The Dallas Stars Pitbulls: The Difference Between Winning and Dominance?

Eakin, Roussel and Garbutt will be relied upon for both aggression and control next season - Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Cody Eakin and the Pitbulls will have a more clearly defined role next season. How well they embrace the unique challenges of being a Checking Line will be a huge factor in the continued improvement of the Dallas Stars.

We looked at all the goals the Stars would score next season last week, and stared into the depths of our Cole-centric offensive universe. It was nice, and sure, goals are fine. Last I checked they were still a requisite to winning, but there’s so more to true dominance than a scoreboard. As a former Governor of California once said, the best thing in life is "to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

Lamentation. Pain. Sad fan photos. I thought about the Stars roster. I went looking for chaos.

Cody EakinRyan Garbutt, and Antoine Roussel ensure, night after night, that the Stars will be a terrible guest and an even worse host. Fast and physical, the trio epitomize the sort of ferocious puck-hunting mania that unnerves and nullifies opposing offenses. Look over your shoulder, goes the message they send, not for an open lane.

There’s snarl, sure, but also skill. Last season the three accounted for 47 goals and 49 assists. That production provides a tremendous boost to the line’s value, and is a critical piece of Dallas’ overall line structure. It turns them into a tipping point, a difference maker on nights when the big boys can’t find the range, another layer. That’s how you win in today’s NHL.

That was last season. Now, Cody Eakin is another year older, Ryan Garbutt another year wiser, and Antoine Roussel just led France to the quarterfinals of the World Championships (6 goals, 5 assists, 11 points). This season, opposition checkers will be focused on Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza’s lines. "And" being the key word. Is it insane to suggest Eakin’s unit might benefit? The Brooks Orpiks of the world have to play against somebody, and it sure isn’t likely to be Jamie Benn. Didn’t Todd Marchant win a playoff series once, and Benoit Hogue? It’s fair to expect big things.

My concern is the lines they’ll have to walk. Despite 17 goals, Garbutt’s signature moment might well be an ill-advised, critical penalty in an eminently winnable playoff series. It wasn’t his first ill-advised, critical penalty of the season either. Another truth bomb: he dove, which can become a self-perpetuating, reputation call. Both are things you can get away with when you’re Corey Perry. As a third line grinder? Not so much. To contribute, Garbutt has to find a way to stay on the ice and in his coach’s good graces.

Fellow pitbull Roussel faces a similar challenge (209 PIMs last season), but I actually have a slightly different concern. Post playoffs, Antoine followed up a dazzling World Championship by filing for salary arbitration. Probably nothing—the man deserves to get paid—but I can’t help but worry. Great teams are the product of disparate individuals serving complimentary roles and making sacrifices—up and down the lineup. If Roussel continues to develop offensively, will it unbalance the chemistry he displayed with Garbutt? Will it sap his focus? Even in the best case, will increased minutes in a scoring role create a hole for someone else to fill?

Finally, Cody Eakin. Last season he served as the team’s de-facto second line center. Especially after Rich Peverley went down. Sometimes the scoring touch was there, but most of the time the jacket didn’t quite fit (16 goals in 81 games). Does the Spezza acquisition allow him to evolve into a meaningful role perfectly suited to his skillset, or does it stifle a gifted, developing young player by once again depriving him consistent minutes on a scoring line?

Maybe this isn’t a concern next season, but Spezza re-signing isn’t a given, nor is his health. There’s a case to be made that, at some point, Eakin needs to become an offensive option for the Dallas Stars. Can he do that in a more defined, third line role, or can Lindy find enough meaningful minutes elsewhere?

Grit and sweat are tough asks, especially when other players soak up sweeter power play minutes, and the marquee. They’re also delicately applied. Too much of either puts you in the penalty box, too little lets opposing scorers run rampant. Make no mistake, Eakin, Roussel, and Garbutt are crucial to the success of the Dallas Stars. They’ll be trusted with minutes every bit as tough and meaningful as their scoring-line colleagues, but with much less acclaim. How they respond to that challenge, and how Coach Ruff manages their leash are critical questions heading into next season.

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