Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Offensive Line - 2014 Cowboys Weekly Draft Notebook - Episode 15

Just like we did last week with the Defensive Line, we want to clean up any loose ends this week on the offensive line and then put a OL-only version of a big board up in advance of our final project that runs next week and will serve as this particular draft project's final big board.

I should remind every reader that this is not a big board from a simple standpoint of best player available, but rather I always slant things to reflect Cowboys needs/schemes/philosophies and attempt to tailor my big board to the Dallas Cowboys.  That may seem a bit odd, but when we look at 3-4 OLBs, or OL who do not fit the current Cowboys philosophy, we have to bump up or bump down according to what this team believes in.

I may disagree with how they do what they do, but I cannot recommend players that don't fit their schemes because that just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  For now, they run a 4-3 under on defense and believe in zone blocking offensive linemen who play in a pass-heavy offense.  We will look for players who fit those descriptions, and debit players who do not look like fits there for no personal reasons.  We just have a feel here for what the Cowboys look for, and that helps us narrow down who they might potentially pick and who they won't really consider.

We also are just passing altogether on a few positions, and one affects this draft.  Just know that I haven't really evaluated any centers, because on this blog we are worried about learning Top 100 players and since there are only 2 centers who qualify as Top 100 guys and since the Cowboys seem fine at that spot, I eliminated that from the confusion.  I did the same with TE and RB and figure that they could certainly take a player from any of those bins, but I don't see it before Round 4 and I will leave the deep rounds to some of my colleagues.  I can only break down about 100 players in a spring.

To this point in time, we have written up 6 guards on this entry and then 9 tackles on this entry.  Please know that there are several in each category who seem like candidates to offer the desired versatility to play either guard or tackle and that means we should rank them all together - which we will do below after we add 4 more players to our overall group.  19 offensive line is not a round number, but it is where I drew the line and feel constitutes the majority of the Top 100 qualifiers.

As usual, I will rank a few who fall out of the Top 100 and miss a few who get in, but this, as usual, is not a perfect process.  I also did most of the first 15 back in March, and have been challenged to do more work on a few of my evaluations that did not agree with the consensus.  David Yankey and Zach Martin both had more games viewed to make sure that I didn't just grab the wrong 200 snaps, so I grabbed 200 more and you might find that their initial evaluations and where I have them now has changed somewhat.

Ok, let's add 4 more players to our pool before we stack them:

Cameron Fleming - Stanford

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Arm    Hand    BP 
Cameron Fleming 6'53235.38/1.85349 7/826

Fleming is one of the underclassmen that has flown under much of the radar this draft season, but he is in the mix on Day 2 for sure.  He has played right tackle out at Stanford for 3 seasons and appears to be one of the "old school" tackles that I must confess I don't prefer.

Basically, a while back, when we discovered that passing makes more sense than running as the key component of a productive offense, we started placing a higher premium on pass protection.  This altered the body type that we seek for the perfect offensive tackle and it went from placing all of your priority on strength to quickness of feet.  This led the evolution to see more slender tackles who can move and basically brought the basketball power forward into vogue.  So, out went the bulldozers (or actually, inside to guard) and that is why when you look at Fleming, you think back to the old days of just putting a more immobile mountain out on the flank and daring someone to try to run around him.

In fairness to Fleming, his best attribute is his pass protection as he is very difficult to beat if he gets out of his stance before a speed rusher beats him at the snap.  Once he is set up, you really aren't going to get around him as he is a massive man.

Now, that is a very useful player and should not be discounted.  He is also a very smart player who reads most switches perfectly (not to stereotype Stanford types).

However, there is a lot that is disconcerting when you talk about fits in the Cowboys plans.  In the run, they ask him to combo block and then release to the 2nd level quite a bit, and in space, I don't prefer this.  He whiffs quite a bit when you need him to get a body of a Linebacker or a safety in the box and he certainly looks uncomfortable when he isn't in close quarters.  His cut blocks are hit-or-miss and overall he just looks like he lacks NFL quickness.

That might make him a fine candidate to ultimately more inside to guard and be fine, but I have my questions about him at tackle in the NFL, but oddly, it isn't about his pass protection.  This leads me back to the idea that as a right tackle, he might be ok, but just not ideal.  And that is ok.  There are 64 starting tackles in the NFL, and almost none of them are Tyron Smith-ideal.  I just prefer the new, more athletic models of tackle that are available in this and every draft.  I think Fleming is the type of guy that needs the right system and I am not sure zone blocking that values movement skills is for him.

Jawuan James - Tennessee

Ja'wuan James 
9 7/8

Tiny Richardson took a lot of publicity from James when this process started, but now a lot of us actually like the Right Tackle at Tennessee more than the left tackle because of better techniques and skills.

James is a very tall man with impressive arms that make him a real force in pass protection and also allows him with his athletic build to get out and run in space.  He really is complete with tools and merges everything we seek with mobility and strength.

Now, as you would expect of a 6'6 tackle, there are times where he is slow out of his stance and blocks too high and that will never not be a concern with a guy this tall, but overall, I like James a ton.

There is also the issue of how he finishes games and in the 4th Quarter against South Carolina, it was very impressive to see how much energy he played with and looked relatively fresh.  He slides well and is able to wall off players in the run and play-action game and I would really not be against giving this plenty of thought in the 2nd round.

The mark against him might be that Right Tackle could be his only spot as he doesn't seem to have inside strength and leverage and left tackle might not be a fit, either.  But, as RTs go, I think I will like what he can do for you.

Trai Turner - LSU

Trai Turner 
9 1/2

I will confess I did not consider Trai Turner until word got out that the Cowboys were working him out personally and were rather delighted with the results.  I was not familiar with his work until this week, but spent plenty of time getting to know him.

And, the findings were quite impressive.  He is just the type of guard where you can feel really solid about building a strong pocket around your QB and trusting that the wall will hold up.  He is very strong and can get nice and low.  He is comfortable in zone blocking, but looks to be a force when asked to pull, as well.  In fact, LSU pulls him in space plenty, and he moves very well.  I would dare call him scheme versatile. 

What might separate him from many of his colleagues is his ability to get to the 2nd level and keep wrecking defensive threats.  He is very good and battles very hard in space.  He is very stout and solid, and doesn't look like he will get bullied.

Now, he might get a bit over-matched if you ask him to pass protect 1-on-1 very long against quick and big, but we don't ask guards to do that very often for a reason.

But, with a strong frame and disposition, I can see this guard being preferred at a certain point.

The knock might be that he is what he is.  A guard.  He will not be a candidate to flip outside like Su'a-Filo, and that will keep his value somewhat limited.  But, as a guard-only player, he is pretty strong.

Joel Bitonio - Nevada

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Arm    Hand    BP 
Joel Bitonio 6'43024.96/1.8033 7/89 5/822

Now, I don't want to be a hypocrite about the old/new prototypes of tackles in the NFL, but here is an example of where the new way is not always ideal.  If I said with Cameron Fleming that we now value good athletic quickness, then Bitonio should be my cup of tea.

Bitonio is a very good athletic player and certainly appears to be everything they are looking for, but I watch him and I don't prefer him as much as many people seem to.  I just think he looks a bit over-matched when it comes to strength and perhaps needs to spend some real time in the weight room before I would feel comfortable with him standing up to a bull rush from a DE/LB on the rush.

But, he moves very well.  He does lots of zone blocking and played in college in the pistol most of the time from what I watched.  I must confess the under-sized "get in your way" OL is not my cup of tea, and I have flashbacks to Phil Costa, Kevin Kowalski, and David Arkin being tossed around like rag dolls.  Not that Bitonio is those guys, but I really think the Cowboys got in trouble looking for OL in 2010 and 2011 that were barely 300 pounds and not strong enough to anchor things in front of Romo.  I am not saying Bitonio can't work in the NFL, but I am far more impressed with the new targets of Frederick and Leary who can stand their ground first and foremost for this OL.

He can really get up and down the line and that is important in zone blocking.  His reach blocking is solid and his cut blocks are great.  He may have a nasty streak, but he looks like he had size issues against UCLA and Florida State, so I imagine the Eagles and Giants are going to make him look even smaller.  I expect that he is a perfect reserve swing guy who can play any position if someone gets hurt, but I don't want to take that type of player in the 2nd round.  

