Last summer we discussed endlessly the hiring of Marc Crawford and the changes he would bring to the Dallas Stars. We talked about a faster, more entertaining team that embraced the "new" NHL. He would transform the Stars from an ugly and defensive team into one that scores lots of goals and everyone would cheer and buy lots of tickets to watch the Stars be super exciting.
What did we actually get, going from the 2008-09 season to 2009-10 with essentially the same team, but this time healthy?
- Five more points in the standings. (83 points in 08-09; 88 points in 09-10)
- One more win.
- Seven more goals scored overall. (Yes!!)
- Three less goals-against. (Whoo hoo!!)
- One supremely confused hockey team for the first two months of the season. (Nothing new, actually)
- Once again, no playoff berth.
Nearly every critic of Joe Nieuwendyk the GM points to his first decision as his worst one. While Marc Crawford was a fairly surprising choice at the time, if Nieuwendyk was hoping to go in a new direction with the Stars then there was no better choice to be the exact opposite of Dave Tippett. Unfortunately, it seems we didn't exactly get the Crawford we had known in Colorado and Vancouver; instead we received a quiet and peaceful man who was no longer the offensive innovator he once was.
Still, he'll get at least one more season to prove his worth. If the Stars tank again out of the gates, he might only get half a season. Regardless, Crawford will have a chance to build upon the progress of last season (yes, there was some) with a team that now has some continuity in his system. While the team signed just a few free agents, the Stars will look vastly different this season and unlike any Stars team we've known before.
After the jump, I look at some of the factors that will play into the further evolution of Crawford's system in Dallas and what we might expect this season that could be different -- and what is likely to be the same.
To me, this is the biggest change that will make all the difference in the world from last season to this one. You don't normally think of the goalie as a player that affects the overall balance between the offense and the defense but with the Dallas Stars there's no doubt that was the case last season under Marty Turco.
Turco, as we all know, is a goaltender who loves to play the puck. He does it more than any other goaltender in the NHL and he does it better than any other goaltender in the NHL. In fact, he's downright magical at times in the way he can negate a team's forecheck.
Before Crawford, Turco's style of playing the puck worked perfectly in the system the Stars employed. With a defensively minded, opportunistic team a goaltender that can slow the game down along the board while moving the puck along to his defense is downright invaluable. Yet with Crawford's system, that encourage the defense to get the puck, push the play up ice and to make a quick and decisive transition pass to get the offense attack going, Turco's style clashed with what the Stars were trying to do.
For Lehtonen, he'll fit in perfectly. He rarely plays the puck, he's used to allowing his defense to just do what they are taught to do and he's there to make up for any mistakes that are made. The Stars defense is making the transition to being more aggressive with the puck once it's on their stick, while being taught a new method of countering the forecheck.
Remember how at times we remarked how the Stars appeared to play more confidently in front of Alex Auld? Same thing happened with Lehtonen at the end of the season. This wasn't a conscious effort by Turco, just a simple clash of styles and philosophies.
A more experienced defense
We all know the weak part on the Dallas Stars is along the blue line. While I don't necessarily prescribe to the thought process that Stephane Robidas is disgraceful as a top pairing defensemen and that the Stars will never survive with him as the leader on defense, I do agree that last season was very frustrating to watch when it came to defense.
Blown assignments in front of the net. A lack of overall physicality in front of the goaltender or along the boards. Horrible decisions with the puck while in transition. A propensity to knock the puck into your own goaltender. A general and overall lack of any sort of chemistry with the other defensemen and the rest of the team.
This season, the same defense is back. The Stars added Brad Lukowich for depth, and Philip Larsen will get the chance to make the team, but once more we'll roll with Robidas, Grossman, Niskanen. Daley, Fistric, Skrastins, and Woywitka. By the sounds of your applause I know how much this excites all of you.
But there is hope. Grossman and Fistric made great strides last season and as the year wore on it was obvious that the defense has a whole were starting to become more confident. The Stars still don't have that big, puck moving defenseman that I'm certain Crawford would love to have, but later in the year the transition game by the Stars improved. Grossman and Fistric became much more physical and there were times where I smiled after a Matt Niskanen play.
With a year under their belts in this system, these young players should feel more confident in their decisions and should be much more effective as a cohesive unit.
A unified locker room..a team with a similar purpose.
A disclaimer: This next part is pure speculation.
Based on what I've read, heard and caught in whispers..I have a sneaking suspicion that the Dallas Stars locker room wasn't exactly the best last season. Combine these elements:
- The departure of a well-loved coach after six seasons with the team, and the arrival of a coach with a brand new philosophy and coaching style.
- The impending departure of the franchise goaltender, an outspoken player who was a leader in the locker room, and how his murky future with the Stars affected his productivity.
- The Olympics, and how that weighed on the minds of players.
- The unhappiness of the face of the franchise and his supposed reluctance to take a diminished role with the team.
- A restricted budget that kept the Stars from making any significant moves in order to improve the team for a playoffs push.
This season, nearly all of those elements listed above are gone. The Stars should be entering this season as a unified and cohesive team, one that understands what Marc Crawford is attempting to get from them and one that is willing to what is needed to succeed. Crawford's system isn't revolutionary and it isn't a big leap from before; it is, however, different and it does take a mindset change.
If the Stars are to be successful under Crawford, every single player out on that ice has to fully buy into what Crawford is coaching. We witnessed last season how half a team with two separate philosophies operates; it was far from pretty. Now that the Stars are younger, now that the Stars are all sharing a singular goal, the hope is that the team enters the season much smoother than last year.