The Dallas Stars are headed into the 2013 season with a brand-new look on the ice, as Joe Nieuwendyk moved a significant portion of the "old guard" in an attempt to further change the overall dynamic of the team. With the Stars missing the past four postseasons and appearing to completely fade just as the playoff race was heating up, Nieuwendyk has stated that the team needed more depth and more scoring in order to compete in the West.
With players like Ray Whitney, Jaromir Jagr, Derek Roy and Cody Eakin now on the NHL roster the Stars said goodbye to a number of players known for their "gritty" or "tough" style of play and for some, their departure represents a loss of a very important part of the game of hockey.
Adam Burish, Sheldon Souray and Steve Ott (as well as Mike Ribeiro) have all departed the Stars in one manner or the other. Ott, in particular, was the leading proponent of the rally cry of the 2011-2012 Dallas Stars.
For some, it was a great way to connect the fans and the team at a time of uncertainty. The Stars did not have the overall skill of the top teams in the NHL and felt that, in order to really be competitive, the team needed to be "hard to play against" and pesky enough to remain competitive as a squad that struggled on the power play and wouldn't be outscoring every team in the West.
As we witnessed, pesky wasn't nearly enough.
The Stars have lost much of that perceived toughness and it can be concerning when you consider just what the sport of hockey has been, historically. Stars fans, in particular, have been sold on a physical brand of the sport with years of Shane Churla, Derian Hatcher and Ott spoiling fans on what it seemed to take to be successful. Big hits and big fights are also extraordinarily entertaining and there have been teams in the recent past that have gone all the way to the Stanley Cup with an overwhelmingly physical team.
Boston Bruins, anyone?
The Stars are now trying a different approach to success. Nieuwendyk added significantly more skill with the trades and signings made last summer yet lost much of the physical edge the Stars possessed in the past. Just how "tough" were the Dallas Stars last season, however?
One of the biggest issues for the Stars last season was that the team was grossly upside down in penalties drawn versus penalties taken. The Stars were No. 27 in the NHL with 407 total penalties taken in 2011-2012 and No. 23 with 12.6 penalty minutes per game. What stands out is that, among the ten-worst teams in overall penalty minutes, the Stars had far fewer major penalties.
First thing to note about these teams is which ones made the postseason. Of the ten-worst teams in overall penalty minutes, five (Anaheim, Minnesota, Dallas, Columbus and Ottawa). So, is there a correlation between being "tough" -- which in turn stands to result in penalty minutes -- and success? It's tough to exactly quantify; the Los Angeles Kings were right in the middle of all teams, both regular season and playoffs, in penalties.
What we do know is that teams like Philadelphia and Boston, and especially the Rangers and Canucks, possessed much more overall skill than the Stars last season. The Stars were unable to overcome their propensity to show up in the penalty box but more importantly, we have to question just how "tough" the Dallas Stars really were. With just 28 majors on the season the Stars were involved in fights much less often than other "tough" teams, and more often than not ended up in the penalty box instead of the opposition.
This was perhaps one of the biggest issues for the Stars last season, something coach Glen Gulutzan talked about Defending Big D just before the start of training camp.
"We were minus-100 or so minutes, I believe, in power play versus penalty kill," said Gulutzan. "We have to turn that around. You put yourself in a negative situation for basically two full games this season and you're in trouble. We would like to be more disciplined.
"I think if you look at the makeup of our team, adding Ray Whitney, Derek Roy, Jagr...they draw more penalties than they take. We have to certainly turn that around to be a more disciplined hockey club."
You can tell that this was a focus of the Stars this offseason and it was certainly a focus during the year. Gulutzan seemed surprised by just how many penalties his team was taking and talked about having to change the culture on the bench in order to correct the trend. The Stars certainly took some steps to exact that change this season.
Finding toughness and grit in the NHL is easy. There are literally hundreds of players in the AHL capable of coming to the NHL and making the league much more of a hard-hitting league than it is right now. The Stars have players such as Luke Gazdic and Francis Wathier in with the Texas Stars that could help replace some of the grit the Stars lost in the offseason. Finding skill, as we've seen the past four years, is not as easy.
As Josh noted earlier today, however, analysis tells us that the trade off in offensive production and value on the ice is not worth having enforcers on a roster. The same principle could be applied to "gritty" players and the Stars have certainly moved in that direction, choosing to address a noticeable lack of depth and skill both in the short and long term.
That all being said, hockey is still a physical sport. There's a reason that even the most-skilled 160-pound forwards sometimes struggle with the transition to pro hockey. The players are bigger and stronger than ever and winning battles along the boards, moving players out the crease and controlling the flow of play -- with possession and physical presence -- is something the best teams in the NHL have focused on.
There is a concern, and it is a viable one, that the Stars might have trended too far in the other direction -- giving up too much size and grit in order to pursue skill. If nothing else, the Stars defense stands to be grossly undersized with the exception of three large defenseman who have yet to have play regularly in the NHL. With the Mark Fistric trade, the Stars lost the last big-hitter on the team and suddenly we ask: "Who is going to physically punish the other team?"
Nicklas Grossmann, before his trade to the Flyers, was constantly questioned for his perceived unwillingness to use his size to his advantage. One of the more physically opposing players on the team,Grossmann rarely, if ever, laid a big hit on an opposing player. The former Star addressed the concern last season:
"You always want to go for the big hits, it pumps me up and it pumps the team up, but once you get running around and looking for it, you get out of position and in today's game, you just can't do it," said Grossmann. "If you go for the big hit and guys get by you, you get burned and you're just chasing all game. If it's there, I take it, I try to be physical more just using my body in front of the net, being tough to get around, instead of maybe going for the big, open ice hit all the time. It's really more being in control."
The Stars will certainly be testing that theory this season. Are you concerned?