I don't think he is a fit in Dallas and I certainly don't like him as much as the field seems to.

OK.  That is our group.  Now, let's stack them up.  The idea here is 2-fold.  First, we want to list them based on the idea that the top remaining player is who I like most.  So, as it goes along, when we have questions of do you like Player A over Player B, this list should define that (although please keep in mind that the differences are often very slight - almost a coin toss).  The other goal is to list the players in groups based on which are candidates for the Cowboys 1st Round pick, then the 2nd, and so-on.  

Here we go:

Rank #PlayerNotes
#1Jake Matthews, T, Texas AM
#2Greg Robinson, T, Auburn
#3Taylor Lewan, T, Michigan
#4Xavier Su'a Filo, G, UCLAVersatility to move to Tackle increases his value
#5Zack Martin, T/G, Notre DameWould prefer a trade back on Martin.
-----Above this line are Pick #16 worthy----------------------------------------------------
#6Morgan Moses, T, UVA
#7Billy Turner, T, North Dakota State  Can play G/T and I really like him.
#8David Yankey, G, Stanford  I realize I am on my own with Yankey.
#9Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State   
#10Ja'wuan James, T, Tennessee
#11Trai Turner, G, LSU
-----Above this line are Pick #47 worthy----------------------------------------------------
#12Dakota Dozier, G, Furman
#13Cameron Fleming, T, Stanford
#14Cyrus Kouandijo, T, AlabamaAt a certain point, you ignore the warts - value
#15Brandon Thomas, T/G, ClemsonAvailability for 2014 in Question With Knee
#16Joel Bitonio, T, NevadaNot ready to start, but developmental
#17Jack Mewhort, T, Ohio State
#18Cyril Richardson, G, Baylor
#19Antonio Richardson, T, Tennessee

There is no doubt there will be disagreements with my findings.  Let me have them below.

My final full big board is next week and more importantly, so is the draft!

Past Draft Profiles:

Weekly Notebook - More Defensive Line - Episode 14 - Dominque Easley, Demarcus Lawrence, Kareem Martin, Marcus Smith

Weekly Notebook - Cornerbacks - Episode 13 - Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, Jason Verrett, Darqueze Dennard, Bradley Roby, Marcus Roberson, Stanley Jean-Baptiste

Weekly Notebook - Wide Receivers - Episode 12 - Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham, Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee, Brandin Cooks, Jordan Matthews, Kelvin Benjamin, Davante Adams

Big Board #1 - April 3, 2014

Weekly Notebook - Quarterbacks - Episode 10 - Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, David Fales, Zach Mettenberger, Jimmy Garoppolo

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Guards - Episode 9 - David Yankey, Xavier Sua Filo, Gabe Jackson, Cyril Richardson, Brandon Thomas, Dakota Dozier

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Tackles - Episode 8 - Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Zack Martin, Cyrus Kouandijo, Antonio Richardson, Jack Mewhort, Morgan Moses, Billy Turner

Weekly Notebook - Linebackers - Episode 7 - Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr, Ryan Shazier, Kyle Van Noy, CJ Mosley, Telvin Smith, Jeremiah Attaochu, Carl Bradford 

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Morning After: Game 6 - Ducks 5, Stars 4 (OT) - Ducks Win Series, 4-2

The NHL Playoffs are awesome from nearly every perspective.  They are an endurance test that requires you to address and defend every weakness your team may possess.  It asks you to dig deep and figure out ways out of messes that are far beyond anything the regular season asks of you.  The provide memories of victory that can carry you through a long, hot summer.

And, of course, as we learned again last night, the suddenness of defeat can overtake a delirious arena in such quick fashion that the occupants file out by the thousands in near complete silence.  No matter how great everyone feels, a loose puck finds the wrong player and a giant crowd goes from ecstatic to silent in the blink of an eye.

Todd Marchant skated around Grant Ledyard and silenced the Reunion Arena crowd in 1997.

Jason Arnott received a puck from the corner and beat Eddie Belfour at Reunion to end the 2000 playoffs.

Andrew Brunette scooped a rebound past Marty Turco to end the 2006 playoffs at the AAC.

And now, in the most harmful result from the most harmless shift, Nick Bonino finishes off a rally that he began late in the 3rd and the stunned silence of the American Airlines Center was deafening.  The Ducks beat the Stars 4 games to 2 and advance past the first round after being pushed hard by the upstart young Dallas side..

The scene afterward was extremely emotional.  First, the Ducks, who had showed us all how to hate again as only the hockey playoffs can, celebrate the absurd rally and kill shot on Dallas ice after spending pretty much all of their 3 games in Dallas finishing 2nd in every category.  Their celebration was one of relief and conquering as they win their first playoff series in 5 years.  That, with that organization's help, should demonstrate to us how difficult it is to find success this time of year.  With Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in their primes, that organization waits 5 years between series victories.  No wonder they celebrated like they did.

They will advance, while locally, hockey season ends.  That, I suppose was the note-worthy moment from last night as after the gutting was completed, the team stayed on the ice to salute their fans one last time.  Most of the fans stayed to salute their team one last time, as well.  Despite very little notification that the run was about to end, the run was fantastic.  In one way it lasted only 6 games, but in another way, it started last summer and felt like a very meaningful season that represented the start of something bigger.

It would be unfair to continue to move the bar and to not recognize how difficult it is to accomplish everything you want to accomplish in sports over night.  It is insulting to the process to believe you can just show up and have it all figured out in one spring.  The object of the season was to reintroduce your franchise to the playoffs and in doing so, remind the city that hockey lives here and plans on participating for many years to come.

That mission was accomplished over this month of April where the team secured its long-awaited playoff spot and then battled hard to do something in the playoffs once they arrived.  They certainly had the Ducks on the run and the most stubborn of us will argue that the Stars seldom looked like the 2nd best team in the series.  That may be true, but it doesn't matter.  They lost 4 games and the details don't change that fact.

Now, part of making the playoffs again is closely examining why it didn't last longer.  For that, it comes down to the simple scenario in which you hold a 2-goal lead with 2:10 to play on your home ice and give it all back.

It starts with the Ducks pulling their goalie and with the man-advantage digging in the corners.  Corey Perry uses his long reach and the very end of his stick to push the puck away from Alex Goligoski and to his team-mate Nick Bonino behind the Dallas net.  Then, Bonino in short order skates around the front and is not met by a bruising hit, but rather Kari Lehtonen who is in an extreme crouched position that leaves the very top of the net exposed.  Bonino makes no mistake, quickly roofs the puck, and the Stars are shell-shocked after winning the face-off cleanly.  Further examination suggests Trevor Daley needed to do more to get the puck out of the zone after that win, and Lehtonen needed to stand his ground better.  4-3.

From there, the sense of danger was everywhere, and the seconds seemed like minutes.  Anaheim rested its big boys for the first portion of the remaining 2 minutes with their goalie back in, but as the clock fell under a minute, off goes Jonas Hiller and on comes the extra attacker yet again.

This time, the Antoine Roussel has a chance on perhaps finding the empty netter to clinch Game 6, but Cam Fowler skates with him to keep the Ducks alive. Then comes a huge net drive and amidst the chaos Lehtonen secures the puck and forces a face-off with :41.6 to go.

Now, Lindy Ruff selects Eakin, Garbutt, Jordie Benn, and Brenden Dillon to try to ward off the Ducks onslaught and man-advantage.  The Ducks with their size are over-running the Stars' crease and they simply have to survive another shift to bring this to a Game 7.  The face-off goes to the Ducks who win the puck back to the point and Getzlaf.  The Ducks work it to Perry who looks for Bonino on the 1-timer, but ultimately gets the puck back in the corner.  He then fakes a pass to Getzlaf which gets Eakin to move, and that leaves a path for Perry to get close as Jordie Benn is stationary next to the crease, with Garbutt and Dillon on the opposite side of Lehtonen trying to deal with Francois Beauchemin and Bonino.  Perry skates in and the initial shot is taken care of, but from there, the chaos ensues with 4 Ducks and 4 Stars all right in the blue paint in front of Lehtonen.  The next few seconds are desperation from both sides and impossible to dissect.  Bodies hit the floor and Lehtonen tries to find the puck.  The Stars would love a whistle, but no whistle is properly given as the puck remained loose the entire time.

