Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bag of Pucks - March 12 - Modano, Peverley, and Playoff Runs Past

I had a special blog planned for this week as this is the approximate "1 month to go" landmark of the season.  I will get to that in a moment, but as you may be aware, several things have happened in the last week or so that have demanded some attention.

Then, I will get to my preplanned agenda.

MODANO NIGHT:  There is no question the high point of the Stars season happened on Saturday night at the jam packed American Airlines Center as the greatest hockey player in the history of the franchise was wonderfully honored.  I thought the number of wet eyes on the evening during the ceremony says all you need to say, but allow me a few additional thoughts.  

Those of us who fell in love with the franchise in the glory days of the 1990s and then stayed in love through the embarrassing days of bankruptcy and organizational neglect have seen our share of great times and poor times from the Dallas Stars.  Unfortunately, the great times are getting smaller in the rearview mirror and the poor times have been more recent.  That is why this whole season and this night were so wonderful on so many levels.  

The organization could not have strung together a better ceremony that captured the essence of its greatest player and sent shivers down the spine of so many of us who witnessed it.  The people on hand to honor him included most of the 1999 Cup team, and many dignitaries who played a role in his career.  There were videos made including the one below which properly captures in a bit over 4 minutes how magnificent he was.  I particularly claim 3:55-4:10 as my favorite stretch with his patented "skate in, fake backhand, slam on the brakes, finish forehand (as the goalie slides helplessly away)" move that I have hardly seen since he has left the game.  

The night was magnificent.  And as a fan, media guy, and ticket holder, I was proud to be a witness to it all.  Thankfully, the hockey that followed the ceremony was equally wonderful with a gritty and gutty 3rd period comeback that included the debut of new goaltender Tim Thomas after Kari Lehtonen was lost to a concussion, another magical night from Tyler Seguin, and a breakaway winner from Erik Cole that brought the house down in delirium.  It is a night we won't soon forget.

PEVERLEY COLLAPSES:  Unfortunately, memorable nights sometimes happen for all the wrong reasons.  And early in the 1st period of Monday's game, when Rich Peverley collapsed on the bench, the entire relative importance of another playoff push was put on hold as one player's life was at stake.  Amazingly, the medical staff was on guard and ready for such an incident, and their swift attention is being credited with the saving of Peverley's life.  Peverley has a bit of a history of heart irregularities, and rather then rehashing his medical history from a standpoint of someone who doesn't understand most of the details, I would just say that the profound impact of this event was felt by all who witnessed it.  

He is a key member of this team, but I imagine his family would say he is much more of a key member of that team and with this incident I rather doubt we will see him back on the ice anytime soon - if ever.  These athletes have been given incredible gifts to be able to make these games their life's work, but sometimes, there is a bit of a flaw in the machine and to risk your health and well-being to chase a Stanley Cup or a paycheck is not worth it.  I won't pretend to understand his desires, nor the sacrifices he made to get to the NHL, but as an observer with very little of the information, I would be hesitant as an organization to authorize him risking his life any further after several red flags this season that would indicate that perhaps his heart cannot sustain the absurd work load that hockey places on it.  We often use trite sayings that suggest we would trade the balance of our life for a championship, but I imagine we all know deep down inside that is a bluff that won't be called.  
Thank goodness he lived through the incident and the game was cancelled.  However, the damage was felt by witnesses, including young team-mate Alex Chiasson who had some level of post-event trauma and did not travel to St Louis as he was reportedly in some state of distress and shock.  Many other team-mates dragged their bodies onto the plane as the show must go on, but seemed in no shape to play.  The entire incident appeared to be a draining and exhausting ordeal that will linger for quite a while, one would think.  

All the credit in the world, again, to the organization for the way this was handled.  They employ and train medical professionals for this once in a lifetime incident that can happen without warning.  It is the ultimate "just in case" plan, and in this situation, they saved his life.  It was a real tragic situation that was averted and the relief that has been felt league wide is immeasurable.  I was very impressed with the way the situation was handled from the doctors and trainers, to coach Lindy Ruff, all the way to Ralph and Razor.  

