Why the Dallas Stars’ Late-Season Run Is or Is Not Meaningless
Is there a point to the torturous see-saw that this season (and the last six years) has been?
Looking at the title of this post, you probably expected to read a list of "positives" the Dallas Stars can champion at this season's end even if their one-dimensionally-thin playoff chances fail to bear fruit. "Kari Lehtonen has been mostly good again" might be one, if you forget about that third goal last night. "Jamie Benn shows that he is growing into the captaincy just fine" could be another. "John Klingberg" should probably be the next four of those.
That's not my experience, usually.
Watching Stars games is fun, and sure, I can suspend my knowledge of their ultimate fate during a good stretch of competitive play as much as the next fan. Things are going great, and I am grateful for just being able to enjoy games right up until they get shut out by Richard Bachman. Then the experience deteriorates too much to ignore because the loss makes you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, and that makes you zoom out again and look at the last six years, and suddenly it's tough to be excited about the team's potential because how could it ever erase the memory of this elongated (by Dallas standards) impotence as a franchise?
So after games like Edmonton, I think of, well, Sergei Gonchar. I think of Brenden Dillon. I think of how Jim Nill isn't perfect, and how this summer could quite possibly hold a bust of a trade or a signing just because that's how things go sometimes.
This franchise was excited about the potential of Richard Bachman, once. James Neal was going to be a perennial goal-scoring, big-bodied machine on the wing for years and years. Things don't work out a lot of the time. Spezza and Hemsky are great additions to the team, but they were also far from plug-and-play in a year that desperately needed some stability to see it through some early turbulence. Dallas as an organization is sitting on a figurative PDO of like .970 since 2008, even with the encouraging numbers from Seguin and Benn leading the way back from the Marc Crawford Valley. That is not a pun on Mike Valley, although it probably could be.
I wasn't able to watch the Vancouver and Edmonton games live this weekend, but I absolutely did say to myself last Thursday, "Self, the Stars the going to lose to Edmonton and beat Vancouver, just to twist the knife while tantalizing the fans as much as possible." It had to happen that way this year, right? The Stars gave us these scabs, and they are going to keep picking at them for just a little while longer. I guess bleeding lets us know we are alive, though. Toronto and Edmonton and all that.
The game in Vancouver was singular in every way, although I can't profess to have experienced it alongside most of the fanbase. So after John Klingberg stepped into the slot in overtime and casually worked some shoulder-shaking magic before putting the puck exactly where he wanted to put it, I just didn't know what to feel. Exuberance was tempered by the Edmonton game—Edmonton is very useful for tapping the brakes on enthusiasm of any kind—but John Klingberg has from his first game impelled me to abandon usual caution and instinctive skepticism about prospect ceilings because he is special. I guess I am really wondering how to indulge that urge to rejoice in his play without doing injustice to my knowledge of this team's failure to be good enough in a year where they really should have been.
Reassurances about next season aren't hollow, so that's one thing. The Stars are young and cheap enough, above-average in possession, and elite in offense. Lehtonen is historically and most recently an above-average goalie. These are things that add up to playoff hockey over the course of a season, except not this year. I have a right to be upset about this as much as any spectator has a right to be upset about professional sports, I think. What that amount is, I am not sure, but I am now closer to an answer than I would like to be.
However long it takes to accept this season's now-inevitable conclusion, I don't think your reaction has to be black and white. It probably shouldn't be, really. It's healthy to be averse to false optimism, and I certainly wouldn't endorse moonfaced predictions about home ice in next year's playoffs at this point. This season has taught us how the Stars can defy expectations at both extremes if it has taught us nothing else, but I am trying to let the disappointment slowly seep away. I don't need to hold on to visceral anger when the team is actually trying to address its issues, even if it turns out they made some pretty costly errors in judgment last year.
It is sort of like being hurt by a significant other before coming to the conclusion that this latest offense was, if not minor, at least unintentional and unlikely to be repeated in this specific sequence. If I were my friend watching me in this theoretical relationship, I might counsel taking a step back from this significant other who causes such pain without meaning to; however, we know that fandom warrants a higher threshold for such tacit acceptance of abuse than a human relationship ever should.
Following a team when they're an unfinished product is hard, but we usually endure it because of the pride and joy derived from subsequent victory. "I knew ______ would be scoring gritty playoff goals ever since that moment back in 2015," you might say one day. Even Detroit had their time of awful play and fan apathy, but of course those memories are all but meaningless compared to the organization's active stretch of class and iconic dominance since.
Yes, there were probably some fans that groused and moaned about the Little Caesar's owners and their inability or unwillingness to build a quality franchise, and who knows—maybe their gripes were helpful in spurring change. But even if you weren't the loudest voice yelling at the team during their struggles, that doesn't mean you can't be among the loudest ones rejoicing with them during their time of triumph.
Things haven't been great this year, but they have been closer to great recently, and that really does make me think that they might be much better next year. I think they will, but I'm slightly less eager to offer such a viewpoint after this season. Even if the team ends up sputtering again next year, I am still glad for the good parts of this one. This season has had a ton of them, and if they are the precursors to bigger success that I want to hope they are, those scabs might just end up healing without much of a scar at all.