As Eakin waits for the puck to come free, Devante Smith-Pelly stands on the edge of the crease and the puck slides nicely to him.  Lehtonen is prone and without a stick and trying to cover the opening which is absolutely the proper idea by making himself big, but Smith-Pelly has too much time to receive the puck and from close distance gets the puck high and into the net.  Could Eakin have eliminated that threat?  Maybe, but he can't be in two places at the same time and he made the choice to stay high in case it squirted to where Getzlaf could skate in and hammer it.  So, he chooses his poison and the Ducks administer it without mercy.  4-4.

The details are worth examining, but the conclusion is simple: you simply cannot allow an opponent to over-run your net for 2 goals in 2 minutes in the playoffs.  The Ducks brought as much pressure as could be brought in the final several minutes and the Stars could not hold them off.  That falls to every person on the ice as the Ducks found a gear that the Stars couldn't match.  When it mattered most, the Ducks were able to ask questions in which the Stars had no answer.

From there, the intermission allowed the Stars to get their bearings and the crowd to recover, but in the over-time, it produced the end of a fun year in the most unpleasant and unimpressive way.  The Stars kept rolling 4 lines and on a shift that featured 3 rookies (Mueller, Nichushkin, and Nemeth) as well as a veteran you had just scratched 3 games straight (Cole), Dallas lost their men in their own end and Bonino had a wrist shot from close that he buries past a defeated Lehtonen.  5-4.

Lindy Ruff built this thing on rookies being trusted, but perhaps that was a bridge too far as the Ducks were able to get a goal from their own depth because the Stars depth dropped their guard for a moment too long.

5-4.  Game over.  Season over.

It is at this point where we entertain the exercise of blame and satisfaction simultaneously.

For, with opportunity comes examination about why the opportunity was wasted.  This team should be playing a Game 7 on Tuesday night, and they won't.  They won't because they were unable to nurse home the lead and conceded 3 times in less than 5 minutes with their seasons on the line.

Perhaps we saw the full effect of depleted resources and exhausted defensemen trying to hold off a bigger team at the net.  Perhaps we saw a goalie who has limited playoff success showing his warts for all the world to see in a series where he rarely seemed to find his A-game.  Perhaps we saw a 1-seed dig deep when forced to do so and gather themselves and send the 8-seed back from whence they came.

I assume it is a combination of it all.  Add in the fact that while Jamie Benn had many memorable plays, young Tyler Seguin was never able to convert his chances into goals and left the playoffs with tons of shots and just 1 goal to show for it (which is how last year ended in Boston).

Seguin is a star, Nichushkin is another young, fantastic talent, Lehtonen is a strong goalie, and Daley and Goligoski proved their value this spring.  But, that is the cruel truth, isn't it?  On one hand, you are there only because they pulled you to this point, but now, you look at them and ask if they could have done more.  Dillon was brave to recover, but looked like he rushed back.  Jordie Benn did everything anyone could expect, and yet was on the scene of the crime in the 4th and 5th goals.

Ruff led this whole thing with masterful coaching and yet, to lose with your 4th line on the ice stings badly.  GM Jim Nill built this team to have speed and youth, but in those final 5 minutes, you wonder what experience and size might have done to clear the crease of the threats.  They both were huge "net positives" and I am anxious to see what they wish to do next with this roster.

In other words, congratulations to the organization for showing us they could achieve these heights.  With these heights come full arenas and full cash registers again.  But, also, with it comes more critical eyes, raised expectations, and demands for accountability.

I refuse to forget the original claim that these playoffs were casino money and anything accomplished is a start in the right direction.  But, I also can't lie to myself and act like this team wasn't capable of even more.

The process has begun.  There is promise and future spring nights ahead.  And yes, there is work to be done, as well.  The 25-or-so players who gave us this great season will not all be back.  The remodel is off to a great start and now we can imagine what lies ahead.

A great season ends with a horrible 5 minutes.  And like a painting, your opinion can easily rest on your perspective.

But, this much is true:  Hockey appears to live and breath in Dallas, Texas.  And for that, I consider this all very successful.

Friday, April 25, 2014

More Defensive Line - 2014 Cowboys Weekly Draft Notebook - Episode 14

This week, as we creep closer and closer to draft day, I wanted to make sure I cleaned up any prospects I missed on the first pass for my subjective look at the draft prospects.

If you have missed any of the first 13 episodes that we have been providing every week in this space to prepare you for the Cowboys draft, you can certainly catch up by using the links below.  Basically, I have attempted to give a look at anyone who I considered Top 50-100 prospects that would be the Cowboys targets in Rounds 1 and 2 for sure, then hope we also can cover the Round 3 player as well, knowing full well that they normally grab someone in Round 3 that is not on the traditional radars.

To do this, we must make some deductions on our own of what we assume they are looking for and what they are not looking for.  Scheme considerations are weighed heavily, however, it is true that a team has to be careful here.  In the last week, a Cowboys brain suggested to me that certain players cause a bit of a conflict in the war-room because if they marry themselves to a 4-3 under pick by taking a player really high that is not scheme flexible (can play in any scheme you have) such as an undersized 3-technique like Aaron Donald, then what happens if Jason Garrett gets fired in 2014 and the new staff doesn't want a 4-3 under?  What then?

The most prudent thing to do is to get football players who you think can play in any scheme and therefore in 2 years when you may very well have an entire new brain-trust running this thing (besides the Jones family, of course), you are not up a creek without a paddle.

Anyway, this week I want to build a smaller version of the "big board" using just defensive ends and tackles and then next week, we will do the same thing on the offensive line, leading us to our final version of the big board which I will post on Wednesday morning, May 7th.  From there, the draft will be upon us, I will have broken down about 80-90 prospects and hopefully we will have a decent idea of who they have taken in Rounds 1, 2, and 3.  Beyond that, many of these guys could fall below that, but I cannot give this treatment to 250 guys and remain married so you are on your own.

I have no plans on touching positions that I don't see them taking in the Top 3 rounds (RB, TE), but OL and DL are both spots where they can go to multiple times so we are hitting that hard.

I plan having profiles and breakdowns on 20+ of the best defensive linemen and 15-20 of the best offensive linemen when this is all said and done.

We have already done about 20 DL (including those who I think are LB/DE types), but here are 4 that I wanted to make sure I added to the files before we post our Top 20:

Marcus Smith - Louisville - 6'3 - 251 - 4.68

Marcus is certainly in the category of guys (which is always large) which seem to be best suited to be a stand-up 3-4 OLB who you are going to rush most of the time.  There are positions that are constantly in great supply and one of them is the 250 lb types who can rush the QB, but who also do not look like ideal candidates to drop into coverage, chase a RB on a wheel route, or even stand his ground against a tackle in the run game.

That isn't to say, they aren't useful players - especially if they are really good at rushing the passer, but it simply means that there are tons of them in college football, and therefore on draft day they slide down the list as teams snap up those players who are in more rare supply.

However, Marcus Smith is up on that list because he can really cause trouble getting up the field and getting to the QB.  Smith moves around a ton on that Louisville defense, but is almost always standing up as a LB.  From that standpoint, he seems like a better version of Jackson Jeffcoat.  He gets to the QB by spin moves, quickness, and really a relentless motor.

Here are his explosive plays:


The oddest thing about trying to evaluate his worth is how many of his plays were made by the scheme and the confusion of the Louisville front and how he had so many free-runs to the QB.  You would think when a player has his reputation and his Defensive Player of the Year awards, teams would make sure they block him, but I guess it is a real credit to Charlie Strong that they could open up chances for him.  And then to Smith's credit, he made the most of those plays.

He isn't destroying blockers and dominating tackles, but rather he is a very active body who is staying after plays and then opportunistic in cashing in his chances.  It just seems that his sacks are inside beating guards and outside against RBs and TEs.  I just didn't see him taking on tackles and defeating them as much as others like Lawrence from Boise State.

He is not overly powerful, but he spins plenty and loses guys with his elusiveness.  He also appears to be a very smart player who was given plenty of chances to diagnose things and adjust accordingly in pre snap, but this is something that Louisville seems to teach well as many of their prospects seem like coaches on the field.

He is a useful player, I just don't know that he is dominant enough to push himself up into the Top 50.

