In an effort to make sure you are reading enough about the Dallas Stars and the NHL, I plan on henceforth to offer my "bag of pucks" to you on a weekly basis throughout the season. This will be a series of thoughts and opinions and stuff off youtube that might enhance your hockey experience. Enjoy.
IMPERFECT ATTENDANCE FROM TOP 6
Certainly, the start of the Stars season has not achieved the best case scenarios in our head about their potential team performance. If making the playoffs this season is a step in the right direction, then 9 points in the first 10 games is just not going to get you there. They are certainly not in horrible shape, but you would like to think early in the season they would not already be trying to figure out creative ways to work their way into the top 8.
Of course, there are plenty of valid and creative excuses. For instance, their top 2 centers played in their first game together last night. Jamie Benn and Derek Roy actually combined for the game winning goal and for the most part, the team's full potential finally looked reasonable in their win in Colorado. But, nobody imagined it would take 10 games to find 1 where Roy and Benn were both available. Then the contract and immigration situations with Jamie Benn cost him the first 5 games of the season, and during that time, Roy was hit with an injury that knocked him onto the injured list.
In fact, from that preseason depth chart that showed a "top 6" of Jaromir Jagr, Jamie Benn, and Loui Eriksson on the top line, with Ray Whitney, Derek Roy, and Michael Ryder on the 2nd line, only Eriksson and Ryder have played in every game. That is pretty hard to believe, given that the season is only 18 days old. And Ray Whitney, the Stars free agent who has been most impressive early, is now likely out of action until March with a broken bone in his foot. They just aren't finding many breaks. Is there a chance we will see all of the Top 6 together in the same game at the same time? If it happens, it will have to happen in the late stages of the season, because it certainly won't happen in the 1st half.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
The good news about the above bad news is that the roster is currently over-flowing with pieces of the future, I do believe. Now, let's not confuse this with the youth in Edmonton (that we will see Wednesday night) or anything, but the Stars have about as good a crop of rookies as any group I can remember in the 15 years I have followed this franchise on a daily basis.
21-year old Cody Eakin is not home-grown, but rather acquired in the trade for Mike Ribeiro last summer, when the Stars were looking for a makeover in their pay structure and at center ice. Ribs had his moments here, for sure, but he was blocking Jamie Benn from getting premium power play time and also not exactly the 2-way center the team wanted in a perfect scenario. So, they grabbed a few picks and Eakin for Ribeiro, and think they have found a high-motor, 2-way center who is ready to trade paint with the opposition any time he is on the ice. I have been very pleased with seeing him play all up and down the lineup already, and he looks like he could be an ideal 3rd line center or a fill-in 2nd line center in spells.
22-year old Brenden Dillon is already looking as if he can be an anchor on a blue-line that has so needed anchors for years and year. He is big (6'3, 228) and strong and willing to match up with anyone in a battle for the puck. Not only that, but he has reasonable puck skills as we saw again last night as he grabs the puck behind is own goal-line and instantly starts sprinting with confidence out of the zone with the puck in tow. His Gordie Howe hat-trick from Friday night against Phoenix showed what he is capable of, and what you like most about him is his self-belief. He really appears to be ready for this moment and is willing to do everything he can to supply the muscle and toughness the Stars have needed, while playing a role where he is now a key penalty killer and capable 2-way defenseman. I don't want to put too much pressure on him, but I am willing to say that if he just maintains his current level of play, he has a spot locked in here for years to come. If he improves to a higher level, well, the sky is his limit. How this undrafted free-agent was snagged by the Stars is a real find for the front office.
