For most of us, Saturday night was the first chance for us to get our first look at the Dallas Starsunder Marc Crawford. We'd all questioned how different this team would play under Crawford and his new system and according to Mark Stepneski when he was on Defending Big D LIVE, the changes were something we'd just have to see in person to understand.
It wasn't just the system change that has made this Dallas Stars team very different than the one that finished out of the playoffs last season. Brenden Morrow and Brad Richards are back in the lineup, and the Stars have some serious depth at forward with the addition of Jamie Benn and Tom Wandell. The defense has been shored up (somewhat) with free agents Karlis Skastins and Jeff Woywitka.
Headed into the game against Nashville, fans were feeling a bit concerned after the Stars' dress rehearsal in the final preseason game was fairly disastrous. Daryl Reaugh kept mentioning that the players were thinking too much and looked a bit uncomfortable out on the ice, while trying to adjust to what Crawford wanted his team to do. Could the team get things figured out after a week in Austin, filled with golf and team-building exercises?
After watching the film of the game, the quick answer is yes. While there were certainly some things that needed to be worked on and the Stars lost in disappointing fashion, there were signs throughout the game that the Stars could become an extremely dangerous team. Now it's just one game and you can't make long-term projections based on the opening night of a season, but the fundamentals were there to judge just what this team could be if everything goes right.
Follow the jump for my detailed thoughts and ramblings on these "new" Dallas Stars.
What follows are my personal thoughts and observation while watching the game against Nashville on Saturday night. They are in no particular order.
- No matter what type of system Marc Crawford is hoping to install in these Dallas Stars, there will always be one fundamental element of hockey that will determine your success or failure: one on one battles. In the first period, the Stars were not winning them. They were getting out muscled along the boards and losing pucks in transition in the neutral zone. On several occasions the Stars could not sustain an attack in the offensive zone due to the Predators easily regaining control of the puck along the boards and moving back up ice. This was also the factor that led the Stars to not get a shot on net until over six minutes had passed. A team can try to be as wide open as they want, but they aren't going to get much pressure if they can't keep the puck.
- We've talked about it all summer and now we finally see the problems this will cause the Dallas Stars...the lack of no right-handed shots in the forward ranks is a big handicap for the offense. The Stars have two righties on defense, but there is still some serious hiccups during play in front of the net without a right-handed shot. Midway through the first period, the Stars had several chances to get some good, solid shots on net onto a wide-open Dan Ellis from just inside the slot area. First, Toby Petersen was skating from left to right in front of the net and the puck ricocheted onto his stick; a right-handed shooter would have had a full net to get a good shot off, Petersen had to settle for a weak back-hand (not everyone is Mike Modano). Just seconds later, Steve Otthad nearly the exact same play happen; coming from left to right the puck found Ott's stick on his backhand and instead of taking a big shot he passed the puck to a dropping defensemen. Not a bad decision, but the defensemen did not have the same wide-open look Ott did.
- One group that I was extremely impressed with was the fourth line of Krystofer Barch, Tom Wandell and Fabian Brunnstrom. They had some of the best chances for the Stars in the first period, had great puck movement and chemistry down low and were one of the first lines to really establish a forecheck. Wandell in particular was impressive at center, and it's obvious that he has a knack for creating plays for his wingers with his energy and speed. I didn't see any glaring defensive mistakes by this group either, which is a must for your fourth line.
- Returning to the topic of right-handed shots: the lack of righties on the power play is going to be where the biggest issues lies with this team. If you can, go back and watch the Stars' power plays from Saturday night. Nearly all of their attack was focused from coming from the right side of the ice (goalie's left). Without a big right-handed shot down low on the opposite side, there isn't a good option for a back door tap in. (For a good example of this play, watch Jason Arnott's quick attempt on Turco.) The only time the Stars got a shot off from the left side, goalie's right, was when a defensemen snuck down from the point.
- Only Brad Richards (4-for-4) was effective in offensive zone faceoffs. Mike Ribeiroand Mike Modano were a combined 4-for-19 in the offensive zone in the faceoff circle; that's unacceptable for a team that is focused on maintaining pressure.
- Chalk up the two goals allowed to poor coverage in front of the net. On both occasions the Predators were given ample time and opportunity to knock in rebounds off of Turco. On the first, a power play goal for Arnott, Grossman just stood and poked at Arnott as his slapped at the puck over and over. On the second, the defensemen were late again to cover in front and the Stars failed to pick up a third player dropping down low. They turned that around in the second half of the game, but it's something to watch out for; Mark Fistric is the best player on the team at being physical around his own net and he was a healthy scratch.
- While I didn't necessarily agree that Jamie Benn was worthy of player of the game mention, I will say that there is no doubt he belongs in the NHL. He's composed, calm and extremely well rounded. He's deft at handling the puck, can be physical along the boards and fight for the puck (and win that battle most times) and puts himself in great position around the net to give himself a scoring chance. 15:59 of ice time, two shots, two missed shots, two hits and two takeaways were a pretty impressive debut for fifth-round draft pick that's never played above the junior level.
- In this system, Crawford is going to ask his defenseman to routinely drop down low, sneak down the boards or slide down to take a shot off a dropped pass. This is something that's been lacking for the Stars in the past and it's been frustrating to consistently see the Stars back off of plays on the blueline in favor of making the safe play and drop back. Charlie Huddy and Crawford want the defensemen to pinch and hold the puck in the offensive zone. This is great, but this will require the forwards to have extreme situational awareness and drop back as soon as they see a defenseman joining the attack. Several times Saturday night the forwards did just that, getting into the play just in time to backcheck on an odd-man rush or negate one from developing. The best player on the ice that did this the best and most consistently against the Predators? Jamie Benn.
- Aside from the coverage issues in front of the net as mentioned above, the defense overall was much more active and confident than last season. You can already tell the difference Karlis Skrastinsand Jeff Woywitka will make, albeit it will be in small details and not in a flashy manner. Skrastins led the Stars in blocked shots with four (surpise!) and made several diving plays in the defensive zone. Woywitka was impressive in his Stars debut and was never hesitant to lead an offensive rush. Stephane Robidas was his usual solid self but it was Matt Niskanen that looks to have made the biggest leap from last year. He had several good chances on net and didn't make many mistakes in his own zone. At point, the Stars didn't allow a shot on net for over 17 minutes between the second and third period.
- James Nealis a beast, and he's better than last year. He's physical, has an incredible shot and is a man possessed in the offensive zone. He was the best player on the ice for the Stars and he looks ready to break out into a bona fide NHL star.
- The Stars looked like they want to play much more aggressive on the penalty kill, and will collapse on the puck much quicker than last season. Unfortunately, this also left several backdoor shots open. Overall, the penalty kill was solid but needed several big saves from Turco.
- Overall, I think Turco had a decent game. He made several big saves in the second period, including a sliding stop on Jason Arnott on the power play, but this really should have been a shutout for the Stars. Both goals were of the soft variety and while it wasn't his fault exactly that his defensemen couldn't cover the front of his net, he was still out of position on both. On the second goal, I'm guessing he was preparing to make a sprawling stop as he guessed the puck would be swept across the crease, but it was poked against the grain and slid under his leg pad. Turco was much too quick to scramble there and only needed to maintain his butterfly to make an easy stop.
- That crowd was raucous and into the game. Good to see after such a disappointing end to last season, and I hope to see many more like that this season.