Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bag of Pucks - April 23 - Final Week Edition

You wanted the playoffs, right?

Well, you got them.  Starting tonight.  And with 3 games to go into the regular season, we have found our way to a familiar spot.  Win.  Win again.  And then, win a 3rd time in succession for the playoffs.  Anything less might not be enough.

In fact, with Detroit's win last night and Columbus winning the night before, we are actually in a spot where it appears winning the next 3 games might still not be enough.  They need to win the next 3 AND make sure that they do it in regulation against the Blue Jackets on Thursday and the Red Wings on Saturday.  If either of those teams extract so much as a point from their visits to Dallas at the end of the week, that might signal the death blow to the Stars 2013 campaign.  Ugh.

This team has made these last few weeks quite enjoyable.  In fact, some of the moments of April 2013 have been quite memorable from the way that they were left for dead to then their subsequent run of form that was the best of the entire year.  There is something to be said about the overall battle and resolve of this squad and the way that they have no interest (those that remain) of mailing in the final games of their season.  And that should be admired.

But, there is no chance that battle and resolve will show up in the standings or stand the test of time in the memories of the DFW sports scene.  As Master Yoda has told us, "Do or do not.  There is no try."

They sit 10th in the Western Conference this morning, and although we see the margin as razor thin - because that is what it is with 3 games to play - we can also look at it from a standpoint of deficiency.  What are the Stars doing that doesn't fall in the class of its competition?

There are many disconcerting numbers when it comes to team-to-team comparisons, but the one that continues to jump off the page in a real hockey sense is simply "Goals Allowed".  It doesn't get more basic than that, and the Stars are amongst the most generous teams in the sport.  They have conceded 133 times this year or 2.95 GA per game.  The Blue Jackets sit at 2.54 GA and the Red Wings 2.48 GA as of this morning.    If you are conceding an extra half goal per game, you can see where that thin margin is really an issue.

Which is why we have spent so much time on the true issues of this team in this space all year long (and years before that).  We can discuss other components of this squad all day, but the bottom line is that the Stars have been deficient in defensive man-power for the entire 5 years since they last were a contender in the Western Conference.  It has been said so many times that it now borders on beating a dead horse, but similar to having starting pitching, quarterback play, or rebounding in these various sports, there is just very little history of a team winning in this sport without league-average or better quality on their defense.

This, of course, can be impacted for better or worse based on the caliber of the goaltending and the forwards doing their part.  But, at the proverbial end of the day, your blue-line group of 6 defensemen has to be able to get you out of most of your problems.  This is one of the top traits of the glory days with Derian Hatcher, Richard Matvichuk, Darryl Sydor, Sergei Zubov, Craig Ludwig, and Shawn Chambers.  They didn't get scored upon because they, comparatively speaking, did not get shot upon.  When you concede just 24 shots against per game, this means Ed Belfour didn't have heavy work most nights, and when he did, he needed to only make 22 saves to get the Stars in a position to win.  Compare that with how many nights Kari Lehtonen must make 32 saves to give the Stars a chance.

I know people roll their eyes when the 1999 Stars are referenced, so let's work from the other direction. Without a magnificent finish, the Stars will have missed the playoffs now 7 times since leaving Minnesota.  They also have just 7 seasons where they have conceded more than 26 shots per game.  How many of the 7 seasons from the first category are also the 7 seasons from the second category?  6.  This is not coincidence.

The 7 worst seasons in Stars history in shots allowed per game were 1995, 1996, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and now 2013.  The 6 seasons the Stars missed the playoffs were 1996, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.  If they don't finish the season with 3 wins, they will add 2013 to that list as well.

Understand that shots allowed have almost nothing to do with a goaltender.  I say almost nothing because his propensity to concede rebounds can affect this, of course, but in the case of Kari Lehtonen, it is widely believed that Lehtonen does almost nothing but help the cause.  His goaltending may not be elite, but it surely isn't far from that level as he consistently seems to provide stellar work and keeps the squad alive all year long with some heroic work between the pipes.

I say all of that to simply keep the eyes on the proper target.  The blue-line has been rather stable all year long.  It was not affected by the trade deadline, the trades, or most of the added discussions about the team.  It has avoided most significant injuries and the group of Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, Alex Goligoski, Brenden Dillon, Philip Larsen, Aaron Rome, and Jordie Benn has pretty much been the group from start to finish.  Jamie Oleksiak played 16 games up from Austin, but this group of 8 has been the group all season long.  They were not gutted by absence or front-office decision.

And this group should be singled out for its battle level and its resolve.  I have no quarrel with the efforts I see every night and the commitment level to play to the top of their ability level.  In fact, there are quite a few in that group that I would count amongst my favorite players with the team.  But, as a group, this is where the Stars have needed to upgrade over the last 5 seasons and where they have been unable to find the answers they are seeking.

Like any NFL team looking for a QB, when you try to play hockey with a blue-line that remains sub-standard, everything else feels like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  Because, it kind of is.  They have upgraded their forwards several times in the last 5 seasons.  They have found a franchise goalie.  But, they still have Robidas and Daley from that last playoff squad.  The Goligoski trade has not turned into what they hoped.  Brenden Dillon represents tremendous promise moving forward (as does, we assume, Oleksiak soon).  And Aaron Rome has proven a very useful 3rd pair defensive d-man.

They need to get bigger and they need to get better.  They need to limit opportunities against their goaltender and that will reduce goals against.  They must shave 30-40 goals a season off their ledger on a 82 game season.  This starts by shaving 3 shots a game off their ledger or roughly 250 a year.  How does this get accomplished?  Well, last year, the Minnesota Wild allowed 31.4 shots per game.  This year, they have dropped to 27.3 shots per game.

Was it all Ryan Suter and his 13-year, $98 million contract that he signed to move from Nashville to Minnesota?  No.  Not all of it.  But, given that he leads the NHL in ice time this season with 27:04 per game and is thought of around the league as being a rare true "#1 D-man", you can bet that the Wild don't want a refund.

One player helped turn that team defensively.  Sure, they have had plenty of other additions that pitched in, but nobody would try to convince you that he isn't front and center.  Sometimes, teams spend irresponsibly.  Other times, they target what every team needs.  The Wild did that with Suter.  The Stars get back in line and look for theirs.  Thus, all of the buzz about Seth Jones in the upcoming draft.

The trouble with elite QBs, starting pitchers, and defensemen is that there are not enough to go around. The Stars had 2 for many years with Hatcher and Zubov.  But, since Zubov has left, they have not had close to a true #1.  That is what they seek this summer and that is what can help this team's quality continue.

In the meantime, our merry band of warriors try to write a proud chapter of their history.  With flesh wounds and fatigue everywhere, they attempt to win tonight in San Jose and then beat two equally desperate teams in regulation on home ice.

The odds are stacked against them for sure.  But, you will not be shortchanged with their efforts.

I have grown to admire this rag-tag bunch and their resolve and battle.  And I would very much like to see them rewarded.

But, this week is going to require plenty of good fortune and all hands on deck.  It will be can't miss TV, and I would certainly advise you to enjoy the playoffs (or, our version of the playoffs) while you can.

Let's hope it lasts beyond Saturday.

No comments: