The Texas Stars have had a bit of a rough start to the season under new coach Willie Desjardins, with a slew of young and inexperienced players taking center stage and an uneven schedule making it difficult to find continuity. Winning just three games out of the first nine on the season, the Stars were a team struggling in nearly every aspect of the game; the penalty kill was bad, the goaltending was porous and the team was finding it hard to put the puck on net either at even strength or on the power play.
The frustrating beginning had created some consternation with fans, as this was supposed to be a grand and fun season for the team down in Cedar Park. There were questions as to whether Desjardins was the right man for the coaching job, especially given some of the creative "motivational" techniques he's used that led to Scott Glennie taking over a month before finally getting on the ice for Texas.
The past week or so the tide has appeared to have turned, due in large part to the Stars having found consistency in net. Instead of the vaunted Jack Campbell stepping up and taking over between the pipes, Christopher Nilstorp has found his groove in his first season in North America and now has the Stars on a three game winning streak.
The latest, a 1-0 shutout at home over the Charlotte Checkers, was the second straight shutout by Nilstorp and now gives the goalie a streak of 153:09 overall without a goal allowed. You can see the highlights from the win below:
Nilstorp, who has considerably more experience overall than Campbell, should be expected to take some time to adjust before raising his level of play. He came to North America heralded as one of the best goaltenders in the SEL the past few years and nearly every goaltender scout has raved about his talents and how they should transfer well to North America.
The Stars actually attempted something similar a few years back when the team attempted to sign Jonas Gustavsson, who has struggled mightily since since signing in Toronto. The good news is just how different these situations now are, as Nilstorp has the humility and knowledge that he needs some time in the AHL to get more experience at this level of play before attempting to make the jump to the NHL.
The expectations for Nilstorp in regards to the Dallas Stars are not exactly known; the Stars locked up Kari Lehtonen for five years before the lockout began, and Richard Bachman is ready to provide quality backup services for at least the next season (if there is a season). Nilstorp's recent surge in confidence and production has led to new confidence for the team in front of him, which has easily translated into the best stretch of hockey for the Stars this season. At the very least, it seems that Dallas is once again cultivating a stable of promising goaltender prospects.
With the rise of Nilstorp, however, comes more questions about Jack Campbell. The first round draft pick from 2010 has had an uneven career since being selected by the Stars and has become a controversial figure since the moment his name was called.
Campbell remains one of the more naturally gifted goaltenders I've ever seen. His combination of mechanics and straight up skill are unrivaled, as if he were sculpted by goaltenders coach to create a robot in net capable of dominating games at the drop of a puck. The problem, of course, is those moments have been far and few between for Campbell as he's struggled with the mental aspect of the game, a tough issue to overcome for a goaltender known for his mental veracity in net.
We got to spend some time around Campbell this summer at development camp, both him and Nilstorp, and it was clear that the young goaltender has all of the makings of an NHL superstar. He's incredibly charismatic, extremely gracious to the fans and even the media, and his intensity in preparation and practice are motivating tools for those around him. He keeps track of how many goals he allows in practice and his save percentage during drills, a practice that is perfect evidence of just how intense a competitor he is.
If nothing else, Campbell's dedication and work ethic on and off the ice will never be questioned.
The problem is that intensity has seemed to lead the goaltender to some dark places in his career, that reportedly led the Stars to send a sports psychologist to Canada to talk to their prize prospect. He struggled in the OHL, playing for bad teams that lost more than they won, which was reportedly a tough thing for a player who is so focused on success and winning.
That intensity is what made Campbell into an instant cult hero in Austin at the end of last season, where he stepped in and created some very real momentum for the Stars while putting up a .912 save percentage in the final 13 games of the season. This year, however, that fire that sparked him last season has now dissipated and Campbell is obviously playing with little confidence in net.
In his last appearance, a 5-4 shootout loss that has sparked this mini-turnaround for the Stars, Campbell allowed four goals that could all be characterized as "soft" and put his team in a very tough spot in the third period. He was back in his crease and not charging the shooter like we expect to see with Campbell; his mechanics were off and he just seemed out of sorts in net.
These struggles have led to a 2-2-1 record in seven appearances, with a 3.30 goals-against average and a woeful .868 save percentage on the season.
It was no surprise, then, to see the Stars effectively name Nilstorp the starter when they put him in net in three straight games, all wins. The surprise came when it was announced that Josh Robinson was called up from the ECHL, where the young pro has had a tremendous start to the season with a 5-0-1 record for Idaho so far.
Per Stephen at Hundred Degree Hockey, it's unlikely that Robinson gets a start as Desjardins likely employs another "motivational" technique on one of his young players:
Coach Desjardins has shown willingness to bench players who aren't performing despite their pedigree or draft status, but that seems highly unlikely no matter how you cut the cards. The schedule is pretty spaced out for the next few games with Texas not facing back-to-back games until a 3-in-3 to start December. It is entirely believable that Nilstorp could start every one. He is used to the challenge of being the starting tender from his time in Europe.
So what to make of Campbell? Is it time to panic on the young goaltender, heralded as a "franchise goalie" when he was drafted by Joe Nieuwendyk?
Goalies take a considerable amount of time to develop and the same will be said of Campbell. With Nilstorp showing promise and Lehtonen becoming one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL, the good news is that there is no pressure for Campbell to have to step up and make a difference with Dallas anytime soon.
Of course, you'd like to see progress. At some point, Campbell needs to show that he can carry a team through the course of a season -- something he has yet to prove. It's a tough road for goaltender prospects and there's never a guarantee that any of them will ever pan out; there's a reason that not many are picked as high as Campbell. Even Lehtonen was labeled a bust before enjoying a resurgence to his career in Dallas.
For now, the Stars are rolling with Nilstorp in net. Given the nature of the AHL schedule, Campbell will get his chances again soon. The good news is that, after struggles to start the season, it seems that Texas has found a balance on the team and in net and finally might be building some momentum.
The Stars next take on the talented Oklahoma City Barons, at 7:30 p.m. CT on Nov. 21.