For the first time since I started writing about the Dallas Stars in 2009, I have entered the offseason with hope and optimism without the added dearth of negativity that always followed a failed attempt at the postseason. Around this time I always like to sit down and pound out a lengthy think-piece on the season that was and the path that is laid ahead for the Dallas Stars, but it seems as if the experience of those final few minutes on Sunday night are still a bit too fresh in my mind -- and such retrospection deserves a bit more time to marinate before I really try to make sense of it all.
Still, there are plenty of thoughts and cognitive processes -- as always -- bouncing around in my hockey head and, for the last time this season, here are my observations on a Dallas Stars team that ultimately exceeded my expectations:
I continue to think back to around this time last year, when Glen Gulutzan was on his way out and a search was just beginning for the next head coach of the Dallas Stars, and how I remember saying "anyone but John Tortorella or Lindy Ruff." Perhaps it was my distance from the East Coast, or the bias that comes with viewing the mess that was the Sabres from afar, but I never could have imagined Ruff being the coach he was this past season with the Stars. Jim Nill went hard and heavy after Alain Vigneault, and for good reason, but it seems the Stars had the good fortune of him choosing the NY Rangers and forcing Nill to look for the next best option.
What we should have paid attention to is how Ruff had garnered a reputation as a coach able to adapt his team's style to fit the players at his disposal. In Buffalo, that meant trying to win with poorly constructed rosters and players with varying styles and manners of playing -- and it's no surprise that the Sabres struggled the past few years.
Perhaps Ruff just needed a change of scenery himself, and after working for so long in the same market he's welcomed this fresh start with renewed vigor and energy -- and that energy fed right into a young and hungry Dallas Stars squad that became known as the team that just refused to quit.
I haven't agreed with every decision he's made and ironically it was his abject trust and faith in some young players that finally doomed the team (while the hell was that line on the ice in the first few frenetic minutes of overtime), but Ruff also brought a level of professionalism and competence to the coaching position that had not existed for quite some time in Dallas. The Stars would not have made the postseason without the great coaching they received over the course of the season.
There's a lot that still needs to be fixed but for the first time in five years I have nothing but faith in a coaching staff that continue to build and grow a team that is on the cusp of being something truly special.
Think back to the middle of June last year, when the Stars were just hiring Ruff as head coach and had just unveiled their new jerseys and were preparing for the draft -- and how all we knew was that the Stars needed a few extra elite pieces to really try and take a big step forward. Would that come in a very deep draft? How aggressive would Jim Nill be in free agency? The Stars went hard and heavy after Vinny Lecavalier in a bid to move Jamie Benn back to the wing, something the new regime was adamant needed to be done, but then that failed.
How many of us imagined that Tyler Seguin would become that fabled elite superstar, and how many expected that in the course of one year the Stars would suddenly have a top-5 scoring forward in the NHL?
Seguin has seen his career reborn in Dallas and he's embraced the city and the fans in the town he now calls home. He and Benn form one of the absolute most dangerous top lines in hockey and he's managed to completely turn around perceptions about himself both on and off the ice. He scored big goal after big goal throughout the season and while he hit a rough patch in the playoffs -- he was still one of the best forwards on the ice throughout the series.
Then think about this: Tyler Seguin is only going to get better.
Then think about this one: Jamie Benn is still going to get better.
Call this sacrilege or blasphemy or whatever you want -- but I'm not nearly as concerned about the defense as I was just five months ago. The coaching staff has overseen the development of a very determined group of players who all reached and went beyond their perceived potential this season, and there's still room for growth for many of those on the blueline.
That doesn't mean that changes aren't needed -- the Stars desperately need to figure out what to do with Sergei Gonchar -- but it's clear that the Stars now have five very capable and impressive defensemen with which to continue with moving forward. Does that mean the search for a big, game-changing top pairing defensemen should be over? Not at all -- but I don't think the Stars need to drop everything and trade away the world in a desperate attempt to completely remake the blueline like we may have thought last summer.
The Dallas Stars need a backup goaltender who can step in and play 20 or so games next season -- or even more -- and not be counted upon to poop the bed when called upon. The absolute lack of faith in a backup has led to Lehtonen getting overworked significantly these past few seasons and as much I love and respect the Big Finn, it's also clear the Stars need to start grooming his eventual replacement.
For many, that player remains to be Jack Campbell. I'm of the opinion that it's time to bring him up and sit him behind Kari on the depth chart and then see what he can do with semi-regular playing time.
I don't know how big a fan I am of the Stars going after another older veteran backup, but if the Stars can get a younger goaltender who is a bit more promising to play behind Lehtonen (Al Montoya comes to mind) then allowing Campbell to be the de facto No. 1 in Cedar Park is ultimately the ideal solution. But having Campbell playing in Austin while the Stars play Lehtonen for 70 games next year because the Stars have a crappy backup? Not the best plan.
We've been saying it and writing about it for years now, but the youth movement is finally underway in Dallas. The Stars embraced pulling players up from the AHL and giving them the chance to play and prove themselves and went into the postseason with 12 of their 18 regular skaters with zero NHL postseason experience and many with less that two years of experience in the NHL.
More will be on their way, and most were originally added to the franchise under the tutelage of Joe Nieuwendyk and company. Jim Nill has been great for the franchise but what Nieuwendyk was able to do in remaking the prospect system and development pool cannot be stated enough -- even if it was just a decision to let Les Jackson do his thing while actually putting value in prospects and draft picks.
Finally, it's amazing how quickly the perception of the Dallas Stars around the NHL has changed in just one year. Suddenly this is a team that people want to watch play, a team that is competitive in nearly every game and a young roster that provides an immense level of excitement for anyone who loves watching hockey. Add in the fact that the AAC atmosphere increasingly became more intense and magical and suddenly you have a team that might actually start getting national attention that is positive rather than focused on what all is wrong.
That goes a long way towards creating an environment that other players want to be a part of, and that the national spotlight wants to shine on. The Stars might not have the national draw as some Original Six teams, but this is also a team that everyone suddenly wants to watch and wants to watch succeed and that can only be good for the business of the franchise -- and good for the product on the ice as well.