Defending Big D rolls on through this busy week leading up to opening night on Friday against the Chicago Blackhawks with a preview of the Dallas Stars defensive group and a look at the new faces, and philosophy back there.
When gearing up for the 2010-2011 season a year ago after a summer where Marc Crawford infamously said "Our defense is not a defense that loses us games," the biggest concern going in was that the group of seven on the blue line was the exact same group of seven as before, and the team's biggest problem the year before was clearly in it's own end.
With that same group the Stars cut down their goals against from 254 in 2009-2010 to 233 but even had they made the playoffs on that final day of the season, they still would have been only the second team since the lockout to qualify for the Western Conference playoffs with a negative goal differential. (Columbus, 2009 remains the only member of that exclusive club).
As such, gone is Matt Niskanen, Jeff Woywitka and Karlis Skrastins from last years group and in are Adam Pardy, Sheldon Souray and Alex Goligoski, with Philip Larsen and Brenden Dillon hot on their heels.
Change was needed, and Craig Ludwig agreed when we discussed the defense. "A big question mark for the last couple of years has been the group in front of Kari," Ludwig said, "and I think Joe really tried to shore that up this summer."
Of course, the Stars didn't just change up the personnel on the blue line. They let Marc Crawford and Charlie Huddy go in favor of Glen Gulutzan and Paul Jerrard from the Texas Stars, and Ludwig thinks the changes in philosophy they bring will be just as important.
"It seemed like there was a time where they were just trying to outscore teams," said Ludwig, and before you say callously say "duh", I believe the implication was that they were trying to play hockey the way the Phoenix Suns play basketball with Steve Nash: Just score and don't worry about the other end too much. "If you don't play in your own end and you're giving up goals and you're chasing the game, it's a tough game to play."
"You cannot continue to give up quality scoring chances like they have over the last few years and expect to outscore teams night after night," said Ludwig. "I think you put too much pressure on your guys to go out and score goals. I believe we now have a coaching staff that knows you have to be able to play in your own end to win hockey games."
Let's run down the additions, the group we expect and those making a push from the American league...
Unsolicited, Luddy brought up Pardy. "I actually really like what I've see from Pardy, early. He's a big guy and he handles the puck pretty well for a big guy."
The forwards have said throughout camp that they're excited about having those "big bodies" back there on defense, in reference to Pardy and Souray, and the physicality Adam brings will make you see why. He moves well and he can handle his own with the puck, but his physical presence is the most useful thing he brings to this group.
Glen Gulutzan, who knows Pardy from their days together with Las Vegas of the ECHL, says he can kill penalties and he can play the left or the right side as needed, giving a coach the kind of flexibility they need.
Pardy has said that he's looking forward to a fresh start after things ended unfavorably in Calgary. The situation just wasn't right for him and a shoulder injury, with surgery, ended his 2010-2011 season. With a new two-year, $4 million deal, he's ready to show he can contribute and Joe Nieuwendyk clearly feels that he can.
After Brad Richards, the name you see in most of the national media's preview is this one. Described as an affordable risk by many, he's an interesting reclamation project after two seasons of unlucky injuries and a famously discordant relationship with Edmonton Oiler management who tried to get rid of his contract and ended up sending him to the American League.
Early returns from preseason were inconclusive, as he didn't play in two out of the three home games, so I feel like we still don't know what to expect. He can still bomb it from the point, and his skating is better than many supposed over the summer. Expect limited power play time, little in the way of penalty killing, and mid-range even strength minutes. We're guessing he's paired with Pardy to start the season but anything is possible at this point.
Goligoski isn't new, per say, but he only played 23 games with the Stars last year and that period of time was a tumultuous, injury riddled one that did not afford him a proper introduction beyond something like "Hi, you're running the power play, so have fun with that. Your locker is over there."
He was simply here, very suddenly, and he was spectacular in recording 15 points in those 23 games while often times playing minutes in the upper 20's. He's a great skater, he makes the all important excellent first pass out of the zone, has great vision on the ice and a good shot from the point as well. He is the "puck moving defenseman" the Stars have been talking about acquiring since that other guy. You know the one I mean.
His minutes went up nearly 30% (20 to 26) from what he was playing in Pittsburgh and though he went from a team like the Pens to Dallas, his offensive production actually got better, and he played heavy PK minutes as well.
In a different system, it's hard to project his numbers but there are those who think he'll be among the top 10 defensemen in the league in scoring.
The Ones You Know:
I could write 200-300 words on the rest but you know the drill. Nick Grossman and Stephane Robidas will continue to be underrated work horses. Trevor Daley is coming into his prime and had a pretty underrated season last year. He earned a long extension from the Stars and should be an important piece of this defense for years to come.
Mark Fistric had an up and down (but mostly down) season last year, though the previous regime may have had something to do with it. He figures to start this season as the number seven guy. Injuries will come and he will get his chance to show that he can be the guy who finished +27 in 2009-2010, but he'll have to be patient. He's a good number seven guy, as number seven guys go.
Pairings are anyone's guess at this point, with only two days of practice remaining until opening night. We've see Grossman and Daley paired together in multiple games and in practice on Monday, so that one might be a good bet. Robidas played with Goligoski in preseason but practiced with Souray yesterday. Goligoski practiced with Pardy.
This jives with the idea some have about putting a "stay at home" type with the more mobile, offensively minded players in Daley, Goligoski and Robidas, but we've also seen Robidas and Goligoski paired in the preseason with Pardy and Souray making up what would be presumed to be the third pairing.
Brenden Dillon has been sent down to the AHL already and Philip Larsen figures to be any day now after surviving the second to last round of cuts, but both provide intriguing call-up options when the inevitable injuries strike. Their skill sets are different enough that Gulutzan will have options when deciding who to bring up, yet confidence in both to perform when they get here.
"Defense" will go back to being a team concept this year under Gulutzan. With all the defensive talent the Stars have in the forward group (Eriksson, Ott, Burish, Fiddler, Dvorak, Petersen, etc..) and this new philosophy in place, the defensemen will have more help than they have had in the last two season and the number of quality chances for Kari Lehtonen to face should, in theory, decrease.
"As a group," said Ludwig, "and I don't mean just the defensemen, as a group between the forwards and defense in your own end, when you make it frustrating to get those quality chances you're going to be a more confident and tough team to play against."
As Joe Nieuwendyk always says, "being hard to play against" is what it's all about this year.