Before the season started, aside from some corners here at Defending Big D, there wasn't much optimism surrounding the Dallas Stars. Much of the narrative focused on the loss of Brad Richards, the new coach and a supposedly underwhelming roster that sits as one of the lowest-paid in the NHL. People just weren't feeling that great about the Stars and while we did our best it was tough to defend the team without actual on-ice proof to back it up.
Just a few weeks into the season and the Stars have a stellar 5-1-0 start to the season. The national media is sitting up and taking notice with many owning up to the fact they might have overlooked what could be a surprising team in the Western Conference. While much of the local attention right now is on the World Series and the Texas Rangers, the Stars are quietly off to one of their better starts since coming to Dallas -- and now face their first true test of this young season.
Much like last season, the Stars are off to a hot start while not exactly playing perfect hockey. The Stars were able to keep the success rolling along until midway through the season last year, before the shortcomings we had seen all year finally caught up to them. This season, while we certainly appreciate such a great start, we are much more aware of just how quickly it can all fall apart. The Stars have beaten just one "quality" team this season and are kicking off one heck of a test tonight against Anaheim, before heading into Los Angeles to take on the Kings tomorrow night.
This is the first real test of the season for these Dallas Stars and new coach Glen Gulutzan and while there is once again an optimistic atmosphere surrounding the team, several questions will need to be addressed and answered before we can truly start believing this thing is for real...
Will the Mike Ribeiro line finally live up to its potential?
Coming into the season we expected big things from Mike Ribeiro and company. Once again being given the chance to be the Stars' top center, Ribeiro was expected to put up some big numbers while leading what we hoped to be an aggressive offensive push by the Dallas Stars. While the top line of Ribiero, Brenden Morrow and Michael Ryder is starting to finally put up some numbers (12 points in six games between the three players) there have been some very disturbing trends so far this season for what was supposed to be a dominant line.
The Ribeiro line has been an absolute sieve on defense, getting grossly outchanced through six games while failing to sustain offensive pressure of their own. Whether on the road or at home, this line has struggled against top competition and has forced Coach Gulutzan to rely more and more on the Jamie Benn and Steve Ott line. What we had thought to be the "top line" for the Stars has instead been relegated to second line duties, seeing defensive assignments limited while getting reduced ice time in the third period against Columbus.
We know that it's just a matter of time until Ribeiro and his linemates find their groove. In the preseason it was apparent that Ribeiro and Ryder had regained their old chemistry and when Ribeiro is playing confident with the puck he's near unstoppable. Unfortunately, he's overthinking and isn't playing like a center with confidence right now -- falling to pieces at the faceoff dot and committing way too many turnovers in the offensive zone.
These next three games are crucial if the Stars hope to continue to build on this great start. The Stars absolutely cannot rely on one line much longer for all the crucial moments in games and the Ribiero line must find a way to step up. If not, then all of this talk about the Stars becoming a deeper team has been for naught.
Can Kari Lehtonen continue his climb to becoming an elite goaltender?
There's no question that the number one reason the Stars have been so successful this season has been because of the outstanding play of Kari Lehtonen in net. Facing more shots per game than any goaltender the NHL, only Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings has been better.
For the first time in his career Lehtonen is completely healthy while also being in the best shape of his life. He's playing with confidence and he's not wasting much energy, despite the barrage of shots he's faced. Everything about Lehtonen shows how in control he is right now and combined with a defense that is playing much better in front of the net, there's great optimism that Lehtonen could finally be living up to the "elite" potential he's had ever since being drafted.
Make no mistake, the key to this season is going to be how well Lehtonen can play -- all the way into the spring. Lehtonen was outstanding to start the season last year but faded as the year wore on. This season, the Stars are going to be competing with much better teams with more talent for a playoff spot and Lehtonen is the key to that success. Of course, how well he holds up this season depends in large part on...
Can Andrew Raycroft be a reliable backup this season for the Stars?
Last season, Raycroft had some good games but stumbled mightily in others. The Stars coaching staff lost their faith in the backup goaltender and the team relied much too heavily on Kari Lehtonen.
With the Stars playing in a back-to-back matchup with Anaheim and Los Angeles this weekend, the Stars will most likely turn to Raycroft in what is no doubt going to be their toughest game of the season. With Lehtonen starting in net tonight against Anaheim, it's going to be up to Raycroft to play opposite Quick and do whatever he can to try and get some points for the Stars.
Raycroft was shaky at times in the preseason and was less-than-stellar against Chicago on the road, yet he needs to prove to the Stars and to the coaching staff that he can be relied upon in games like this. The Stars have to feel confident that playing their backup goaltender is not an immediate waving of the white flag, allowing the team to play him more often while maintaining Lehtonen for the long season ahead.
That first real test is coming this weekend.
Will the Dallas Stars finally remember how to pass the puck?
All of this talk about zone entry and sustained pressure in the offensive zone comes down to the simple fact that the puck movement for the Dallas Stars has left a lot to be desired. The Stars are simply not passing the puck very well this season and it's leading to every single one of the other issues we've been discussing this season.
The problems with the passing are numerous: too many blind passes across the middle, too many egregious turnovers and not enough tape-to-tape passing. This last point is what my focus has been on so far this season and if only the Stars could get this under control, it would be amazing how much better the rest of the game would go.
The Stars have actually built a good transition game over that circus we watched last season. The Stars' defensemen are much smarter when moving the puck out of the zone and up the ice and the Stars have a great system now that they are comfortable in. Unfortunately, too many passes are hitting teammates in the skates or the legs, causing players to slow down to get the puck under control and halting any momentum the Stars had built going up ice.
These fumbled passes lead to turnovers and stalled rushes up the ice and creates confusion as players try to keep pushing the offense forward. We're seeing bad offsides calls, missed passes and passes just out of the reach of players on the verge of breaking toward the net.
If the Stars can get this passing issue under control, facing teams like Anaheim and Los Angeles won't seem like such a daunting task. As it is, you have to worry about their chances against these teams if they can't sustain any rushes or pressure in the offensive zone. These passing issues are at the heart of the scoring chance unbalance facing the Stars through six games and if there is one thing to fix moving forward -- it's this.