So…twenty games into the 2013-14 NHL season and the Dallas Stars stand in the middle of the central division and middle of the western conference playoff race. Their record is 11-7-2, helped out tremendously by that three game sweep in western Canada over the weekend. They have the 28th ranked power-play (that high?) at 11.4% above only Winnipeg and Florida. They also boast the 17th ranked penalty-kill at 82.1%.
Needless to say there is room for improvement. A 28th ranked power-play is absolutely dreadful and is the very likely cause to most of the problems the Stars find themselves in. Or at least, the 28th ranked power-play is exasperating them.
On paper, their record is very good, and certainly better than some people thought it would be at this time of the season. The calming influence and veteran leadership of Lindy Ruff behind the bench is blatantly obvious this season, certainly when you compare this team to teams in recent years. Those teams would find ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This years’ team fights in every win, loss, or extra-inning game.
Certainly, this years squad and the way they have taken to the new system is a welcome sight to many of us fans who have been told to "be patient" and "good things are on the horizon". Several things have lead to this swell of better play as of late:
- Jamie Benn and his apparent headlock grappling hold on the responsibilities of being the captain. Even if you have only watched one game this year (doesn’t matter which one) you noticed Jamie Benn and his stellar play with and without the puck. And more so without the puck this year. In years past, he was required at times to put this team on his back and carry them forward, trampling the weak and hurtling the dead as Daryl Reaugh so often says. Not so this year. Benner takes the game in stride, taking more pride and giving more effort in breaking up opposing scoring chances than assisting in the offensive end. His scoring touch in the oppositions end has always been there (as evidenced by his team leading 16 assists and being tied for first in points with 23), since he came into the league. It is his recommitment to his own zone and his play away from the puck that has really made my eyebrows stand on ceremony.
- The sudden depth at center has meant a world of difference to this team. The additions of Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, and Shawn Horcoff have bolstered that position in exactly in the ways that GM Jim Nill had intended. Along with an apparent resurgence by Vernon Fiddler, the faceoff percentage has skyrocketed (even despite the abysmal start by Seguin on the dot). The center of the ice looks a lot busier with these additions as compared to years past. Having a myriad of options at center (Benn, Seguin, Peverley, Eakin, Horcoff, Fiddler, and Morin) on this year’s squad makes the task achievement by committee, not one line or bust.
- Kari Lehtonen. Just take a moment out of your very busy day and imagine this team without Kari. (shutters). Ok, enough horror story images. Lehtonen has been, and continues to be, the best player on the ice night in and night out. Mike Valley and his amazing work with Kari continues to blossom and evolve. Kari deserves much more fanfare league wide than he receives right now and I am a firm believer that a playoff appearance and a first round victory will go along way toward mending that image. Not to discount Dan Ellis (a mountainous improvement over Raycroft), but Kari Lehtonen is playing up to his standard again this year, which continues to be top 10 in the best league in the world.
- The leadership and growing maturity of "the core". "The Core", apart from being a b-rate movie, is also the name I have given to the group of players that will be apart of this team for at least the next several years. They include Benn, Seguin, Eakin, Chiasson, Nichushkin, Dillon, and Goligoski. What is obvious about this group is these guys are our best players. Outside of Whitney, Robidas, Rousell, Daley and Jordie Benn the rest of the team looks and feels like dead weight. It bodes well to see this "core" ready to move forward and away from needing to rely heavily upon stop-gap forwards such as Jagr, Whitney, Cole and Horcoff.
- Finally, the coaching staff led by Lindy Ruff. The wealth of experience he gained in Buffalo has translated right over to this years Dallas team in a big way. The players look like they are responding to his style and the rolling of 4 lines (when the team is not in penalty trouble) seems to work out in the stars favor many nights. The trust he has in Benn and Seguin to play all three facets of the game (even strength, power play and penalty kill) speaks volumes to his philosophies and what his decisions with this team are.
At this point in the season, I have finally allowed myself to decide what I wish this year’s Dallas Stars to show me.
I have waited this long for a specific reason; the turnover of the organization. New owner, new GM, new coach, new colors, new captain, new first line center, new faces sprinkled up and down the lineup. It would have been irresponsible of me to set out a mental expectation for this team right from the get-go. At the end of last season, no one had any idea what this team on the ice would look like, much less what they would play like.
My expectation for this team this year is to compete in every game and just make the playoffs as a wildcard team. Their schedule is going to get tougher, the wins will be fewer and harder fought for. Injuries will play a big role moving forward for all the teams in this division and I suspect teams like Minnesota and Colorado will be harder hit by them and fall father down the rankings because of them.
Dallas may not have a ton of depth, but from what I have seen through the first 20, you can’t count them out of any game and they can skate with some of the best teams in the league. It will be telling how the Stars handle the next 21 games. Check out this schedule:
Nov. 21 – NY Rangers
Nov. 23 – @ St. Louis
Nov. 26 – Anaheim
Nov. 29 – Chicago
Dec. 1 – Edmonton
Dec. 3 – @ Chicago
Dec. 5 – @ Toronto
Dec. 7 – Philadelphia
Dec. 10 – Chicago
Dec. 12 – @ Nashville
Dec. 14 – @ Winnipeg
Dec. 16 – @ Colorado
Dec. 17 – Colorado
Dec. 19 – Vancouver
Dec. 21 – @ San Jose
Dec. 23 – @ Los Angeles
Dec. 27 – Nashville
Dec. 29 – St. Louis
Dec. 31 – Los Angeles
Jan. 2 – Montreal
Jan. 4 – Detroit
(5) Games against the East, (16) against the West, (10) against the Central Division (13) games at home, (8) games on the road and (3) against the Chicago Blackhawks. Yikes!
Dallas plays every divisional opponent (excluding Minnesota, whom we have played only once, a 5-1 loss in Minnesota)
(3) #1 Chicago
(2) #2 St. Louis
(2) #3 Colorado
(1) #6 Winnipeg
(2) #7 Nashville
If the playoffs were to start right now, the Stars would have to play (10) teams currently in playoff spots. Those games count for (15) of the next (21). More yikes!
If you take a glance at the last 20 games, the feeling is we are only where we are because of Kari Lehtonen and also because we just won 3 straight games. While this is true, the fact that this Dallas team is just starting to gel with each other, more so than in the beginning of the season, is also true.
The Stars currently sit 10th in the west and 5th in their division. If Dallas can get through this next stretch of games 11-7-3, that would give them 49 points (through 40 games) and I’ll wager that puts them in good position at the half way point. Cause remember, we play the full 82 this time round and 98 points should get us fairly close to that last wild card spot.