The Dallas Stars have now played 34 games; not quite the halfway mark of the season but close enough that we are starting to get a good sense of what sort of team these Stars will be this season. What kind of team these Stars will be at the end of the season will be determined over the course of the next 48 games, however, and we certainly know just how quickly the tide can change once the calendar turns the page into February and March.
It's been a very interesting year so far for the Stars and an extremely emotional season thus far for Stars fans. Having to go through the pain of watching Brad Richards walk away from this franchise, through no one's fault but Tom Hicks, was extremely hard for a fanbase that had also said goodbye to Mike Modano and others over the past few years. While the Stars were able to make several very valuable pick ups through free agency, it was humiliating to see this proud franchise have to scramble just to stay above the cap floor because of the actions of another team.
The fact that the scrambling resulted in Eric Nystrom is perhaps most indicative of how this season has progressed.
With the Stars fighting through injuries to key players the team saw newcomers to the franchise step up and make a difference. Nystrom, Michael Ryder, Sheldon Souray, Vernon Fiddler and Radek Dvorak have all been exceptional for most of this season and have given their team a fighting chance to head into the New Year with a winning record, and a healthy roster ready to make a push for the postseason.
After the jump, my thoughts on the season so far...
There was a lot of talk before the season began about the changes we were going to see in the defensive philosophy and system under new coaches Glen Gulutzan and Paul Jerrard. While we've certainly seen just how different the defense can play under a new system and it's apparent that the transition game, along with coverage around the net has improved, I'm wondering just how much this Stars defense truly has gotten better with the new coaches.
At this point last season, the Dallas Stars had allowed 96 goals through 36 games. This season, through 34 games, the Stars have allowed....96 goals. The Stars had a 21-11-4 record the day after Christmas, good for 46 points and control of the Pacific Division.
Now, we all remember how the collapse last season that started in February derailed all of the good feeling we'd had about this team around the holidays last year. It seems that same collapse was close to happening this season, but in November. With Kari Lehtonen being out for nearly a month, there's also the fact that the goals-allowed numbers are a bit skewed because of injured defensemen and poor goaltending at times.
So has the defense improved? It's tough to say definitively based on the numbers alone, but the eyeball test says yes. While there are still breakdowns at times, especially once the balance on the blue line was thrown off by the Alex Goligoski injury, there's no question that the coverage around the net has been better and the Stars are much tougher to play against close to the goaltender. You can thank Sheldon Souray for that.
What stands out the most to me is the fact that the issue that plagued this team the most over the past two seasons is now gone: the inability to cleanly get the puck out of the zone. Too many times over the past few years the Stars would get stuck endlessly trying to clear the puck up the boards only to fail time and again. While the Stars still allow too many shots in their own zone, the transition game has certainly improved.
The recurring theme for this season so far has been the inconsistency of the offense and the inability of the power play to get the puck in the net. The Stars are actually scoring at just about the exact same rate they were at this point last season, which is impressive considering the departure of Brad Richards, but the offense was having issues last season as well. The goal, of course, is to improve as time moves forward.
The big story this season has been the transition of Jamie Benn to becoming this team's number one center on the top line. While he and Loui Eriksson continue to lead the team in scoring, along with Ryder as the team's leading goal-scorer, the top line has been inconsistent at times while fighting to maintain offensive pressure against the best each team has to offer.
What's been most encouraging is how the Stars are starting to finally find some offensive balance between the three top lines. While Benn and company were struggling and Mike Ribeiro was stumbling without a healthy Brenden Morrow, the third line was able to step up behind the offensive surge of Eric Nystrom. Now, Morrow is back and healthy and Ribeiro is looking like his old self again and Benn and Eriksson have pulled out of their scoring slump.
With the third line still able to put good pressure on the opposition, the Stars are hopefully close to finding their stride on offense and able to truly roll three-four lines each game like Glen Gulutzan has been preaching. Already the third line is getting just about the same amount of minutes as the top line, speaking to just how balanced this team can be when everyone plays together.
Sometimes, I think we get too much of a macro view of this team and stop being able to see the big picture of the season. After the loss to the Flyers there was a lot of consternation about this team's mental fortitude and ability to stay cool when adversity strikes.
I think, however, that we've missed the fact that the Stars are starting to really build a tight team chemistry that hasn't really existed for a few years now. It wasn't that long ago that we were lamenting the fact that no one came to the rescue of Steve Ott in a violent game against Anaheim. Now, these players play extremely well together -- for the most part -- and when things get dicey on the ice they are quick to stand up for one another.
There might not be a true "fighter" on this roster any longer but that doesn't mean these players won't get physical or protect each other. Jamie Benn, Brenden Morrow, Trevor Daley -- a number of players -- all ready to step it up if the situation calls for it.
There's also the fact that unless injury has necessitated it, the top three lines have not changed since the first week or so of the season. While sometimes that leads to some frustrations by the fans, it also shows just how committed Gulutzan is to building chemistry on each line and is focused on not breaking things up even when things are going bad.
In the past, the Stars would have had multiple changes of the lines from game to game -- after losses or a short losing streak. Instead, they stick with what they believe will work and allow the chemistry to continue to build up and down the roster. The Stars aren't the most talented team in the NHL and they know it; what they can become is one of the "harder to play against", tight-knit teams in the league and beat teams with their balance and tenacity.
Other fans see it and comment on this chemistry that's building on the roster and I feel like we've missed it at times while we focus on much of the little things that are going wrong. The Stars are far from a perfect team but one thing they are not is a disorganized, dysfunctional team where no one works together.
There's a long season still left to play and the most important part of the year is still to come. Yet with this team still building together and learning and growing, there's no doubt that we have yet to see these Dallas Stars reach their peak potential. What that potential ultimately will be is still unknown, and there will certainly not be an easy path to the playoffs, but for the first time in a few years it feels like these Stars have as good a chance as anyone.