The Super Line: Is Dallas Stars First Line a Strength or Weakness?
A dominant first line has played a major part in Dallas' strong start this season. Is the chemistry between Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Jason Spezza a warning sign for the rest of the league, or for Dallas' own offense?
The Dallas Stars opened their season with a pair of losses – against the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators – in which they scored a total of three goals. At that point Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, and Tyler Seguin had combined for exactly one assist (for Spezza against Chicago). That left the team scoring lead to Trevor Daley, Ryan Garbutt, and Antoine Roussel, aka not the trio we expected. Admit it, after the capitulation in Nashville, there were hints of panic in the air.
Thankfully, they crushed Columbus en route to winning four of their next six games. Everyone’s favorite team now boasts a top three offense (3.5 goals per game), the seventh-ranked powerplay (25%), and three of the NHL’s top 15 scorers. Seguin is the lead dog with 13 points, Spezza follows him in eighth place with 11 points, and Jamie Benn sits in 15th place, a single point back from Spezza with 10.
This, finally, is what we expected when GM Jim announced the Spezza acquisition over the summer. Even the losses (home to the Philadelphia Flyers, at the New York Islanders) were wild, free-scoring affairs that legitimately could have gone either way. A save here, a post there, and who knows? Throw in serious signs of life from Ales Hemsky, and it’s not difficult to imagine brighter days still to come.
Driving, at least in part, this offensive explosion has been Lindy Ruff’s decision to combine Spezza, Seguin, and Benn into a single line. Ruff experimented with the Big Three alignment against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and by the time the Stars faced Vancouver, the combination seemed stuck. The short-term results have been spectacular, but I have to wonder if the move is in Dallas’ best interests across the entire season.
In a results-oriented business, nine points from a possible 12 is hard to argue with. It’s a stretch that keeps Dallas firmly with the playoff pack, a mere four points behind conference-leading Anaheim. Loading up on offense also isn’t the worst idea given Dallas’ defensive generosity. Only the Carolina Hurricanes have allowed more than Dallas’ 3.5 goals per game.
The issue is overlap. Of Tyler Seguin’s six goals, five have come courtesy of the Captain. If we expand and look at his 13 points, seven link with Jamie and nine with Spezza. He’s the most independent of the trio. Ten of Spezza’s eleven points are tied to Seguin with nearly half (five) involving Benn as well. Eight of Benn’s 10 points are Seguin-fueled, and three of his five goals are of the Benn (Seguin, Spezza) variety.
It may be that the trio is simply that good, and that opposition defenses will remain powerless against them. But teams adjust, especially inside a packed division with no fewer than two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. If someone slumps, will it take the rest of unit down? Can the Stars, as currently constituted, stay functional with so much of their offense tied into three players?
Valeri Nichushkin remains hurt, Hemsky stuck on a single point, and Erik Cole has only lit the lamp in two games. Curtis McKenzie is watching games from the press box, and Colton Sceviour has already bounced in and out of the top six. Some combination of those names is the Stars’ second line.
The decision to move Spezza looks an awful lot like a decision from the coaching staff that there’s no offensive help to be found in the near term. It’s a way to keep the team competitive while waiting for Hemsky to convert, Cole to get hot, or Nuke to get healthy. It kind of has to be. It’s hard to imagine that group making serious strides without elite help at the pivot.
It’s working, and it’s fun. At least for now. A similar system got Dallas back into the playoffs last year. Maybe it works again, the team is deeper, but it’s not a plan without risk. An upcoming slate of games against St. Louis, Anaheim, Minnesota, and Los Angeles would certainly look less ominous with two rolling lines.