The Dallas Stars are really good at hockey right now. Dallas leads the Central Division with a record of 15-4-0 and 30 points. If the season ended Tuesday night the Stars would win the Presidents Trophy taking a tiebreaker of regulation and overtime wins (ROW) against the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers.
The blueprint for the Dallas game has not been surprising: Absolutely bury the other team in a landslide of goals. The speed of transition and heavy offensive pressure has allowed the Stars to play an opportunistic and position-oriented defense.
If you had asked people around the league in August where Dallas would sit on November 18th, not many people would have checked the "best team in the league" box. How has this Stars team surprised doubters so far this season?
The Two-Headed Crease Monster
When Dallas signed Antti Niemi to a 3 year $4.5 million per year contract, the league chuckled. Candidly, perhaps some of the Stars' supporters chuckled and rolled their eyes. Ten and a half million dollars per season on two goalies? It was laughable.
Stars fans had seen this movie before. They watched Tim Thomas, Dan Ellis, Anders Lindback, Richard Bachman, Cristopher Nilstorp, and Jhonas Enroth be sworn in as the ball-cap bearer; only to be completely underwhelmed. Maybe some of the poor play was the defense in front, but it sure seemed like the elusive "backup goaltender" was a farce.
So far this season, the two-headed goalie has worked better than advertised. There are a lot of places to give credit to the surging Stars, but the goalies certainly deserve their fair share of the credit. Combined, the Stars goalies have a 0.913 save percentage.
The numbers are not enough to cause a Vezina campaign, but they have been exactly what the team needed. Niemi has afforded Kari Lehtonen rest, and vice versa. There were concerns (at least personally) that the fragile psyche of the goalies would be damaged by the feeling of someone constantly looking over his shoulder. However, Lindy Ruff has done a masterful job of using both players.
The long-term viability of $10.4 million per year spent in the net is unclear. But so far this season, it sure has worked.
Radek Faksa and Mattias Janmark
The Stars have been rebuilding for a long time. Part of rebuilding included the stockpiling of young talent. Fans keep up with the kids in Cedar Park and other prospects around the world, but it is difficult/impossible to ever get a handle on how good those players will be at the next level.
There were whispers of a few players making a move this season but no one was quite sure what to think. Radek Faksa has been a cult-fan favorite for years since being drafted in 2012, but honestly, who could know how he would turn out?
Faksa got a chance in Big D and he did not disappoint. He had a goal and an assist in eight games with the big club and played 12 minutes per game. In his first eight games in the NHL, he took 60.4 percent of his faceoffs in the defensive zone, and won 50.8 percent of them. His role right out of the gate was impressive. It was a lovely reward for fans that had been waiting on "prospect help" for years.
He's back in the AHL right now as the Stars lower line forwards are healthy, but his performance all-but-guaranteed himself a spot as the first call up when the next injury strikes (or whenever they get that eight defenseman thing worked out).
As nice as the Faksa surprise was, Mattias Janmark has been better.
Acquired last season in the Erik Cole rental by the Detroit Red Wings, Janmark was expected to spend this season with Frolunda HC in Sweden. Most people, including Janmark himself, expected to show up for a few weeks of training camp and then go back to Frolunda.
Fortunately, he never gave the Stars a chance to send him home. After a dominant preseason most still didn't know how to categorize the young Swede. He is a grown man, if a young one, at 23 years old, and clearly GM Jim Nill intentionally pursued him in the Cole trade, but no one knew what to expect.
Janmark has burst on to the scene in Dallas shoehorning his way into a Top 6 role alongside Jason Spezza. What makes the kid so impressive is not only his speed and general ability, it is his instincts. The kid has made more than one Spezzian pass on his forehand and backhand. He sees the ice unfold before him like a chess board.
The hardest part for rookies and young players is the speed of the NHL game, and defensive side of the ice. The game has slowed down for Janmark, and his responsible back tracking is noticeable almost every shift.
After last season, there was little doubt that the blue line would need to be addressed. There were rumors about Cody Franson, Dion Phaneuf, Christian Ehrhoff, Andrej Sekera, and Dougie Hamilton coming to Dallas. Fans wanted a number one unicorn that could solidify a shaky defense.
When Johnny Oduya was brought in, there was talk from some that the veteran would not be enough to push the team over the edge. He was a system player. He didn't score. He couldn't succeed outside of Chicago. He was too slow. He just wasn't good enough to help this team.
How wrong the haters were.
Johny Oduya and Jason Demers have shouldered the defensive load for the Dallas Stars. Oduya in particular has started 60.6 percent of his starts in the defensive zone, and drives possession with a Corsi For at 51.94 percent. He has been the defensive backbone, shot-blocking penalty killer that the Stars have missed dearly for years.
What makes Oduya special is his fundamental play. He is a superb positional player, and his zone exits are efficient and crisp. His play has clearly rubbed off on Demers, who has also stepped up to the plate defensively. Oduya's ability to carry the defensive starts has allowed John Klingberg and Alex Goligoski to play the game they were born to play. Oduya has been better than advertised, and continues to prove those underwhelmed by his signing wrong.