Friday, January 02, 2009

Stars Mailbag - Mucho Grande

One month ago, I rolled out a mailbag that contained mostly discussions about why the Stars had played 23 games, and only won 8 of them. The discussions revolved around Marty Turco’s poor play, Sean Avery’s poor conduct, the Stars poor health, and the overall long shot of having any chance of making the playoffs – let alone making a run at a Stanley Cup.

Well, a month can make a difference. The Stars won as many games in December as they did in October and November combined. A month that grabbed them 8 wins and 17 points in 13 games put the Stars right back in the mix and possibly on the right track as we hit Mailbag #2.

So, why have things changed? Where did the direction change? And many, many more thoughts are straight ahead.

Let’s get started:

You: Hey Bob,

Happy New Year and I gotta say I really enjoy reading your blog. Are you liking the improvements we are seeing in the Stars overall play? I don't think anyone would truly say that Avery was the reason the Stars had such a sub-par performance for the first third of this season, but it's hard to argue with their performance since the split. I had about written off this team for making the playoffs (like another Dallas team - ahem), but if you had to predict a "yay" or "nay" for the Stars making the playoffs, which way do you see it going??

Sharon - Little Elm

ME: I shall give you a qualified “Yay”. At the moment I write this on New Year’s Night, the Stars sit 2 points behind the #8 seed, Colorado. Of course, between the Avs and the Stars are the Wild, Blue Jackets, Oilers, and Predators. The Kings also sit one point back meaning that 7 teams are playing for essentially one spot. And as we hit 2009, they are all virtually even. The Stars have 46 games to go, as do most of the rest, and it is going to be a fun run in. Vancouver, Anaheim, and Phoenix, who all currently occupy #5-#7 better not have any prolonged down time either or they could find themselves on the outside looking in on an amazingly even Western Conference.

So, why do I think the Stars are playing better now than they have in the first two months (W.A. = With Avery) is a fairly complex answer.

Honestly, I think you do have to consider the impact that Avery had on everything. At the time, I thought it was a convenient excuse for poor play, but as the evidence continues to mount (23 games with Avery for 20 points; 13 games without Avery for 17 points) it is difficult to say that he was not affecting the product. But how much? I think the simple explanation will be that Sean Avery was a horrid cancer that needed to be cut out – and then a classic addition by subtraction case yielded big results. In fact, the parallels between what the Stars did and what the Cowboys should have done with their own case of cancer leaves you wondering how the football team may have turned out had they followed the Stars lead.

But aren’t there at least 3 other factors that should be added to Avery’s exit as primary reasons for the resurgence of the Stars?

1. The return of Steve Ott (Dec 18th) and Jere Lehtinen (Dec 20th). Let’s be honest; there were quite a few games where the Stars were fielding half of an AHL team during the tougher stretches of the season. When they plug these two back into the mix, everyone else fits better. The top 6 wings are now Eriksson, Sutherby, Ott, Neal, Lehtinen, and Parrish. Putting those 6 guys around Modano, Richards, and Ribeiro make everything work better. And, when Lundqvist and Brunnstrom get right physically, it will only continue to improve. You can see the production of the centers get better and better as the wings play does the same. Now, you have a confident Loui and Neal, the veteran presence of the other 4, and you are ready for work. Which leads us to…

2. The surge of 91 and 63. Poor guys, they lead the team in points by a healthy margin, and yet we are never satisfied with their contribution. When I wrote about Mike Ribeiro’s production was getting hit hard from losing Brenden (Dec 17 blog), we noted that he had 18 points in 18 games with Brenden, and only 5 points in 12 games without him. We needed more 63. Well, in the 6 games since, he has 9 points – and is a +3. Brad Richards is on a tear as well, with 13 points in 13 December games. But, he started the post Avery era with 0 points in 6 games, and has followed that up with 13 points in the next 7. I would say he is slightly hot right now.

3. Defense, Defense. This is all about Marty Turco continuing to look the part. In December, the GAA is way down, the save percentage is back up where it needs to be (above 90%) and he appears to own his crease again. How much of this is Marty and how much of it is his blueline being solidified by the play of Robidas up top and Sydor steadying the young lads since he has been added is open to debate. But, what is not open to debate is that the Stars allow fewer than 3 goals a game for the month, and that is way down from the first few months.

