Dallas Stars’ Double-Edged Sword of Inexperience

Everybody roped. Everybody rode. But in the end, inexperience bucked the Dallas Stars.

Lindy Ruff’s early season statement regarding a team protecting its goalie turned into a general theme of teamwork posted on the locker room walls that the Stars would live and die by throughout the 2013-2014 season. In their first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2008, the Stars put together stretches of strong team play and focused effort up and down the lineup. Good stretches of play were overshadowed by devastating mistakes at critical points in the series leading to elimination at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals.

Before the season began, the Stars worked together to develop chemistry and an understanding of each other. A new system was put in place on the ice, and a new culture was implemented off it. Much like a teenager learning how to drive a car with a manual transmission, the Stars are still learning how to win and exactly what it takes to be successful in the NHL.

The Positive Effects of Inexperience

The two best things to come out of Dallas’ inexperience in the playoffs were the emergence of Jamie Benn as a leader and the Stars’ refusal to give up. They fought back in four of the six games in the series. A 2-0 series deficit did not phase the young team as they fought back to tie the series when many analysts and writers had them written off within four or five games. Ruff pushed the right buttons and led the Stars to never giving up from the start of the season to its bitter end in Game 6.

In his first year as captain, Benn handled his new role better than anyone could have hoped for. He led the team with his play on the ice and grew into a more vocal role off it. Throughout the regular season and in the playoffs, he was arguably the most reliable and consistent player for the Stars. He shouldered the offensive load, played on the penalty kill, took key draws, and he knew how and when to use his physicality to gain an edge in a game. He handled the media and pressure well and said the right things while not allowing his play to be hampered by it all.

Veterans and Youth Come Together

The Stars were built with an eye to the future and the ability to challenge for the playoffs now. They are several pieces short of being true Stanley Cup contenders, but the team’s core is very young and full of potential. Benn, top center Tyler Seguin and defensive stalwart Brenden Dillon are all under the age of 25. In fact, the Stars had nine players under the age of 25 skate in the playoffs. That’s more than a third of the roster that was still in the early stages of growing or just barely learning their role in the NHL. Four rookies and four sophomores took to the ice for the Stars in the post-season and 11 skaters played the first playoffs games of their career.

General manager Jim Nill brought in or kept several veterans to help balance out the lack of experience in the lineup. Shawn Horcoff and Trevor Daley were easily the best veterans in the series for Dallas. Horcoff was tremendous with and without the puck and his six points in six games are testaments to his improved play in the postseason. Daley played perhaps the best stretch of hockey of his career in the post-season and the last 15 games or so of the regular season. He averaged over 25 minutes of ice time per game playing mostly against Anaheim’s top line. His skating troubled the Ducks as he constantly provided well-timed rushes and pinches into the offensive zone. He tallied two goals, three assists and a plus-5 rating in the series.

While Horcoff, Daley and Vernon Fiddler helped lead the way, the Stars could not lean on most of their veterans as Sergei Gonchar, Erik Cole, Ray Whitney and Aaron Rome greatly struggled in the series. Cole, Rome and Whitney were even healthy scratches at different points in the series. Kari Lehtonen was tremendous in two games, but his inability to come up with big, timely saves in the other four hampered the Stars. He is better than his playoff performance and needed the postseason experience as a learning curve.

How Inexperience Affected the Stars’ Postseason

There’s more to being successful in the playoffs than just trying to avoid mistakes. Mistakes will happen. The puck will take a bad bounce. A controversial penalty will be called or overlooked. It’s a matter of overcoming the mistakes when they are made, and the Stars did not do enough of that. They battled hard throughout the series, but costly avoidable mistakes due to inexperience doomed the Stars.

In Game 1, the Stars completely looked overwhelmed and out of place in the first period. They seemed nervous and dazed by the spectacle of a playoff atmosphere and intensity. They tried a bit too hard at both ends of the ice and were caught out of position regularly. The Ducks took advantage of the opportunity and jumped to a 4-0 lead that they would not relinquish.

In Game 2, special teams and the ability to hold a lead failed the Stars. Dallas jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, but they gave up three straight afterward. The Stars had a golden chance late in the game when Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf was assessed a two-minute minor for tripping. With Anaheim’s captain, best player and key penalty killer in the box late the game, the Stars failed to score. They finished the night 1-for-6 with a man advantage and lost 3-2.

The Stars fed off the home crowd and played one of their best games of the season in Game 3. Everything seemed to be in sync and the Stars used the energy of the crowd to play a fast, physical and determined game. The key was Kari Lehtonen standing on his head and shutting out the Ducks for a 3-0 win. A slow start in Game 4 put the Ducks up 2-0 after the first period, but the Stars returned to their play of the previous game and roared back for a 4-2 win to even the series. They refused to give up and instead focused on getting under the Ducks’ skin and use the home crowd to their advantage.

Jordie Benn
Jordie Benn and the Dallas Stars were aided and hurt by inexperience in their first playoff appearance since 2008. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

The Stars self-destructed in Game 5. Dillon struggled in his first playoff game. Two turnovers by the young defenseman deep in the Stars’ zone led to two Anaheim goals in the third period en route to a 6-2 loss. Garbutt hurt the Stars with an unnecessary spearing of Corey Perry within the first 10 minutes of the game. He was assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct. Garbutt and the second line had been instrumental in the series, especially in the two victories in Dallas. His ejection threw the lineup out of balance and eliminated one of the most effective lines for the Stars.

The Stars were eliminated in Game 6 after surrendering three two-goal leads. A failed clear, a defensive lapse and soft goaltending led to Anaheim cutting the lead to one with 2:10 left in the third period. With 22 seconds left, a mad scramble in front of the net ensued. With Lehtonen sprawled out to stop the puck, Dallas players seemed more interested in wrapping up or shoving their opponents than securing the puck. Cody Eakin was about to grab hold of someone in front of the net when he looked back and noticed Devante Smith-Pelley had the puck all to himself near the right post. Smith-Pelley had a good second or two to collect the puck and lift it over Lehtonen before anyone got close to him.

In overtime, the inability to clear the zone and another defensive lapse cost the Stars the game. Despite controlling the puck along the half-wall and later behind the net, the Stars were unable to clear the zone safely, instead turning the puck over twice. Andrew Cogliano took the puck behind the Dallas net and found Nick Bonino alone in the slot as three Stars players were caught staring at the puck. Lehtonen seemed slightly out of position and was a split-second late in attempting a kick save as the series clincher skidded past him.

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Valuable Lessons

Between ill-advised penalties, surrendering leads, adjusting to playoff pace and intensity, defensive lapses and soft goals against, the Stars endured a lot of tough situations in their first trip to the playoffs in the new era. The ups and downs the series provided will be good lessons for a group of so many young players who could end up playing together for several years going forward. Though it was a rough way to end the season, the Stars will be better in the future because of this season’s experiences, especially in the playoffs. The young core has a chance to grow together and learn to win together.

The 2013-2014 was expected to be a season of growth and development for the Stars. Making the playoffs was a goal, but not necessarily an expectation. Despite the general inexperience throughout the roster, the Stars not only made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, but they also scared a Stanley Cup contender and showed the league that they are not to be lightly.

Everybody ropes, everybody rides. The Stars have put the NHL on notice, and this is only the beginning.