The 90s were a long time ago. I was 5 years old when the Dallas Stars won a Stanley Cup and went to a final in two consecutive years. I’ve heard the stories from my father of how great those teams were, but that is all they were to me - a distant memory with only stories to bring them back to life. This is not to say that I haven’t seen these teams play, I have: on NHL network rewinds, YouTube videos, and one summer the Stars put on their website all sixteen wins from ‘99, and they truly were great.
From Hatch, Matvichuk, Zubov, and Sydor, to Belfour between the pipes, those Stars were a defensive juggernaut. Not to mention the Hall of Famers that littered the offense in those days, like Modano, Hull, and Nieuwendyk. The Stars were loaded and really teetered on the cusp of a dynasty. Five consecutive division titles, two consecutive presidents trophy, three consecutive conference finals, two finals appearances, and a Stanley Cup, wow.
So it is understandable for Stars fans to let their minds go back to the first stint with Hitch behind the bench. It was magical (from what I’ve heard). But these aren’t your father’s Dallas Stars — and that is a good thing.
As humans, we are a nostalgic bunch; we long to go back to those days that we consider sunnier and happier. This causes us to make comparisons to the present day in every facet of life and industry. However, those who take too much time looking at the past are ignoring the present and the Dallas Stars are keenly aware of this fact.
There are similar pieces to this Dallas team and the teams of the past. They have an all world sniper who skates and shoots like a young Modano (Tyler Seguin), they have a second line center who brings about memories of Joe Nieuwendyk (Jason Spezza), and Mattias Janmark drew some early comparisons to a young Jere Lehtinen with his tenacity on the puck and timely scoring touch.
That’s where it ends. Everything else on this team is different.
This Dallas Stars team is built on offense and to be successful they must turn offense into defense. The old Stars did the exact opposite, turning defense into offense with great success. The NHL has changed since then and Hitchcock is the first to acknowledge this. He has seen firsthand what these Stars are built on: team speed and positive puck possession. The electricity is in how they play, pretty much daring every team in the NHL to skate and score with them for a full sixty minutes.
The ploy worked in 2015-16 and bottomed out in a terrible 2016-17 season. We all know why or at least have an opinion on last season and the analysis usually starts with the goalies and defense and ends with the goalies and defense. With moves to bring in goalie Ben Bishop and defenseman Marc Methot, as well as some NHL experience from Julius Honka, Esa Lindell, and Stephen Johns, the backend should be improved. However, the pressure needs to be taken off the defense by the offense.
Yes, the high octane offense will be the key to Stars success defensively this season. Let’s get into this.
Hitch demands accountability and, in the old days, this accountability fed from his ability to turn Mike Modano into a defensive force. The Stars used a trap that would focus on defending and then pounce on mistakes and quickly transition to offense. It was a grind it out war of attrition when teams rolled into Reunion Arena to play the Stars.
In 2017, with the skill that runs around on nearly every NHL roster, sitting back and waiting to defend means death. The more time in your own zone, the more goals you will give up. So, to combat this, the Stars will play offense. Dallas needs to have the puck and use superior speed and talent to keep the puck.
The best defense is played from the opposing blue line in. Dallas has the bodies to do this. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov bring speed, creativity, and just enough physicality to dominate possession when they are on the ice. They will feast on opposing defenses and goaltenders. What Hitch will implement is a hard-on-the-puck, along-the-boards style that will lead to more creativity in the open ice. When the other teams do gain possession, the new coach will demand that the first line use their speed to track back, link up, and form into a five man defensive unit.
The same can be said for the second line as well. Talent will score goals and create offense and Hitchcock will demand that this same talent be used to play sound defense. In simpler terms, when you lose the puck, track back and regain control at all cost and expense of energy. Rinse and repeat.
The third and fourth lines will be tasked with a chip-and-chase mentality, and Radek Faksa, Antoine Roussel, and company are perfectly setup to succeed in this capacity. They were already doing this before Hitchcock rolled into town, and will be asked to forecheck and backcheck faster, harder, and with more tenacity than in the past. That will be the difference. The key to all of this being successful is buy-in. Seguin and Jason Spezza in particular will be called upon to be the poster boys for buy-in. Both are supremely talented play makers and create offense for themselves and others. It can be argued that they are the keys to the Stars offensive engine; along with Benn, they provide the energy which the rest of the team builds on. If these three bring the same energy fans saw in 2015-16 in all three zones, the rest of the crew will follow suit.
That means a Modano-like transition for Seguin and a Nieuwendyk type evolution for Spezza. Those Hall of Famers were required to play defense and set a standard for the rest of the team, and the same will apply to today’s leaders.
Stars fans over the past couple of months have been intently focused on defense and some are worried Hitch might suck the energy out of the team. This writer isn’t worried. Hitch wants the energy but wants to channel the same energy that the offense plays with into their defense.
I’m certain we will talk about the backend before the season starts, but the keys have always been in the hands of the forwards with this group. If the Stars hope to turn it around and make the playoffs and truly compete for a Stanley Cup, they need to use their strengths to cure their weaknesses. If the offense can score goals, they can surely step up and do their part to keep goals out. Hitchcock will demand this.
When the season opens in a couple weeks, the team will look different. However, they won’t be the Stars of yesteryear, but simply a supercharged version of an old familiar friend that we see in our memories.