COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 18: Sheldon Souray #44 of the Dallas Stars controls the puck against Antoine Vermette #50 of the Columbus Blue Jackets during their game at Nationwide Arena on October 18, 2011 in Columbus, Ohio. The Stars defeated the Blue Jackets 3-2. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
Sheldon Souray has long been a tantalizing hockey player for Dallas Stars fans. When left Montreal to go to Edmonton back in 2007, there were a number of fans upset that the Stars weren't able to land the prized free agent. Coming off a tremendous season in which he scored 26 goals with 64 points in 81 games, Souray had enjoyed a complete offensive renaissance to his career and suddenly the hard-hitting defenseman was one of the most-coveted blueliners in the NHL.
Once in Edmonton, however, things fell apart. Injuries derailed his first season with the Oilers -- playing in just 26 games -- and instantly there was a backlash for his not living up to the contract he signed. The pressure mounted in Edmonton and while he had yet another tremendous season in 2008-09, the next year it all came crashing down again as a severe hand injury and infection derailed his season and the off-ice issues began.
The Oilers began a public smear campaign against Souray, saying he wasn't a team player and a cancer in the locker room. Souray had trouble returning from his injuries and suddenly there were stories in the press about how he couldn't make it any longer in the NHL and how he didn't have the work ethic that was needed. He never played with the Oilers again and spent most of last season in the AHL, a target for younger players looking to make a name for themselves.
Throughout it all, Stars fans still had their eye on Studly Wunderbomb, a defenseman who exhibited all the traits of the type of player this team had needed for a very long time. Multiple times there were questions of a possible trade, but with the injury situation is it was no trade could be made.
This summer, Souray's contract was bought out by the Oilers as the team contended he was unfit for the NHL. The Dallas Stars and Joe Nieuwendyk, sensing that this NHL veteran still had something to prove, signed Souray to a one-year contract. Some said it was a worthless gamble, others were intrigued.
At least through the first eleven games of the season, there's no doubt who has had the biggest and most positive impact on a team surpassing all expectations.
As the Dallas Stars surprise and shock the rest of the NHL with their hot start, perhaps it's fitting that Sheldon Souray is leading the way. No one expected Souray to have any sort of impact on this Stars team and it was generally considered that Souray would be fighting for the seventh or eighth spot on defense. Almost immediately out of camp, however, he was considered as a top-pair defenseman by Glen Gulutzan and neither has looked back since.
Souray is 10th among all defensemen in the NHL in scoring so far, he leads all defensemen with a plus-8 rating. He's been head and shoulders above all Stars defensemen so far this season and he's been a stalwart on a penalty killing unit that ranks 9th in the NHL.
The advanced numbers aren't quite as shiny, although it seems his negative scoring chances total has more to do with who is playing against game to game rather than actual performance. Despite allowing six more scoring chances than forced while on the ice, his actual goals +/- is much more favorable.
Where Souray's impact has been felt most has been in the physicality he's brought to this team, a determination in front of the net that is inspiring the rest of the Dallas Stars to follow suit. Gulutzan and Nieuwendyk spoke all summer about finally becoming a team that is "hard to play against", one that punishes team in the defensive zone and in front of the net.
Souray has become that force in front of Lehtonen, leading a revitalization of the defensive mindset that has drastically cut down on prime scoring chances and goals-allowed per game.
It's impossible to accurately describe the feeling of finally seeing a defense and a big defenseman stand tall in front of the crease and demolish players who enter the area. It's something that Stars fans came to love for the better part of a decade and over the past few years is something this team has sorely missed. Too many easy routes to the net, too many second-chance opportunities these past few seasons have led to easy goals and games lost.
This season, in large part to Souray, this is no longer the case and teams are having to fight that much harder to get to those spots. You can see it in how teams are responding, obviously making it a part of their gameplan to physically charge the net and try to knock the defense and Lehtonen off balance. So far, this strategy has yet to work and more importantly -- Sheldon Souray has stood tall and yet to lose his composure at the wrong time.
While Souray is not the player the Stars tried to sign back in 2007, he's far from the washed-up player many felt this team was receiving. All of the talk about his lack of speed or skating ability, how the shot wasn't there any longer was all that -- just talk. So far this season, Souray has been healthy and putting up big minutes game after game while consistently playing the Stars top defensive pairing.
What has been the most encouraging to see is how Souray's resurgence has positively affected the rest of the defense. The pressure has been taken off Alex Goligoski and Stephane Robidas a bit and the Stars don't have to rely on just one or two defenseman for insane minutes night after night. Instead, the Stars are able to rotate their pairings evenly throughout the game, allowing each player to stay fresh and make the big plays when they're needed most.
If nothing else, it has been a revelation to finally have that elephant gun of a shot coming from a Dallas Stars player for once. So many times in the past the Stars were victims of that blast from the point and it's been fun seeing it game after game, seeing how his teammates react when he's winding up or how they're constantly looking to get him the puck at the right time. Along with Goligoski, it's been incredibly refreshing to finally have reliable defenseman who can produce offensively while still making the big plays in their own end.
More than anything, Souray finally looks relaxed. The pressure is off his shoulders and he's been allowed to come to Dallas and take on a natural leadership role while playing his game. The big hits are still there; the deft veteran presence on defense and the booming shot are all staples of his game. Everything they said about Souray in Edmonton hasn't exactly shown itself here in Dallas; he's a team player, he's a leader in the locker room and he's enjoying one heck of a ride so far.
For Dallas Stars fans, watching Souray out on the ice and leading this defense is something we've wanted for a very long time. His comeback is far from complete, but it's been fun seeing it happen here in Dallas.