Thursday, May 3, 2012
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - A Look Back at the 2011-12 Dallas Stars
Time to take a quick break from the playoffs to look back at The Season That Just Now Happened.
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we ripped on every first-round casualty we loathe and despise. This week, with the adrenaline-chocked pressure and excitement of the first round replaced by the most limp and lifeless eight team meh-fest you can possibly imagine, it's finally time to grit our collective teeth, clench our fists into a collective ball, and try and remember the 2011-12 Dallas Stars.
Say what you will about the way the year ended, but one thing is undeniable: This was clearly the most exciting Stars season since 2000, when they lost the Cup to the satanic New Jersey Devils. Not much was expected of this bottom-payroll team but like any good subject of a rockumentary, the Stars took us on a rollercoaster ride of supercharged emotion -- both for good, and for evil.
I'm not going to grade individual players here (because the whole concept of grades sucks), but here are the top and bottom five aspects of this past season.
First, The Good
#5 - The Continued Emergence of Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson: With Brad Richards done runofft, conventional wisdom dictated that Benn and Eriksson would suffer, their point totals artificially inflated by Richards' succulent saucer assists. Only a few brave souls predicted that the opposite would occur.
Turns out, conventional wisdom can suck it.
Benn essentially matched Richards' output in 11 fewer games, while Eriksson just flat-out outscored his old pivot, becoming just the fourth player in the NHL to break the 70-point mark in four straight seasons. Benn scored a metric ***kton of highlight-reel goals, despite being on a quasi-checking line with a revolving door of linemates better suited for third line duties, and was third best in the league in even strength points per 60 minutes, trailing only Jordan Eberle and some stiff named Malkin. Eriksson ... well, even though he was robbed of another well-earned Lady Byng trophy, he still managed to snag his third straight "most underrated player in hockey" award (does that come with a trophy?), put up insane highlights, and made sure that whichever line he was on was the #1 line, and not the other way around. All told, these two guys were the engine that made the team watchable, packing the stands and piling up the points in the latter half of the season.
#4 - We Finally, Finally got a Backup Goaltender: When the Stars were winning division titles, President's Trophies and Stanley Cups, they always had one thing the allegedly-more-talented teams didn't: top-notch quality netminding ... from their backup. Roman Turek, Manny Fernandez, Marty Turco, and Mike Smith all kept the #1 guy fresh and lithe, while ensuring that Dallas never threw games away by starting their #2.
Since Smith was traded to Tampa, Dallas has severely lacked in that department, and -- surprise! -- has been both a defensive sieve and missed the playoffs every year since.
After Raycroft proved he couldn't stop pucks on an NHL level, rookie backup Richard Bachman came in and started routinely stealing games. Tough ones, too: Almost all of his starts were on the road, and almost all against high quality offensive teams. He was blown out a few times, but considerably less often than his terrible, terrible predecessors. When Kari Lehtonen went down early this season in Phoenix, nearly every Stars fan started ordering their Yakupov jerseys. Instead, Bachman kept the ship cruising until Lehtonen came back, saving the season at a critical time. With Jack Campbell right on his ankles, the young goalie logjam makes it almost feel like the early 2000s again.
#3 - The Hall of Prospects is No Longer Shrouded in Desolation and Despair: Ever since they came to Dallas, the Stars' prospect system has been questionable, the expected product of never having a low 1st round pick (and trading said #1 picks for, say, Ladislav Nagy).
Around half a decade or so ago, Les Jackson started changing things up, and, buoyed by a couple of first-round picks in the 9-14 range, now has a pretty impressive crop of youngsters ready to make a difference. The current Stars core -- Eriksson, Benn, Daley -- are all Stars draftees, while kids like Campbell, Oleksiak, Nemeth, Fraser, Dillon, Glennie, and the Smiths are just a year or two away from sticking to the NHL roster. Add to that a bunch of promising guys already on the roster in Phillip Larsen, Tomas Vincour, and Mark Fistric, and you have reason for hope beyond this season.
#2 - We Didn't Get Burned by Free Agent Signings: When Brad Richards left for greener pastures lined with 100-dolla bills out East, GM Joe had some roster spots to improve and next to no cash to do it with. The NHL still (badly) ran the team, the payroll had to stick to rock-bottom and the actual crop of UFAs was not terribly impressive. Out of that, Nieuwendyk somehow found inexpensive gems in Michael Ryder (35 goals, 62 points, +17, $3.5 million), Sheldon Souray (21 points, +11, $1.65 million), Vernon Fiddler (21 points on checking line, $1.8 million), Eric Nystrom (16 goals on checking line, $1.4 million) and Radek Dvorak (21 points on checking line, $1.5 million). That's a fair amount of production for a bunch of guys who combined make less than Brad Richards or Ilya Kovalchuk or Christian Ehrhoff. Few GMs have been able to do more with less than GM Joe, which is good news heading forward, now that ...
