When the Dallas Stars wrapped up the first half of the season last weekend with a 5-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, it placed a nice bookend on the first 41 games. After all, the team opened the year with a dud of a loss to the Florida Panthers.
But in between those two losses, and especially after the first 10 or so games, the Stars played rather well all things considered. They got some stellar play from a newly minted first line, an admirable performance from a shorthanded defense and just what they expected from their goalies. It wasn't quite enough to put them in playoff position, but they were within spitting distance of the ridiculously deep race.
So as a wrap up of the first half, let's take a look back at some of the things we learned in those first 41 games as well as some key questions that will help define the second half of the season.
Things we learned
- The Stars top two forwards ooze chemistry - most of the time.
One of the biggest questions entering the season was how well Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin would click on the ice. The Stars paid a high price to acquire Seguin to be their top-line center even though Benn had filled those shoes for the past few seasons. Switching from center to wing (or wing to center, in Seguin's case) is enough of an adjustment before you add a very talented new linemate into the mix.
But the combination of the two, often complimented by rookie Valeri Nichushkin (we'll get to him in a minute) has gone better than even the most ardent optimists could have dreamed. Seguin was better than a point-per-game player in the season's first 41 games and oozed skill and confidence. Benn, though he went through a long goalless drought, seemed re-energized on the wing and barged his way onto the Canadian Olympic team with his first-half performance.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing. Seguin's face-off numbers are still very much a work in progress, and the line has struggled against some match-ups. That's to be expected when you combine for five goals and 10 points in one game. With both players on long-term deals and at the beginning of their careers, it still looks like the start of a beautiful relationship.
- Valeri Nichushkin, while still very much a raw talent, has been everything the Stars hoped for when drafting him.
There was a palpable sense of excitement as Valeri Nichushkin slipped down the draft board this summer. Maybe, hopefully, the concerns of drafting a highly-talented Russian who only recently burst onto the scene meant he would slide all the way down to No. 10.
That's exactly what happened thanks to some interesting selections by teams like Canucks, and the Stars have been reaping the rewards ever since. Sure, Nichushkin had a slow start to the year and at times has looked like a player with a very raw game, but the results, especially once he settled in about 15 games into the season, have been nothing short of fantastic.
The most exciting thing about Nichushkin is he still has some notable steps to take in his development, from some better tactical awareness to even more raw strength that he can pile onto his 18-year-old frame. As good as he's been this season for the Stars, he can be so much better. Outside of Jamie Benn, who came out of nowhere as a late blooming power forward, the Stars haven't had a prospect make a first-year impact like this in ages.
- Kari Lehtonen is still Kari Lehtonen.
Every season, especially with some of the defensive holes the Stars have had to hide, people question whether Kari Lehtonen will be enough to carry the Dallas Stars through the times when they inevitably struggle, whether he will stay healthy enough to be there down the stretch. And while not all those questions can be answered in the first 41 games, Stars fans have seen enough to know that Lehtonen is still very much the type of player he's been since coming to Dallas.
That means both good things and bad, as he can make spectacular saves and absolutely steal games but can also let in some curiously stoppable shots (a charge that could likely be leveled against every goaltender in the history of hockey, but it does not stand out as much with the more talented guys.) It also means he has a finicky groin that will usually cost him some time during a season, a stretch that came early this year.
Still, there's far, far more good than bad when it comes to Lehtonen, and with the goaltending issues on some bubble teams around the league, it's something Stars fans can definitely be thankful for in the first half.
- Special teams are still not a strength.
Before we get to the elephant in the room, let's touch on the penalty kill for a minute. While it hasn't been great, especially toward the end of the second half, the Stars haven't been terrible in this area. And the way the Stars have cut down on the number of minors they take has been a really positive sign.
But the power play, Oh, the power play. Every positive the team has seen on the special teams front has been undone because of their woeful power play, particularly on home ice. It's a pretty vexing problem. At times, even at home, the power play looks really good and generates a ton of opportunities. But at others, it's an endless cycle of turn the puck over soon after entering the zone and re-rack. You can make a solid argument that even an average power play might put the Stars in the playoff picture after the first half rather than trailing slightly behind.
The bottom line is when your power play futility inspires its own Twitter account, something has probably gone horribly wrong.
- The Stars seem to have finally settled on "young" as an identity in all the best and worst ways - fast and full of spitfire but occasionally prone to shooting themselves in the foot.
