With Eight Games Gone, What Is Going Happily Well for the Dallas Stars?
Ten percent of the 2014-15 NHL season has already passed, so what are some of the things that have gone better than expected for the Stars?
It's been a little bit of a roller coaster ride for the Dallas Stars to start this season. The record is good but the possession numbers are middling. The top line is amazing but the depth has been a bit questionable. Kari Lehtonen has been up-and-down (mostly up), but Anders Lindback has really struggled.
Still, the bottom line is through just about 10 percent of the season and a relatively decent spread of opponents, the Stars are 4-2-2 and on a 102 point pace. There are many warts to be worked out, but they haven't shot themselves in the foot just yet.
And since we've hit that 10 percent mark, it's a good time to look at some of the surprises early in the season. Today's focus will be on the things that have gone better than expected while we'll examine some of the more disappointing surprises later in the week.
It's one thing to be good when you're the new kids on the scene, when no one is quite sure what to expect from a new line or combination. There's no book out on you and less thought paid, at least early in the run, to game-planning specifically for what you bring.
Last year, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were those new kids. People were excited about what they could be, but it wasn't until that breakout game against the Calgary Flames that they were really taken seriously as one of the league's most dynamic duos. They finished last season with point-per-game seasons averages, and while everyone knew they would be good this year, there was at least some question as to how good that might be. Would it be a 60-70 point season for each man or one that challenged for some of the bigger prizes?
The answers are in, and the surprise here is not that they are good, but just how good they've been.
Through eight games, that answer is they remain among the best in the league and may be reaching even greater heights than last season. Seguin leads the league with 13 points and is second in points per game to some dude from the Penguins. Jason Spezza is also top 10 in scoring while Benn is just outside. All are better than point per game players, even with the top defensive pairings and lines in the league scheming specifically how to stop them.
Can't ask for much more than that.
Last season, I was one of Kevin Connauton's biggest critics. His decision making made me a little bit crazy, particularly when it came to the transition game. I thought he didn't have the hockey sense to play the type of game that would make him successful at the NHL level.
Boy has he ever proved me wrong, at least in the small sample size early this season. He's making much better decisions on and off the puck that play to his strengths. His panic level is a lot more controlled in the defensive zone, and his sense of when to pinch versus when to bail out and head back is significantly better. In all, at least from my read of his play, he's playing much more within himself and not trying to force offense. He's let the games come to him, which only does good things for him and his team.
The change is played out in his possession numbers. With five games played, Connauton is the most effective of Dallas' defenders from a puck possession standpoint, a category he finished in the bottom half in last year. Some of that has been the nature of his minutes - he's seeing the most sheltered minutes of all the defensemen - but it's also that he's making better decisions thus far.
Given the injuries on defense and the nature of some of the kids the Stars are trying to use in the short term, Connauton hasn't been playing as much recently (as I wrote in the comments after Saturday's loss, his active style means his partners need to be a little more adept at NHL-level reads than your typical first or second game player). But he's earning a longer look from the coaching staff once they're able to get Sergei Gonchar back in the lineup.
If there was one thing that could have won the Dallas Stars a significant number of games last season, it was a decent power play. The Stars team speed and top-end skill earned them a boatload of opportunities, but too many times they were frustratingly unable to convert.
That's all changed early this year.
While the preseason Supernova powerplay of four forwards and the luckiest defenseman in the world hasn't materialized much in the regular season, the superline of Seguin, Spezza and Benn combined with Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski has been a terror to deal with, and the second unit that has included Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Erik Cole, Colton Sceviour, Brenden Dillon and Jordie Benn has also been chipping in. At the moment, the Stars are tied for the sixth best power play in the league with a solid 25 percent conversion rate. I mean, it's not the gaudy 40 percent conversion rate of the Penguins, but what is?
Additionally, the power play has been able to come through at key moments, such as in the dying seconds of the victory over those Penguins. And it's been basically as effective on the road (23.1 percent) as it is at home (26.7 percent). That top unit just throws out so many weapons it is a nightmare to defend at even strength, let alone down a man.
The Stars overall game may have been frustrating at times, but they are pulling out points in many games where they haven't played particularly well. A big part of that has been the power play.
The inclusion of Hemsky on this list may be a small surprise. Okay, maybe it's a big one. After all, Hemsky was signed for three years primarily because of his offensive prowess, the scoring depth he's supposed to provide to back up the two-headed Benn-Seguin monster. Despite some impressive games, that offense really hasn't been there yet.
But another important measure of an offensively gifted player is what he does when he isn't scoring, as happens from time to time. Does he disappear completely and become ineffective, trying so hard to score that the defense provided by his line takes a huge hit? Does he delve too hard into "trying too hard" land that he isn't able to use his teammates effectively?
Hemsky only has one point in his eight games in green, but the game he's provided besides the offense has been a welcome addition. His backchecking is more than just the enthusiastic-yet-ineffective version provided by many high-talent forwards, and his puck skills have been dazzling. He's shown no signs of the type of frustration that can turn a slump into a disappointing season.
The offense will come - the puck skills he displayed against the New Jersey Devils show that. But even as he works on getting points on the board, he's brought plenty of positives to the lineup this season.