Now that the start of the NHL season, albeit a truncated 48-game version will be played after an extended lockout, is on the horizon, it’s time to talk about whether or not the Dallas Stars will end a playoff dry spell that has now reached four years? Of course, the club was very active in the off-season, trading franchise fixtures Steve Ott and Mike Ribeiro while adding veterans Jaromir Jagr, Derek Roy and Ray Whitney to the mix. This will be year two of the Glen Gulutzan era in Big D and with this also being the first full season of Tom Gaglardi in place as owner, expectations are high not just for 2013 but beyond. However, the ultimate measuring stick is whether the Stars return to the playoffs or if they are bystanders once again.
The Stars Still Have One of the League’s Top Goaltenders in Kari Lehtonen
Last season, Dallas’ No. 1 netminder Kari Lehtonen missed a good stretch of games early in the season thanks to a groin injury suffered at Phoenix. Of course, Stars fans remember that spell as one where rookie Richard Bachman rose to the occasion, playing so well that once Lehtonen returned to the pipes in December, veteran Andrew Raycroft, who had been Lehtonen’s backup to start the season, was sent to the AHL. But even while appearing in just 59 games last season, the Finnish-born netminder who is still just 29 went 32-22-4 with four shutouts and sported a righteous goals-against-average of 2.33. Lehtonen is an absolute beast when it comes to entering a season in tip top physical shape and this year should be no different and having a shortened season will lessen the chances of him being injured. Bachman figures to again serve as Kari’s backup while organization newcomer Christopher Nihlstorp, who is 14-10-0 with four shutouts and a 2.22 GAA in 26 games with the Texas Stars is a nice emergency option if the big club gets in a pinch goaltending wise. Dallas’ power play can’t rank as the league’s worst again this year
If there was one thing that likely kept the Stars out of the playoffs last season, it was having a power play that converted just 13.5 percent of the time, a rate which tied them with Phoenix for the most anemic PP in the entire NHL. But what’s funny about that figure is that while the Stars did have the fewest power play goals in the league a year ago, there were two teams [the Islanders and Avalanche] that went on the power play fewer times than they did last season.
Of course, it makes sense that all three of those teams missed the playoffs, but with the addition of Jagr, Roy and Whitney, who combined for 22 power play goals and 30 power play assists last year with their respective teams should alone make the Stars much more potent on the PP. And while they might not quickly jump to having one of the top power plays in the NHL, seeing at least a small uptick can be the difference between making the playoffs and sitting out the league’s second season yet again. Killing penalties should continue to be one of the club’s strengths
As bad as the Stars were on the power play last year, they ranked 13th in the NHL when it came to killing penalties, snuffing out nearly 83 percent of opposing power plays. That’s a solid rate and considering Dallas was shorthanded 59 more times than they were on the power play last season, that glaring differential shows that the solid numbers posted by the Dallas PK last year were far from a fluke. If the Stars can continue killing penalties at a similar pace and if the power play can see even the slightest of upgrades, Dallas figures to be fairly well squared away on special teams, which could very well be enough to return them to the postseason.
Dallas still has a solid and talented core of players
Should the Stars and Jamie Benn, an NHL All-Star for the first time in 2012 who was second on the team with 63 points, signed to a new contract, then Dallas will retain one of its top offensive threats going forward. Benn and Loui Eriksson, who led the team in assists with 45 and points in 71 and himself was an NHL All-Star in 2011, give the Stars a potent one-two punch in the top six. And the addition of Jagr, Roy and Whitney, all of whom figure to see heavy minutes on the top two lines should increase Dallas’ offensive production exponentially. Some might forget that Michael Ryder, who was strong to quite strong in his first year after coming over from Boston, led the Stars in goals last season with 35, giving them yet another offensive option. Sure, they did lose Mike Ribeiro, who delivered his share of big goals and assists for the Stars during his six seasons in Big D, but they definitely reloaded this off-season.
Building Team Chemistry Takes Time, Something No Team Has in a Shortened Season
Now this might be an issue for many teams, with the truncated season, week-long training camp and the like, but for a team that has more than a few new players, not having a full preseason and training camp to develop team chemistry and gel could be very bad for the Stars. Of course, there’s nothing they can do about it but if Benn and the club don’t agree to a new deal in time for him to join the team during training camp, then the Stars will be at a disadvantage in that respect. And while Jagr, Roy and Whitney are all veterans and guys who have changed teams several times throughout their respective careers and know what it takes to effectively integrate themselves into a new team, the fact is that none of them are used to skating with their new teammates and that’s something that will take a bit of time. But in a 48-game season where the importance of every game is magnified tenfold, it’s time they simply don’t have.
Over the Last Few Years, the Stars Have Proven to Be Quite Streaky
After a 1-0 win at Minnesota on March 13, 2012, the Stars were riding high. Not only had they won a sixth straight game, a season-best, but it was looking more and more likely that Dallas would end its playoff drought at three straight years with 12 games left. But the Stars went on to lose nine of their last 12 games, including their final five to miss out on the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs yet again. That quick turn of events illustrates just how streaky the Stars have been over the last few seasons. In the 2010-11 season, the last under Marc Crawford, Dallas had winning streaks of five and six games but also had identical streaks in the other direction. Of course, if the Stars can have a couple of win streaks in a shortened season, it will help their chances greatly but a losing streak of even three games could be enough to cripple their chances.
Dallas Can’t Really Expect another 30-Goal Season from Michael Ryder
One of the best stories to come out of a 2011-12 season that clearly didn’t end the way most had hoped it would for the Stars was the emergence of Ryder in his first year in Dallas as a legitimate goal scorer. “Ryds” delivered in a big way, leading Dallas with 35 goals, a career-high in his first season after coming over from Boston. That was the second 30-goal season of his career and first in four seasons, but considering he averaged just 21 goals in his three seasons with the Bruins, it is fair to wonder if last year was something of an anomaly for the Dallas right winger. Of course, with the addition of Jagr, Roy and Whitney, the Stars won’t need Ryder to score 35 goals again to pack enough offensive punch. And Dallas fans also can’t expect captain Brenden Morrow, who led the team with 33 goals two seasons ago, to battle his way through an 11-goal campaign, albeit an injury-riddled one, for a second straight season, but seeing Ryder go for 30 for a second straight year would be surprising to say the least.
The Stars Have to Pick Up More Wins in Back-to-Backs
Besides having the league’s most tepid power play last season, another key reason why the Stars likely missed the playoffs was Dallas’ 0-9-1 record in the second game of a back-to-back. Overall, Dallas was 5-12-3 in back-to-backs, which isn’t great but isn’t the worst they could have done. But on the second night, they were absolutely abysmal.
Compare this to the year before, the final year under Marc Crawford when the Stars were 11-7-0 overall in back-to-backs and 4-5-0 on the second night. Sure, those were two pretty different teams but showing the Stars’ record just two seasons ago on back-to-backs shows that it can be done. But such talk is moot until the official 48-game sked comes out and we see exactly how many back-to-backs the Stars are going to be playing but the fewer the better. Back-to-backs are a simple fact of life in the NHL and unless the Stars can perform better in them, especially on the second night, it could damage their playoff chances considerably.