See what I am saying? You can say it is Avery, but I think you have to factor in health, your best players being your best players, and getting your defense squared away. None of those 3 things are affected by a black cloud that Sean Avery brought in my estimation.

You: Dear Bob,

There’s no doubt that the 2008-2009 season for the Stars has been somewhat of a disappointment, but as I’ve watched the team progress over the past few weeks I really don’t think we can blame any one person – coach, player, or GM. This is a bit contradictory to what I’ve said it the past, but as a frustrated fan you want to blame somebody, anybody for this years lackluster performance.

Can you blame Turco or Tippett? Maybe.
Can you blame it on the Sean Avery situation? Maybe.
Can you blame the season on the numerous injuries? Maybe.
Can you blame it on bad karma? If you believe in that sort of thing you might.
Can you blame Modano? Not if he continues his jedi-like performance this year.

But the way I see it, when you start blaming any one person or thing, you no longer consider the Stars a team and the way these guys have joined together and have fought hard despite the adversity is exactly what I, as a fan, have seen in the Stars this season, especially in the last 12 games or so.

When you’re at the bottom the only direction you can go is up and if the Stars keep playing like they have (7-4-1 in the last 12 games), then hopefully by the end of January we’ll see the Stars somewhere in the top eight fighting for a ticket into the NHL playoffs.

P1 Dan

Me: Agreed. I like the fact that they all seem unified in their battles right now. The team spirit was obviously fractured for a while, and now they look like the familiar family they have appeared for many years. It is surely a bit different without Morrow and Zubov on the ice, but at least the team looks like they will fight for eachother and defend eachother. I think the blame game is not important right now. What is important is playing good hockey and getting results on a regular basis. The hole they dug was deep, but they also showed that they can dig out of it pretty fast. To consider that they are but 5 points behind Anaheim is a very nice feeling. I realize the Ducks are having their own issues, but you would think all of the quality teams would have left the Stars in the dust. The Stars could still finish 2nd in the Pacific, and have a chance to work their way not only into the playoff mix, but also into a seed that could avoid Detroit or San Jose in round 1 if they really hurry.

You: Hello Bob, best wishes and a happy new year to you from Stralsund, Germany!

I have a question and I really would like to hear from an insider how he thinks about this topic. I am a big, big fan of Mike Modano for years now and I can hardly imagine a Dallas Stars team without him. So I am thankful for every year he will stay around with us.

Now, we are having a difficult year (it is getting better right now). I am afraid, that if we will miss the Playoffs, Big Mo will stop playing hockey immediately. How do you think about it? Will we have to make the Playoffs and do well in it to keep Big Mo for another year? Or would he stay to help us, if we cannot make it as good as last season?

Would be great to read your opinion about it!

Best wishes to you!

Robert Schwols
Stralsund, Germany

Me: Nice! Hope it is all good in Germany these days. If I were to guess, Mike Modano will play as long as his body is holding up. He is an exceptional athlete who appears to still be able to do things that many 10 years younger than him cannot dream of doing.

It should be noted, however, that the body does strange thing at his age, and will break down without very many warning signs. Sergei Zubov is one of nature’s marvels for most of his career, but in 2008, he was unable to get his body right, and now I am wondering if we will ever see him back on the ice resembling the clear-cut #1 defensemen he has been for so long. Time waits for no man in pro sports, and there are only so many games in a player’s body.

So, I am optimistic that Modano wants to keep playing. He is having fun, and he also likes proving people wrong that think he is washed up. He also realizes that there are not very many jobs that pay like his current one. I guess I don’t buy him leaving the game before the game kicks him out. If he can still do it, look for #9 to still be skating below rather than hanging in the rafters above. That will happen soon enough.

You: Bob,

With the absence of Brenden Morrow is there a particular player you would say has stepped up to the plate and helped steer the Stars back in the right direction?


