Leading up to the start of the season the big story surrounding the Dallas Stars was on how not much had really changed. While the departures of Marty Turco, Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen are certainly noteworthy, for the most part the Dallas Stars entered the 2010-11 season with essentially the exact same roster from the year before. After a season of struggles with scoring, consistency, defense and goaltending led to yet another non-playoff year, many felt that without significant changes the Stars were headed for yet another disappointing season.
With the exception of a few, many in the media predicted another finish for the Stars at the bottom of the Western Conference, citing the departure of Modano and the lack of defensive superstardom on the blue line. In fact, even with the Stars getting off to a hot start the first two weeks of the season, there were still the detractors that called this early success a "mirage" and that this team will eventually fall back to earth sooner or later.
After all, how can a team with the same players, same coach and same general manager be any different from one season to the next? It's absolutely preposterous to think that a team can improve and evolve within a system, and there's no way this Stars would be the one to pull it off. This is what the general feeling has been outside of Dallas.
With a focus on technique, mechanics and an overall shift in the culture that exists in the Dallas Stars locker room, coach Marc Crawford has managed to do what hasn't been done in nearly two years in Dallas: he's made this team believe in itself.
From the start of training camp Crawford has preached his belief in a team system, a group of 20 players on the ice all focused on working together to accomplish a singular goal. This isn't about riding the goaltender or a superstar center to success, this is about becoming a team in the purest sense of the word. He's stressed that not one player is bigger than another and that each player on the ice is just as important as the guy on the other end of the bench.
Last season, Crawford didn't have this level of control of influence on the locker room. Perhaps it's because of the turmoil surrounding the team following the general manager and coaching changes. Perhaps it was because of the dynamics that already existed within the team that prevented Crawford from truly getting his message and philosophy across. This struggle was evident in the team's overall lack of consistency throughout the season and resulted in yet another lost year in Dallas.
Over the summer, Crawford began preaching this renewed dedication to embracing the team aspect of hockey. He wanted the Stars to become a tough and physical team to play against, a resignation that would require each and every player to commit to from the very start. The team signed Adam Burish to help solidify the right wing position while also adding some needed attitude to a roster that has had it's confidence shattered in recent years. The Stars committed to it's young players and proved that despite the financial hardships this team is facing the Stars are still committed to building a winning franchise once more.
A change of culture within a team and within a franchise doesn't come from the coaching standing up in the locker room and screaming for change. This overall and subtle -- yet effective -- shift in philosophy and team approach is a result of every member of the organization buying into what they believe is needed to be done for change to occur; this starts from the general manager and works it way down all the way to the players.
Talk to any players in the Stars locker room and they'll tell you that this is the best team the Stars have had in years. Steve Ott claims that this group of relatively young hockey players is the most skilled and hungry team he's been apart of in Dallas -- ever. This is a team that is finally taking pride in it's approach from game to game and one that knows that it's going to take each and every individual to make a difference in order for the Stars to ultimately be successful. Each player knows that they're contribution is not only needed but required and it's this inherent pride in their game that is driving the Stars to early success this season.
The perfect example of how this new approach is paying off for the Stars came in last night's 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. While the Penguins are not the NHL powerhouse they were two seasons ago, they were still a great challenge for a team that is still attempting to prove it belongs in the upper echelon of the NHL. From the drop of the puck, the Stars dominated the Penguins and stepped up to any challenge they were faced with; this was the ultimate team win with each player on the ice providing significant contributions to perhaps the most entertaining home game since May 4, 2008.
The top line of the Stars was incredibly impressive, yet it was the efforts of the third and fourth lines that truly made the difference in not only this game but in every win this season. Tom Wandell, Brandon Segal, Steve Ott, Adam Burish and Toby Petersen have all had incredible starts to the season without the gaudy stats to back up that claim. Yet if you watch each game, it's easy to see how effortlessly Marc Crawford can roll out four effective lines throughout each game and that it's this ability which is ultimately making the biggest difference this season.
Crawford has every confidence in his fourth and last night against Pittsburgh regularly put them on the ice against the Penguins' top line. This allowed the coach to put the Ribeiro and the Richards lines out on the ice away from the Penguins top guys and giving him the advantage he needed to build on an early lead. The Stars are receiving the same effort from their top line performers that they are getting from their fourth liners and the transition from line to line is virtually seamless; the Stars uniform approach and effort is just too much for the opposition to handle.
This season, the pride with which these players are taking the ice is readily apparent. They read about how this team was no good over the summer and how they'd struggle once again. This team knows that many feel the defense is a glaring weakness that will do nothing but hold the Stars back. Yet the Stars ignored this talk and banded together as perhaps the most cohesive team we've seen in Dallas in years.
The Dallas Stars are not perfect and it's still very early in the season. Already we've witnessed the Stars changing their approaches from game to game as they've fought to find that perfect balance in their performances that gives them the best chance at success. Last week the Stars were visibly frustrated and angry at their lack of success in games and in the past this might have started a downward spiral. Instead, Crawford publicly challenged his team and the players responded with two of the most complete games of the past two seasons combined.
This season, the Dallas Stars are a team. They're going to face some struggles this season and in the past we'd be worried with how the team might respond. Yet this group of players, this 2010-2011 Dallas Stars team, they're different. These Stars have pride, talent and a drive for success that hasn't existed in Dallas in quite some time.
Play more games like they did against Pittsburgh, and the sky is the limit.