It is always dangerous to look at the standings too early in the season in any league, but especially in the NHL. We gathered around the laptop in November and saw that up was now down. Down was now up. And resources, payroll, and talent levels didn't seem to matter too much to where the team was in the playoff race. Of course, when 15 games are played, things haven't sorted themselves out very far, but the Stars were #1 in the West on November 8th and feeling like a million bucks (or like a $63 million payroll).
There was a sense of great optimism, but the fact that Edmonton and Dallas were tops in the West and Vancouver was near the bottom gave everyone some level of pause about the long grind ahead.
The pace has slowed in Dallas, but everyone had to know that the 22 points in 14 games pace (1.57 per game) was impossible to maintain for any team in hockey. Since then, the Stars have rolled up just 21 points and have played 24 games (.87 per game). That pace will not be enough to find post-season hockey for any squad in the sport.
So where are the Stars as they near the half-way point of 2011-12?
That is the question that I asked their new owner, Tom Gaglardi after his team lost a close game with Detroit on Tuesday.
"I'm not sure yet. It is too soon for me to have an opinion. We have as good a 3rd line as there is in the league. We like our 4th line and they get us some scoring and they spend a lot of time in the other team's zone. Our top 6 just have to be more consistent. It has been frustrating because since our 11-3 start we haven't been able to prolong any win streaks and put some wins together like the good teams do. It's still early, but we got to find some consistency and put some wins together."
And in a moment of clarity, I thought the new owner demonstrated a few things. First, despite being named, "Tom", he has so much more hockey knowledge than any other Stars' owners who have been named "Tom" that it is scary. Whether that is good news or bad news ultimately will depend on what he does with that knowledge.
Second, he hit on maybe the biggest issue with the Stars moving forward. Their "Top 6" is the department on the team that is largely in charge of scoring and power play performance. I might also add to that the top pair of defenseman, but let's just keep talking about the "top 6".
Gaglardi went on to talk about how recently the line with Jamie Benn (10 goals), Michael Ryder (17), and Loui Eriksson (14) has been strong, but the Mike Ribeiro (6) line, with Brenden Morrow (7) and Steve Ott (6) need to show more scoring on a night to night basis. 41 goals for Benn's line and 19 goals for Ribeiro's suggest that you might have the dreaded 1-line team. This, of course, is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that you are too easy to defend for the opponent.
Nobody would argue that, but perhaps this is where the puck is passed back to the Stars' new owner.
One would make the case that NHL teams build themselves based on the amount of resources that can be used. Since goal scorers are about the most expensive commodity in hockey, teams with very low payrolls have very few gifted scorers. This also applies to franchise-caliber defensemen, something else the Stars lack at this point.
But, something that can be afforded in great supply for any roster is salt-of-the-earth warriors who are perfect checking line guys and will fight in the corner for every puck and give you every thing they have. The Stars have lots and lots of those guys. That is why they are pesky. That is why they can compete with anyone in the league. They have resolve, heart, and battle in great supply. In fact, you could suggest they have at least 6 players who would be perfect for the 3rd line. Vernon Fiddler, Radek Dvorak, Eric Nystrom, Adam Burish, Ott, and Morrow, would all be wonderful 3rd line guys at this point of their careers.
But, how many great "Top 6" scoring wingers do they have? Somewhere between 2 and 3. But, they need at least 4. You could argue that Ott or Morrow are both quite capable of filling one spot, but their offensive zone games are so similar (go to the net, take a beating, battle to the death, score a goal from tight) that it is problematic to put them on the same line around one of the more creative centers to ever pass through town. So, they tried splitting them up earlier in the season and putting RW Ryder with Ribeiro and Morrow, with RW Ott with Jamie and Loui, but that didn't click and it left nobody to take faceoffs when Ribeiro was on the ice (he is a noted poor faceoff man and the Stars have given all of his faceoffs to Ott recently).
So, there is the pickle they are in. The problem is made worse when you note that both specialty teams (Power Play and Penalty Kill) are in the bottom third of the league.
And that ties it all together. What is their best trait? Scrappiness. Peskiness. And overall grit. But, as we saw last season, that can take you a certain distance, but it doesn't leave a whole lot of room for mistakes. Last year, when injuries started taking their toll, the Stars lost some ground in which they were never able to fully recover. They seem to be stretched so thin because of the Hicks regime reducing resources to a drip.
And that is why Gaglardi's job is clear and vital. Turn that faucet of cash on. Nobody means to spend freely and without strategy, but it will require some bold moves when they are available. The Ducks are in the news for suggesting that everything is priced to move with their shattered season. Normally, you would laugh at the idea of the Ducks and Stars doing anything, but with new realignment, the Ducks are no longer rivals. If they are looking to move top-end pricey talent, I wouldn't waste a moment in picking up the phone. Ryan Getzlaf is available? He may be a center, but he is 26 and a monster. I think I would make room. Heck, I might be able to talk myself into 26-year old Corey Perry to play the wing with Ribeiro.
The beauty with either of those players would be that they address your long term needs of talent that is still young (as would Bobby Ryan). The Stars are actually a bit old and as many players as they have under 25 who contribute, they also have a large number of regulars that are well past their 30th birthday. These are all things for Joe Nieuwendyk to consider as they move forward.
In talking with several NHL personnel people in the last few days, it is clear that the Stars have very promising futures with Benn and Eriksson. Every team would love to add them, but a quick dose of reality also returns that nobody who I spoke with placed Benn or Eriksson in the Top 7 forwards in the Pacific Division. They unanimously returned the names of Kopitar, Thornton, Perry, Getzlaf, Pavelski, Richards, and Ryan before listing Dallas' top forwards. Doesn't mean that someday soon Benn won't pass them, but for now, the Stars have Top 10 forwards in their own division, but nobody would say Top 5. With simple math (6 divisions) that would place the Stars best amongst the ranks 31-60 in the NHL at the forward position if all divisions have similar talent (they likely do not).
Patience is needed right now. The Stars will continue to battle on the ice as strategies are hatched. There is a chance that no bold strikes will happen until summer. Then, it will be Gaglardi and Nieuwendyk's job to sell UFA's on the idea of coming here which is never easy when competing with "Original 6" teams.
But, know this: After spending 30 minutes talking hockey with the man, which you can hear by clicking here, it seems clear to know that not only is the owner thinking about these very topics, he is also obsessed with figuring it out. He will make changes, but he will also think them through carefully and deliberately.
But most importantly, they will be on his mind.
And previous owners cannot compete with that attribute. Even though there is plenty of work to do, there is reason for great optimism yet again for this organization.