The Dallas Stars might have received two goals from veteran Michael Ryder on Tuesday night, but it was the young players on the ice that should be exciting fans the most.
What happened in Detroit on Tuesday night was undoubtedly one of the more impressive and entertaining performances we've seen from the Dallas Stars in quite a long time. While there have been moments of greatness over the past few years, both individually and as a team, what really stood out on Tuesday wasn't the outcome itself but who contributed to the win.
The Dallas Stars and general manager Joe Nieuwendyk drastically changed directions last summer, deciding to trade Steve Ott and Mike Ribeiro as the team obviously moved forward into a transition era for the franchise. Instead of playing each season in "win it now" mode with a reduced roster and reduced payroll, the Stars focused on the future and the young players coming up through the system -- while also putting together a team that could at least remain competitive in the interim.
The first three games of the season for the Stars have certainly been interesting, as it's become drastically clear these aren't the Dallas Stars of years past. Glen Gulutzan came to the NHL preaching about being "pacey" and wanting an aggressive and relentless team that puts the pressure on the opposition, yet didn't exactly have the right roster to play this system in his first NHL season. He was forced to adapt his system and coaching to the players he had -- which was smart -- but it was clear that the Stars weren't speaking the same language when it came to playing styles on the ice, even under coach Marc Crawford.
More than anything the Stars were a team and a franchise without a true 'identity'. What sort of team were the Stars trying to be? In 2011-2012, the Stars embraced becoming a "pesky" team in an attempt to forge an identity of a team that was "tough to play against" -- a strategy that seemed to result in costly penalties and failed special teams more than it resulted in actual success.
Which is why Tuesday's game was so refreshing and what has really stood out about this season, even if it's only three games old.
This is a Dallas Stars team that is firmly under Glen Gulutzan's control. The Stars, at least on Tuesday, embodied the style and structure that he's been preaching since coming to Dallas in a game that the Stars controlled for nearly 54 minutes before going into a shell while protecting a two-goal lead.
More importantly, the players that made perhaps the biggest difference on the ice were the young guns the team has made such a major commitment to since last season.
The Dallas Stars have given extensive playing time to more young players in the past three games than we've likely seen in the past three seasons combined. In seasons past, the Stars seemed reluctant to give any young prospects big minutes in the NHL whether it was fear of losing momentum, of upsetting veterans or simply a fear of the unknown. There has been a rising call for the Stars to finally take a chance on the prospects that are now the future of the franchise and, at least so far this season, we're getting a taste of what that sort of future can look like.
Perhaps the biggest bright spot for the Stars so far has been the play of center Cody Eakin, who has carried over his great performances in the NHL to force his way into the No. 2 center spot while the Jamie Benn contract situation continues. Starting the year on the fourth line, Eakin replaced Tom Wandell on the second line on Tuesday night and was simply spectacular to those paying close attention.
Eakin's hard work, speed and puck possession skills, a tenacity that made him a target of the Stars in the Ribeiro trade, bring a dynamic to the Stars that the team has not seen in a young center in quite some time. Eakin registered assists on both goals for the Stars on Tuesday, with both scores the result of smart and patient plays along the boards. It's that patience with the puck and in his play that makes Eakin such a well-rounded center, who is just as valuable defensively as he is in the offensive zone.
Then you have the Dallas Stars defense, an undersized group that will almost certainly struggle at times this season yet has performed reasonably well in all three games so far. While the Minnesota game will likely just go down as a blip on the radar by season's end, the Stars showcased immense improvement on the blue line from Sunday's loss to Tuesday's win -- with Trevor Daley probably playing one of his best overall games in a Stars jersey.
More importantly, Jordie Benn and Brenden Dillon continue to improve and learn from the mistakes made -- and seem to be unfazed by any mishaps defensively or with the puck they will undoubtedly continue to make while playing as an NHL regular for the first time. It is this confidence that has turned Benn and Dillon into such promising defensive prospects for the Stars, with Benn easily playing his best game in the NHL on Tuesday against Detroit.
Reilly Smith, who struggled so mightily in limited minutes at the end of last season, has shined in an expanded role this season. While Smith has been playing on the fourth line he's received significant minutes on the penalty kill and has been on the ice -- along with Jordie Benn and Cody Eakin -- during key moments in games, including the final minutes of Tuesday's win over the Red Wings. Smith, known as a pure scorer while in college at Miami, has shown he has the potential to be a puck possession hound capable of moving the puck up the ice and creating chances, even in limited minutes -- another dynamic the Stars have missed in recent years.
Performances like that of which we saw on Tuesday night will not come every game. This is a Stars team that grossly outplayed the Phoenix Coyotes and Detroit Red Wings for most of each game yet won by just one goal in each contest -- while also being shut out in Minnesota.
There will be some painful times ahead, especially against some of the better teams in the NHL, and making the playoffs could likely be a tougher battle than we've seen in years past.