Thursday, April 25, 2013
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Grading the 2013 Dallas Stars
On the bright side, we still have a 1.1% chance of landing the first overall pick in the draft!
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we looked at the five-team game of musical chairs at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture, and correctly predicted that all predictions are inaccurate and you should just hold on to your horses and watch the da*n games. This week, considering the Stars' chances at making the postseason are still pretty good, we're going to start mapping out the Stanley Cup parade, the first of many if my calculations are correct. We'll start at the dancing pool filled with the tears of Blackhawks fans, and move on to—wait, what? We need the Nashville Predators to win two road games in regulation?
Ah, hell. SEASON OVER! ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO DON'T UNDERSTAND IT'S JUST A MINDLESS FORM OF ENTERTAINMENT!
Since the Stars have pretty much been handing away points like they were live grenades this past week, it behooves us to go ahead and call the season too. It's been an up-and-down season, literally, as the Stars strung together a bunch of huge winning streaks and sandwiched them between huge losing streaks, the end result being a .500 team. All in all, it's not a bad place to be when you're the youngest team in the NHL, but it won't be enough to save Gulutzan's job. Here are the best and worst of the 2013 Dallas Stars in grade-form.
#1. Cody Eakin: When Eakin came over in the Ribeiro trade last summer, 99% of Stars fans reacted with a resounding "Wait--who?" before rapidly checking Hockey's Future and seeing that we got a guy with eight points in 30 games with the Caps in 2012. To be sure, we expected more from trading Ribs... maybe like four first-rounders and a couple of blue-chip defensemen, maybe? Regardless, Eakin started the season centering the fourth line, and plans were made to TP GM Joe's house.
But Eakin impressed in limited minutes, impressed more with increased minutes, and frankly, never stopped impressing. He's one of the fastest players on the team, but more than that, he never quits on a play. This is practically unheard-of in (recent) Stars hockey. Eakin did what many thought impossible: he played his way up the roster until he was our second-line center. Sure, he's still a little raw and most definitely needs to work on winning faceoffs (48.7%). But his 24 points --after spending half the season on the "energy" lines-- is 61st among all NHL centers, higher than much more highly-touted/paid players such as Jeff Skinner and Paul Stastny. He's also defensively responsible, embarrasses opposing d-men nightly, and works hard in the corners. Dallas has been desperately searching for another player in the Jere Lehtinen mode, and Newy may have found him. Final Grade: A
#2. Alex Goligoski: A lot of ridicule is sent Newy's way for the Neal/Goligoski trade. It's easy to understand, after all: Neal has morphed into a 40-goal scorer, while Goligoski was a healthy scratch earlier in the season. Of course, that narrative breaks down like an 8-year old One Direction fan at a Slipknot concert when you see that Neal without Malkin scores about one goal every ten games, and that Goligoski --in a year where he was publicly ridiculed by Mike Milbury-- is third among all Western Conference defensemen in scoring, ahead of such luminaries as Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Most of that production came in the second half of the season, when coach Gulutzan finally switched Gogo over to his natural side: he has 14 points in his last 18 games, a Letang-esque pace. He still needs to be more aggressive, particularly on the powerplay, and his actual "defending" could use some work --see below-- but overall the 25 year-old d-man is starting to come around offensively. Final Grade: A-
#3. Brenden Dillon: When the Stars decided to play three rookie defensemen through most of the first half of the season, it was a bold move meant for a rebuilding team. But if the only thing we took away from it is that Brenden Dillon rocks all of the a**, then you could consider this season a spectacular success. Like Eakin, Dillon was a bottom-pairing afterthought at the very beginning of the season, and like Eakin, he gradually worked his way up the roster until he was, technically, our #1 guy. Not just in ice time, but in quality of opponents, in late-game situations, and on the penalty kill, where he leads all rookie d-men in ice time. While he was paired mostly with Stephane Robidas throughout the season, a late-season pairing with Alex Goligoski seems to have been extremely beneficial for Gogo's offense and defense, as he is free to create while Dillon holds the fort. For one of the many undrafted guys on this team, Dillon has been nothing short of incredible. Final Grade: A
#4: Alex Chiasson: Much has already been made of Chiasson's incredible six goals in his first six NHL games (last accomplished by some no-talent stiff named Malkin), but it goes far beyond that. After the deadline sell-off, Chiasson was immediately thrust into a first-line role in his first-ever NHL game... and thrived. He's a big winger that not only crashes the net, but crashes the net at just the right time to create grade-A scoring chances. His offensive instincts are incredible, and they're just what the Stars have talked about for half a decade without actually, y'know, doing. Can he maintain a goal-a-game pace? Probably not, but with two flashy playmakers on his line he's definitely going to get multiple chances every night to do so. Final Grade: A
#5: Ray Whitney: On a team with ten players under the age of 23 --including both his linemates-- Whitney stands out as the Team Elder. The Wizard has certainly delivered on the potentially laughable contract he received over the summer, with 28 points in 30 games this season. While yes, he does lead the team in turnovers and yes, it was one such turnover that cost the Stars two points against San Jose in a must-win game-- Whitney has been the creative force we needed after trading Ribeiro. Additionally, unlike Ribs, he actually seems to know how to run a powerplay from the wall, as the Stars' PP has improved from a franchise-low 13% last season to a more respectable 17% this season, a marked improvement. He doesn't play defense, but at a PPG pace we'll take it. Final Grade: A-
Honorable Mention: Antoine Roussel, Stephane Robidas, Vern Fiddler, Ryan Garbutt.
