Teams reach the NHL playoffs for a lot of different reasons. No one circumstance or player is enough to make a playoff contender as it takes a full team, coaching, and management effort to reach the hockey promised land.
Having said that, the 2013-14 Dallas Stars are a much different team than in years past and have had something a bit extra this season which has allowed them to clinch a playoff spot where prior teams fell short of that destination.
Here are some of the major factors in their success:
- The duo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin has been dynamite since day one. Their chemistry was almost instant and they've done nothing but improve with every game. Having the stability of an elite first line covered up a lot of mistakes and won the Stars a lot of games which they may not have won with rosters of the past.
- Jim Nill's first big move after joining the Stars was appointing a new head coach. After a lot of deliberation and a thorough search, he brought in Lindy Ruff. After serving all of his coaching career with the Buffalo Sabres, there was a perception of Ruff that he was too stuck in his ways and that he sometimes suffocated promising young players. Since coming to the Stars, Ruff has showed a lot of flexibility and has been able to stay positive through everything while also being stern and rewarding good play with ice time and bad play with bench time. He's implemented a system in Dallas which preaches team speed, good transitions, and a complete team game - defensmen are responsible for stepping up into the offense when the opportunity arises, and forwards are expected to come back and play defense. He's helped mold this team's identity and has gotten the best out of all of the parts he has to work with. He's had some hiccups and has made questionable decision at times, but he's found a way to bring the best out of Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley, reign in Brenden Dillon's overzealousness, challenge Benn and Seguin to produce against other teams' top lines, and turn Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt into an effective agitating two-way duo. He's had a great stabilizing effect on the whole roster.
- One of the problems the Stars had during their playoff drought was depth scoring. When Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro, Brenden Morrow, and more recently Benn weren't producing, the team would falter because they couldn't score goals. While the depth scoring question hasn't been answered - the bottom 9 is still very streaky - just about everyone in the lineup can be counted on to produce some offense at some point. Cody Eakin had a bit of a down year offensively and didn't fit perfectly into the second line center role, but he's been effective with 35 points while his linemates have been in constant flux. Alex Chiasson cooled off after the crazy run to start his career, but he consistently generates scoring chances and is always around the net when the puck is there. He finished the regular season with 35 points. After scoring 5 goals and 13 points in the first 56 games of his NHL career, Garbutt scored 17 goals and added 15 assists for 32 points in 75 games this season. After the top three scorers on the roster (Benn, Seguin, and Goligoski), the Stars have 6 players in the 30 point range and 7 if you count Erik Cole who finished one point off with 29. While you'd like Ray Whitney's numbers to be better (32 pts) along with some others, that's a lot of guys who made pretty significant contributions when they were needed. On top of that, Colton Sceviour played far fewer games than the rest of his secondary scoring cohorts, but managed 12 points in 26 games - a .46 point-per-game pace.
- Kari Lehtonen is still probably the most important player on the team. He has the ability to steal games and he generally plays very well. He's right on the verge of being an elite goaltender and has put in another full season of great hockey while being a workhorse. He's had a rough go of it with some injuries this year, but he's bounced back much better than in the last couple of years and he really stepped up during the stretch drive to the playoffs, an area where he faltered a bit along with the rest of the team in years past. He's been a stud all season and has stolen a couple of games, especially early on when the Stars were prone to giving up a lot of odd man rushes on the counterattack and he's been very stingy when the Stars needed it. He also set a new career high in shutouts with 5 this season, including 2 in his last 6 starts. He's been a big reason why the Stars have been able to beat some of the best teams in the league throughout the season.
- The defense was the Stars' biggest weakness going into this season, and it's still an area which needs to be improved upon, but the whole unit stepped up big this season. Still without a bonafide #1 guy on the blueline, the current group of players have fought through some tough stretches and played some great hockey. Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski were key to the late season success which took the Stars into the playoffs, and as they went, so went the Stars. While Dillon has had a bit of a tough year, he's become smarter defensively and picks his spots better when it comes to going for big hits. Jordie Benn has solidified himself as a solid second or third pairing guy, and has made huge strides since the beginning of the season when he was the weakest link. Sergei Gonchar struggled mightily early and while his offense hasn't come at the rate expected of him, he's limited his turnovers and played well in the second half. Aaron Rome has been quietly effective in limited minutes and played well in the role of a shut down third pairing guy, until Patrik Nemeth was called up. Nemeth made his NHL debut late in the season after a very good yet injury-riddled two seasons in the AHL. He came in and seemed to transition almost seamlessly into NHL action. He's calm, very physical, and has added an element of nasty defensive play which the Stars have lacked for some time. He's still a work in progress and is by no means ready for top four action, but he's been very good in a third pairing defensive role (and has made Gonchar look much better). Kevin Connauton has been the odd man out for most of the year, but he stepped up and played pretty well when Daley and Stephane Robidas were both out with injuries. He's got great offensive instincts and a very good first pass, but still needs to get better in his own end and learn to make better decisions. With another full year of working out and practicing with the coaching staff, he should have an increased role next year. While prone to some rookie mistakes, he made a lot of progress and didn't look especially out of place on too many occasions.
- The realignment was one of the biggest question marks for the whole NHL this season, but it seems to have worked out pretty well. The Stars went from maybe the toughest division in hockey to the toughest division in hockey and have had some trouble duking it out with the Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, St Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, and Winnipeg Jets. While their division record will have to improve in the coming years, they put up enough of a fight and were able to victimize some of the other divisions enough (thank you, pacific) to make the post-season. With the new playoff format which includes two wild card spots in each division, the Stars were able to grab the last spot and enter the playoffs in what is basically the pacific division wildcard spot. They were able to take advantage of the extra games against some of their weaker central opponents, going 3-1-1 against the Jets, 3-2 against the Predators, and 2-1-1 against the Wild.