For the first stretch of this season, when the Stars were swimming upstream in search of their game, one of the biggest questions around the team was "Who exactly are these guys?" With a new coach and several new key pieces, it was clear that this was a team in search of how they wanted to play.
Halfway through the season, though, the Stars have found the answer to that question. They are young. That means they have young legs and will often race past their opponents, using quick passing and raw footspeed to own possession and create scoring chances. They can have games and stretches where they are flying high and watching everything click.
And they can slide into overenthusiasm and shoot themselves in the foot. The physical play can slide over into useless offensive zone penalties. The speed can slide into franticness and overpursuit. The confidence can slide into too-risky play and getting caught out of position.
(Yes, I know the averages say the Stars aren't actually a young team. But those averages are dragged up by the goalies, who are generally not part of the conversation when talking about a team's relative age, and a few key outliers like Sergei Gonchar, Ray Whitney and Shawn Horcoff. The core of the team, and in general the guys who play the most minutes, are quite young.)
Being young as an identity is not a bad thing - far from it. Yes, there is going to be a little bit of a roller coaster ride where sometimes they are going to look absolutely lost. But at least now there's so much to grow from.
Five questions for the second half
- Can this team find more consistency when it comes to putting pucks in, and keeping pucks out of, the net?
Like I mentioned above, the flip side of a generally young team is some inconsistency. This has really shown in the Stars goals this year, both for and against. There are games when they pour pucks into the net and games where no matter how many times they shoot, they can't buy a goal. There are games when they withstand a barrage and games where they might give up six goals on 27 shots.
Bad and outlier games will absolutely happen, but the sign of a good team is finding some level of consistency. Evening out some of the valleys will go a long way to helping the Stars in the back half of the season.
- Will the defense continue to hold up without their best player in their own zone?
When Stephane Robidas went down with a broken tibia against the Chicago Blackhawks, there was a pretty palpable sense of dread. While he's not always appreciated, a quick look at the statistics shows that Robidas is by far one of the best defensemen in his own zone, along with blueline partner Brenden Dillon. He's the player the Stars have used as a de facto No. 1 defenseman for the past several years, a player they simply don't have a replacement for that's anywhere near NHL ready. And heck, even before Robidas' injury, the Stars were considered a team with a bit of a mish-mash defense.
Results without him have been about as good as could be expected, and probably a little better than one might have hoped when you consider that Trevor Daley and Sergei Gonchar were also missing for stretches of time. Still, while the defense was definitely game during the five-game stretch where they were missing their three most experienced defensemen, it was also a little bit held together with scotch tape.
Daley and Gonchar are back now, and Robidas is targeting some time in March for his return, so the question really is can the Stars defense continue to make it work. They've done a great job of rising to the occasion so far, even considering the hiccups in individual games. But the longer it goes (and the more inevitable injuries that occur), the bigger the challenge gets.
- What will Jim Nill's approach be to the trade deadline?
This March will be the first trade deadline the Stars will have under new general manager Jim Nill, and he has some very interesting decisions to make on a team that looks like it will be on the bubble for a playoff berth yet again.
On one hand, he's shown a willingness to trade for older players (Shawn Horcoff) or at least try to acquire them (Vincent Lecavalier), moving low-round picks and low-end NHL players in the process. But he also was willing to move a key piece of the Stars core and some higher-end prospects for Tyler Seguin when the Lecavalier negotiations fell through and the opportunity arose.
The Stars biggest need right now, a high-end defenseman, isn't likely to be available on the trade market, and the Red Wings, Nill's former team, were usually pretty quiet at the free-agent deadline whether they were likely to be in contention for the Cup that year or not. It will be extremely interesting to see how he approaches this year's deadline.
- How will the Stars rebound on the special teams front?
They, and by they I really mean the Stars home power play, can't possibly stay this bad, can they? A 7.7 conversion on home ice can't possibly continue at that abysmal rate.
- Will the Stars continue the trend of fading down the stretch as they have in so many recent years or will they finally rise to the challenge?
If there was a trend over the five years that the Stars have missed the playoffs, it's been that they usually had a chance. Several years back, they could have snuck in with a win-and-you're-in scenario on the final day of the regular season. Both seasons under Glen Gulutzan, they were right in the mix until late-season slumps sealed their fate.
So many things have changed about this year's team, from the jerseys to the captain to the coach. But this may be one of the most important things of all. Even if the Stars find themselves in a position where getting into the playoffs will be nearly impossible, and that may well be true with the depth of the Western Conference this season, a good set of games down the stretch will be the final sign that things have finally changed for the better.