Friday, November 04, 2011

So, Are The Stars Really Good?

It is certainly possible that the dramatic October of the Texas Rangers and the frustrating October of the Dallas Cowboys has kept your sports thoughts miles from hockey. In fact, based on the crowds, I would say that it borders on likely.

But, now, with all of the tiny baseballs tucked in their tiny baseball beds, and with the NBA press conference-to-game ratio right now at about 1000 to 0, I thought it was a good time to remind you of the NHL hockey that is going on right under your noses. And get this, it is a pretty solid product being put out on the ice.

As you read this, the Dallas Stars have played 11 games into their season and sit on top of the Pacific Division with 16 points. Of course, in the interest of fair reporting, they also sit just 3 points from last place in the Pacific, but let's try to go with the cup being "half full".

Depending on what spreadsheet you use, the Stars either sit 29th or 30th in the 30-team NHL in terms of payroll dedicated to its roster. Payroll doesn't always mean everything, but there is a distinct reason why teams pay different players different amounts. The better players get more money and the teams that collect the most good players generally have quite a roster. The fact remains that as the smoke has completely cleared from one of Tom Hicks sports ventures (the Texas Rangers), and is almost cleared from another (Liverpool FC), there is still plenty of smoke suffocating the day to day operations of the Stars. They are the last of his sports properties to be rescued from his custody and although the light can be seen at the end of the tunnel, there is still a bit more to go.

But, I will leave that discussion for those with law degrees and interests in talking about court-room proceedings. I would rather look at the Stars as someone who has watched every shift and game closely, and answer the question I am constantly asked: "Are the Stars for real?"

The Stars new coach, Glen Gulutzan has the team roaring out of the starting blocks. Joe Nieuwendyk has built a team that finally resembles his vision (at least the best vision $48 million can buy) and the Stars can legitimately say that they are "tough to play against". Too many times in the past several years the Stars have been a bit less convincing in their desire to win a street fight. The resolve was sometimes present, but never were the Stars considered one of the more prickly teams in the NHL. In fact, if you search the archives, you will find many Stars leaders fancy themselves capable of replicating what Detroit could do - play with the puck all night and never let you touch it - easier said than done. It also requires lots of money to put a "high skill" team on the ice, which is something Tom Hicks stopped doing around the time of the Alex Rodriguez/Bill Guerin era.

So, the painful transition of having a "skill" team without enough "skill" players was underway. The team popped an amazing playoff run in 2008 when the careers of Sergei Zubov, Brad Richards, Mike Modano, and Brendan Morrow all intersected for a few short months. But, once Zubov retired and the payroll declined - along with the talent of the team - playoffs became the aspiration rather than the Stanley Cup.

No playoffs in 2009, 2010, and 2011 have rendered the Dallas Stars to a rather low level of sports-relevancy in this "winners town" that must now be rebuilt. We have seen the narrative enough times to know that if you put quality on the ice or field and give your customers a chance to believe they have a chance to have their dreams come true, they will get behind you. But, the second they lose that belief, they find another way to spend their money. Diehards? Maybe not. But, that is the world you live in. Put quality on the ice, and the crowds will be quality, too.

Back to the question at hand; Are the Stars any good this year?

I think that they are. They have a very balanced roster which might mean no "top end" players making $8 million but they do have 18 skaters who all have a role that they are capable of taking care of. They have added players that fight and battle and do not appear miscast. But, most importantly, I believe they have elite goaltending for the first time in years.

No disrespect for Marty Turco, but this is better than anything I have seen in years. Kari Lehtonen has put this thing on his back and pulled the team through a lot of nights where they might not have deserved results. He has great size and confidence and is locked in right now. He is getting help, but he is also not allowing the back-breaking goal at just the wrong time which had become customary around here.

And when you are getting elite goaltending, you can go many places in this league. The question is whether they can resist the urge to over-use his ability now and let him save some for the spring time. If he gets hot in the playoffs and plays like this, look out.

Concerns? There are a few. The scoring looks spotty. The Power Play lacks power (except when Sheldon Souray dials one up to about 100 mph from the point). They may be a goal scorer or two away from a contender who can last 82 games and then win a few rounds. And their goalie sees way too many shots every night. Being outshot by 6 shots a night is not a trend that I think can sustain with wins for 82 games.

But, Jamie Benn will knock your socks off. Morrow is still charging the net and Steve Ott is thankfully still Steve Ott. Souray is anchoring a blue-line with Stephane Robidas and a gang that looks far more organized and deployed than they have in quite a while.

And most importantly, this team gets after it night after night. Nieuwendyk has actually found that mix of players that understand their spot and are willing to carry it out. I don't sense opponents enjoy their experience against Dallas anymore. This is now a "scratch and claw" team that the 29th payroll team must be.

We thought that this team was a playoff team last season when they were 10 points up in mid-January. They faded late as injuries and fatigue set in and they fell just 1 point short. It taught them to treat points in October and November as valuable and potentially season-deciding.

This crew was selected by Sports Illustrated to finish 15th in the Western Conference. If you do the math, you will see that there is nowhere lower you can be picked.

Whether they read that publication or not, they are playing so far as if they wish to use it for motivation. They sit 1st in their division and 3rd in the conference, but November 4th is merely another day in the marathon.

So, are they any good? I think so. Good enough? Well, I think that they are going to need more help.

Once a new owner gets the keys (this month?), perhaps reinforcements will be headed this way. But, I assume that will be largely based on the current crew proving to their new boss that they are worthy of his checkbook for season #1 of his regime.

But, in the meantime, they are attempting to prove to you that they are worthy of yours.

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