With Dallas/Fort Worth being the giant market that it is, there are plenty of teams competing for people's attention with the Cowboys, Mavericks, Rangers, FC Dallas, and Stars. That's a lot of sports teams to follow, and that doesn't even include NASCAR, the rodeos, and all of the minor teams in the DFW area.
As a result, there are a lot of casual fans out there who don't necessarily have the time to pay attention to all of the details of every team. I'm a perfect example of that, I think. My attention is always 100% on hockey, even during the offseason. Since I spend every waking minute paying attention to what the Stars do, I don't follow the Texas Rangers or the Dallas Cowboys as closely as others. I still get excited when it comes to them being successful, and I love watching their games, but I can't tell you the first thing about WAR, ERAs, OBP, or how much Tony Romo chokes.
Okay, I might talk about that last one, but only to get under the skin of my friends that are hardcore Cowboys fans.
The point is, there are a lot of people in Dallas who are finally beginning to pay attention to the Stars, but don't really know the first thing about the team. After all, they finally have a new owner, Tom Gaglardi, who is willing to spend the money it takes to build a winning team. The marketing department has been unleashed on the DFW area, so everyone at least remembers that we do, in fact, have a hockey team. Throw in some vibrant new jerseys and some big name players, and people can see that this is not the same hockey team from the last several years.
A lot of longtime hockey fans might call these people "bandwagoners." I prefer to call them "newcomers." Heck, I didn't know the first thing about hockey when I first started following the Stars back in May of 1999. But you have to start somewhere. And there's no better time than now.
So if you're new to hockey or just new to the Dallas Stars, welcome! With any luck, this list of five basic questions for this team should get you started. There's plenty of time to figure out the rest later.
1. Who are the top three players and how do they contribute to the team?
There are three names that you will probably hear more this season than the others, and there's a reason for that. The playoff hopes of the Dallas Stars are basically centered around them. That would be Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin (pronounced SAY-gehn, and not sah-GEEN) and Kari Lehtonen. We'll get to Kari in a little while, so let's focus on Benn and Seguin for now.
Jamie Benn is what you might call a diamond in the rough as far as draft picks are concerned. He was drafted in the fifth round in 2007 and has quickly become one of the most prominent players on the team. He has size, speed, and can handle the puck like nobody's business. When he has a chance to combine it all together, he scores some highlight reel goals, often skating circles around every opposing player on the ice before scoring. In short, he's fun to watch. He's also the captain of the team and the face of this franchise. Like Mike Modano and Brenden Morrow before him, fans have high hopes for him as a leader both on and off the ice.
Tyler Seguin is one of the newest faces to the Dallas Stars, but he's probably the most well known by the national media. He was drafted 2nd overall in 2010 by the Boston Bruins, and the Stars traded for him this summer. He has the playmaking and scoring abilities as a center that the Stars have desperately needed since Brad Richards left the team. He and Jamie Benn are linemates, so whenever you see one of them do something great, chances are that the other helped set that play up. Both of these two will be the core of the Dallas Stars for many years to come.
2. Who is the hardest working player?
There's always a difference between players you love to follow for their scoring ability, and players you love for their character. If you like to pay attention to the latter, there are a couple of names for you to keep an eye on this year.
Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt are two players that easily fit into this category. They were brought up to Dallas in order to fill some tough minutes and provide some relief for the top two or three lines. Most fans call them "grinders," but these two in particular have the passion and mentality to be agitators as well.
Ryan Garbutt (Yes, we see what's in his last name. As someone who sees them on road games, he gets heckled by every drunk guy behind the visitors bench. No, he's not bothered by it.) showed up a couple of seasons ago and quickly made a name for himself. His "go to" move is to crash the net full speed when he has the puck. I mean that literally, too. Most of his highlights involve him running into the opposing goalie at a sprint in the hopes that the puck will cross the goal line in the process. It frustrates the other team beyond belief, and it's fun to see.
Antoine Roussel, on the other hand, likes to agitate all of the opposing players on the ice. He will stand up to whomever he needs to in order to send the message that the Stars will not be pushed around. Both players give 110% every game, and it's easy to see when you watch them.
3. Where do the Stars need to improve so that they can make the playoffs?
This is an easy one. Defense.
The real problem is that there is no easy way to get there. The defense as it is right now is in a state of transition. For many years, the Stars had no defense whatsoever. With all of the draft picks and prospects working their way up the ranks, it will be greatly improved in years to come. The issue is that they are still one to two years away. In the meantime, there is a mixture of veterans and rookies on the ice, with no true #1 defenseman to lead them. They can still make the playoffs this season, but if they do, it won't be because of the stellar defensive play.
4. Who is the best young player that everyone is optimistic about?
Again, there are two names to keep an eye on here. Alex Chiasson, who made the team at the end of last season, has had a spectacular NHL debut. He scored 9 goals in his first 10 games. It's been crazy to watch.
The other rookie that everyone is talking about is the Stars first draft pick this summer, Valeri Nichushkin. He was picked 10th overall by Dallas but likely would have been top 5 (or even top 3) had he not been Russian. Many NHL teams shy away from Russian players because some prefer to return to the KHL in Russia, essentially costing the team a draft pick.
Nichushkin is big. Very big. You can see his size and speed every time he hits the ice. If he develops like he should, he could be a big name star for the next 10-15 years for Dallas.
Now, before you get overly excited about them, you have to remember that these are still rookies. And they are both incredibly young. Chiasson's goals are not going to continue at that pace, and Nichushkin is still adjusting to the North American style of play. It's exciting to have them on the team, but it may still take a couple of years before we start to see really big things from them. That's just the way it is with rookies.
5. Who and how good is our goalie?
Kari (pronounced Car-ee, not Carrie) Lehtonen is our #1 netminder. And he is extremely talented. He has carried this team on his back many times before and has nearly gotten them to the playoffs. The problem is he is relied on so much during the regular season that he tires out (understandably so) in the last few weeks. The Stars have not had a reliable backup goaltender in recent years, leading the Stars to overuse him. With any luck, that will not be the same case this year. But it remains to be seen.
Bottom line, is this a playoff team?
It's tough to say. In recent years, the Stars have just missed the playoffs. A win or two more each season would have made all the difference. I'd like to think that they have improved enough to get those additional two wins this year (plus more). But, they have a lot of new players on the team as well as a brand new head coach. People take time to gel together, so it could be a very up and down season. Throw in a brand new conference and a brand new playoff seeding format, and it's difficult to really gauge where they will wind up. Either way, it will probably come down to the wire.
I'm a new fan to the sport. Do you have any advice for me?
If there is one thing I wish I could do for every casual fan of the game, it would be to make sure they see a game in person. It is completely and totally different than seeing it on TV. You can ask my wife, who hates watching the games on television but is always dying to go to the AAC to catch them live. If you've never been, try going to just one game this year, and you will fall in love with it. Not that I'm here to sell you tickets, but the Stars also have some of the cheapest ticket prices in the entire NHL, not to mention it's cheaper that a Cowboys, Mavericks, or Rangers game right now. (Well, you know, if the Rangers were still playing.)
Other than that, getting your attention is good enough for now. Nothing helps build a fanbase more than success in the playoffs. With any luck, they will be doing plenty of that this April.