Demarcus Lawrence - Boise State - 6'3 - 244 - 4.80

Lawrence is a name that you are hearing more and more as the draft season develops, with people even making the case that he might belong in the 1st round.  But, there are many things for us to consider as we break him down.

First, he ran a speed at the combine in his quickness and agility drills that is problematic for his position and size.  4.80 with 1.68 splits is not what we are looking for from a guy who is another ideal edge rusher in the 3-4 as a standup guy.

The good news is that he plays faster than his time is on the watch.  If you pop in one of his games from last fall, you will see a very explosive edge rusher who has LB quickness and is able to cause plenty of problems from a rushing standpoint, and different than Marcus Smith, he is taking on and defeating tackles routinely.

Lawrence has a smaller body of work, as he was a community college guy before he got to Boise and was also a guy who was suspended 3 times for different violations of team rules in just 2 seasons which is really quite a pace.

But, when you look at him closely, you see a Marinelli motor and a guy who has some real skills off the corner that cause you to see what the Cowboys clearly see in him.  The question is how far up the charts will he go.


31 plays behind the line of scrimmage in 2013 and another 4 fumbles forced tell you that he is exciting, but man, what do you do with him on 1st and 2nd down when teams wish to run the ball right at you?  He doesn't love run defense, but perhaps in this day where the Redskins and Eagles are certainly not running a traditional FB, I-formation offense anymore, the Cowboys are content going undersized at the edges and replace it with quickness and a number of "rush men".

If they have decided that guys who look like 3-4 outside linebackers are what they want to run at weak side defensive end to carry the torch in the post-DeMarcus Ware era, then guys like this make more sense.  He seems really undersized, but really interesting to go get sacks.  This type of guy is interesting to me at #47, but it is highly likely he is gone before that.

Kareem Martin - North Carolina - 6'6 - 272 - 4.72

If, instead of the undersized 245 lb Defensive End who might be a bit light and vulnerable to runs to the edge, you prefer the prototypical defensive end who has arms like vines and a build/frame that will resemble all of the 4-3 DEs through the years, then you are looking at Missouri's Kony Ealy and Kareem Martin from North Carolina is similar.

This is the issue when looking to build a defense.  Do you want ideal size?  Well, then you are going to get a player like Martin who is capable, but does not possess lightning quickness off the edge that makes your jaw drop.  He has tighter hips, moves more deliberately, and while athletic, is not as quick as you might hope.   Or, you take a player who is 245 and get the quickness but lose the size.  If you combine the two, you get Julius Peppers in his prime, but that of course is a rarity.

Martin, can do many things, as his numbers below will reflect, but with North Carolina, it always looks like it is a group siege with so many dominate rushers on the defensive line causing the straight push on an offensive line where 1-on-1's happen up and down the line.  The levy breaks, and the QB falls from several players meeting back there.  But, Martin is about to leave that climate and if the question is whether he is the anchor of a NFL line and can be expected to get double-digit sacks, I would counter with saying he reminds me more of Ebenezer Ekuban.  And by the way, there is nothing wrong with that as a guy who played a decade and started most of it, but you better not over-spend on that sort of guy when George Selvie might already fill that role.


I see why he would be a candidate and I admire his effort level and his accountability on plays that are not run right at him.  He is a busy player and an active guy who is not quite Ealy from a tools standpoint, but still a reasonable prototypical defensive end.  I just think at the point of the draft where he should go, I expect the Cowboys will be looking for a pass rusher with rockets around the edge and he might not be their flavor of ice cream when it comes to that.

Dominique Easley - Florida - 6'2 - 288 - Did Not Run

Last, but certainly not least, is this very interesting defensive tackle from Florida (ironically, the same school and position as Sharrif Floyd).

Now, when we talk about non-starters for people, we better get this out of the way right here:  He has blown out both knees in the last few years and both times it was in non-contact situations.  The latest blown knee was in late September of this season and kept him out of the combine and basically everything until the last few weeks.

But, if you watch him on tape, you will generally be blown away at plenty about his ability which makes him one of the really complicated guys in this draft - especially if you are the Cowboys and have some allergies when it comes to taking a player high in the draft that has injury red flags.

What if those red flags make him available to you at #47?  Would you then consider a guy who seems on tape to be way better than the 47th best player in this draft?  Would you trust your medicals and take a shot, knowing that some will be angry that you are not learning from Sean Lee and Bruce Carter that injured players are tough to keep on the field?

His numbers above show that you are taking a risk by investing too much, but let me talk about the tape that has me wondering if he was healthy if he would be available at #16 in a normal draft season.  

He is a true 3-technique who can do many of the things that Aaron Donald can, and also can comfortably play at the 1-technique as well.  He is a leverage expert and plays with high emotions and high energy.  He penetrates and plays in the backfield and has real quickness.  At times, he looks like he might be too emotional and seems a bit insane, but when he is forklifting guards backwards, you will appreciate how he feels.  

Now, I want to be clear, he isn't Aaron Donald for me, and he isn't going to destroy run plays as you might wish for a true Warren Sapp type.  But, he is a bear to deal with on any one on one situation that we make sure 3-techniques feed on.  He is too quick to block and too high with RPMs to stay fresh against.  He also gets unreal jumps off at the snap that get you real excited.  

He also has technique issues that need work and I am very concerned to hear he has never watched any NFL football and considers himself a cartoon expert.  It may not matter, but I do wonder how much of a student of the game a guy can be if he doesn't love to watch football.

But, the tape tells a story, and that is he has exceptional talent and is a real temptation for me in Round 2.  

He also has blown out both of his knees and was unable to stay on the field at Florida.  So, if we hear that the Cowboys did not put him on their board, it would be understandable.  


OK.  I think that is all of the DL types I will profile, so now let's see how all the defensive line players I have examined stack up - the idea here is that I have ranked them with the Cowboys perspective in mind.  I would be fine stacking them like this and taking the highest available name.

After #4 and #15 I drew lines in the groupings to show round distinctions for the Cowboys top 3 picks.

Rank #PlayerNotes
#1Jadeveon Clowney, DE, S Carolina
#2Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
#3Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
#4Anthony Barr, LB, UCLATremendous upside, disconcerting scheme fit
-----Above this line are Pick #16 worthyFor players below, try to trade down
#5Kony Ealy, DE, MissouriThis would be a fallback pick at #16. Too high.
#6Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame
#7Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida St                 
#8Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
#9Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Boise St
#10Stephen Tuitt, DE, Notre DameWould try at 3-technique
#11Will Sutton, DT, Arizona StateComparable with Easley, with good health
#12Rashede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
#13Dee Ford, DE, AuburnJust don't love positional/scheme fit
#14Dominque Easley, DT, Florida 2 Knee injuries, too good to pass on at #47
#15Jeremiah Attaochu, DE, Georgia Tech
-----Above this line are Pick #47 worthy-------------------------------------------------
#16Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas
#17Kareem Martin, DE, North Carolina
#18Trent Murphy, DE, StanfordCould be made into a 4-3 DE? Very Productive
#19Marcus Smith, DE, LouisvilleGreat energy for pass rush
#20Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, TexasNot positive of positional fit on 1D/2D
#21DaQuan Jones, DT, Penn State
#22Carl Bradford, DE, Arizona StateBetter at LB
-----Above this line are Pick #78 worthy-------------------------------------------------

Past Draft Profiles:

Weekly Notebook - Cornerbacks - Episode 13 - Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, Jason Verrett, Darqueze Dennard, Bradley Roby, Marcus Roberson, Stanley Jean-Baptiste

Weekly Notebook - Wide Receivers - Episode 12 - Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham, Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee, Brandin Cooks, Jordan Matthews, Kelvin Benjamin, Davante Adams

Big Board #1 - April 3, 2014

Weekly Notebook - Quarterbacks - Episode 10 - Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, David Fales, Zach Mettenberger, Jimmy Garoppolo

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Guards - Episode 9 - David Yankey, Xavier Sua Filo, Gabe Jackson, Cyril Richardson, Brandon Thomas, Dakota Dozier

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Tackles - Episode 8 - Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Zack Martin, Cyrus Kouandijo, Antonio Richardson, Jack Mewhort, Morgan Moses, Billy Turner

Weekly Notebook - Linebackers - Episode 7 - Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr, Ryan Shazier, Kyle Van Noy, CJ Mosley, Telvin Smith, Jeremiah Attaochu, Carl Bradford 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Morning After: Game 4 - Stars 4, Ducks 2 (Series Tied, 2-2)

"Great moments are born from great opportunities" - Herb Brooks

I have no idea whether Jamie Benn has seen Miracle.  But, I also have no doubt that he doesn't need Kurt Russell's best Herb Brooks impression to remind him of how hard he has trained for this moment in time.