Long Time Stars Fan

ME: Honestly, I was just thinking this during the Ducks-Sharks-Devils homestand – Steve Ott makes this team so different. I am not saying he can do things Brenden can do, because he cannot. But he serves a gigantic purpose on this team of sending a physical message to the opponent. He had Mike Rupp going crazy on Wednesday night with his antics, and I loved the shift in the 3rd where Otter had at least 3 body checks on the forecheck. When the team was playing in early December without Morrow, Avery, and Ott, they surely seemed to lack any sort of adrenaline or physicality to their play, and I think had a hard time beating some teams unless they could put the other team to sleep with their polite style (they actually beat Calgary in Calgary with a very docile attack). But now, even with Ott in the middle of his fight embargo due to his injured hand, he is driving up the hatred in the game, and that serves to distract the opponent, but also to open up opportunities to his mates. Heck, I even saw 63 throwing the body, so you know it is infectious.

As for others stepping up in the absence of Morrow, I keep thinking that the primary beneficiary of all of the wings being hurt or suspended is James Neal. During training camp, you wondered where they were going to be able to get him any ice time. He actually spent quite a while in Manitoba during November, but with Avery and Morrow gone from the left side, here comes James Neal, just 21 years old to take 20 shifts a game, and make an impact on every single game. If those guys were here, there is a very good chance he would not be. When opportunity knocks, James Neal has answered and I think he will be a regular up here now for a long, long time. He is a special one.

You: Hey, Bob,

Here's a question for your mailbag:

What was Sean Avery like in person? Did you or Dan interact with him at all while he was here?


Me: Well, I must be honest. I never got a chance to engage in much conversation with the man. Whenever I was in close proximity, I generally just observed the interesting fellow, and I don’t have much along the lines of anecdotes other than my night on the Stars bench when I enjoyed his running conversations with Blackhawks players and then the tunnel screaming match with the Chicago coaching staff and then coach Denis Savard as I stood at an extremely close distance quite nervous.
Beyond that, I just saw him off by himself doing his own thing. But did I know that everything was going so south so fast? Nope. I knew he was not very popular, but you have to understand that I cover the Cowboys as well, and am therefore conditioned to not think it is overly disconcerting to have a teammate who is not popular and a bit of a loner. Pro sports is not a frat house, and I was caught by great surprise to hear the extent of the discontent by his mates.

You: I don’t think that the fact that they’re playing better has anything to do with Sean Avery being be honest I actually enjoyed him playing for the Stars, he brought a lot of pretty women to the games to watch, which was a distraction to me...I’ve been very disappointed with Marty Turco this year, I think he gets alot of leniency for his bad performance this season, it kind of angered me when he mouthed off after Sean Averys famous "sloppy seconds" comment, because he made it seem like that distraction was the reason for his bad play, I took a historical look back at Marty Turco, and other than last season’s awesome playoff run, he hasn’t been the top notch goalie that many people say he is, I’m not saying he’s bad because obviously hes done very well for his career, I just notice that in alot of games he gives up 5 goals. That’s not necessarily all his fault because the Defense hasn’t played well either and are either banged up or just give the puck away, I don’t have much confidence in the back up goalie; he seems to be a slow reactor when the puck is coming his way...When it comes to the Power Play, it just seems like the line that’s out there is more concerned about making a pretty pass than actually shooting that puck into the goal...I don’t think any shot on goal is a bad shot, especially on the PP. Tippett needs to get that through his players heads, SHOOT. Even if we have alot of banged up players; we still have alot more talent on the ice than most teams...I’m glad we got Sydor back, an old familiar face is always good. I still to this day, second guess the trade that sent Jamie Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk to New Jersey for Jason Arnott, because look at how Langenbrunner is still playing great hockey. I dont think the Stars need to make any significant deals, maybe get a good defenseman? We are too good to be at the bottom, looking at the top. San Jose looks solid all around, but I believe the Stars can beat them, and not only them but the rest of the league, 1. If were healthy 2. Take advantage on the PP, or just SHOOT 3. Play physical...I notice sometimes the Stars arent as physical as the opponents, we need to check more and with authority so the opposing players will be afraid to come down the ice.

