30 Teams, 30,000 Thoughts: Dallas Stars

• Jamie Benn. What else need be said? Benn is developing into one of the best all-around players in the game. He has the size, power, speed, and skill of a thoroughbred scoring star, combined with the vision and smarts of a savvy two-way stalwart. And judging by his continued improvement, it would appear he also has the work ethic that many of the young talents today seem to lack. Benn and Eriksson are pieces to build around.

• Sheldon Souray the elite NHL defenseman. I wrote a blog recently about how the NHL game is in decline, and one of the many reasons I attributed to that was how it seems like there is less and less elite talent to go around the league. Sheldon Souray’s season thus far would seem to support that notion. This is a player who, in his prime, was considered a great offensive weapon with below-average defensive abilities: a good, not quite great, defenseman. Now he is 35, coming off significant injuries, having barely even played in the NHL for two seasons, and almost immediately he is one of the league’s best defencemen, possibly even better in relation to league-average than he was at his peak. And not just offensively, but as a defenseman of the two-way variety.

And we are seeing that more and more. The better defencemen of five or ten years ago, even if they are 35-40 years old now and playing on one leg, are still better than anyone this newer generation of players has to offer. Nicklas Lidstrom just won the Norris at 41 years of age. A monument to his greatness? Of course. But also an indictment of all the other defencemen. I mean Lidstrom probably had more competition for the Norris when he was in his prime than he does now.

Chris Pronger is another example. When playing, he is, in my opinion, quite possibly still the best two-way defenseman in the NHL. And he can barely move anymore. But, somehow, he still seems to command the defensive zone better than anyone in the league. When he is on the ice, everyone on his team is better, and everyone on the other team is worse.

This phenomenon isn’t just true with defencemen, either. Check out my blog on the subject for a more in-depth discussion of the topic, but for another quick example, just look at Teemu Selanne. 40 years old last season, playing with a nagging knee injury all year, he didn’t even play a full season, and he was still a top 10 scorer in the NHL. That tells me there aren’t enough good scorers anymore.

But back to Souray. He has been great for the Stars this season, and he is probably the best signing of the offseason.* After a poorly managed campaign last year, Joe Nieuwendyk has really stepped it up so far this year. Let’s see if he can keep it up now that he has a new owner, because the Stars still need work.

  • (If you’re wondering why I didn’t include Souray in my best signings of the offseason blogs, it’s because I don’t have access to AHL games. I hadn’t seen him play in almost two seasons, so there was no way I could know how much he still had in the tank. If I had seen he could still play like this, including him would have been a no-brainer).

• Kari Lehtonen has gone from overrated to elite. Last season, the Stars started strong, and eventually almost made the playoffs. But what that really means is they were almost average, as 9th place out of 15 is still below average, and that is where the Stars finished the season.

But because the Stars almost made the playoffs, and Lehtonen posted a respectable .914% Save Percentage and 2.55 Goals Against Average, many pundits started to pour the praise on Lehtonen. How did this terrible Stars team with so little talent get so close to making the playoffs? They asked. It must be the goaltending!

But it wasn’t. Lehtonen wasn’t just less spectacular than some thought, he actually struck me as poor, a below average goaltender in the league. And conversely, the Stars team, overlooked by most, actually had their fair share of quality players, as more people are realizing this year with the emergence of Jamie Benn. But last season as well, they had Brad Richards, Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, Stephan Robidas (a top 10 two-way defender in the NHL, in my opinion), Alex Goligoski (James Neal before that bad trade), Trevor Daley. They lacked depth in their bottom lines and defense pairs, which was ultimately their undoing, but they definitely had good talent. And if either their goaltending or depth had been better, I think they would have not only made the playoffs, but challenged the San Jose Sharks for their division as well.

Lehtonen always just seemed a bit leaky and unreliable in net to me, you were uneasy watching him on. And wouldn’t you know, for all the accolades thrown at him in the past, I was watching a Stars telecast this year, and the TV Analyst commented about how Lehtonen was never really in the best shape until this year. My suspicions were confirmed. His sub par fitness level no doubt affected his level of play.That could also explain why the Stars started so well but declined as the season went on: their goaltender got worn down because he wasn’t in good enough physical shape.

But now Lehtonen is different. Now he actually deserves the praise he gets. Before his recent injury, he was one of the most solid, reliable goaltenders in the NHL to start this season. The holes I’d seen before were gone. I didn’t feel uneasy watching him anymore. Soft goals against were scarce, even completely nonexistent for long stretches, which is a change from last season.

So consider me converted to the Kari Lehtonen bandwagon, at least so long as he keeps in top shape.

• The third line is much improved. So is the fourth line and the defense. To understand how important these improvements have been to the Stars, and where they might be now had Joe Nieuwendyk failed to make these additions, one need only look at the Anaheim Ducks.

Last season, the Anaheim Ducks and the Dallas Stars were two teams I saw as being in very similar predicaments. Both teams had the top talent to be an excellent team, such as Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Teemu Selanne, Lubomir Visnovsky, Cam Fowler, Tony Lydman, etc. for the Ducks, and the players I’ve already mentioned for the Stars. But both teams I felt were being held back from their potential by absolutely abysmal depth players. Anaheim’s GM Bob Murray did not even bother to complete his roster with NHL players. Instead he filled it with the likes of Matt Beleskey, Kyle Chipchura, Kyle Palmieri, Aaron Voros, Nick Bonino, Sheldon Broobank, Andreas Lilja, and players on their last legs who would go on to retire in the offseason like Jarkko Ruutu and Todd Marchant. You cannot have a worse group of bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing defencemen than that. Likewise, the Stars also had far too many anonymous depth players who brought nothing of value to the ice night in and night out. Brandon Segal, Jeff Woywitka, Karlis Skrastins, Brian Sutherby, Krystofer Barch, Toby Petersen, Brad Lukowich… And to think, I’ve sometimes wondered why no one went to Stars games anymore, silly me.