#1: Loui Eriksson: In the four seasons leading up to this one, Eriksson has proven to be the Stars' best player, consistently putting up 70+ points despite having a new center every year, while putting up Selke-worthy defense in his own zone. He annually tops the list of most underrated players in the NHL, so much so that it's now a running joke in the hockey media. He plays with a high hockey IQ, never gets injured, and instantly elevates whatever line he's on to the de facto first line. Last season, he single-handedly turned a struggling Ribeiro into a PPG center, and when paired with Jamie Benn formed one of the most lethal pairings in the entire NHL.
This season, there can be no question that something is physically wrong with the guy. His speed is 50% what it normally is, he can't turn on a dime, he looks tentative and scared in the offensive zone, and his backhand clearing attempts in his own zone are intercepted more often than Vinny Testeverde. He rarely skates into the corners, he doesn't seem physically able to rotate his torso to make a play, and has missed so many empty nets you'd think he's been taking wristshot lessons from Patrick Stefan. In two games we'll find out just what's been ailing Eriksson this year, but as of right now he's dragged down whatever line he's been on, to the point where it's just painful to watch. Hopefully he can get it straightened out in time for next season, because Eriksson's abysmal play has likely been the #1 factor in the Stars missing the postseason this year. Final Grade: D
#2: Jamie Benn: With great contracts comes great responsibility, and Benn has not lived up to anything remotely close to expectations. After making an eyebrow-raising decision to play in the low-voltage German league rather than the KHL or AHL during the lockout, Benn seems to have decided to coast lazily through the entire calendar year. Last year he was statistically the third-best player in the NHL in scoring at even strength per minute, behind Stamkos and Eberle (who also is having an inexplicably poor season... maybe Don Cherry is right about advanced stats). Benn was a dynamic winger who seemed to excel at the center position, and seemed poised for a breakout season in 2013.
Unfortunately, Stars fans will have to wait another summer at least to see that breakout season, because Benn has been just slightly above average in this one. His 32 points in 39 games projects out to a 67-point pace, and he has all but disappeared in Dallas' post-deadline playoff run, with just 7 points in 12 April games. More importantly, he's not doing the things that got stats nerds so excited about him last season. He's been given Ribeiro's extremely favorable offensive zone starts --his 57% is second only to Whitney on the team-- and done next to nothing with it. While earlier in the season a great deal of that was the utter inability of linemate Brenden Morrow to make basic hockey plays, Benn still holds most of the blame for his mediocre play. His 32 points is decent, and right on par with guys like Mike Richards, Patrick Marleau, Jordan Staal, Vincent Lecavalier, Tyler Seguin and (gulp!) Brad Richards --all second-line centers. Here's hoping an entire season with Whitney and Chiasson on his line helps him develop into the center he can be. Final Grade: D+
#3: Kari Lehtonen: The former #2 overall pick is probably the biggest trade steal in GM Joe's short career, and no one can question that he's held the Stars in many games this season. When he's on his game, he's a cool, calm and collected mountain of man in net, and frustrating to the extreme, particularly in games where he's posting 40-save shutouts against the defending Cup champs.