Me: Wow, you said a lot. First, on the Langenbrunner deal, I was thinking the same thing watching the Devils’ captain and wondering what if the Stars never did that deal. At the time, I still think it made some sense – trading a old center and a younger piece for someone’s #1 center. You have to remember where Jason Arnott’s value was in the NHL at the time of the deal. He has been a tough guy to figure most of his career, but he was 27, and just coming off two monster playoff runs in 2000 and 2001. The Stars were scared that Nieuwendyk just could not last much longer and like I said, at the time, I bought it. But, since hindsight is 20/20, we see that Langenbrunner was the real piece that hurts. I remember thinking he was just “a guy” in this league, and he could be replaced. But, I now realize the errors in my thinking as he is a great leader and example the way he competes. He has skill, too, but he is just great captain material, and holds guys accountable. You can’t have too many of those, and I think with Morrow and Langenbrunner patrolling the franchise this entire decade, they may have experienced more happy spring times. Just speculating.

Now, on to your thoughts of Turco. He is surely a lightning rod, and I will not argue that he has not been good enough. But, there are a few things for you to consider. First, he has plenty of skins on the wall, in my estimation, with the 3 All-Star games and the 3 seasons with GAA’s under 2.00. But, most importantly have been the last TWO springs where Turco has been the best goaltender in at least 3 of his last 4 series while facing Luongo, Giguere, Nabokov, and Osgood.

But, the other very important factor with Turco’s play and the defense in general is that I believe the blue-line is short a stud or two. This summer, the Stars put a bid in on Wade Redden to take over as the Stars top defensemen because Sergei may not have much time left as the man here. Well, they didn’t get Redden (nor did they bid on Commodore, Orpik, or anyone of the other free agents on defense) and for some reason changed their focus to Avery. This left them dangerously thin and dependent on the kids back there to grow up extremely fast.

When Zubov got hurt, and Fistric and Niskanen started slowly, they were up the creek without paddles. So, then they are panicking to find a Hutchinson here and a Janik here and a Sydor there. The facts are pretty simple: The Stars are trying to get by with a huge money forward corp, and a small money blueline. Without Zubov, there is almost no money investment back there, and when I spoke to a personnel expert in the league this week, I asked him how many Stars defensemen could crack the Chicago Blackhawks starting 6? He said, Robidas - As a 4th or 5th defensemen in that group - would be the only one. Wow.

There is no Pronger, or Boyle, or Blake, or Lidstrom, or Keith, or Campbell, or Niedermayer. I am not saying the Stars don’t have some nice players who are going to continue to get better, but this is a team that does not appear to have a #1 or #2 defenseman at their disposal right now. So, before we blame Turco for the entirety of the slow start, let’s understand that the management has perhaps left the cupboard a bit bare back there.

You: Ok.... here's a question for you. Why doesn't the NHL mandate use of Helmet cages?

I know that a lot of players prefer not to use them... but if "Team" comes first, why not make the change?

Look at Robidas last season... he played great with the cage... Or, remember when Boucher got that orbital fracture? If he hadn't been injured, how much more could he have produced for the team?

It's good for the players.... healthwise.

It's good for the Team ..... minimizes injuries and keeps good players playing and PRODUCING!


William de Leon

Me: William, there has long been a feeling that half-visors will be required sooner or later. In fact, almost every young player who is called up is used to wearing them, so they just keep them on anyway. The idea is that they will likely be grandfathered in, with players who entered the league prior to whatever date would get to choose for themselves, but those after would get no such choice.
As far as a full face cage, the league would not do this. I believe they want the faces as visible as possible so that the public gets to know them, so I don’t think they will ever roll that way.

You: Hey Bob,
Greetings from Corpus Christi, TX. I am a big fan of the blogs by you and Razor. I am new to the love of hockey (about two years now), since I grew up in Brownsville, TX, hockey was not talked about at the dinner table (or anywhere else for that matter). I am new to some of the lingo and I have to ask, why does Razor insist that the goalie's gear are the tools of ignorance. I am trying to understand, please enlighten a newbie. Thanx and enjoy the new year!

andy hernandez, corpus christi, TX

Me: Razor charges me a hefty fee every time I want to talk with him, so let me try to answer this on my own. I believe “tools of ignorance” was originally a term used in baseball to describe the catching gear that is worn by those behind the plate. Here is a link of the origin and I believe that the idea is that anyone who would dare be a catcher or a goalie must be ignorant to want to play a position that requires full body armor. And Razor was a goalie, so….

