I distinctly remember the first game Karlis Skrastins played in a Dallas Stars uniform. (Not that it's hard to forget, it was only a year ago. But still.) One moment stands out from that season opener against Nashville. The Stars had been put on the penalty kill, and Skrastins was out on the ice with Stephane Robidas. The Predators set up in the zone, and Skrastins immediately blocked one of the first shots. I remember what Ralph Strangis said about that:
"They're going to love him here in Dallas."
As it turns out, Ralph was dead on.
The rather nondescript signing of Karlis Skrastins more than a year and a half ago has had a huge impact on the Dallas Stars, and is one of the reasons Dallas is having so much success this season. Only, some may not have noticed.
See, Skrastins is one of those defensemen who goes about his business with a quiet, workmanlike demeanor that has more impact on his teammates than it does on the fans watching the game. He doesn't make the huge hit. He doesn't have a booming slapshot. He's not overly physical. Instead, he locks down his side of the ice quietly and effectively with strong stickplay along the boards and always seems to be clogging up the shooting lanes. He is rarely out of position.
Skrastins impact on the Stars' growth as a defense has been invaluable, and I'll tell you why after the jump.
A knock on the Stars defensive corps the last few seasons has been their general lapses in judgement. At times, the young d-men would get pulled way out of position, pinch at the wrong times or leave their side of the zone (and thus, the net) wide open. As a fanbase, it was frustrating to watch. We had been told that this was a talented young group with potential, yet on some nights it seemed like the entire defense was lost in their own zone. There was no stabilizing presence outside of Stephane Robidas, and that clearly hurt the group.
Skrastins' best asset is his positioning. He has a great understanding of where he needs to be at all times, whether in transition or within his own zone. Skrastins has been in the NHL for a long time, and what the young guys like Niskanen and Fistric were still trying to learn, he had known for years.
So when he stepped into the fold, the young defense had someone on the ice who was everything they needed to become defensively. And after a year, we're starting to see his influence throughout the team.
Suddenly the penalty kill has become pretty good, having climbed up at least seven spots since the start of the season. The PK has learned to take away the shooting lanes and control their aggressiveness, something that they struggled with mightily last season. Skrastins leads the penalty kill with 21 blocked shots. The next closest? Nicklas Grossman (with 12) and Robidas (with 11). Skrastins is a huge part of a penalty kill that's starting to become dangerous.
Meanwhile, the defense as a whole has something that they didn't have last season: confidence. You can see it when Trevor Daley is sprawling out to make a block, when Nicklas Grossman races back to tie up a Red Wing on a breakaway, when Jeff Woywitka can step into the lineup and the squad doesn't miss a beat.
Of course, you can't lay all of this at the feet of Karlis Skrastins. This is a natural progression of a young defensive corps. But I'm of the mind that it would've taken even longer for this group to hit their learning curve if they didn't have someone like Karlis Skrastins leading by example the last year and a half.
So while we all get excited about how well the team is playing, let's not forget to give "Scratch" his due.