The deals that sent Jaromir Jagr, Brenden Morrow, and Derek Roy away heading into the trade deadline signaled to the rest of the NHL that the Stars were packing it in with an eye towards 2014. That may have been the intent, but through three games the new look Stars are anything but a pushover. The Stars leadership core deserves a lot of credit for the change of fortunes.
The most surprising aspect of the very brief turnaround is that the catalyst hasn't been a new infusion of talent. Sure, Alex Chiasson has three goals and looks like a legitimate NHLer. Yes, Lane MacDermid also has a couple goals. But, both have benefitted from outside forces. They are playing well, but the team as a whole has been playing well.
Yeah, Chiasson has been superb, but it would be a mistake to ignore the way Ray Whitney and Jamie Benn are playing. They're the checking focus, and putting up positive possession games. They have so much open ice, and they work wonderfully together. Benn finally looks like himself again with Jagr in Boston.
That isn't to say Jagr was bad for the Stars, but at this point you have to begin wondering how well he fit into what the Stars wanted to do. The zone entries I've tracked this year, and that Eric T. of Broad Street Hockey tracked of him last year, clearly demonstrate how much he wants to carry the puck. Benn does the same thing. Since the trade he has been noticeably more active. The way he and Whitney have flown around has created chances for someone willing to go to the net (Chiasson). I don't think those chances exist for a player like Chiasson before the deals were made.
Another area where you notice the changes is on the power play. The Stars, despite not scoring on it lately, have been generating gobs of chances with the extra man now that it is flowing through Whitney and Benn. The puck movement is crisp, the board battles are actually battles, and the players on the power play units are moving constantly. There are any number of reasons for that, but I think a key one is the nature of Jagr vs Whitney. Jagr is a scorer and Whitney is a playmaker. Intuitively it makes sense to see more puck distribution with Whitney running things.
The improved power play and first line play are two examples of the improved cohesion of the Stars roster as a whole. You can also see it in the bottom six and on defense. The bottom two lines are consistently applying a direct forecheck. The defensemen have remained active throughout the two games. The Stars have had the annoying habit of scrapping gameplans within five minutes if things were going poorly. They outwardly professed their desire to dig in deep, win battles, go to the net, and keep an active defense. None of these things happened consistently prior to the last three games. That, at least temporarily, has changed.
I'm not trying to say that Morrow, Jagr, and Roy were the problem. Who knows. That would be nothing more than speculation. What I am saying is that the Stars are clearly all on the same page right now. They are developing a clear identity. Structure is falling into place which will help more young players enter the lineup eventually and continue to develop.
Gulutzan and his staff deserve a lot of credit for those changes. They are likely on the hot seat, but it's worth briefly taking a moment to appreciate the changes that have taken place over the past week. The Stars are headed in the right direction primarily because everyone is on the same page and pulling in the same direction. Those that have put them on the right path deserve a lot of credit for persevering through a tough year.
Does this stretch of play save Gulutzan's job? That's tough to say. I do think, though, that if the Stars continue to look like a cohesive hockey team over the remainder of their games that Gulutzan should get another shot. The Stars have needed an identity for four years. Gulutzan and his staff have put one in place over the past week. The Stars are ideally going to play with pace, the defense is ideally going to be active, and the Stars are ideally going to crash the net. The fact that any of that is identifiable can be nothing but a positive step, even if it is way too late. Do they really want to scrap an identity so soon after finally finding one (assuming it sticks)?
The recent improvement does sting though. It makes you wonder where this team would be if they had been on the same page all season. The Stars are clearly less talented today than they were before the trade deadline. Where would they be if that talent had translated into wins instead of frustration? The bad taste that this season has left in the mouths of everyone involved is going to linger so a strong finish might not be enough to save Gulutzan's job. If the Stars continue to play hard and play "Dallas Stars hockey" he's going to give Joe Nieuwendyk a lot to think about over the summer though.