You: I demand you offer in your next mailbag a great hockey video for me to watch at my job and kill a few minutes of my work day. Pretty please -With sugar on top.

Me: Here you go. If this isn’t fascinating to you, I will refund your money:
How its Made – Hockey Pucks

You: Sturm,
Where does the organization stand with the Sean Avery Saga? I haven’t heard much about anything on this topic besides him not joining back up with the team. Are they shopping him around the league, demoting him to the minors or going to buy out his contract? Obviously the best scenario would be trading him to another team in hopes of getting possibly a defenseman or forward in return but do you know of any takers?

Me: Honestly, all is quiet on the Avery front. They have said he will never play here again. He is also “working some things out in his life”. I suspect he will be bought out this summer, and will play with someone – somewhere next season. He could push the issue, but I just don’t see a very large trade market for a guy that many teams would not touch BEFORE the Dallas fiasco. I don’t begrudge the guy a chance to redeem himself, but I don’t think he holds very many cards right now.

You: Bob,

I would like to start off by saying I love the direction the stars are headed. There is an excitement with the team that was non-existent early in the season and I tip my hat to Hull and Tippett for not being
afraid to change it up a bit. My question to you is do you think the stars would have a few more power play goals if they got a few more shots on goal and picked up the trash? I love the finesse of Richards,
Modano, and Ribeiro but maybe if we crashed the net a bit more on the advantage, we could capitalize on situations like the Sharks game. GO STARS!!!


Me: Since I have been in Dallas (1998), there has been one constant complaint about Dallas Stars hockey. They don’t shoot enough on the Power Play. Actually, I think this is a complaint about every team in the NHL, but especially in the Zubov/Modano PP where those two magicians have always given up a good look to try to find a great look. Well, with Zubie on the shelf, now it is Richards and Ribeiro who join Modano and make the fans crazy with all of the passes. The truth is, the power play can still improve. It can still help this team even more, and they are still trying to figure out who are the best players to have down low on the man-advantage. Is it Neal? Is it Loui? Is it Ott? They are trying them all to find the best player to stand in the crease and cause issues. But, the talent is there for the Stars to have a better PP than 15%. That can really help them the rest of the way if they continue to make teams pay in that department. I always support crashing the net in search of the juicy rebound.

YOU: Bob,

I have a question for you and it's not about the Dallas Stars rough year but it's about Brenden Morrow. When Morrow ever comes back to play hockey, do you think he'll be the same player? Do you think the Stars will make the playoffs?


Me: There is no guarantee, but I have learned to never bet against Morrow. He is a determined man, and I see him at practice, and he wants to be around the team and lead anyway he can. But he also knows that he can only lead for real when he is out there with his boys.

You: Hey Bob,

I'm a big fan of your blog and the Dallas Stars, in fact I order the centre ice package just so I can watch the games in Canada. I enjoy how you always look at the stars without too much emotion; don't get too down when they are or too optimistic when they get hot. On to my questions:

1) I don't think the Stars can seriously take a run at the cup this year. I think they CAN make the playoffs but do you think its worth it? to sacrifice a good draft position for a a first round exit? I know the Stars need to make money but this year looks to have a lot of draft promise.

2) If the Stars do make a playoff run what type of player should they target at the trade deadline??
Again, I don't think they will make a serious run, so giving up young talent (Benn, Neal, Fistric, Vishnevsky or picks) would REALLY disappoint me, but as far as I can see it they need: a skilled RW for Ribeiro's line, a veteran D-man and a solid back-up tender... perhaps more of a summer wish list

3) Lastly, looking at the draft. Who do you realistically see the Stars pursuing??
Personally, I'm high on Braydon Schenn, watching his brother in Toronto and looking at Benn in the World juniors I am shaking at the thought of those two playing together in Dallas....

Thanks for your feedback, its always interesting to hear from someone close to the team.


Me: Thanks, Brandon.

1) – No, I think it would be silly to consider the Stars in the Cup mix right now. But, Yes, I do think it is worth it to find out what you can do. This is a short term industry, and you must take your best shots. What if Lehtinen, Zubov, and Modano all are done this summer? Won’t you wish you gave it one last run with them? I think draft position takes care of itself (the first thing is to not trade your 1st rounders for Ladislav Nagy), but I think you always try to win rather than tank it.

