For Dallas Stars fans, this offseason’s splashy free agent acquisitions, trades and draft picks ignited hope. Factor in a new GM and head coach, a new logo and redesigned unis, and the majority of us grew starry-eyed (OK, bad pun.) Yet when the first puck drops on the freshly-shaved sheet at the AAC, we only care about performance and results, i.e., a return to the playoffs after a five year drought. Here are five key factors to making that a reality:
- Protect this house: Improving defensive play in their zone propels this team into taking a giant step forward. Last year an inability to avoid turnovers, smoothly transition the puck and prevent opponents from crashing the net resulted in too many games where goaltender Kari Lehtonen stood on his head and recorded 35-40 saves a night. Seguing into our next factor…
- Iron Man Kari: When Lehtonen’s healthy, he’s arguably one of the top five goalies in the league. He puts this team on his back for weeks at a time. When he suffers an injury, it’s akin to a bolo punch to the collective team’s heart. Stars GM Jim Nill upgraded the backup goalie situation by acquiring Dan Ellis; a more reliable option which allows Kari a few more games of rest. Playoffs only happen if Kari stays off injured reserve, which is probable with more days off and less shots on goal.
- The Young Guns: Remember the last time the Stars enjoyed a crowded stable of young sniping, skilled forwards? I don’t either. In addition to Jamie Benn, there’s Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel, Alex Chiasson and Tyler Seguin: all young, eager and capable of substantial production. Add to the mix 18 year old rookie Valeri Nichushkin, and you can see why the potential to break all sorts of team offensive records exists.
- Oh Captain, My Captain: Jamie Benn acquiring the “C” was like saying this summer in Texas will be hot. Benn is one de-pantsing deke away from superstardom and his innate leadership ability positions him to develop into a captain the team follows through fire. Take the best attributes of the last two captains (Brenden Morrow and Mike Modano), tape and glue them together like Craig Ludwig’s legendary shin pads, and you get Benn.
- Navigating the Ruff Waters: Any team during the season experiences a slump, an injury Armageddon, or a crisis of confidence in the words of Jimmy Carter. The players fold or overcome, but it starts with the man at the helm…and now that man is Lindy Ruff. Ruff coaches like he played: hard-nosed and disciplined. If the players adopt their leader’s style, this will be a tough team for opponents to face.
Regardless of the slogans, the hype and the excitement, performance over the next 82 games will determine playoff worthiness. And for the first time in awhile, the Stars stand poised to prove their worth.