As fans, we can sit here and talk about the bright future for the Dallas Stars and how it is built around a 5th round pick from British Columbia, and how he appears to be ready to start a whole new era of excellence with his mates that could last many, many years.

But, athletes don't think like that.  They know a few things about their careers - with the main one being that because of injuries, trades, or just bad luck, tomorrow is never promised.  You hope to have a long career and a night like Mike Modano had a month ago, but the truth is that most of these guys can only see what is right in front of their face.

The present tense.

So, while we assume that the Stars have already achieved the status of "successful season" and now play with nothing but casino money, there is a real chance that Jamie Benn sees this as what he has worked for his entire hockey-playing life.  He has never felt the adrenaline that he feels now, and therefore, telling him that this team should be ready for long and successful spring runs in 2016 is not very interesting to him.

He is here now.  In the playoffs.  Against a foe that is favored and is expected to contend for the Cup later this post-season, while the Stars are expected to be several weeks into their golf and jet ski vacations.  The Stars don't need to win this series, because their future is bright.  The critics will stand down if they lose this series.

But, if the performance of the Stars' captain is any indication, the only future that Jamie Benn and his team cares about right now can be fit between here and April 29, 2014.

They were down 2-0 after a period in Game 4, and the arena's delirium had subsided.  We don't know how differently the game might have turned out if Benn didn't take over the moment with 0:27 expired in the 2nd period on an absurd face-off win that developed into a top shelf goal from distance that awakened the night, but thankfully, we don't have to know.  He did what he did, and the night was never the same.

For Benn, it was his 3rd goal in the series, and that, along with the game-winner in Game 3, as well as a series of physical plays, opportunities, and moments that are everywhere, is serving as the ignitor of a Stars attack that appears relentless and full of confidence.

I can't swear that I was positive that he was proper captain material 2 years ago, because we sometimes misapply what that means.  Can he speak with great personality?  Does he offer team speeches that remind us of William Wallace?  Does he break sticks when he gets mad?  Or does he just grab games by the scruff of the neck?

Well, in Jamie Benn's case in his first trip to the post-season, it appears he turns games with that moment at that proper instant.  See Game 3 and then see Game 4.

This series is really developing into a classic.  The Ducks, despite their team quality that put them in the top-seeded spot in the Western Conference, have turned into a team that seems far more distracted with the distracting antics of two smallish, anonymous wingers that the Stars have used all season to whip teams into a frenzy.  Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt were both deemed unworthy of draft picks as they entered the National Hockey League and available to anyone for a simple claim as recently as 36 months ago for Garbutt and 24 months ago for Roussel.

Depending on who you ask (and what jersey they wear), they either play the role of hard-working, salt-of-the earth, grinding wingers who are trying to make a living by never budging an inch to anyone; OR, they are cheating, obnoxious, pains in the rear that have no business in the sport.  I will let you decide your perspective, without steering you in any particular direction.  I do know this, for 2 guys that individually don't weigh 200 pounds, they are sure causing many larger men in Ducks uniforms to forget the object of the game.  Which, of course, is to win by scoring more goals.

Instead, the Ducks, led by their coach Bruce Boudreau, appear to be far more taken with the exercise of exacting revenge against these two fleet-footed gnats for not respectfully stepping aside and allowing the honorable Mr Perry and Mr Getzlaf to play through to the next round.  Who do these under-sized punks think they are?  The Ducks have sent every heavyweight they have on the roster over the boards to chase down those two (along with Vernon Fiddler, Trevor Daley who both weigh slightly more than 200) and offer knuckle sandwiches that will surely silence this rebellion from Dallas.

The only problem is that this is exactly Dallas' plan all along.

Get the bigger Ducks' side to concede that they are being bullied by a smaller Dallas team that barely made the playoffs and are missing their most physical defensemen on their roster.  How is it even possible to pull this off?  Lindy Ruff seems to have (at least temporarily) made Anaheim think that Dallas is some intimidating physical force, despite not having a roster that has that personality at all.

The Stars are built on speed and transition and if they can get Bourdreau to believe that the game is actually won by putting slow-footed big guys on the ice (Patrick Maroon is the main culprit here as the Garbutt goal in Game 3 showed), then the game can open up and the Stars can find that one odd man rush that can turn the game.  Or, in Game 4, the Ducks try to counter with their young, fleet skating group, and they get caught up ice for Cody Eakin's end to end game-winner.  

With all of the gnashing of teeth all season long about no secondary scoring, suddenly the Stars have two lines - Roussel-Eakin-Garbutt and Sceviour-Fiddler-Horcoff - that are causing all sorts of issues for the Ducks who were likely pretty sure that limiting Benn and Seguin would win the series for them.

Instead, they lost the plot and have been thrown off their plan by #16 and #21 driving them crazy, even if Garbutt and Roussel have not seemed to have committed any crimes that are worth this much insanity.  In a nutshell, it looks like Ruff is taking Boudreau to tactical school.

Now, this series is so much more than this.  It is Kari Lehtonen out playing Frederik Anderson and making the goalie for the Ducks who appeared cocky in Game 1 and 2, suddenly look far more unsure of himself and rattled.  The Stars have been peppering him with pucks that are producing rebounds constantly, and you wonder if he will get the call again in Game 5 - and if he does, how long will his leash be?

Also, Getzlaf's availability is now a real issue.  He is a very tough player and the fact that he didn't give it a go in Game 4 tells us some very revealing information that he might not be ready by the weekend.  Or, if he is, we can surmise it is not at the full strength of his powers.

Meanwhile, the Stars continue to ask the world of Daley and Alex Goligoski, with a combined 61 minutes of ice-time between them.  Adding Brenden Dillon back in would be huge and we have no idea the status of Patrik Nemeth at this time, either.

The Ducks still have the home-ice advantage that they have earned, and the Stars still have to steal it away.  Dallas has momentum, but we also know how many twists and turns are in the road in a 2-week war.  But, the fact it will take 2 weeks to decide a winner is already enough to prove what some of us said before the series began - this is not a mismatch.  The Stars are showing this is not some fluke or lucky moment.  The Stars are, as a group of 20, pushing the Ducks hard.

You saw all you needed to see last night at the end of Game 4 when Corey Perry decided the game was over and decided to butt-end Roussel in a chance to grab a pound of flesh late in the game.  Instead, he got more than he bargained for as Roussel ended up on top of him and landing punches.

Then, Boudreau orders Marc Fistric to go work over Garbutt at the end in the final minute.  They were reduced to attempting to retaliate, rather than to bring the series to a close in Dallas by winning one or both games.

The Stars look like they are playing their game and the Ducks look like they are grasping for straws.

Will the plot hold in Game 5?

Will Ruff continue to own Boudreau?  And will Roussel and Garbutt occupy Perry and Getzlaf to a point that Benn and Seguin can fill the net?

This series is now locked up at 2-2, and the countdown to Game 5 will be excruciating.

But one thing is clear.  The golf clubs and the jet skis are not on Dallas' collective minds right now.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Morning After: Game 3 - Stars 3, Ducks 0 (Ducks lead series 2-1)

To watch the scene on Monday Night with your own naked eyes at American Airlines Center was a thing of beauty.  The drought that has been long documented had technically ended last Wednesday night when the Stars entered the playoffs for the first time since 2008 when they played the Ducks in Game 1 out in California.

But, for the 19,120 in attendance, the drought properly ended last night for two equally weighted reasons of importance.

1) - Because for an evening it was clear to anyone who gave it a moment that the sleeping giant had not died.  This city and this organization is and was capable of a hockey atmosphere that could rival any in the sport inside that building.  The premise that the truly electric nights died with Reunion Arena have been disproven before, but the decibel levels on Monday were so shockingly intense that you could simply tell that the fan base that loves this game and needs only a sliver of competitive ambition from its favorite franchise was loving every second of it.  The team was going to have an audience that would do everything they could to push their boys over the finish line, and if nothing else, it is motivation to extend this post-season just to drink from that fountain of adoration again with each home date.

