There's been a lot of talk the past week about the Dallas Stars "youth movement" and how the addition of some new young faces to the roster has led to this sudden surge by the team that has playoff hopes alive once more. Through hard work, speed and sheer determination the Stars have used three very strong games in a row to pull to within two points of a playoff just a week after the team traded away two of the top skill guys on the roster.
What has led to the team's resurgence has been the subject of much discussion, especially after Tuesday's beat down of the Los Angeles Kings at home. The Stars controlled play for much of the game and used an all-out blitz in the third period to walk away with a big 5-1 victory.
"They're all working," said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan after the game. "They're playing hard, they've given us effort every game. It's nice for them to get rewarded. Especially Fiddler and Whitney. When you're spreading the scoring around it gives everybody else a little bit of confidence. That's all guys need and this is the right time of year to have it."
Confidence is the big word here and suddenly this is a team that has it. With that confidence comes the freedom to play more aggressive, to play with more speed and the Stars are suddenly a completely different team on the ice than they were just nine days ago. It's amazing to witness and it's something we haven't quite seen before. Last season the Stars enjoyed a nice run in February and March before collapsing down the stretch but this is different -- this feels tangible.
The change can't have come just from the addition of Alex Chiasson and Matt Fraser, however, who were really the only two true additions to the team after the trades. Instead, the trades enacted a complete change in dynamic that started with the departure of Brenden Morrow and was then continued with the trade of Jaromir Jagr -- two players who carried significant influence both on the ice and in the locker room.
Too many times this season the Stars appeared to be nothing more than a group of individuals skating in circles on the ice, unable to string together successful passes and constantly stepping all over each other on scoring chances that ultimately went nowhere. There was zero consistency from game to game and sometimes from period to period and it all resulted in a team hovering around .500 and apparently down and out on the dream of making the postseason.
Yet it's clear that desire still remains and this is a team that refused to give up -- and that attitude is what has Stars fans feeling that hope once more that has backfired too many times in recent memory.
"Too many Chiefs and not enough sailors," was something discussed many times throughout my Navy career, speaking of how there needs to be a clear leader for any actual progress to be made. Perhaps, in the desire to build a competitive team out of "spare" parts, the Stars instead created a situation where everyone was deferring and looking to the other for the answers and no one really had the ability to step up and take charge when needed.
Perhaps the right leadership core was here all along and just needed the opportunity to do what was needed. Perhaps the right dynamic just never existed for the team to excel with Jagr on the ice -- even while he led the team in scoring and appeared to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season.
"When you have one of the best to ever play the game here, in [Jaromir Jagr], you're going to want to play a little bit differently," said Stars veteran forward Ray Whitney. "You're going to want to get the puck into his hands as best he can. Since they've moved him, we've brought in less skilled and less experienced guys that Jagr or Roy, or Morrow for that matter. What they bring is a simplicity to the game, which is easy to read off. Sometimes when you play with high skilled guys you have to have a certain mindset to be able to play with them and I'm not sure we had throughout the lineup the guys that could do that. Now, with the simplicity, it's the old "keep it simple stupid" method right now. And it's easy for everyone to follow."
There's something to be said about the younger players on the team finally able to play the game they are most comfortable with and the type of game that Gulutzan has been preaching since he arrived in Dallas. Keeping it simple, emphasizing puck pursuit and tenacity and effort and not getting caught up in all of the details -- it's led to a more free and open Dallas Stars team that certainly seems to have the attitude needed that might not have existed in year's past.
These are hungry players and now the real veteran leadership is guiding the way; Whitney, Vernon Fiddler and Eric Nystrom have noticeably taken control of the team and perhaps this is what was needed all along. The young players provide the boost of energy while the veterans show how to harness it, and the result is a team that is finally competing instead of rolling over and giving up the moment adversity hits.
The Stars still need some young players to step up and take over as the leader in the locker room moving forward; in the meantime, these grizzly vets are showing us all how it's done.
"You saw some guys really put in a good compete level tonight," said Whitney. "It's the difference right now in what we've been doing in the last 10 days. Our attitude is a little bit different on how we have to play the game and you can see it."
Things could still crash down around them; there are bound to be some losses in the coming nine games and we've seen that the Stars haven't exactly reacted favorably to adversity in the past. But this is a team with a new attitude and a new swagger; even if they fall short of their improbable goal this is a team Dallas Stars fans can feel proud of.
Perhaps that's really all we wanted all along.