Unfortunately, that remarkable performance was Lehtonen's sole shutout of the season, and his overall numbers are quite pedestrian. His GAA is 2.65, putting him 30th among goalies with ten decisions. Ok, you might say, that's more a reflection of Dallas starting so many rookie d-men than Lehtonen's individual ability. I get that. So let's look at his save percentage: .916. While this would have won him all the Vezinas back in the 80s, in 2013 it places him 17th among regular goalies, higher than guys like Ryan Miller, Roberto Luongo and Pekke Rinne, but below guys like Tomas Vokoun, Jimmy Howard and Ben Bishop. In other words, Lehtonen is just slightly above the middle of the pack statistically. More importantly, while his puckstopping ability has kept us alive in games we had no business staying alive in, his maddening penchant for letting in goals from sharp angles at the worst possible times has also cost us games in which we were leading. The big-dollar contract he signed in the offseason says he's a top-ten goaltender in this league, but he never has proven that yet, and with Jack Campbell backstopping the Texas Stars to the #1 spot in the AHL Lehtonen's days may be numbered if he can't put a consistent season together soon. Final Grade: C+
#4: Philip Larsen: Larsen has been a darling of Stars fans desperate for The Next Sergei Zubov ever since Matt Niskanen proved himself to be the single worst defenseman in franchise history. In the Nordic leagues and the AHL, Larsen is a point-every-other-game player with high hockey intelligence and a surprising amount of physicality for someone who is about 5'8 and 165 pounds. Many Stars fans want him to take an expanded offensive role, and so he has been put on a pairing with Goligoski ("he's small and quick, so he must be good at offense!"). The problem, of course, is that when Larsen is on the ice, the Stars generate zero offense. That was true last season, when he was the single worst player on the entire team in terms of generating points on the powerplay, and while he has thankfully been kept off both PP units this season, his entire game seems to have dried up. He regularly gets beat on breakaways, his physicality in his own zone has been overshadowed by his small size, and most of his ice time is spent chasing the puck in and around his own net. With no fewer than six top-notch defensive prospects on the AHL team (Oleksiak, Nemeth, Gaunce, Morrow, Connauton and Klingsberg) hungry for a spot on the NHL team to prove that they too can Dillon their way up the depth chart, Larsen needed more than anyone else to prove that he is worthy of a roster spot. When you have a few flashes of competence in an otherwise dismal season --a season in which you're allegedly fighting for your job-- it's a bad sign. He's still got one year left on his very affordable deal, expect him to be packaged for a center sometime this summer. Final Grade: F
#5: Glen Gulutzan: The AHL wunderkind has lost a lot of his lustre this season. While as a rookie head coach he had to navigate through a maze of aging vets and their inflated egos, this season he's proven that he's not quite ready for the big leagues yet. Gully is obviously a highly intelligent, friendly and driven individual who fits the "player's coach" mold to a T, keeping the lines of communication open with his players and avoiding the idiotic motivate-by-public-criticism game bad coaches use as a trump card to light fires under underperforming players.
Unfortunately, being a nice guy is not enough, and Gully's .500 record is exactly what it is: mediocre. Last season he was handcuffed by the lowest-paid roster in hockey, but this season he had the pieces to move around as he saw fit--and failed. Putting Morrow on the first line was an obvious mistake to anyone with a working pair of eyeballs, and likely the result of a failed power struggle between the captain and the coach for ice time when by all reasonable accounts Morrow should've been a healthy scratch. Not being able to motivate vets like Roy, Jagr and Ryder to buy in to his north-south, fast-paced system directly led to a host of preventable losses and a slow start to the season that had the Stars chasing from the get-go. Give credit to Gully for taking a chance on guys like Eakin, Chiasson, Dillon, Oleksiak, Matt Fraser and Reilly Smith, but too many games were wasted putting Goligoski on his unnatural side or paired with Larsen, and practically 2/3rds of the season was wasted putting Jagr on Benn's line rather than Whitney. And finally, despite the Stars trading away their penalty minute leaders, Dallas still repeatedly gave itself self-inflicted wounds with lazy stick penalties, too many men on the ice penalties, ill-timed fights while leading, and 8 points lost in games they were leading by two goals. These things happen to every team, even the Blackhawks, but the sheer volume of these occurrences indicate that Gully never once had control over this team. You don't need to be a screaming hard-a** to be an effective coach, but you better have your troops in line before you ever hit the ice or you will continually snatch defeat from the jaws of victory... which is something the Stars are starting to develop a league-wide reputation for after five straight years of missing the playoffs. Hopefully likely new head coach Willie Desjardins can work his worst-to-first magic with Dallas next season. Final Grade: D
Dishonorable Mention: Aaron Rome, Richard Bachman, Brenden Morrow.