2) - Because the Stars for the first time in this series were able to demonstrate on the scoreboard what many of us had felt we were seeing on the ice since Game 1.  That they are not out-classed substantially by the Anaheim Ducks despite the discrepancy in the standings before this series began.  We had documented the teams fortunes over the last 3 months and Dallas was actually the better team down the stretch and further, styles make fights and we could see that the speed of Dallas combined with their top end talent should really trouble the Ducks.  Well, both of those elements seemed true in Anaheim, but unprovable on the scoresheet.  On Monday, with a 3-0 win and a comfortable last period, they sent that message loud and clear to the league - this team is not out of their depths in the post-season.  Not so far, anyway.  

Either of those above reasons are enough to fire you up if you care about this franchise sufficiently to read a blog like this.  But, combined?  It is tough not to be over the moon with excitement now as we ponder Wednesday night and a chance to even this series with another home victory.  But, let's discuss some of the best talking points to Game 3, first - or the first post-season win for this franchise in 2,165 days.

Any recap of Game 3 should start with the performance of Kari Lehtonen.  This is a goaltender who does not need his quality debated for those who have never turned away from the franchise.  Over the toughest years in this stretch, he has won games by himself and certainly been on a very short list (with Jamie Benn) for the discussion of who the Stars' best player has been since Mike Modano went away.  Both of them have needed more help, but have fought valiantly over and over again until someone could build a team around them.  But, for those who have questioned his quality, hopefully nights like last night are enough to demonstrate what he is all about.  He stood tall and defended his goal brilliantly, aided by a team in front of him that were committed to limiting the chances.  Kari had to make 37 saves in his playoff shutout, but did so with such calm and poise that he was easy choice for the #1 star.  Lehtonen is not much of a talker, so perhaps with a bit more personality or Canadian roots he would be more highly regarded in the NHL.  But, that doesn't matter like performances like this one.  He proved he can grab a game and not budge an inch.

Benn, meanwhile, has looked just like a captain should through this series.  He is a physical force who now knows his true power as a player who backs people off with his frame and can dominate physically as well as any power forward, but with mitts and skates that make his attack complete.  His last year has been his most impressive step as he has matured into the captain role, which means making plays of significance and leading with a resolve that is most admirable.  Adding Tyler Seguin to his side has allowed him to take the next step on the stat sheets, but Benn's best trick is showing that he has leadership quality that wasn't always obvious.  There was a stretch of several years when the Stars' best were not able to equal some of the best in the league.  Now, with Benn and Seguin together, you can see that the top of the roster is up for any match-up and challenge in any alley or street.  They are able to fight you with skill and Benn is surely willing to battle you with a nice cross check or collision.  And when he banged home a rebound at the end of the 1st period, he gave the Stars a lead they would never surrender in that breakthrough playoff performance.

The story of Game 3 that cannot be emphasized enough, though, is the team game that Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill tried to create over this last year.  This is not an individual sport where the team with the best player wins.  This is a fantastic team game where the gang with the best 20 players on a given night (19 to be exact) will generally end up on top.  The fact that 11 players (12 if Brenden Dillon can  return in this series) of the 18 skaters are playing in their very first playoff battle is just craziness.  This is a time of year where we talk about playoff experience and know-how as currency that is indispensable.  The Stars are disregarding it and almost seem willing to field an entire team of first-timers, and the response they are getting is quite impressive.  From Valeri Nichushkin's extremely well-timed goal to Patrick Nemeth's performance that is blowing people away defensively, it is clear that every player that gets a jersey wants to prove he deserves it.  If playoff newbies like Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt are going to play like that on every shift, then perhaps we over-rate the improvement that could come with experience.  The truth is, those two, along with their running buddy Cody Eakin have been playing with their pants on fire since October.  They have just turned it up another notch now that they can get under the skin of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf on a routine basis.

The penalty killing was superb last night, and some of the extra curricular activities from the aforementioned might make that necessary.  But, that is part of the team game.  Play to the edge, and if you cross the line and go over the edge, you mates pick you up and kill off your transgressions with a timely kill.  That is what good teams do this time of year.  And, yes, the Stars appear to be a pretty good team.

In this space, I have spent a lot of time complaining about a lack of a "true ace" to steal a baseball term.  I believe in the dominance of a defense group, because Derian Hatcher, Sergei Zubov, Darryl Sydor, Richard Matvichuk, and Craig Ludwig taught me, and the personnel department has not been able to assemble that quality back there at this point.  However, a franchise does what it can, when it can, and I am required by my conscience to applaud this group for holding up their end of the bargain.  Those who stand at those posts presently attempt to prove that I have undersold their own ability and it should be recognized because they aren't here without those guys digging deep.  And maybe the most rewarding aspect of this season is not the quality of Lehtonen, Benn, or Seguin - anyone who watches hockey knew they would be good.  Rather, it is seeing someone like Trevor Daley rise up and maybe play the best hockey of his career right now.  I have always liked parts of his game, but to see him and Alex Goligoski take on the ice time and the assignments that they have and still battle with energy and composed rage is awesome.  Daley has really stepped up big.

But, go down that blue-line and it keeps impressing you.  If anyone had Jordie Benn as a #3 defensemen on the next Stars playoff team playing 23:29 of near flawless hockey against that team, then you should run to Vegas and try to get rich in futures.  Because, I will confess, I never thought he could do it.  And Nemeth?  That kid looks like he is ready to battle and not take any garbage from anyone on every shift.

The Stars are a team built on speed, so it was clear to all of us that teams would attempt to try to make them play a grinding game and see how badly this young team wants it.  Surely if a team is fast, they must hate a battle, right?  That is clearly what Bruce Boudreau wanted when he ordered the game to be played against the boards and for the Ducks to come out with such a defensive posture.  Drag the young Stars out to the deep water and see if they can swim, right?

The response has been clear.  Perry and Getzlaf are incredibly talented players, but much of their game is played by being bullies and then being protected.  Taking them out of that comfort zone is the name of the game.  Now, they are uncomfortable being surrounded by these pests who they have never heard of before, and are getting quite annoyed.  Boudreau even rolled out the reasonably talented sluggo, Patrick Maroon, on to the Perry and Getzlaf line to get them some more might and space, but that backfired when the Garbutt/Roussel/Eakin trio scored the 3rd goal because the wheels were too quick in transition.

It is tough to forecast where this series is going, except for the fact that the Stars now know the belong, if there was ever doubt.  The next chapter will be even more intense, and I am happy to report that the team seems interested in pushing this run a lot further than one magical night in April.  The Ducks response will be measured and their only objective was to get a split in Dallas, which is still very much in play in Game 4.

But, for now, smile.  It is back.  All of it.  The anger, the electricity, the nerves, the high-5s with total strangers, the headaches, the enemies, and the noise.

Ah, the glorious noise.

Bring on Wednesday.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Morning After: Game 2 - Ducks 3, Stars 2 (Ducks lead 2-0)

There are so many things that you miss about the playoffs when you are not involved that you actually forget most of them.  That is how long 6 years in the wilderness can be.

You forget how much hate drives a playoff series.  You forget about the headaches.  You forget about the save on one end and the goal on the other that rips your heart out.  And when it returns it all comes racing back quickly.

For the Dallas Stars and their faithful followers, as they fall behind 2-0 in a series where they can honestly feel like they have out-played the #1 seed Anaheim Ducks in many respects, it is possible that we have forgotten how finicky the hand of fate can be in a best-of-7 series.

The team that out-shoots the opponent does not win.  The team that out-skates the opponent does not win.  The team that out-works the opponent does not win.  All of that could lead to a win, but it could also lead to a plane ride back of total frustration for a team that worked its absolute tail off only to fall short in both games by a single goal.

On Friday night, by any and all advanced metrics, the Dallas Stars beat the Ducks handily.  Of course, that doesn't matter.  In fact, of all of the playoff games played on Friday around the league (Montreal-Tampa Bay, Detroit-Boston) this one was the biggest mismatch from a puck-possession and shots-attempted standpoint.  The Stars had a 62%/38% advantage at equal strength which does not happen very often over the course of the season.  They had the Ducks stuck in their own end and found chance after chance against young goaltender Frederik Anderson.