BOUNCE BACK IN ST LOUIS:  I cannot stress how vital every point is going to be.  The Stars are still in front in the race for 8th, but the margins are so thin.  And, in case you haven't noticed, April 13th, the team will play the final game in Phoenix.  Phoenix, of course, is the team the Stars are battling for the final spot in the playoffs.  Let's avoid that being a play-in game, shall we?

With that in mind, playing arguably the best team in the sport at their place within 24 hours of Peverley's situation with Chiasson also unavailable seemed a very evil thing to ask the Stars to respond to on such short notice.  But, they did.  And they scrapped and clawed to a wonderful team win with Tim Thomas doing plenty of heavy lifting and Jamie Benn scoring the OT winner against a team that they may very well play in the playoffs if they are lucky enough to attend.  Those 2 points may come in very useful and nobody would have blamed the Stars a bit had they mailed in that effort.  

Instead, they showed tremendous character once again that they don't wish to be denied in 2014.  


With that in mind, allow me to get to my plans for this week.  It has been said of the Stars that they are stuck in Groundhog Day and repeat the seasons over and over since 2008.  Put a team together, stumble, play well enough to raise hopes, and then crash before the finish line and miss the playoffs. 

Rinse.  Repeat.

So, I wanted to look carefully at the last 5 seasons that have robbed us of playoff hockey after 12 of the first 14 seasons in Dallas did have playoffs and often deep playoff runs.  To make all things equal, I basically broke down the final month of each of the last 5 years and for sake of continuity, I laid them all over the premise that the season ends about April 15.  Sometimes a bit earlier and sometimes a bit later (lockout!), but again, for continuity, I took the 5 years and laid the last 5 weeks over one another to see the trends.

I also tried to make a fancy graphic for you (below) to see the 5 years.  The value of "0" is the final playoff spot, so look at each year and see how close it was to "0" to see how close they were to the playoffs as the season's were expiring.  You will notice quickly that only briefly did any of the years spend time in the positive numbers (playoff positions), and the majority of the year they were firmly planted in negative numbers (the 9th seed or below).
I have written a summary of each season's final month below, but the result of the experiment is that with the exception of the 2012 team, this squad has always been about the 9th or 10th seed in a league where the 8 best get in.  Are they chokers?  No.  That means you are good enough and just can't see it through.  Are they teases?  Maybe.  They tease you that they might be good enough but cannot sustain it for all 82 games against the competition.  One word of warning is that we are 65 games into the season and the issues have usually happened after Game 70.  So, while I believe this team is the best of the bunch and they will make the post-season, they have been able to play 70 games very well in the past.  But, the final dozen games have been where the good teams have left Dallas in the dust.

2008-09:  This year is best known for being the year that everything the Stars worked so hard to build with their 2008 Western Conference Finals run and really over a decade of quality hockey was blown up by the signing of Sean Avery.  I am sure that is hyperbole, but I am not sure to what extent.  This was the year that they started with 6 wins in their first 20 games, and then dumped Avery and the final 3 and 3/4 years of his 4 year deal in Calgary and then played about 3.5 months of very impressive hockey.  Unfortunately, during that season they also lost their captain and playoff hero Brenden Morrow to a severe ACL injury to his knee and missed almost the entire year and top scorer Brad Richards broke his wrist, missed a large amount of time, returned, and then in the very same game of his return he broke his other hand.  It just wasn't there year.  As shown by the green line above, on March 14 in Game 69, the Stars won their 2nd consecutive game, which sadly turned out to be the last time they would win 2 in a row.  They finished on a 3-7-3 slide and the horrific year cost the General Manager duo of Brett Hull and Les Jackson their jobs, which then cost Dave Tippett his job.

2009-10:  The first season of Marc Crawford and Joe Nieuwendyk will perhaps be best remembered for the end of Mike Modano's run in Dallas (and Marty Turco and Jere Lehtinen) and the oddity of finishing the season with that bit of drama which momentarily allowed us all to smile for a moment about the past and what a treat it was to watch #9 and #26 for so long.  But, the season also had the disgusting attribute of being the only team in the entire NHL that had never won 3 consecutive games for the entire year.  It was really quite brutal.  Modano spent quite a few games injured with a broken rib and Mike Ribeiro had a significant throat injury in New York that took him out for a month.  But, make no mistake, this team was just not very good at hockey and finished a long ways out and really never threatened at any time to make the playoffs.  As the purple line shows, they just were not in the mix.

