Last week, all of the managers for SB Nation's hockey sites joined together to rank the teams in the Western Conference. Not surprising, honestly, the Dallas Stars finished in the bottom five of the West. This is a common theme this preseason for the Stars, with many prognosticators not feeling too optimistic about a team without Brad Richards and the lowest salary cap hit in the NHL.
Throw in a rookie head coach who has just two seasons of coaching above the ECHL level under his belt, six new players on the roster and a team still without an owner and it's easy to see why hockey minds might not feel too optimistic about the Stars this season.
Of course, the Dallas Stars don't have to be better than most teams in the West this season. They just have to be better than the teams in the bottom half of the West. After the jump, a look at the rankings and I'll try and break down why the Stars deserve to be considered better than the other Worst In The West teams -- according to these rankings.
San Jose Sharks
Detroit Red Wings
Los Angeles Kings
St. Louis Blues
Columbus Blue Jackets
According to the rankings, the highest vote that Dallas received was 9th, while there was one vote for 15th. Most voters considered the Stars to be right there where they finished -- 12th in the Western Conference.
What is frustrating for us Stars fans is that while we see this team on a daily basis and we can see what coach Gulutzan is building, it's tough for those without a close view of this team to look past certain glaring uncertainties. The loss of Brad Richards -- no matter what you might think of his level of play overall -- is going to be very hard for this team to overcome all at once.
Many people point to Jamie Benn as the savior for this team, a guy who can step up and fill that void left by Richards. The problem with this thinking is that Jamie Benn is a much different player offensively than Richards -- Jamie Benn is a special player who can create offensive chances for himself in open ice, but he's nowhere near the playmaker that Richards was for those around him. Now, Benn makes up for this with his defensive prowess and his physicality, but thinking that Benn is just going to step up this season and score near 80 points is a tough assumption to make.
What the Dallas Stars are hoping to accomplish this season is to become a better team overall, a roster that embraces the team aspect and doesn't need a superstar to propel them forward. What many are seeing is that with Brad Richards, the Stars barely missed the playoffs and without him -- there's little chance they'll be able to seriously compete for a playoff spot. Yet what people don't see is a roster full of players that have the ability rise up together and play better overall as a team, and not be so reliant on a top-heavy offense.
The simple fact is that is how this team must approach this season, because no matter how we try to stack it, the Stars are struggling to keep pace with an ultra-competitive West. Personally, I feel that the Stars are going to be a better team this season overall than last season -- unfortunately, every team in front of them in the West improved as well.
There's no way the Stars are going to compete for 82 games this season with San Jose, Los Angeles, Detroit or Vancouver. You could also add the Chicago Blackhawks to that list, who are trying to rebound from an absurdly disappointing season last year.
So that brings me back to my original point at the beginning of this article: the Stars only have to be better than eight other teams in the conference to have a successful season. According to these rankings -- and according to our own predictions for the season -- the Stars are only likely to be better than a few. There's no doubt that the Stars are a better team overall than the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche. The Edmonton Oilers have major issues as well, but it's only a matter of time before the absurd level of young talent on that roster takes over and they start to do good things.
Where the real race will be, however, is between Anaheim, Minnesota, Phoenix and Dallas. The Stars are more than capable of playing a better season overall than these three teams and leap-frogging them in the standings. What's important for the Stars this season -- and where they have failed the past two years -- is to not give points away to these very same teams they'll be competing so closely with. Too many times the Stars have allowed these teams to walk away with an extra point when the Stars failed to close out a close game and allowed the game to go to overtime. Those extra points hurt badly when you consider just how close a race for that final playoff spot can be.
St. Louis, Columbus and Nashville all made significant improvements this offseason and it's no surprise to see them expected in the postseason. The Stars have the ability to compete with all three on a game-to-game basis, although it's going to be interesting to see how Dallas approaches these games where the talent level overall is not tilted in their favor.
The Stars the past few seasons have had the ability to make the playoffs. When the season started to ramp up and teams took their game to another gear as the postseason approached, the Stars were unable to keep up. Their team game collapsed and the "stars" were unable to lift the team on their backs and carry them forward. Every team that finds postseason success find that balance between the top players and the team aspect and this is exactly what the Stars are looking for this season.
The key is going to be how the Stars approach the games against the teams they'll be competing directly with for those middle spots in the conference. Last season, they fell apart in these games and yet still missed the postseason by just one point. This year, with Richards gone and the need for a postseason berth at an all-time high, they'll have to find a way to take it to that next gear.