You didn't think I could stay away forever, did you?
The past two months have certainly been interesting for me, as my newfound freedom has allowed me to take a big step back and enjoy hockey and the Dallas Stars on a level I haven't experienced in quite some time -- as a fan. Having the perspective of a fan yet the past insight of a so-called "insider" has afforded some interesting personal observations on the Stars, the fanbase and just what all this means both in the short-term and the long-term. When I stepped down from DBD it was with the thought that I'd still contribute some opinion from time to time and, 12 games into the season, I thought now was as good a time as any.
What's been most interesting is to see reality come crashing down all around us, as a team just embarking on its first true rebuild in nearly two decades experiences stumbles, heartache and frustration amid flashes of brilliance and excitement. This is a reality it's clear the fans did not want to face and even the most well-balanced among us perhaps did not anticipate quite this much struggle in the early going of the season, and already it seems that panic is starting to set in.
The reality is that this is a team that hit the reset button in one offseason in as literal a fashion as any pro sports team I've ever seen. New general manager, new coach, new players, new approach, new jerseys, new goal song -- it's all brand spanking new and we've been told time and again that this is a process, that patience is still needed as the Stars get their skates beneath and eventually start to figure all of this out.
That's a word that probably brings up the acid reflux of anger in most Dallas Stars fans these days. I could go back and probably count half a dozen articles I've written over the past four years preaching patience, that this is a long game and that eventually things will start turning around. Over the past four years all we've really had to hang onto is the fact that the prospect pool was improving, that young help was on the way and the Stars just needed to keep their collective heads above water until the youth reinforcements could arrive. Be patient, we've said, and all of this will be worth it in the end.
I'm not going to say that today. The frustrations fans are feeling in this early-going of the 2013-2014 season are certainly justified. I don't think that panic needs to quite set in just yet, but that's a specific point that will be made tomorrow (that's what I've been told, at least, I don't run the asylum these days). Let's not get ready to just jettison the entire team so early in this campaign, but let's also remain vigilant in exploring the issues that continue to plague the Dallas Stars throughout the ups and downs of the first 12 games.
With that being said, here are some scattered thoughts on this season thus far. No promises on the profundity of these observations, however:
Jordie Benn and the Dallas Stars defense
If you follow me on Twitter, then you know just how much a fan of Jordie Benn I've become this season. It's amazing how such a player can continue to improve, but it should come as no surprise. The older Benn brother is 26 years old and has just 41 games in the NHL under his belt, yet he's proven himself at nearly every level of hockey in North America to force his way up the ladder. From the BCHL to the ECHL to the CHL to the Texas Stars in the AHL -- this is a hockey player that has outright earned every penny of the contract fans were so upset about this summer.
Who knows what happened during the offseason; perhaps it was the confidence of receiving the contract, perhaps it was his younger brother's growing role as a leader in the organization and perhaps it was just good old hard work -- but this is a player who has vastly improved upon his play of last season to become the most steady defenseman for the Stars this season.
That's not saying a whole lot -- the struggles of Gonchar and Goligoski so far sort of bring the bar down a bit -- but through the first month of the season it certainly seems that this is a player who is making those around him better. Trevor Daley looked better than ever next to Jordie, and now Goligoski is enjoying a nice little rebound from the worst nine games of his career while playing with the steady blueliner.
The trouble is, the Dallas Stars cannot afford for Jordie Benn to be their best defenseman. His improvement is astounding and certainly welcome, but the truth is the rest of the defense desperately needs to improve and to do so fast. Which brings me to...
It's tough to really get a read on the newest Dallas Stars coach and exactly what he's brought to the franchise so far. He's certainly brought credibility and experience to the bench, and it seems that he is indeed a coach that demands a lot from his players yet can still relate to them and gain their respect. Look at how the players talked about the game in Buffalo and what it meant to them to get that win for their coach, a sign that unlike previous regimes perhaps the team won't be so quick to tune out the one trying to lead them.
What has been truly interesting, however, is the level of patience within the organization that never existed the past four seasons under Marc Crawford and Glen Gulutzan. In the past, lines would have been mixed desperately following a few of the stinkers we've witnessed this season. The second game of a back to back would have likely seen a few new faces on the ice, in an effort to get "fresh legs" into the game and somehow stop this horrid trend this team has of falling on their face in that second game.
Instead, we get lines that have barely changed since Rich Peverley returned from his injury. Nichushkin has moved around a bit, Erik Cole and Perveley have swapped a few times but other than that Ruff is proving that he's going to play the long game in the hopes of finding continuity with the lines and defensive pairings without changing much. While nearly every fan is ready to just see the young Russian on the top line and Peverley as the second center, I feel there's a very good reason for Ruff's strategy...
So, we talk a lot about "systems" in hockey and differences between this coach and that coach and what that means on the ice. During the coaching search of this past season we discussed ad nauseam that Ruff is a coach that adapts his style to those of the players on his roster, and that is definitely the case so far in Dallas. Jim Nill built a team that is focused on skill and speed, both up front and on the blue line, and Ruff has approached this team with the idea that a straight-ahead, attacking style of hockey would fit his players best.