They also conceded very little.  Aside from a sequence in the 2nd period where their 4th line was stuck in their own zone, they played very well defensively and kept the Anaheim cycle game with the big bodies from really taking grasp on the proceedings for a large part of the evening.

Additionally, they started well - much better and with much more composure than they did on Wednesday night in Game 1 and even found the opening goal to calm those young nerves on a team where 10 of the 18 skaters are playing their very first playoff series.

In short, the tactics were sound, the effort was fantastic, and the numbers on the paper that we look to as "indicators of success" all were where they needed them to be.

But the game of hockey is simple.  In the playoffs, it might even be too simple.  The cliches are many but the easiest one to remember is that "the object of the game is to put it in and keep it out."

And on Friday night, that went wrong.

Ducks 3, Stars 2.

it is often said that the playoffs are all about "special teams and goaltending."  And on that front, the Stars have to feel that this is the culprit for why they fly back to DFW now needing to win both home games to extend this series into the real frightful times that could come in Game 5-6-7.

Goaltending is sometimes a very difficult thing to judge and fairness is often lost in the occasion.  If you can recall how this works, it is basically that easy for newbies to wrap their heads around: Your goalie has to be better than their goalie. Now, unfortunately, the two goalies involved are never going to get a fair count on the volume of chances, the quality of those chances, and the assistance in quieting those chances.

But, on Friday night - and to a lesser extent on Wednesday night - most observers would have to argue that the Ducks have had the better goaltender guarding their net than Kari Lehtonen has done defending his.  This is based on seeing far fewer shots, but conceding more goals.  Not complicated, right?

This, of course, adds to the overall narrative of Lehtonen that keeps him very undervalued across the league (The Hockey News Rated him 19th amongst his peers in their Goaltending Issue last fall) that he is dead-solid average in his play.  Those of us who have watched him play hundreds of games would say that he is quality, and I would go so far as to rate him above a guy I greatly admire in Marty Turco, but this is the type of thing that needs some evidence - like a playoff series win against a team that is more talented than your side.

So, with the Ducks owning a talent advantage, but the Stars seeming to have some goaltending edge with Anderson making his first climb into the playoffs, Kari is simply going to be asked to even the score of the two teams by making a save or two to swing the game and the series.

I have no idea which puck Kari should have stopped on Friday night, because the two unassisted, turnover-created goals that the $8million dollar men, Ryan Getzlaf ($8.2m) and Corey Perry ($8.6m) scored were things of beauty that are scored by the types of guys you are willing to pay $8million to for playing hockey.

That leaves the shorthanded goal early in the third by Andrew Cogliano which resulted from Cogliano chopping Sergei Gonchar's stick in half and then chaotic moments where Getzlaf does what he does again, drawing the play to him before a cross-ice, back-door feed to Cogliano that left Lehtonen by himself to cover that chance from the back post of the crease.  He tries.  He slides over and fires his legs up in the air to try to get a piece of the puck, in vain.  Cogliano scores when he should have been headed to the penalty box and the Stars power play is demoralized yet again.

The Ducks goals, the first set up by Erik Cole's zone exit that Getzlaf deposited in a small hole on Kari's short-side; the second is a Corey Perry bomb from the face-off dot which was given to him because Tyler Seguin's pass to Jamie Benn was not ideal (a trend we saw a lot on Friday) right outside the Stars blue-line; and the third off a power play that could not control the puck and exit the zone - all were Ducks possessions that were slightly longer than the blink of an eye.  They were not set up with domination by any stretch.  They did not have the Stars out-classed.  They simply made the Stars pay for a slip-up in execution and made it hurt.

And perhaps that is what playoff experience makes you capable of.  Perry and Getzlaf have won the Cup, won gold medals, and have done just about everything a hockey player wishes to do.  They, despite personality traits on the ice that may be seen as unattractive, are accomplished stars in this league that don't need 10 chances to snap your neck.  They often need just one.

It would have been great if Kari could have canceled out those chances, but you are more advised to keep chances away from those two.  They are better than the goalies they face almost every time.

But, before the series, we fancied the Stars chances of having 2 players who could cancel out those stars.  Seguin and Benn are the equals of Perry and Getzlaf, right?

Well, that comes down to how the game goes on the ice.  And last night, you again saw the quality that 91/14 have, but you also saw that the Ducks did a very fine job of not giving them the opportunities that the Stars gave Perry and Getzlaf.  Then, you also saw Benn and Seguin unable to cash in - and often times even hit the net - like those two accomplished studs for Anaheim did.   The two Dallas talents had 4 shots on goal, but 6 more that missed the net altogether.  As we certainly know, you aren't going to test the goalie if your shot misses the entire frame of goal.

The Stars are getting strong efforts from elsewhere, and last night Alex Chiasson scored off a pass from Benn and Ryan Garbutt put one away from Shawn Horcoff and Antoine Roussel.  But, the roster does not have enough world class talents to expect to win very often without Benn and Seguin dragging them along.  That is enormous pressure on those two, but I would guess that Perry and Getzlaf know what that life is like.  If you want to be paid like the best in the game, then, with a salary cap, get used to being asked to do most of the heavy lifting between the two of you.  That is not to say that Benn and Seguin are paid like that yet, but I think we all know what their next contracts are going to look like if things keep progressing.

The Stars had chances late, including yet another demoralizing power play (1-6) that did not get it done.  There are some tactical issues being raised by Bruce Boudreau that are keeping the Stars frustrated and unable to get the puck into the zone, but rather are spending huge parts of the power play skating half speed at neutral ice and looking confused.  The Ducks are daring them to dump the puck in, and the Stars hate doing that.  Look for that to change in Dallas.

Much of the first two games have reminded me of the Dallas-Edmonton series from 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2003.  The Oilers would be undermanned, but determined to huff and puff and blow the house down each time.  They had young talent, including a few game breakers, but never the type of payroll or elite talent that Dallas had back then.  Sometimes, the Oilers would roll into Reunion Arena and outplay the Stars for the entire evening.  But, at some point of the game, Brett Hull, or Mike Modano, or Joe Nieuwendyk or Sergei Zubov would step up and make the Oilers pay for that one tiny little mistake and steal the game.  It would frustrate the Oilers and the Stars would grin and ultimately advance because they know how to win in the playoffs and those kids across the ice are trying to figure it out.  Then, we would laugh at their goaltending, even though their goalie (Tommy Salo, anyone?) was often asked to stop elite chances which of course, Ed Belfour or Turco weren't being asked to save.

It is the ultimate in "learning to fly".  Sometimes, a young team figures it out - like Chicago a few years back with all of those kids.  Sometimes, it never happens - Edmonton disbanded and sent Bill Guerin, Doug Weight, and others to various other parts of the league.

We think this young Stars team is building something special.  I cannot tell you how great this last year of progress has been to witness.  But, I do wonder how quickly they will be able to figure out how to deal with games like these.  Do they have to wait until they can add more talent?  Or can it happen as soon as Monday?

Monday is Game 3.  It will be in Dallas at a place that hasn't hosted a playoff game since May 19, 2008, when Dallas lost Game 6 to Detroit at the American Airlines Center.

Another playoff cliche talks about how a playoff series never truly starts until a road team wins a game.  Otherwise, it is all just everyone holding serve.  If no road team breaks through, then it comes down to a 1-game series in a game 7.  We should be so lucky.

The Stars have played very, very well in Dallas recently.  They are going to fight even harder that night.  Do they know how to win games like these?  Specifically, can they win this one?

Because if they don't, then they will have a very long summer to think about it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Morning After: Game 1 - Ducks 4, Stars 3 (1-0)

There were plenty of people who went to bed in Texas last night thinking that the Stars were exposed badly by the competition last night and outclassed on their way to a humbling defeat.

And those people did get the part right about being defeated.

Otherwise, the later the Stars wandered into the California night, the more capable they appeared and the more confident they played.  In the end, they fell just short in their bid to come all the way back against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 1, but I think one can report with relative belief that the Stars are most optimistic about their ability to steal Game 2 and then get back in front of their own fans as this series takes shape.

It is vital to remember a detail or two about this Dallas Stars team which is absolutely an underdog in this Best-of-7 series against a team that finished at the very top of the Western Conference;  and perhaps the most vital is that 9 of the 18 skaters from last night were playing in their very first NHL playoff game.

