some soft Euros en route to going down to the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals. You heard it here first.