2) – At the same time, I am not sure I make a huge trade to win now. I have to keep the big picture in focus, so I don’t cough up a Benn or Neal to help myself short term. If you can give a lower-tier prospect to help yourself now, fine. But Les Jackson and Brett Hull are not going to move the stars of next decade. My priority would be backup goalie and defensemen. I think you have enough forwards to get you where you need to go.

3) – I have not seen Schenn, so I will tell you that my only draft knowledge is what I am watching right now in the World Juniors. I love Jordan Schroeder from the USA, but I doubt he makes it down to the Stars – here is one of his sweet goals.

And of course, the #1 pick is this John Tavares kid most likely – he is really stinking good.

You: Sports Sturm,

I went to prospect camp and training camp before the season started just to check out the fresh looks of young talent. I right off the bat noticed Jamie Benn and James Neal. I was most impressed with Jamie Benn, and wanted to get your take on who you saw as a “real deal”? Also what potential you see coming up for the trade deadline? I am highly frustrated with Matt Niskanen and would like to see him go as a package deal to get a solid defenseman. What say you?

Me: Like I say, we need to be really careful at this trade deadline. I would not be willing to do much. I would not move Niskanen. He has the tools, and I think all he needs is maturity. Grossman is not even in a discussion, and I don’t want to sell low on Fistric. Ivan Vishnevsky is the 1st round pick from 2006, and I don’t think he is ready to play up here yet, although the Stars are giving him a taste of the NHL life right now. He cannot go, either, I don’t believe.

If you like your kids, you don’t trade them. That simple. As for the forwards, there just isn’t anyone you would want to deal from the younger ranks. Neal, Brunnstrom, or Eriksson? This better be quite a trade if you are going to do it.

Now, they do have some cap room with the Morrow and Zubov injuries, but are the Stars looking to spend with the economic times hitting them at the box office? Time will tell. But, if someone wants to dump salary, you could strike there, because money is coming off the books this summer.

They do really need to resolve their backup-goaltender situation, pronto.

You: James Neal gets more impressive with each game, he is the future of this team!

K Martin

Me: As president of the James Neal fan club, I will not disagree

You: Bob,

What is the main reason Stars got rid of Guerin. Was it salary cap issue or did he just not fit in? He seems to be doing well on a sub par Islander team. I appreciate what you do on the ticket and for the Stars......


Me: Ah, Billy G. One of my favorite players, and I am biased since he did our radio show for 3 years and is about the nicest pro athlete you will ever meet. Why didn’t it work? Lots of reasons. He was very expensive, and his contract hit right before the lockout. The Stars underachieved while he was here in the playoffs, and the guys making the most money got the blame – so, Guerin and Arnott were two popular targets.

He was also a high-up in the NHLPA, so I think that rubbed some Stars management the wrong way, but I am only guessing. He actually was pretty productive in 3 seasons here, where he led them in scoring one year and goal scoring another. But all in all, his time here was not overly successful for the organization. When you sign someone at his price-tag, the owner is thinking Stanley Cup, and Guerin was right after the debacle of Pierre Turgeon (another super human being – not a super Stars
hockey player) so the leash was short.

I will always have my #13 jersey ready, I just wish he would have tasted a bit more playoff happiness here.

You: this question has brought my attention several times and do not know what would happen. ribero scores, or at least thinks he does but the ref waves no goal. play continues but knowing as soon as play stops it will be reviewed. what if the other team scores before play stops? review shows riberos goal was good. both teams get a goal? only Dallas’s counts and the other team is pissed off?


Me: This is one of my favorites. The ruling is that Ribeiro’s goal is good, and any other goals scored after are wiped off the map. They never happened. Crazy, eh? It has happened before and it will happen again. If the goal is good, the clock goes back to that time, and the rest never existed.
There you have it. 6,000 words this time for you. Now, on to January, where we can play those stinking Wings 3 times, and spend a lot of time on the road. Let’s keep some momentum going.

Nobody could have predicted the crazy 2008, so don’t think for a second that you have any idea what 2009 holds!

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