Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Bag of Pucks - June 25

Last night, the Chicago Blackhawks won their 2nd Stanley Cup in 4 years (and in 52 years) in Boston in a fantastic conclusion to a playoffs that really delivered all the way to the Finals with 2 original 6 franchises slugging it out to the end.  Other than not getting a Game 7 on Wednesday night, I am not sure what more could have been asked by these terrific playoffs this season and this feeling that the league is doing very well as a product of great sporting entertainment.

That said, watching other teams participate in the playoffs will always feel just a little bit off.  Sure, it is a fun few months, and sure, it feel intense from the outside, but there is very little exhaustion, exhilaration, and ultimate elation if you don't have a horse in the race.

There is no question that the absence of the Dallas Stars in the playoffs is just enough to send you back into the malaise of wondering just how far away our hometown franchise is from ever returning to the glory of the good ol' days.  And when such discussions come up, it is easy to feel like those days are impossible to attain again.  5 years and counting.

And that is what faces this organization that seems determined to break out of the cycle that they are mired in.

Since we last talked on these topics, the Stars have hired a respected and experienced General Manager in Jim Nill from Detroit.  His credentials and respect level in the league are through the roof and he is regarded as just the guy who would have the overall vision to make this work.

Nill then conducted his own lengthy and thorough coaching search, eventually ending up with a new Head Coach in the form of Lindy Ruff, a man who is equally respected and experienced with a tenure in Buffalo that only Barry Trotz can look down upon in the modern NHL.  So, you have 2 guys who had not been in their same capacities in their same franchises since before the Dallas Stars acquired Brett Hull, are now combining their track records and attempting to continue to build this thing back up.

I think those 2 moves in particular should be enough to show us that the Stars are determined to figure this out, thanks to a new owner in Tom Gaglardi who seems tired of mediocrity already.  I am a big fan of Joe Nieuwendyk and was just starting to really admire Glen Gulatzan for their positive characteristics, but it is nearly impossible to shoot holes in the idea of 2 stable, committed, and successful men working together at the two most important spots in the hockey operations to figure this out.

Now, before we get carried away in this group's ability to convert everything into chicken salad overnight, we should remember that the Blackhawks and Bruins are not entirely in the spots they were last night because of fantastic management.  That helps, but it also helps to have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews up front, with Duncan Keith behind them in Chicago - you know, with Marion Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, and on and on and on filling in the gaps.  In Boston, Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, and a host of parts that fit perfectly put the Bruins in a spot where they have won a Cup, lost another, and are in the hunt each year.  That isn't because the suits have bigger brains than the competition.  It is because their building took long years and wrong turns and finally they hit on something that could compete for it all.

And that requires elite talent at the top.  Something the Stars will ultimately need to hit on.  Ruff and Nill cannot win with a collection of ordinary talent.  They will need to find pieces that seem to be missing right now - players who are clear as the best the hockey world has to offer.  Like just about any sport, those teams, like the Blackhawks who can collect 3 of the top 20 players in the league or 6 of the top 75 or whatever disproportionate stack of dominant players to place together in this salary capped environment that has 30 franchises will have the distinct advantage.

Looking at the Stars cupboards, they have a wonderful collection of players that seem to be talented and capable of playing in the NHL between the ages of 18-24.  They seem rather stacked in "solid" NHL talent and youth, thanks to the way the Nieuwendyk regime was able to flip assets for futures in the last two years.

But, is there "elite" talent here?  Is there a Toews or a Kane or a Hossa or a Keith?

I believe Jamie Benn has a chance to be that player and on many nights is already there.

What else?  I am still holding out hope that Jamie Oleksiak can be a dominant top pairing defensemen when he has had enough time in the oven.  Brenden Dillon took such strides these last 3 years that I wonder if we are foolish to act like we know his ceiling.  Brett Ritchie has been described as a player with fantastic upside and there are other kids in the system that could be better than "solid".  But, as it stands, the bin marked "solid" appears to be full and in great shape.  But, the bin that allows a team to compete for Cups is marked "elite" and while there might be some potential in that bin, for the most part it is where much of the league sits normally - close to empty.

They know this.  They know that they have lots of 6's and 7's, but they need a 9 or a 10 to make this thing really sing.  Of course, that is like a football team saying that they are a Tom Brady away from being a great team.  That is both obvious and ridiculous - so is pretty much everyone.  But, it is often true.

Elite talent generally requires that you pick #1 or #2 or certainly in the Top 5 picks of a draft to get someone like that.  In Chicago's case, Kane was #1, Toews was #3 overall.  Like Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, and many of the best of the best, they are all gone very early at the top of the draft.  If you never pick up top, then, like many other sports, you have to either get lucky or try to win with a collection of solid pieces, but never have the very best players in the game.  In can be done, but it surely is not very likely.

Which leaves the Stars with some interesting questions in a year where they have lots of money, lots of picks, and lots of holes on their squad.  Do they combine these resources to go for a bold strike up the draft board?  

The 2013 NHL Draft looks really strong.  The Stars should have some great choices at #10 and a few I am very excited about.  However, the 3 "elite" talents at the top of the board are, as you would expect, going to be gone in before pick #4.

So, do they attempt to give up multiple picks to shoot up the board?  That doesn't really seem like Nill's style, but then, I do concede that I don't really know his style very well.  And that is the wildcard of this most important offseason.

We should expect that they are still short of centers and top-pairing defensemen.  But, they are also short of elite, and therefore, elite potential should trump any short term needs - thus giving the best player available.

I have names and a stacked board that I will try to get out later in the week for pick #10, but I think the bigger question remains on whether they are willing to shoot up the board or to use #10 to trade for a veteran who could put them right in the playoff mix for next season.

Sergei Gonchar is an interesting move that seems to indicate that others on the blue-line might be on their way out in a summer that could have a few aggressive trades ahead.  That puts the entire league in play and makes guessing seem even more impossible.  The Stars have trade chips to use and the league is their canvas to paint their new vision.

They have new men in charge, a new color scheme that is growing on me, and a team that has a group that can grow together.  They have no contracts that are millstones nor do they have any other resources that must be moved out who are blocking kids.  They have an almost alarmingly blank slate and an eager bunch who want to succeed.

I know it is late June and the Stars haven't been in the playoffs since 2008.  But, I am really excited about the next 2 weeks of moves and the season that lies ahead.

Like Charlie Brown running to a ball that Lucy holds, I am optimistic that this crew can accomplish the goals that we all have for them, if we give them a little time to make it all happen.

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