So why is Ruff sticking with line combinations and only flirting with big changes during practice? Because the players need to learn this system, get used to it, earn the trust of their teammates and be able to just hit the ice and play without thinking. The Dallas Stars are thinking way too much -- although sometimes it seems the exact opposite is true -- and it's leading to hesitation and it's leading to mistakes and it's leading to bad losses.
Yet when things are going well, it's easy to see why Ruff has adopted this system for this particular team...and why not? The best run of last season was when the young guns on the roster, along with Vernon Fiddler, were able to just let loose and attack the net and play without thinking. That bubble eventually burst, but it was a teaser for what was to come.
Yet this system is still a bit different and the young players are still trying to find their way in the NHL. Aside from perhaps Jamie Benn, who is also learning a different position and role, this is a team with a number of very young forwards that are still gaining experience and some of which are playing in a new system for the third time in two years. Which is why Jim Nill decided to offset that inexperience and the stumbles that come with it by also focusing on...
If you want to point to the unequivocal disaster area of the first month of the season, look no further than the play of Shawn Horcoff, Sergei Gonchar and even Ray Whitney. The elder statesmen on the team have struggled so far this season, something the Stars did not need. While fans shouldn't get all worked up about how much certain players are getting paid, there is the undeniable fact that an incredible amount of cap space is locked up in these three players -- cap space that could seriously prohibit future moves that Jim Nill might hope to make.
Now, we're still just 12 games into the season and the good news is that Whitney and Gonchar have certainly shown signs of improvement the past week or so. Gonchar had his best game of the season against Montreal and looked like the player the Stars believed they were getting when they signed him to that two-year contract that left everyone scratching their heads. Whitney has also stepped up the few weeks after a disastrous start for his season, although it's clear that his goal scoring struggles have made the veteran a bit more pass-happy than he normally would be.
The simple truth is that for this team to even hope to find success this season -- a goal that is still certainly attainable -- they need to play better and they need to play better fast. We expect for Nichushkin and Chiasson to be making boneheaded mistakes with the puck from time to time. The Stars can't afford to have the "steadying influence" of the veterans to add to the problem, and the veterans will be instrumental in helping the Stars to build...
Chemistry & Team Identity
Ok, so... Once again, we come across a term we've discussed time and again the past few years. "What is the team identity of the Dallas Stars?" The reality is that successful teams have one and the unsuccessful teams are trying to define their own. The Dallas Stars are trying to be a speedy, aggressive and attacking team that relies on active defensemen to assist the offense as well as a goaltender capable of mopping up the messes that will inevitably be created by this style of play.
Now, the Stars are just exacerbating the problem with the continuous flood of unforced turnovers, but many of those mistakes will be diminished as this team continues to get a feel for what exactly is expected to happen on the ice.
Chemistry is profound and isn't exactly quantifiable; the general consensus is that -- once again -- the good teams have it and the bad teams do not. Yet chemistry on the ice is something that only comes with playing time and experience together as a team and is not something that can just be found overnight. I've mentioned this a few times, but only five players remain on this roster from the team that took the ice in October of 2011.
The amount of turnover on this roster has been extraordinary and it's only logical that it will take time for this team to figure things out on the ice. We've seen it from time to time already and I'd argue that this team is much better overall than it was the first four games of the season, and I'd wager this team will be better overall in a month's time.
I can tell you, without a doubt, that this is a team that certainly enjoys a good amount of chemistry off the ice. The young players in particular all seem to be very close and supportive, and the veterans are a part of that as well. Winning solves nearly every locker room malady, it's often been said, but for the team to first get to that point of success a good amount of chemistry needs to be present -- both on the ice and off.
So, what now?
I'm not entirely satisfied with this season so far, even if I was certainly prepared for the Stars to struggle a bit more than some expected. I understand the patience of Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill -- Heika makes the very good point that while the fans haven't experienced the playoffs in five years, this current administration is just 12 games into a rebuild that is still ongoing. There will be patience shown, and understandably.
Yet there comes a time when something new needs to be done. Ruff showed patience with Goligoski and Gonchar until he was forced to shake it all up, and so far it seems those changes are slowly starting to work. I understand the logic behind the current line combinations but the offense so far is incredibly top-heavy, and Valeri Nichushkin is drowning on the third line despite his improved play of late. You can only bang your head against the wall so many times expecting something new to happen before it becomes clear your strategy isn't exactly working.
This next month will tell us even more about this team and direction of this franchise, and will likely completely change our opinions on what the past 12 games really meant for the long-term future of the Dallas. In the past the Stars have peaked early and stumbled late; perhaps, just once, this will be one of those teams that finds their groove as the season progresses and starts hitting on all cylinders as the playoffs approach.
At least, that's what one can hope.