The Dallas Stars have been on the verge of the playoffs for several years now, and with big moves in the off-season, they look to finally punch their ticket in the 2013-14 season. With the Chicago Blackhawks taking on the Stars today, we assess Dallas in five points: Management, Goaltending, Offense, Defense, and Leadership.
Some of the biggest changes in Big D this summer happened off the ice, with the hiring of a new coaching staff and General Manager. GM Jim Nill is in his first stint as the manager of an NHL club, but has shown he doesn’t have any hesitation pulling the trigger on a big move. Just after he was hired, he acquired former 2nd overall draft pick Tyler Seguin, and has also made moves for former Edmonton Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff, and former Ottawa Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Lindy Ruff leads the way behind the bench, resuming his storied NHL coaching career after ending his tenure with the Buffalo Sabres, a team he coached over 1000 games for, and became one of the league’s active coaching leaders with. The combination of the two former NHL players has brought big changes, ones that are starting to pay off.
The Stars aren’t one of the most talked-about teams in terms of goal-tending, but the duo of Kari Lethonen and Dan Ellis gets the job done, and has proven to be very underrated early on in the season. Lethonen, age 29, is off to a wonderful start with a 2.02 GAA and .934% Save Percentage after 11 games. His 7-2-2 record is very solid, showing that he can be the player that the Stars rely on when they need to win the game. Ellis has played in the back-up role for the majority of his NHL career, one he is suited for. His sub-.900 save percentage and 3.60 are not stellar numbers, and the 33-year old will have to improve over the course of the season if the Stars want to have long-term success.If Lethonen can handle the bulk of the load this year, the crease will not be a problem for Dallas, and the offense will have many opportunities to get the job done. If Ellis picks up his level of play, we could see the Dallas tandem become one of the best in the league.
Although there is an absence of marquee names from the Stars’ defense, the foundation for a great blue-line is being laid in Dallas. With a good mix of proven NHL-ers such as Sergei Gonchar and Stephane Robidas and Kevin Connauton, the Stars continue to build defensively, despite getting off to a shaky start in 2013-14, ranked 22nd in Goals Against/Game. The Stars’ defense is very adept in the physical game, with 4 blue-liners over 6′ 2″, and their offensive game is one that can show up at any time in a game. The absence of 2011 All-Star Loui Eriksson has been felt, as he was traded to Boston in the Seguin deal. The Stars’ defense will continue to learn, and barring any major blowups or injuries, will not hamper the team as long as the offense is doing well. Dallas management could make a move to upgrade in this department, but what they would give up is something still to be debated.
The Stars’ offense is the glue that holds the team together. An underrated lineup got a significant boost with the additions of Rich Peverley, Tyler Seguin, and Shawn Horcoff in the off-season, and now the Dallas offense is a force to be reckoned with. The speed and skill that all four lines possess is a nightmare for opposition defenseman, and 5th and 6th d-men can find themselves simply unable to skate with the bottom-six forwards on the stars. Jamie Benn continues to make his case for a final spot on Team Canada with a stellar start to the season, and Seguin’s revival in Dallas finds him leading the team in scoring. The youth movement in Dallas is alive and well, with 18-year old Valeri Nichushkin making an impact in his first NHL season, and 2009 draft-pick Cody Eakin having a breakout season on the first line. The Stars offense is rolling right along, and injuries have been kept to a minimum so far. As long as the offense can continue to consistently produce through all 82 games, we may see playoff action in Dallas this season.
The Stars have built the leadership element of the team from development, and now Jamie Benn and company lead the way. Wearing the C, Benn’s natural leadership both on and off the ice have made the loss of former captain Brenden Morrow much easier, and the face of the franchise is only 24 years of age, meaning there are many more great years to come for both Benn and the Stars club. His support staff include two permanent assistant captains, in 41-year old Ray Whitney, and 36-year old Stephane Robidas. Benn’s inexperience at the playoff level is counter-acted by that of the two veterans, and many more wise voices fill the Stars’ dressing room, with players such as Gonchar and Horcoff on the roster.
The rebuilding phase in Dallas is almost over, and it is time for the next step to be taken. For a team that has not made it to the playoffs in five seasons, winning a Stanley Cup may not seem like a realistic goal, but anything can happen once the ticket to the post-season is punched. The Stars will have to treat each game with equal importance, and consistent, hard-working play will be the reason they will be a playoff contender come March. Taking advantage of the weaker Central Division is a huge opportunity for the club, and they can easily find their way into the playoffs behind powerhouses Chicago and St. Louis.
You can catch tonight’s Stars/Blackhawks match-up on WGN and WGN Radio 720. Puck Drop from the American Airlines Center is slated for 7:00 PM Central Time.
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