Friday night’s Dallas Stars vs. Anaheim Ducks contest at the American Airlines Center was billed as an early season rematch of the gritty 2013-2014 Western Conference Quarterfinal series. Unfortunately for the Stars the result was very similar to the series deciding Game 6 which the Ducks won in overtime 5-4. The Ducks carried the play for much of the first two periods, holding the Stars to just 1 shot in the 2nd period. The Stars did make a late push in the 3rd, and Antoine Roussel forced overtime by redirecting a Trevor Daley pass from along the side wall past Ducks goaltender, Frederick Andersen. It was Roussel’s 4th goal of the season and tied the game at 1-1 at the 14:33 mark of the 3rd period. Ryan Garbutt was credited with the secondary assist. However, the enthusiasm was short-lived when Ducks forward Nate Thompson ended the game at the 2:30 mark of the extra frame. Despite the overtime loss, goaltender Kari Lehtonen was solid between the pipes stopping 22 out of 24 shots on goal.
A New Star Continues to Rise
Heading into last season the Stars rolled our new uniforms and began to build their brand around a new mantra, “A New Star is Rising!”. This off-season the Stars front office continued to bolster the roster by acquiring two of the biggest offensive talents available in Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Also, the Texas Stars went on to win the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup trophy. These events fueled an already optimistic buzz around the organization and it’s fans. Fast forward to November 1, 2014 and the Stars have completed their first 10 games of the 2014-2015 season. The Stars record is 4-2-4 and they stand in 9th place in the Western Conference. The Stars road record is a respectable 3-2, while their home record is a curious at best 1-0-4. On the one hand, they haven’t had a regulation loss at home, but on the other hand they have lost valuable points with 4 overtime losses. It’s still early in the season but they can’t allow the overtime losses to linger, and certainly not on home ice. While it’s a long season, missed opportunities can often come back to haunt a team down the stretch. Will the star rise to be a shooting star or a fallen one? I think Stars fans can count on it being the shooing star and here are some reasons why.
Strong Leadership permeates throughout
I’m a firm believer that, in the words of John C. Maxwell, “Everything rises and falls on leadership”. In November 2011 Tom Gaglardi was announced as the new owner of the Dallas Stars. Since that time Mr. Gaglardi has made several excellent decisions while for the most part staying quietly in the background, unlike some of his peer sports owners in the area (See Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban). One of Gaglardi’s excellent decisions was the return of Jim Lites. Mr Lites was a key part of the management team back in the Stars glorious Stanley Cup Finals runs. In April 2013 longtime Detroit Red Wing Assistant General Manager, Jim Nill, was hired as the Stars new General Manager. Nill has 4 Stanley Cup rings from his management days with Detroit.
Next, on the 14th anniversary of the Stars last Stanley Cup, June 21, 2013, Nill hired Lindy Ruff to coach the Stars. Ironically, Ruff was the opposing head coach vs. the Stars 14 years ago. Ruff’s track record speaks for itself. His 612 career regular season wins rank him 3rd among active NHL coaches and his 59 playoff wins rank him 6th among active coaches.
Last season was Ruff’s first behind the Stars bench. Back in his second season with Buffalo he coached the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Final.
The leadership doesn’t stop there. Ruff appointed Jamie Benn Captain in 2013-2014 and his maturity and growth went to another level. In a day and age when some players get their captaincy title removed, or shy from the responsibilities, Benn has thrives on it. He projects a quiet vocal leadership but is the clear Alpha Dog on the ice. Earlier this season following a loss, Benn met with the media and proclaimed he was “the worst player on the ice”. In the next game he responded with the rare Gordie Howe hat trick to lead his team to victory. Also, for the record, Jamie already has more Gordie Howe hat tricks than even Gordie did!…Benn 3 Mr. Hockey 2!
Help is on the way
Second line center Cody Eakin and top four defenseman Brendan Dillon essentially missed all of training camp due to contract negotiations. Thus far in the early season it’s been clear that both players are still shaking off the rust that comes with a missed training camp.
Goalie Kari Lehtonen certainly can’t be blamed for the team’s uneven early season start. Kari has yet to lose a game in regulation. The backup goalie situation however is concerning. Despite his 6’6 215 frame, backup Anders Lindback has been ineffective in two appearances with a .850 save percentage. While it’s a small sample size there is a good chance that Stars prospects Jussi Rynnas and/or Jack Campbell could get the call soon. If those options don’t work out the Stars front office will have to weigh the risk/reward of obtaining a veteran backup goaltender.
Due to nagging groin and hip injuries, second year pro Valeri Nichuskin has yet to play an NHL game this season. Valeri is skating with the Texas Stars this weekend and should be back with the big club soon. He gives the Stars another invaluable top 6 option upfront. Currently the Stars are relying heavily on the Benn, Spezza, Seguin line which is among the NHL’s best trios. Tyler Seguin (7 g 8 a) is tied with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Philadelphia’s Jakob Voracek for an NHL leading 15 points. Newcomer Jason Spezza is 5th in the NHL in assists with 10 helpers and Jamie Benn is off to a fine start with 5 goals and 6 assists. After that 3rd line winger Antoine Roussel has 4 goals and veteran 2nd line winger Erik Cole has chipped in 3 goals.
Prior to the start of this season, General Manager Jim Nill made it no secret that he covets a legitimate #1 defenseman. Sergei Gonchar was originally thought to be that piece when he signed (2 yrs $10 mil) but he underwhelmed in 2013-2014, and hasn’t played yet this season after breaking his ankle just prior to opening night. Gonchar is now skating but his return date is to be determined. In the meantime, Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski have risen to the challenge as the team’s top defensive pairing. Daley is tied with the Ducks Corey Perry for most power-play goals in the NHL with 4.
The Stars currently have just over $3.1 million in cap space. It will be interesting to see if the Stars attempt to make a move to bolster their blue line or strengthen the backup goalie situation.