Jamie Benn, Alex Chiasson, Antoine Roussel, Ryan Garbutt, Cody Eakin, Valeri Nichushkin, Colton Sceviour, Patrick Nemeth, and Jordie Benn all made their playoff debuts on Wednesday night, and frankly, when you are playing 9 guys who have never been there before along with several veterans who have played sparingly in the last month - Ray Whitney, Aaron Rome, in particular, you are a team that is going to look a little out of sorts while you try to get your bearings.

Unfortunately, during that time, your prime scoring opportunities do not make an impact and the Ducks are cashing in on every chance in the other direction.  The game is getting faster and louder, and while you are beginning to see it is just a hockey game - but much faster, you are falling behind badly.

Kyle Palmieri settles a beautiful saucer pass from Nick Bonino on transition over the body of Aaron Rome less than 2 minutes into the contest, and it is 1-0.

Ryan Getzlaf tips home a close proximity shot after another blocked Dallas shot leads to Ducks flying back in the other direction when Matt Beleskey fires from the left wing and while Kari Lehtonen's helmet is rattled off his head, the big captain for Anaheim sends it home.  2-0.

Then, late in a shell-shocked first period, Sergei Gonchar takes a penalty and the Ducks are put on the job where they have a number of chances before Patrick Maroon finds Mathieu Perreault across the goal mouth and now it is getting out of hand at 3-0.

The first period ended and most of the people watching seemed to think that the chances of the Stars competing in this game ended as well.  It is the familiar theme of figuring that this was all too big for the youth in Dallas and that the gulf was just too big to figure out at this point in time.

And make no mistake, this situation is far from ideal right now without top physical defensemen Brenden Dillon - who also would have made his playoff debut last night - who was unable to go in at least Game 1 because of an undisclosed injury in the clinching game against St Louis.  To be very frank, much of the Stars fortunes are going to be tied to Dillon's return because last night the Stars did match or exceed the Ducks.  But the department where they didn't - the ability to deal with the Ducks on the offensive cycle - is a matchup deficiency where the Stars' defensemen have no answer for the physicality as presently constituted.  Gonchar took 2 penalties and Nemeth another, and the cycle puts them on the job, and the power play ends up making it worse.  Will Dillon be good to go in Game 2?  I don't know, but Aaron Rome and Sergei Gonchar played less and less as the game went along and mysteriously, the Stars play improved.

Think about what that leaves - Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski playing tons of ice time, both approaching half of the game, Patrick Nemeth and Jordie Benn playing about 20 each, and Rome and Gonchar down near 10.  If they have Dillon back, this has a chance.  But, it is clear that the defense corps is just not filled with options and they need those they can to play well and without penalties.

The Stars also need their trouble-makers to use their brains, and down 3-0 after a Cody Eakin opportunity, Ryan Garbutt thought he would stir things up by giving Frederik Andersen a snow shower.  This, of course, angered the Ducks and Stephane Robidas the most.  Before long, Garbutt's running buddy Antoine Roussel is jumping in and the Stars are sending Garbutt to the penalty box.

And, as the fortune has been going, take a ill-advised penalty down 3-0 in your first playoff game in years, and the Ducks make you pay and send even more Stars' fans to their beds with a sad posture.  This time a point shot from Francois Beauchemin ticks off the skate of Beleskey and the score is suddenly 4-0.

Shell-shocked.  And this has become ugly.

And yet, the whole time, the puck possession and the course of play was still not something where the Stars looked out of their element.  They were still generating their chances and their speed was still showing.  Yes, the defense looked up against that, but we know that will be a work in progress for the next few years.  It needs a full rebuild, but you go with what you got.  And what you have seem to be several players who have promise or are decent in the present tense.  Say what you want about Daley and Goligoski, but those guys have shouldered the burden with Dillon and Benn all year.  If this is a playoff team, then it is partly because of what positive things those guys have done.  You simply cannot survive 82 games if they are all liabilities.

Up 4-0, Robidas takes a penalty and then the Ducks while killing the penalty take a too many men minor to make it even worse.  If they wanted to let the Stars back in the game, putting them on an extended 5-3 power play is likely the best way.

Benn scores in his playoff debut to put the Stars on the board and the Sceviour gets some fortune on a seeing-eye puck and it is quickly 4-2 at the end of 2.  The only bothersome part of the sequence is a Corey Perry stick to the skates of Sceviour which sends the winger into the boards hard and awkwardly.  It seemed cheap (as Perry will be) but also unnoticed by our officials and with his arm hanging, they head to the room.

The Stars played confidently for the final 20 minutes, but could not find their 3rd goal until after they were done killing another Gonchar minor.  That was particularly impressive since he hardly played in the 3rd, but managed to take a penalty in short work.  But, after the kill and late, Tyler Seguin scored nearly 14 minutes into the final period on a gorgeous re-direct of a Daley point shot off a face-off win.  The pump of the fist said it all and they had nearly come all the way back and still had 6:07 to find the equalizer.  4-3.

Dallas pushed for their 4th with mixed results.  Eakin had a golden chance, but Nichushkin made a poor decision before a change and nearly handed Perry and Getzlaf a goal to seal the doom.  Kari Lehtonen bailed them out and honestly looked better and better as the game went along, but aside from the goal where he had the mask knocked over his eyes, there wasn't much he could have done to stop the goals.

Goligoski and Lehtonen had a moment of confusion in the 3rd that almost resulted in a free Anaheim goal, but Goligoski's diving stick saved that embarrassment.

Dallas pulled Kari late to get the extra attacker and again had lots of possession.  But, aside from Tyler Seguin ripping a shot off of Getzlaf's face, very little that could be described as a chance occurred.  Anaheim did a nice job of defending the perimeter late and the Stars left the ice feeling much better about themselves, but still a 4-3 loss.

This is the portion of the review where we remind you that a 7-0 loss and a 4-3 loss count the same.  So, in the department of morale, we must concede that the Stars lost the game and that is the only detail that truly counts.

However, most of us thought Game 1 might be uneasy with so many players making their first playoff shifts and with no Dillon.  I wish I knew he would be back soon, but this time of year - if we have all forgotten - trying to get injury information is a laughable exercise.  He is back when he is back and that will be as soon as any of us find out.

But, if the question is now whether or not the Stars are concluding that they can play with the Ducks and make them sweat and work hard to stand their ground, I think Lindy Ruff and his squad can go into Game 2 with a bit of confidence about their resumes.  Their own fans may be a bit pessimistic, but the Stars have played high-stakes hockey for a few months now and have never been outclassed for more than a moment.  Once they collect themselves, they are able to punch back and take the game to the opponent.

Whether we are ready to admit it or not, the addition of Seguin to Benn is an absolute item of fear that is now felt by opponents.  They are nervous playing the Stars and Dallas now has a legitimate answer to Perry and Getzlaf or whatever other strike forces that have put the Stars out of the mix so many times in the past.  Now, Dallas has to continue to build their organization to match the other portions of the team, but the Stars have game-breakers.  And Nichushkin showed signs last night that he is going to attempt to break out in this series, too.  He looked very optimistic in the offensive end at times.

The Stars will have issues.  They are not deep enough in several spots and we have detailed the defense deficiencies and why Lehtonen is asked to do so much on his own.  But, let's not lose sight of what they have put together.  Of those 9 making their debuts last night, almost none of them looked out of place.  In fact, it is unfortunate that some of the most veteran (and most well compensated) of the Stars are the ones that need to raise their games for this to happen this spring.

But, they took quite a punch from the Ducks and decided to stay and fight.  That is all you can ask of a #8 seed and they just about had a chance to steal Game #1.

However, "just about" is not good enough this time of year.  Back to the drawing board for Game 2.

The Stars have to learn how to deal with the playoffs, but so do we as observers.  The amount of give-up in my email box 20 minutes into a 2-week series reminds us that we need to learn how to watch this marathon.  There will be ebbs and flows that require a little resolve in a fan base.  Both sides are going to land punches in these heavyweight fights, but it won't end in 20 minutes.  They are figuring it out as they go and while there are no guarantees, keep in mind that the Stars made the playoffs for a reason - they are pretty good.  Good enough to win a series against a high seed?  That might be a question only they can answer.

Now, it appears that they have plenty of confidence to work with.  Settle in, for what I believe is going to be a long series.  And it will get longer if the Stars accomplish their mission of splitting in Orange County on Friday.