What is my point? I draw this comparison between the two teams last season because one of them has gone from 9th place last year to atop the Pacific Division so far this year, despite losing their top center in the offseason, and one has gone from 4th to 14th in the Western Conference when they still have their core from last season.

What happened? One General Manager, Joe Nieuwendyk, decided it was about time he iced a full NHL roster, and the other, Bob Murray, decided he needed to do in the offseason was pay Andrew Cogliano big money and acquire Kurtis Foster, two castoffs from the worst team in the league.

Meanwhile, Nieuwendyk was busy at work actually trying to improve his team. Vernon Fiddler, Michael Ryder, Radek Dvorak, Sheldon Souray, Adam Pardy, Jake Dowell, all were added by Nieuwendyk in the offseason (and Eric Nystrom on waivers during the season). He literally added an entire third line, and then some, shoring up both his forward depth and defense. Bold? No, that’s the thing! Not at all. Because all those additions were exactly what was needed, desperately. For whatever nonsensical reason, some GMs seem to be opposed to adding more than one or two new players in an offseason. But what if your team is terrible, or has no depth? It’s going to take a long, long time to fix all the problems with your roster if you only go about it filling one hole a year.

But that’s all Murray did, or attempted to do. The truth is, he didn’t even succeed in that. Coming into this season, the Ducks and Stars both desperately needed a third line center who could win faceoffs. The Stars added a very solid one in Vernon Fiddler early on July 1st. Michal Handzus and Eric Belanger were both still available to Bob Murray, but he signed neither. Instead, he traded for Andrew Cogliano’s rights, and gave him over 2M per season to sign, more than Eric Belanger got from the Oilers. Why’s this such a problem? Andrew Cogliano can barely be considered a center. He lacks the size to match up effectively against opposing centers down low in the defensive zone,and he is one of the worst faceoff men in the league. And if I’m not mistaken, he’s not even playing center for the Ducks now. He’s playing wing.

What this means is Bob Murray has now gone two offseasons without addressing something so simple as to add a decent third line center. It’s a third line player! Other failures of his, such as not adding a second line center or top 4 shutdown defenseman, I can understand. Those are harder to find. But a third line center? It’s inexcusable. It’s incompetent management like that which rightfully lands your team at the basement of the NHL. And it’s not just the center. Like the Stars, the Ducks needed a whole new third line, at least one new forward for the fourth line, and another defenseman or two. This is a team that always needed 5-6 significant new players.

Instead, Bob Murray has let the same problems go unsolved for seasons, and it’s burying his team. Picking up Nicklas Hagman on re-entry waivers a week ago was a good move, but it’s too little too late. Brandon Mcmillan is still playing significant minutes for the team, and he’s still not scoring. 0 goals and -9 +/- in 23 games. Devante Smith-Pelly looked great the Canadian World Juniors Red and White game, but not so much against NHL competition, although he has improved as the season’s gone on. Still, 2 goals, 3 points, -7 in 22 games, it’s evident in watching him that he’s still not a very good player at the NHL level. Not yet.

And the list goes on. Someone named Maxime Macenauer has played 22 games with 1 goal and -4 +/-. Sheldon Brookbank has also played 22 games. Nate Guenin, 5 games. Andrew Gordon, 24 games, 0 goals, 1 point, -8.
It could not get any worse. No, wait. Matt Beleskey, 19 games, 0 points, -4.

Even if the Ducks top line wasn’t struggling, this team would still max out as a low playoff seed eliminated in the first round. You don’t have sustained success in the NHL when you only have half an NHL team. Joe Nieuwendyk realized this and successfully corrected his error from last season. Players like Radek Dvorak or Vernon Fiddler may not be spectacular, but no one would argue that they are NHL quality players. They allow the top talent to have a safety net, they allow the coach to keep rolling lines. They keep the play going in the right direction as compared to AHL players, and are much more responsible defensively.

Depth is so key in today’s NHL. The Stars went out and got it. They lost their top line center in the offseason, and have improved. That’s what renewed depth will do for you. Especially if you’re coming from so far below zero in terms of quality of depth, just getting up to zero, i.e dependable NHL players instead of AHL scrubs, will make a huge difference. Nieuwendyk realized this, Bob Murray still seems oblivious to it. That’s why the Stars are trending up, and the Ducks are trending down.

Now, of course, if Nieuwendyk had realized how badly his team needed depth while he still had Brad Richards, too, then the Stars really would have had something. Now, while their depth should help them make the playoffs, they still sort of need a top line center if they’re going to do any real damage… But that’s the crux of not being a cap team. You won’t do any damage, ever. I make it out like an impossibility and of course it isn’t, but it may as well be. Which brings me to the next point.

The Stars need to spend to the cap. It’s the same for every team. If you want to win the Cup, you need to spend to the cap. If you don’t, there’s almost no point in having a team. Now that the Stars have their ownership situation settled, there’s no excuse not to be a high-payroll team next season.

That’s it for the Stars. Hope you enjoyed this entry. Check back soon for my thoughts on the Coyotes and Ducks