2010-11:  This one was easily the year that there is no way to sugarcoat the idea that they choked.  Largely, because they did (see gold line).  They spent almost all of the year in 1st place and as of Jan 20 was considered one of the best team's in the league with a 29-13-5 record.  But, with the looming issue of Brad Richards' expiring contract and concussion as well as a blue-line that was falling apart the Stars would go on a huge 2-11-1 run where they then had to decide how to save their season.  Joe Nieuwendyk then pulled the trigger on a huge trade of James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski to attempt to jump start the roster.  Meanwhile the concussion and Richards' no trade clause forced the team to hold their expiring asset until the end, knowing he wasn't going to be kept in the summer with bankruptcy freezing all spending.  The trade seemed to help them find something momentarily, but a 6-game losing streak in late March put them from in the playoffs to needing a prayer with 5 games to play.  On April 2, they were 6 points back with 5 games left, and seemed all but eliminated.  But, they won 4 straight and then needed help on the final day of the season from a Detroit team with no incentive to beat Chicago in Chicago with everything on the line.  They did.  So, playing Minnesota in St Paul against a Wild team that has been eliminated and not fielding a full lineup, the Stars suffered the ultimate humiliation of being eliminate on a winning goal by former Stars prospect Antii Miettinen.  In a win-and-you're-in game, the Stars lost to a bad team in a game that Marc Crawford would pay for with his job, despite the Stars finishing with 95 points (tied a record for most points to miss the playoffs ever).

2011-12:  So, Brad Richards is gone and so is Crawford.  In his place is new coach Glen Gulatzan and a host of low cost free agents like Michael Ryder, Vern Fiddler, and Sheldon Souray, and even Eric Nystrom who had to be signed to get the Stars to the salary floor in the league.  The best news of all, though, was that Tom Hicks officially handed the keys over to a new, optimistic, and not-broke Stars owner in Tom Gagliardi.  Again, though, this version of the squad - that came to be known as the "pesky Stars" battled their tails off all season long and had a solid month from mid-Feb to mid-March where they mowed through everyone and were in fantastic shape, even though they played without Jamie Benn for a few weeks after he suffered a skate laceration.  But, 70 games in, the Stars held the 3 seed and had a 4-point lead in their division over everyone.  It was a remarkable season, especially considering the fact that they had one of the worst power plays in the history of the sport both in chances and in conversion rates, while stubbornly keeping Jamie Benn off of the #1 power play unit for the year.  However, as the brown line above indicates, the Stars went from 5 points up to 8 points back in just 12 games where they finished the season falling on their face with a 3-9 crash and burn.  And nearly every single game down the stretch was with Kari Lehtonen looking tired between the pipes.

2012-13: And finally, year 5 of the march through the wilderness was the 48 game lockout-shortened season last year that started with trading away Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott the summer before and trying to build the team around Jamie Benn who started the year with a contract holdout.  That eventually got worked out, and he would join a team that was very young with rookies everywhere and very old with 40 year old signees Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr.  It was a very bizarre year where you could sense it was Nieuwendyk's last year if they didn't make the playoffs (making it also Gulatzan's last year, too) and yet to his credit, the GM made many trades that all seemed to have an eye to the future.  So, as Jagr, Brenden Morrow, Derek Roy, and Michael Ryder were all being dealt away for pieces on this team, the squad kept playing well to a point where they were just 2 points back of the 8 seed (Columbus) with 5 games to play.  Unfortunately, they lost each of the final 5 and finished 8 points back and thus ended the tenures of Joe Nieuwendyk (4 seasons, 0 playoffs, 1 bankruptcy) and Glen Gulatzan.  The final run of 1-6 in the final 7 certainly looked like a collapse, albeit perhaps not as bad as 2011 or 2012.

So, is the 2013-14 team better?  Will it end the drought?

I think so, but perils do wait ahead.

No comments: