Before the season began, it seemed not one person outside of North Texas expected the Dallas Stars to do anything at all that could have been deemed "successful". Preseason rankings had the Stars firmly in the basement of the Western Conference while some even went so far as to say this team could end up being one of the worst in the NHL.
To be fair, some others around the hockey world were a bit more generous yet you'd be looking for a while before you found anyone that expected the Stars to compete for the Pacific division lead.
The reasons were numerous and everyone said nearly the same thing: the Dallas Stars would struggle significantly without Brad Richards and Kari Lehtonen was still a question in goal. Without a true "star" on the team the experts were dubious this was a team that could compete in a Western Conference filled with talent; even the Columbus Blue Jackets were going to have a top-five payroll after adding a number of free agents.
A month into the season, with most teams having paying nine to eleven games the Dallas Stars are sitting on top of the Western Conference, with a 8-3-0 record that has them just barely ahead of San Jose and Los Angeles in the division. If this sounds and feels familiar it's because it is; last season, the Stars enjoyed a much similar start to the season and fans had high hopes that this team would go on to eventually win the division. Of course, things didn't exactly work out that way.
This is a different Stars team this season and while the starts are similar, there are some very encouraging signs that this team has a much better chance at sustained success as the season progresses.
At this point in in the season last year, the Dallas Stars were 6-4-0 and were 8th in in the conference after going through a bit of a losing streak. The Stars would actually fall all the way to 13th midway though November when they lost three straight games and fell to 8-7-0 on the season.
At that point, the allure of the great start had worn off and the concerns about the way this team was winning games -- late comebacks because of poor starts -- had us feeling that perhaps it was all an illusion to start the year. The Stars then went 10-3-1 over the next month and were sitting happily at the top of the conference to start the new year.
When the Stars began their free-fall down through the conference starting in early February, the Stars had just a 19-14-4 record against the Western Conference and a losing record (5-6-1) against Pacific Division teams. For the first half of the season, the Stars had already played most of their Eastern Conference opponents and absolutely dominated -- 11-3-1 through February against the East.
The most important games of the season came in that final month and the Stars fell flat with big losses to Anaheim. Nashville, San Jose, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
On January 21, the Dallas Stars were 3rd in the conference and had a decent lead in the Pacific Division. From that point until the end of the season the Stars went 11-16-6 and eventually missed the playoffs by just two points. It was a collapse that was frustrating beyond belief but one that we should have seen coming because of the struggles through the first few months against the West.
So how does this all tie in to this season?
The Stars have played just one game so far this season against the Eastern Conference and have gone 7-3-0 so far against the West. Two losses have come against Los Angeles so there's still the concern that this team may struggle when the important games against the division come up. The Stars have yet to play San Jose, a team that looks built to test the system that Gulutzan has put in place.
What gives us hope that this start to the season is more than a fluke is the way this team is approaching and winning games. When Glen Gulutzan came to Dallas he preached about building a solid defensive base and working from there, knowing that if this team could not play good defense and play it consistently they'd have no chance at winning.
The Stars, behind an incredible start by Kari Lehtonen, have done a tremendous job at overhauling the defense. The system requires the team to collapse around the net and to limit prime scoring opportunities and to limit second chances -- both issues this team struggled with last season. The forwards are also doing a much better job tracking back on defense and helping out in support -- while still looking to push the puck back up the ice on offense.
Leading the way with this new approach is Sheldon Souray and a number of other new acquisitions. While the departure of Brad Richards has hurt the goal scoring a bit, the players added in the offseason have become a vital part of why this team has been so successful this season. The Stars are a confident team on defense and they do a great job in making teams work to create scoring chances. So far this season, the Stars are 4th in the NHL in goals allowed per game, a number that is skewed a bit by two five-goal meltdowns.
What makes us pause in anointing this team the tops in the conference is the fact that the Stars are having troubles scoring. While the Stars are 4th in the NHL in goals-against they are 21st in the league in goals-for. It's difficult to really determine what number is going to give way first; some believe that with the shot totals the Stars are allowing the goals-against is going to be the one that changes first.
What is encouraging, however, is that while the Stars are obviously in need of some more scoring help at forward the potential is there for this team to break out offensively. The Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson line has been absolutely incredible to start the season and are being used both in big minutes on defense and on offense as well. Conversely, the Mike Ribeiro line has struggled for most of the start to the season and the center we all expected to have a big year has not been as dominating as we'd want.
There's no doubt that Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder will break out eventually. Those two showed excellent chemistry in the preseason and now it's just a matter of both hitting an offensive slump at the same time. Ribeiro has looked much better these past two games and Ryder is starting to get his goal-scoring touch back.
The fact that this team is winning despite not firing on all cylinders is hope that we have yet to see this Dallas Stars team at its full potential.
More than anything, this is a hockey team that winning because they are a hockey team. A roster that is that working together, from top to bottom and being led by a coach they respect and follow. Glen Gulutzan has done a tremendous job in building a system the players can be successful in and it's apparent they trust what he's trying to teach them. For the first time in more than a few years this feels like a cohesive unit that isn't so much relying on raw talent as it is relying on playing together, 20 players on the ice focused on a singular goal.