The Dallas Stars are riding one heck of a wave of optimism right now, a rather drastic turnaround from where things were heading into the final game of the 2013 lockout-shortened season. The Stars were set to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in as many years and then it was announced that Jim Nill would be taking over as the team's general manager -- and suddenly everything changed.
A couple of shrewd trades and a complete change of culture within the organization has the Stars the darling of the ball before the season even begins, thanks to what seems to be one of the more dynamic offensive attacks in the NHL and a team environment that is suddenly the talk of the league. The Dallas Stars are the "sexy pick" of the 2014 season, an up-and-coming young team with expectations higher than they've been since 2008.
1. Can the Dallas Stars live up to those heightened expectations?
That the Stars are suddenly a team deigned to be the favorites in anything is quite remarkable, but suddenly this is a team expected to compete with San Jose and Anaheim and St. Louis and Chicago and Nashville and Los Angeles and perhaps even Colorado as the premier teams in the West. There are questions over whether Tyler Seguin can win the Art Ross trophy or whether Jamie Benn could finally gain consideration for the Hart for league MVP, and just how far this team can get into the postseason after the dip in the water last season against Anaheim.
The saying "don't put the cart before the horse" is fairly salient in this case, however, as this is a Dallas Stars team that barely scraped into the playoffs last season with a point total (91) that normally doesn't earn you the rights to a successful season. In fact, 95 points in 2011 was enough to miss the playoffs completely and get head coach Marc Crawford fired. The re-alignment of the divisions has changed the landscape of the postseason race a bit and last season it was definitely in the Stars' favor; this season, the battle for the same result is going to be much more challenging.
What really stood out last season was that the Dallas Stars were a team that thrived as the underdog and carried a "us against the world, we'll prove them wrong attitude" that really drove everything forward as the season went along. No one expected Seguin to be fourth in the NHL in scoring, or for Benn to quickly emerge as a leader on and off the ice in his first season as captain. No one expected Lindy Ruff to be able to change the approach and mentality of the Stars in just one season, and embrace a new and progressive system that played to his team's strengths so well.
This season the landscape is much different, as the Stars are now expected to make the postseason and to not only replicate the success of last season but to actually improve upon it. The additions made in the offseason were significant but the Central Division got harder over the summer, and not easier, and now the Stars must fight for the postseason where any slipups will now be seen as failure.
Which brings us to...
2. Will the defense improve without any drastic personnel changes?
Last year was a tale of two seasons for the Dallas Stars -- the first half and the second half, especially on the blue line. It took nearly 50 games but Ruff and assistant coach James Patrick finally found the right combinations on defense that worked for the Stars and their new system and it all came together rather well in the playoffs -- at least at home.
The combination of Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley was dynamic in the race for the postseason and in the series against Anaheim, with both finding an offensive touch while also providing shutdown minutes in their own zone. This led to big performances from Jordie Benn and Patrik Nemeth and at times Brenden Dillon (until his injury) as the defensemen found a great balance the last 30 or so games at the end of the season.
Was it a fluke?
The Stars made no changes at defense and instead are playing the long game, wanting to change the blue line as the young players in the AHL force their way onto the team. In the meantime the NHL defense has not changed one bit and could still see Sergei Gonchar getting significant minutes -- especially in the early part of the season. The challenge is to prove that the defense that showed up at the end of last season was what the Stars are truly capable of and not just a short-term surge that hides just how culpable this defense could be this season.
3. Will the Dallas Stars finally find consistent backup goaltending?
It could easily be said that, in at least the last two seasons, the Stars' playoff chances would have been much higher if the team had received any sort of consistency from the backup position. The Stars bled points the past few years whenever a goalie not named Kari Lehtonen was in net and it has led to an over-reliance on the Finnish netminder that is not very salient to the team's long-term success.
The Stars would ideally have Lehtonen at around 60-65 games each season, and yet because of inconsistent backup production have had to rely on him more and more as the season wore along. Last year no player in the NHL saw more ice time than Lehtonen -- not exactly the sort of work load you want for a goaltender known to have health issues from time to time, and who has also proven to wear down at the end of the season after such a high amount of minutes.
The Stars are expecting to rely heavily upon Lehtonen again, yet desperately need to find consistent backup play to help him out. Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas are fighting for that right in the preseason but neither has proven themselves at the NHL level, although at least Lindback has significant experience in the NHL. Right now it's Lindback who seems to have a lock on the job but can the Stars rely upon him for 20 games this season -- 20 games where it's not a fire drill whenever a goalie not named Lehtonen is on the ice?