Of all the preseason predictions made for the Dallas Stars, an 1-3-0 start wasn’t on the list.
Chalk it up to the Stars’ learning curve. Coach Ken Hitchcock touched on it after Wednesday’s practice.
“…I liked a lot of the things we did yesterday [in Tuesday’s 4-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings], so we’ve just got to keep pushing forward,” Hitchcock said. “There’s mistakes, they’re mistakes of experience or of knowledge of how to play at critical times on critical ice, but those are teachable moments. But I really like the energy and tenacity we’ve brought.”
So-called “teachable moments” are to be expected after a coaching change. The Stars’ tenacity hasn’t translated to goals, however, and it’s making life too easy for opposing netminders.
In our three losses, the opposing team's goalie was the best player on the ice. That's what Hitch says needs to be addressed. pic.twitter.com/FiJYeUDeI1
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) October 13, 2017
Four games into an 82-game season is no time to panic, but the Stars need to move further and faster along their learning curve. Saturday brings the surprisingly-hot Colorado Avalanche to Dallas, and the home team can’t afford to drop into an 0-3-0 hole within the Central Division.
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“Pace” Pushing Stars Roster Changes
Last week, I wrote about Gemel Smith beating out Curtis McKenzie for the final forward roster spot. Smith’s speed was the deciding factor.
This week, Adam Cracknell fell victim to the ‘speed trap’ as well. The journeyman forward was placed on waivers October 8 and claimed by the New York Rangers the next day. Monday afternoon, Hitchcock explained the move.
“The league’s gone up a whole other gear,” the coach said. “This is a frenetic pace like I’ve never seen before.” Hitchcock added, “Anybody that’s a bigger, heavy-footed player at times, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to have to really work to get up to this pace.”
The Stars called up Remi Elie, a swift-skating and tenacious winger, to fill the vacated roster spot. The 22-year-old Canadian’s game is similar to Antoine Roussel’s (fast and hard on the forecheck), albeit less abrasive. Elie impressed in 18 games with the Stars last season and has been solid in both games since his call-up.
Like McKenzie, Cracknell is a very outgoing, approachable guy and a good hockey player. The absence of both men from the roster is a harsh reminder that the NHL is a business, and perhaps a tacit admission that being ‘good in the room’ but lacking speed isn’t good enough for the Stars. Though painful on a personal level, these roster changes are the price of progress.
Stars Need Net-Front Presence
The Stars have produced surprisingly similar and mostly solid efforts in all four games. Why, then, did they only win one?
As Hitchcock said after Thursday’s loss to the Nashville Predators, the Stars have allowed opposing goalies to outwork them. Net-front presence is key, as illustrated by John Klingberg’s goal against the Red Wings:
Though Elie wasn’t credited with so much as an assist, he played a critical role in the goal. As Klingberg carried the puck into a shooting position, the winger made his way to the crease and screened Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek at exactly the right moment.
The Stars are out-shooting opponents by an average of 37.5 to 26.8 this season. The majority of their shots are un-screened, which goes a long way toward explaining their team shooting percentage of 5.3, good for 30th in the 31-team NHL. To turn that around without crease-crashers McKenzie and Cracknell, the Stars need big bodies like Jamie Benn, Brett Ritchie and Martin Hanzal to park just outside the blue paint, screen goalies and battle for rebounds.
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An injury to Dan Hamhuis led to Julius Honka’s much-anticipated debut Tuesday night. After the win, the young Finn’s coach assessed his play.
“He brings a creative presence,” Hitchcock said. “I think he still needs to move to the next level because he defers too much and that’s just a young player, but I thought he brought really good energy to the group.”
The deference Hitch mentioned was on display again in Nashville, most notably when Honka passed up a high-slot shot off the rush, dishing the puck to Alex Radulov instead.
Honka is a very confident young man. I think what we’ve seen from him thus far (an admittedly small sample size) is merely caution. The youngster is playing on a short leash right now, knowing that one mistake too many will result in a trip back to Cedar Park and the AHL. As he masters the fundamentals of HitchHockey™, Honka will undoubtedly turn from the ‘safe,’ high-percentage plays he’s making now to more of the high-risk, high-reward plays at which he excels.
Tuesday’s victory moved Hitchcock into a tie with the legendary Al Arbour for third all-time on the coaching wins list. The Stars’ next win will be Hitch’s 783rd, and he’ll trail only Joel Quenneville and Scotty Bowman at that point.
It’s an incredible accomplishment, but as Mike Heika wrote in an excellent piece Thursday, the Stars’ coach isn’t happy about it.
“I don’t feel good about it. I don’t really know why, but I don’t feel good,” Hitchcock said. “I felt he was a special human being and a special coach. He was a guy that I could relate to, so it doesn’t feel great, to be honest with you.”
Like it or not, Hitchcock will go for win no.783 at home Saturday night. Stars fans who live by the motto, “Win or lose, we’re leaving early to beat the traffic,” should stick around to the final horn and honor the man’s achievement.
After a slow start to the KHL season, Valeri Nichushkin has taken off like a rocket.
Big Val recorded just three points, all goals, in the first 10 games of the season. Over the last six games, he’s added four goals and three assists. Better still, six of his seven goals were scored at even-strength and four were game-winners.
Here’s where things get interesting: Nichushkin is in the final year of his KHL contract. With Lindy Ruff gone, the Russian’s return to the Stars next season is a very real possibility. A more mature, polished Val would be a tremendous addition to an already deep forward corps.
Quote of the Week
“I just need to play. I just need to get in the game and get to know the style more, and I think that’s all. But it’s coming. I feel good out there and I know myself and just feel really confident right now. It’s coming.” –Julius Honka
Matt blogged about all things hockey at On Goal Analysis/The OGA Blogs from 2008-2014 and has written several travel articles for The Dallas Morning News. He began covering the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers for The Hockey Writers in August 2015. Matt is also writing a biography of “Tex” Rickard, the Texas cowboy who founded the New York Rangers and the Madison Square Garden Corporation.