Although the 2013 season is barely over two weeks old, the first two weeks of hockey for the Dallas Stars will likely end up as a fantastic microcosm for the entire season. The Stars have shown their inexperience at times, they have had to deal with a number of injuries, and Kari Lehtonen has been the difference on many nights.
I have taken a liking to the Stars in recent years, but I am not a diehard fan. And because of that, I probably have a different perspective on the team than many of the fans do, who follow along each game suffering through the pain of a loss and relishing in the joy of a win. The Stars may or may not win the Pacific Division this season. They may or may not qualify for the postseason. It is simply too early to tell.
Qualifying for the postseason would be a huge bonus for the organization as they continue to win back fans after the lockout and nearly a decade of ownership issues. But it isn't postseason or bust for Dallas in 2013. On the contrary - with stable ownership in place, an interesting nucleus of rookies and veteran talent, and a lot of cap space and opportunity to win back many Texas hockey fans who have grown apathetic over the past decade, the Stars know the importance of success this season goes well beyond just the wins and losses on the stat sheet.
Success in Dallas may be defined a bit differently this season. If the Stars come in ninth or 10th in the Western Conference again, fans and management would be upset. But it would be a different kind of upset this year. In the past, the team has leaned on a veteran core who failed to get the job done (and we saw some significant changes last summer because of that). There also wasn't enough direction or focus within the organization, and that started at the top with a owner in financial distress.
The team is leaning on young players a lot more than they have in recent years. Their depth is much better than it has been in the past while (unfortunately that depth has already been tested due to a rash of injuries). Head coach Glen Gulutzan is still learning on the job, as is GM Joe Nieuwendyk. And he passed his first big test as GM with the Jamie Benn negotiations, signing the franchise's cornerstone player to a fair deal that will see him play the prime of his career in Big D.
Rebuilding an organization from essentially the ground up isn't an easy thing to do, and it doesn't happen overnight, either. There are going to be many frustrating moments, setbacks, and mistakes along the way. Before sending Jordie Benn back down to Austin on Monday, the Stars were dressing three rookie defensemen at the same time. I don't care if you have an 18-year-old Drew Doughty and clone him twice - that is an incredibly rare situation for any NHL team.
Benn acquitted himself quite nicely, although he had a few rough patches (including an important lesson in Detroit - don't get caught behind the net with Pavel Datsyuk).
He receives the life lesson at the 0:51 mark:
Brenden Dillon is looking more confident with each game, and his speed and size are already assets on the back end. It is easy to see why Jamie Oleksiak is so highly regarded around the league - he is an incredibly smooth skater and he makes great reads with and without the puck. Oh, and he is 6-8. Alex Goligoski is struggling a bit right now defensively, but he is an important building block within the organization. If Oleksiak can adjust to the NHL quickly, the duo have the potential to form a really solid pairing on the back end.
It is easy to see what the team is focusing on with regards to playing style. The Stars are gritty, tenacious, quick on the forecheck, and fast. The Stars are also very young (and a lot of the aforementioned attributes work hand in hand with young players looking to make a name for themselves).They relied on the dump and chase a bit too much in the early going, but that was likely because of the injuries they were faced with up the middle. Last night's game was the first time that Benn, Derek Roy, and Cody Eakin were all playing in the same game.
Off the ice, the team is really solidifying itself in a variety of ways. Mike Heika is one of the best beat reporters in the business, and the Stars are now one of only a handful of NHL teams with an in-house writer. Mark Stepneski's coverage has been fantastic this season (just as it has for the past many seasons), and Dallas fans are lucky to have such consistently solid coverage of the team (and I genuinely mean that - there are some teams out there with coverage that is either lacking quality, quantity, or both).
The Stars have also brought back Marty Turco (who I have been enjoying quite a bit as a media personality) and Mike Modano to work for the organization. Mark Recchi, who owner Tom Gaglardi is very familiar with, was also brought in. Gary Roberts works with several of the young prospects with regards to fitness and nutrition. The team has also created an ownership advisory group to help guide the Stars in the present and future.
The team has a focus and a direction, which is crucial to long-term and sustainable success.
Gaglardi has a three-year business plan for the Stars, which includes dramatically improving the health of the franchise both on and off the ice. The plan includes growing all revenue sources in the business and making a run at the Stanley Cup.
"There's a lot that has to come together (to make that happen) and the Stars have to align," Gaglardi said, giving me a slight eye roll at the clichéd pun.
Those goals are reachable in Dallas, which has a market — from both companies and fans — and a history of being a hockey town, he said.
In a salary cap league, it is crucial to have ownership that is willing to get creative with how the club is improved. There is limit on what can be spent on players, but not on management, player development, coaching, and amenities like travel, medical and health related issues, and arena/dressing room-related upgrades.
This isn’t meant to be an overly pessimistic or optimistic view of things in Dallas. If everyone is healthy (especially Lehtonen), the team has the talent to qualify for the postseason. Benn gave us a little preview of how he can take over a game against Colorado on Monday. However, this season shouldn’t be defined entirely by wins and losses, and I do realize that may sound a bit crazy with regards to evaluating a professional sports team. For example, the Vancouver Canucks will be evaluated completely and entirely based on wins and losses (especially in the postseason). They are at a different stage of development as a hockey team compared to Dallas.
If the Stars are able to win some games, and the young players on the roster are able to learn from the likes of Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr, this season will be an important stepping stone in the path back towards relevancy – both on the ice and in the Dallas sports community.
Direction and focus for the present and future are in place. And there will be some bumps, bruises, growing pains, and disappointments along the way. But things are looking up for Dallas, and it is important to not lose sight of the big picture.