The Dallas Stars have been well on their way to the postseason yet faded in each of the past two seasons. Will this year be different, with a dramatically-shortened season perhaps giving the Stars an advantage?
Way back before the silly NHL lockout even started it was speculated that if any team could benefit from a delayed start to the season, it would be the Dallas Stars. When Jeff Angus wrote this article back in September on this very subject, however, I don't think that anyone believed that a shortened season would mean a 48-game season instead of 72 or even 60 games in the year. Would such a drastically short season still be beneficial for the team?
There are a few things we can probably determine about what a short season will mean for the NHL as a whole, based on what was seen on the ice back in 1994-1995, the last time the league played just 48 games. It's generally considered that the teams with most continuity and strongest core of a team -- specifically on defense and in goal -- will generally be the teams with the most success once the season gets rolling again. Teams that had a high rate of turnover and/or coaching changes could struggle out of the gate as the team attempts to get used to new personnel and systems.
At least, that's the theory.
The Stars are sort of in the middle ground when it comes to changes made over the offseason. Glen Gulutzan is now in his second season as the head coach and Tom Gaglardi has been the owner of the franchise for over a year now, although he's yet to oversee a full season with his new team. General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk did make some fairly significant changes on the ice, however, trading Mike Ribiero and Steve Ott for Cody Eakin and Derek Roy, as well as adding Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr via free agency.
The Stars were going to head into the season with a completely revamped top-six, and potentially will have a few prospects on the NHL roster as well. Tomas Vincour -- not exactly a prospect at this point -- and Cody Eakin will certainly be on the team, with Brenden Dillon, Jordie Benn and perhaps a few others also getting the shot to earn a spot on the NHL team in training camp.
That means that the Stars will be hitting the regular season running with a brand new, sparkling roster that has yet to play a game together. That doesn't mean the Stars will automatically struggle, however. There is something to be said about the sweet irony that a 48-game season could actually be very beneficial to this very particular roster.
Derek Roy would have missed a good chunk of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery following his trade to Dallas yet now enters the season the healthiest he's been in years. The Stars signed a couple of 40+ forwards in Jagr and Whitney who now have a much shorter season to work through, although Whitney has rarely had injury troubles in his career and played 82 games last season.
Brenden Morrow, who has dealt with a debilitating neck injury the past few years, has hopefully been able to use a significant amount of time without on-ice contact to fully heal. The team captain will be expected to anchor the important third line for the Stars, allowing the top two lines to be more offensively aggressive than in seasons past.
There's something to be said about the lack of a full season of wear and tear and how that will benefit players like Whitney and Morrow. Jagr has been playing for his own team back in the Czech Republic, HC Kladno, and while he had a bit of an injury scare has apparently been more than healthy. Playing for Kladno likely presents nowhere near the physical strain of the confined ice of the NHL, and hopefully Jagr will be entering the "second half" of this season much more fresh and healthier than last.
On the other end of the spectrum are the young players coming to Dallas from Austin, where they have spent this season playing together for the Texas Stars. The team got off to a slow start yet quickly became one of the hotter teams in the AHL, with Eakin leading the team in scoring and Dillon once again providing solid play from the blue line. Most importantly, these are players that are far from rusty and have been playing against somewhat NHL-caliber competition in the AHL this season and have generated chemistry together in Austin.
Having that familiarity, especially for someone like Eakin, will be especially important as the season gets going.
Without a full offseason and training camp (players have been away from team trainers for months now) it's expected there will be more than the normal amount of soft-tissue injuries; hamstring and groin pulls will litter injury lists across the NHL the first month of the season. Teams with the best depth and the ones that can stay the healthiest will be able to survive the furious race to the postseason.
Consider that, with 48 games remaining and in late January, every team in the league had the same shot at the playoffs. On Jan. 19 in the 2011-12 season, the Stars sat No. 10 in the conference with 50 points and a 24-19-2 record. Less than two months later, following the big 11-0-1 run that seemed to have saved the season at the time, the Stars had climbed to No. 3 in in the West with 83 points (although would have been No. 6 based on points alone).
The Stars controlled their fate and once again, the team faded down the stretch. For whatever reason there was no gas left in the tank when other teams were finding a higher gear and even if the Stars had made the postseason, it would have been on a limp instead of in an all-out charge.
The trouble with the shortened season, as much as it may potentially help the Stars on the ice, is the actual schedule the team will be playing. There's a chance the league goes to a very division-heavy format, with the Stars battling it out once more with the rest of the teams in the Pacific.
The Stars were a bit lucky last season in that the division as a whole sort of underwhelmed in the standings, although that could also be contributed to the teams beating up on each other for most of the season. Based on points, the three Pacific playoff teams would have finished No. 6-8 in the conference, with the Stars once again just barely missing out.
The Coyotes and the Kings, however, showed just how important coming together as a team last in the season can be. Both teams made it to the conference finals and the Kings won the Stanley Cup -- forget their No. 8 seed in the postseason, it was clear by most that the Kings were easily the best team in the NHL when the playoffs began.
Now the Stars must fight it out, in a much shorter season, with these same teams. The Kings will be good again, perhaps the favorite out of the West, and the Coyotes and the Sharks will be tough again as well. The hope is that, this time around, the Stars will be able to take advantage of having relatively fresh legs in an intense and short season and finally be able to compete in April when they've fallen apart the past few seasons.