Today we finish our week long season preview of the 2011-2012 Dallas Stars leading up to Friday night's opener against the Chicago Blackhawks. We've covered the defense, goaltending and the forwards, and today we conclude with the the new coaching staff...
Over the past few seasons we've done a lot of writing on Defending Big D about schemes, systems and "team identity". The common thread for all of these discussions was the fact that no one could ever really determine just what they were. For two years it felt like the Dallas Stars team was a square peg being forced into a round hole, with Marc Crawford providing not much direction on how to accomplish such a task.
The simple thing is to bash Marc Crawford and lay blame at his feet for the failures of the past two seasons. The fact remains that as time went on, it became clear that for whatever reason these players weren't responding to their coach. The Stars went into games ill-prepared and lacked motivation and when adversity struck, they had neither the talent or the will to overcome it.
The adversity issue was specifically mentioned by Joe Nieuwendyk when Crawford was released from his contract and it was mentioned again when his replacement, Glen Gulutzan, was hired. From the moment he stepped up as the new coach of the Stars, Gulutzan has been talking the talk -- better defensive structure, more balance across four lines and a team that makes it hard for opponents to play up and down the ice. Will Gulutzan's team be able to back up his words?
While we've only seen preseason games and the practices during training camp, it's apparent that this is going to be a completely different Dallas Stars team with a brand new approach. Ironically, it seems that what we were promised for the past few years is finally going to be delivered by a coach that is preaching about defensive responsibility.
Gulutzan comes from a diverse background as a coach, showing the ability to adapt his approach to fit the team and the players he's leading. What has always stayed the same is the structure of his teams and his mantra that successful hockey starts with the defense and works it way out. Using this formula, he's revamped the defensive system for the Dallas Stars and reset what Crawford was attempting to accomplish for the past two years.
We'll be able to get into this more once the Stars are fully into the regular season, but the his changes are simple yet effective.
Whereas before the Stars played a rotating, "man coverage" system on defense, Gulutzan has taught a zone coverage scheme in the defensive zone that is designed to always keep a defenseman in front of the net. Instead of rotating around the zone based on covering a "man", the defensemen have certain zones that are their responsibility. What this has done is to create better rotation and coverage in front of the net while building better structure for the Stars in getting out of the zone.
Last season, this is where the Stars struggled the most. Any sort of pressure in their own zone and the team was unable to effectively clear the zone. This led to second and third chances for teams on their rushes and it led to countless goals against, especially late in games. So far this season, in a limited sample size, it seems that this new defensive structure has the players more confident individually and able to more effectively move the puck out of the zone and up the ice in transition.
Gulutzan has also built the Stars around a new defensive scheme through the neutral zone, a modification of the dreaded "trap". The Stars will be focusing on pushing teams to one side or the other through the neutral zone, not allowing easy passage up the ice. This will cut down on the amount of odd-man rushes up the ice we became so accustomed to these past few years.
Along with this talk of defense and a "trap" style, came worries that the Stars would become a boring team offensively and would see goal production fall. While the loss of a player like Brad Richards is certainly going to affect offense, the Stars are approaching this season as a team focused on being aggressive with the puck and putting plenty of shots on net.
This was on display this preseason as the Stars averaged well over three goals a game with an aggressive approach on offense. The Stars showed great chemistry on the top line with a tenacity along the boards we had not seen in some time. The foundation for all of the successes the Stars have had the past few years was still there, yet Gulutzan is building on that foundation and seems to be focusing on the strengths of the team and the individual players.
Gulutzan has been given a tough task, to turn a roster with the lowest salary cap payroll in the NHL and have them compete against some incredibly tough teams in the Western Conference. That we're even talking about the Stars vying for a playoff spot is amazing, although this team is much more talented than they're given credit for. Gulutzan's task is to make the most of what he's given and to be successful at doing so, something he's done at each level he's coached at so far.
Reports from practices are that Gulutzan's approach is much different than what we've seen the past few years, that the optimism coming from the locker room is better than it's been in a long time. The big test will come, however, when the Dallas Stars face overwhelming adversity; these Stars faded when the road was toughest in the past. These Dallas Stars, under Glen Gulutzan, have a different mentality and a different approach -- now we see if it all pays out.