20-year old Jamie Oleksiak is the other part of that blue-line rebuild with Dillon who have people hoping for Derian Hatcher and Richard Matvichuk, part 2. If you cast Oleksiak as Hatcher, we should understand that there are differences in their game. Oleksiak surely at 6'7, 242 has all of the size needed, but is much better with the puck on his stick than Derian ever was. However, he does not roll with the mean streak that Hatcher had for all of those fantastic years back in front of Ed Belfour. But, man, what a skater and puck handler for a man his size. And with a reach advantage and a very long stick, he also has the ability to take care of anything around him in the defensive zone with little work. You aren't going to skate around him much because of his fantastic size, and you likely won't be able to buzz the crease much looking for rebounds with his huge frame boxing you out. I think as he gets older and gets challenged more physically, he will be able to answer force with force more, because right now he looks like the giant who has been called for looking guilty at lower levels and has backed off. In other words, he engages in very little contact in the first 3 games I have seen, but he is also a 20-year old rookie in the NHL just trying to make sure he doesn't do anything that gets him sent back to Austin. My only hope with Oleksiak is that they allow him to remain confident through this process. We need to remember that big defensemen develop very slowly and if you review the early going for other players of his size, you will see that it usually takes a few years. If he can hold his own at 20, you are really going to love what he is capable of at 24. This might be that guy who can be your #1 defenseman for the next decade if they do it right. And if he is, the Stars will always have a chance because teams with legit, 25 minute a night, stud #1 defensemen don't miss the playoffs very often. And they surely don't grow on trees.
21-year old Reilly Smith is a winger who appears to have tremendous offensive talent. He clearly is being brought along slowly, but I believe the plan is for him to grab a Top 6 wing spot at training camp next September when free agency offers an opening. In the meantime, he is figuring out how to contribute with small minutes on the bottom lines, and show his puck skills whenever possible while playing a conservative style (which is all you can do when you are on the 4th line. Nothing, and I mean nothing is worse than the 4th line conceding a goal). They also will likely yo-yo him to Austin to give him top line minutes down there to keep him sharp, but they clearly really like the kid to perhaps replace Ryder or Jagr if they are not brought back next season.
Those 4 are the best of the bunch who have been up, but Jordie Benn (25) has certainly looked capable as has Antoine Roussel (23) who appeared in his first game Friday, and scored his first goal on his first shot. He appears abrasive on the forecheck and fast on his skates, so if he is one of the pit bulls thrown over the boards on a 3rd or 4th line to go stir some things up, he might have a home here.
The best part is that there is another bunch of kids down below (Brett Ritchie, Radek Faksa, Alex Chiasson, Jack Campbell, Patrick Nemeth, Matt Fraser, and more) who also appear to have tons of talent who are not that far away either. In summary, the Stars finally appear to be a team that wants to grow its own, realizing that with a salary cap, that is the best way to find long-term success. The Stars franchise never has done this since moving to town with any level of conviction, but now they appear to have made it an emphasis. Perhaps, they looked over to the Texas Rangers recipe and have realized the best way is not the quick fix of free agency. That will be there to supplement, but it won't be the main source of talent acquisition.
Now, with kids who are ready or on the brink of being ready, we potentially have to most exciting development of all - extreme competition for spots. For too long, too many veterans have had their spot assured by almost default. The rank and file members of the roster were journeymen who were surviving in the league but had almost no upside. Now, the kids at the bottom of the roster are forcing themselves in and serving notice to those above them that they don't intend on being spare parts for long. We saw with the Mark Fistric trade the first signs of this, where the front-office had to move a veteran along because they knew they had defensemen who were ready to replace him and upgrade right now. If veterans are blocking kids, you try to move the veterans out if you are playing for the big picture. If you are playing for now, you might hold off the kids and give the veterans a chance to use their experience as a tool to stay. But, that competition is healthy for the growth of the organization.
I just hope they focus on the kids more and more so that the Stars can return to being a heavyweight in the years to come as this group grows together around Jamie Benn.
FIGHT OF THE WEEK
John Scott vs Scott Thornton
This one is easy - Buffalo finally answered the call from Boston after the 2011 incident where Milan Lucic ran Ryan Miller without punishment from the Sabres. Buffalo went and found plenty of muscle for their lineup with Steve Ott handling the pest department and heavyweight sluggo John Scott who is only there for this type of business. On their first visit to Boston, you knew that this was going to go down and Scott sent a strong message to the Bruins that there is a new sheriff to answer to for running a goalie. Thornton is still out after this beating, and this gang war is just getting started.
GOAL OF THE WEEK
Brad Marchand, Boston
Same game as the fight of the week, but this is just beautiful.
2 of the Stars next 3 games are in Edmonton against the kids of the Oilers. They are a fun team to watch, but maybe not a fun team to play against with all of that skill and speed. Sandwiched in between 2 games at Edmonton is a home game against a Ducks team that has started well even though nobody seemed to expect much from this this year and that home game is this Friday.
Next week, maybe we will answer some emails at firstname.lastname@example.org -
Until then, go hockey!