Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Bag of Pucks - Feb 5

For all of the boring nights that the Stars have spent in Phoenix over the last several years, last night did a great job of changing that perception.  The local hockey side found a critical win in the desert and is grinding at one of their highest levels of the season and demonstrating with a 5-1-1 stretch over their last 7 that they are not interested in eliminating themselves before Sochi.

This team will certainly give you a change of direction over and over again over the course of the season.  Just look at how they love to go streaking!  5-0-2 to end 2013, then 1-8-1 to start 2014, and now 5-1-1 before the Olympics with 2 games to go (tonight at San Jose, Saturday night at home against the Coyotes again).

During this run, there are some things that have been wonderful signs that are quite obvious.  Look at the power play numbers:

The team is still ranked 23rd in the NHL, but on New Years, they were 29th in the league which most of us agreed was absurd for this young group, but it looks like we are seeing steady progress.  We should be careful to over-weight 7 game segments either way, but surely, this is a month where the Stars have found their man-advantage swagger a bit.  That cannot be a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

Do you want to know where a reasonable amount of credit must be steered?  Hold on to your hats, but with 11 points since January 1st, Alex Goligoski is delivering the offensive and yes, power play goods.  Again, we are reasonably sure that Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are special enough players that they are going to get their share and the team's fortunes may not be wildly swayed.  In a way, it is  a question of who joins them along the path.  And to see Goligoski, Rich Peverley, Cody Eakin, and even causes that seemed somewhat lost like Erik Cole and Ray Whitney are putting pucks away and generating the all-important secondary scoring.

Surely, it won't sit at 27% for long, but what if you could just keep it at 20% or so?  That would really make a huge difference as we head down the stretch.

Meanwhile, what about another development that I did not see coming?

Long-time readers know that there is one place where I show substantial stubbornness and that is this ludicrous business of trying to be a team that wins hockey games on a regular basis while allowing a shooting gallery in your own zone.  I just don't think it can ever happen and since the glory days of Zubov and friends, this issue has been a nonstop headache.

My solution, of course, is to stop at no expense to add talent to the blue-line.  Sign, draft, steal, do whatever it takes to find those new studs on the defensive side of the roster that will assist in keeping the shots against down to a fair and reasonable level.  The Stars are consistently amongst the worst in the sport in this category over the last 5 years and their team results are tied closely in that game of correlation.

Well, trust me, before I show you these totals, I want you to know that I am not convinced that 7 games is enough to prove anything.

But, what has happened to the Stars defense?  How are they not allowing shots during this stretch?  Especially when they are dealing with the Penguins and the Ducks along the way?  Look at the trend here on shots against:

Bizarre, right?  What have they done?  Well, aside from some tactical adjustments that come from good coaching and the grind of the same guys, the only real personnel tinkering was Aaron Rome in for Kevin Connauton, but the young Connauton was playing well when he was in for the most part.  Rome is a steadying influence for sure, but it shouldn't move the needle this much.

Tonight, they play the best team in hockey at generating shots on goal, at their place, and on the 2nd night of a back to back, so all signs point to the Sharks getting 42 shots tonight, but don't let that over-run this trend that has anchored the Stars turnaround.

They are playing more soundly in their own end (although the Coyotes still had several breakaways) and of course are starting to bully enough shifts in the opposite end that we are seeing again that the best defense is good offense where you play a game of keep-away.  The Stars are getting very good at that game and when you have the puck very few things can go wrong behind you.  Still, this seems like a rather under-reported trend here that the Stars are down in the Hitchcock range of less than 25 shots against for 7 games on the trot.  Let's see them get to the break with this trend still intact.  


One more quick issue that I wanted to visit about as I have been watching this team closely on this road trip which has offered 2 rewarding road games in Anaheim and Phoenix that were both critical contests in which they had to get points to have an encouraging Olympic break.  They sit in a spot that with a win tonight they could take over the 8th seed in the West and think about being a buyer again before the trade deadline on March 5th.  

The issue is recognizing the fine work of the last regime that has been largely considered a disaster by most fans and is now being cleaned up by Jim Nill and Lindy Ruff.  I know Joe Nieuwendyk will never be thought of as the best GM to ever walk in Dallas and overall, I certainly admit that the change from Nieuwendyk to Nill is an upgrade and has put wind in the sails.

But, it does seem to me that we are quick to overlook that Joe had his hands tied behind his back for almost his entire run with Tom Hicks on the way out, bankruptcy, having to run moves by the league office, and then the early tentative days of Tom Gagliardi.

Generally, when discussing Joe, the Goligoski trade is all anyone needs to offer to feel that his tenure was a failure, and I cannot spend too much time defending that trade.  It is impossible to defend at this point.  From there, the firing of Dave Tippett - which we assume was his decision, but since it was made on his first day in office I have always wondered how much that was handed to him - as well as the way Mike Modano was sent away, and the drafts of Scott Glennie and Jack Campbell are raised as easy spots to 2nd guess the wisdom of that leadership group.

I have always said the Modano move (not to re-sign him and allow him to finish in Detroit) was the right one and I don't believe in allowing icons to play as long as they want without any real checks and balances to keep it from appearing to be a country club.  The draft day moves were moves I did not agree with and wish they would have fixed their blue-lines right then and there with the many options that were available in both the 2009 and 2010 drafts.

But, it would be ridiculous to look at this young team with a bright future and not see Nieuwendyk's fingerprints all over it.  The Kari Lehtonen trade is very high on the list and likely his best move of his run.  But, signing Brenden Dillon has to be considered on that list, too.  What about the trade in the summer of 2012 to get Cody Eakin's next several years for just 1 season of Mike Ribeiro?  Kevin Connauton's career for 1 month of Derek Roy?  Heck, even finding Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Roussel for nothing.

Now, those aren't names that will rock the hockey world, but they are the kind of moves that somebody makes when they have no budget to make larger strikes.  And now you see that the futures of Eakin, Dillon, Connauton, Garbutt, Alex Chiasson, and Roussel are fine supplements for Seguin and Benn, with Lehtonen anchoring the whole thing.  Maybe Jamie Oleksiak, Campbell, and Radek Faksa will add to that group, or maybe, like Reilly Smith, they will be used to make another bold strike as he was used to get Seguin.

I know Nieuwendyk will be a fine General Manager somewhere else soon and I also know the Stars are in great hands with Jim Nill.  I just think it is crazy how I hear some people describe those 4 years by boiling it down to just the negative moves.  The cupboard was filled rather nicely considering they had almost no budget above the NHL floor.  Ask Nill how difficult that would make things for anyone.  It would require a 98% hit percentage, and that is not happening in any player personnel office.

Anyway, still plenty of work to be done, but I think the work really has been going on for a while and want to make sure Joe and his group gets a little recognition along the way.

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