#1 - We Finally, Finally Have an Owner!: Tom Hicks has accomplished the impossible, torpedoing the hopes and dreams of three fanbases in two hemispheres, and after defaulting on a half-billion dollar loan (banks lend to him because he's very, very rich, and they're very, very stupid) the Stars were without an owner for the better part of three seasons. This essentially made it impossible to retain key free agents (nice knowin' ya, Brad!), sign key RFAs (would it have killed us to make an offer sheet for Stamkos?) and maintain fan interest (no sales team or marketing of any kind = empty stadiums). Since Tom Gaglardi bravely weathered dozens of creditors and their lawyers on endless conference calls and league/bank-mandated delays, the team has found what it needed most: stability and enthusiasm at the top. Acquiring guys like Parise or Suter is no longer like borrowing money to go buy lottery tickets. Stars-themed ads permeate billboards and TV across the city, and the cavernous emptiness of the AAC has been replaced by sellout crowds of playoff-starved hockey fans. For those of us who live and die with each win or loss, it's a huge burden off our collective shoulders to finally have a guy at the top who's willing to do what it takes to be successful.
And Now, The Bad
#5 - The Worst Powerplay in the NHL Since 1973 - With captain and crease-crasher Brenden Morrow ailing and no more Brad Richards, you would normally expect the PP to take a hit this season: but not to franchise-low depths. No team was as bad (except for the Coyotes, who scored just one more goal on eight more chances), and the reasons are plentiful: a total disconnect between forwards and defensemen that made entering the zone a Herculean task; a million shots from the point that never even came close to making it on net; no one willing to stand in front of the goaltender as a screen/human pinata; literally zero movement from the low forwards; and having our #1 PP center lose 60% of his faceoffs (more on that later). The Stars powerplay was brutal to watch and, honestly, it was probably brutal to play on too. The Stars were almost never given powerplays to begin with (only two teams had fewer chances), their first unit rarely did anything other than skate the length of the ice 3x, and the sometimes-productive second unit (led by Benn) was usually given less than 45 seconds to work with as a result. If the Stars are going to compete in the West, they need to take advantage of these golden opportunities, especially late in the third period of crucial games. They didn't, and here we are.
#4 - Our Ailing Captain - I've already talked at length about Morrow's disappointing leadership; but what really hurts to watch is his physical inability to play hockey. Morrow has always led by example, taking (and giving) terrible amounts of abuse in the crease and sacrificing his body and health in order for his team to score goals. Last season he put up 33 goals on 209 shots in 82 games... this season, thanks to a laundry list of injuries (most of which, unfortunately, he chose to play through) he totaled just 11 goals on 88 shots over 57 games. He rarely screens the goalie, setting up on one side or the other of the net instead; He can't skate fast enough to backcheck or get into position on offense; thanks to a nagging neck injury he can barely turn his head, making him a liability in the defensive zone; and thanks to multiple knee and back injuries, he no longer works for the puck in the corners, limiting his line's ability to cycle the puck and diminishing his once-glorious role as a human wrecking ball in the offensive zone. Morrow says that he just needs time to heal and he'll be as good as new, but he's now had three (going on four) full summers to recuperate, and his body is clearly breaking down. He might have one good year left in him, but sad to say it's unlikely he'll ever perform at the level he did even a season ago.
#3 - Our Unreliable #1 Center: Mike Ribeiro stood to gain the most from Brad Richards' departure: After all, the season before we acquired Richards, Ribeiro fit brilliantly into the #1 center spot, and taking advantage of Sedin-esque offensive zone time, he put up 83 and 78 points in back-to-back seasons. Unfortunately, while the talent is unquestionably there the drive seems to be lacking. Ribs still managed to put up a healthy 63 points in 74 games -- his worst total in a non-injury year since he first came to Dallas to play behind Mike Modano -- but most of those points came in the latter half of the season, once Eriksson was put on his line. Before that, Ribeiro was simply godawful in all three zones, especially early in the season when paired with an ineffective Morrow. The Ryder-Ribeiro-Eriksson line was a thing of beauty after the All-Star break until the final few games of the season, when it disappeared entirely... and angry Stars fans can make an argument that Ribeiro's mind-bottingly bad turnover in the final Calgary game was the turning point for the rest of the season. Ribs has the talent to be a PPG center, but he is obviously better suited to be a #2 guy, a complimentary scorer that is shielded from the enemy's top defensive pairings.
#2 - Lack of Conditioning: Ever since the Stars mysteriously fired longtime trainer Dave Surprenant, they have simply not won a second game of a back-to-back. Making Gary Roberts our team whateverheis has made things even worse: They went 6-6-0 in the second games of back-to-backs last season, and were an abysmal 1-11-2 this year. For a team that was holding on to a playoff spot by a thread with five games left, that many points left on the table (and let's not kid ourselves here, they were outscored by a 2-to-1 margin in those games. Very few of them were not lopsided blowouts) made the difference between facing an underwhelming Blackhawks team in the first round and, once again...
#1 - Being On the Outside Looking In: As the first round of the playoffs proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, the regular season is completely meaningless... as anything other than the determining factor on who makes the real season. While it will undoubtedly be awesome to point and laugh at the Canucks' 2011-12 President's Trophy banner for all eternity, at least they made it to the big dance. Canucks fans got to see three playoff games in person, with the additional, unexpected thrill of seeing their team win one glorious, inevitable-delaying game. That's more than Stars fans have seen in four years now. We fired Dave Tippett because he only gets past the first round once every four years; now, fans would salivate at the chance to get swept by a hated #1 seed. Things are definitely trending "up" in Dallas, but all the "potential" and "hope" in the world is nothing if it doesn't result in concrete results. Here's hoping the Stars piece it all together for next season.