Stars Bag of Pucks: The January Slump
Every week after the end of Cowboys’ season, we shift our focus on Tuesdays to the local hockey team and check in on what is going on with the Dallas Stars. This "Bag of Pucks" column evolves over time, but generally attempts to give us a good place to meet up and discuss the progress or lack thereof as it pertains to the Stars each week.
Obviously, we are picking an odd time to jump in to the season, because the Stars are on their biggest slide in nearly 20 years with 6 consecutive losses without even gaining a point. Symmetrically, they picked the perfect time to change their fortunes, as this all occurred exactly as the calendar shifted from 2013 to 2014. In fact, on New Year’s Eve, after the Stars beat the Los Angeles Kings for the 2nd time in 10 days, they momentarily rose to the 8th spot in the West and the optimism was as high as could be. Later that evening, Phoenix pulled back ahead, and unfortunately as we sit now, the Stars are 8 points out of the 8th spot again as Minnesota has gone on a tear and blown past the Stars and the Coyotes who have both stalled in 2014.
But, there is no way to sugarcoat things as it pertains to Phoenix. The Stars have 0 points in 6 games, and in a tight playoff race, it doesn’t stay tight for long when you stop earning and the pack keeps rolling along.
The oddity of this great run to end 2013 and the poor start to 2014 is that the counterintuitive results have occurred with excellent results when all of the veteran defensemen were injured (Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, and Sergei Gonchar) and the poor form coincided with the returns of Daley and Gonchar who both have been in the lineup in the last 4 games, while the rookies Cameron Gaunce and Kevin Connauton have taken a back seat again.
There will be ebbs and flows to each season, and although being 8 points back at the halfway point is a very ominous point of discussion, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture. The rebuild will be exciting at some points and frustrating at others. They will beat heavyweights on some nights and lose 4 of 4 points to the Islanders on other nights. It is the life of most of the league that is not prepared to contend for the Cup.
There are vast stretches of no offense beyond the Benn-Seguin-whoever line and then there are now stretches where even that line cannot put the puck away. There are weeks where the Stars look like they are building a proper home-grown blue line, and then there are stretches where you feel like they might be 5 NHL defensemen away from having what it takes to compete with Chicago and St Louis.
The facts are simple: this team has not made the playoffs in 5 seasons and almost nobody out of this market expected this year to be different. They have some useable parts for sure, but they also have just as many spots in their lineup where they would enjoy an upgrade. They fixed plenty with a fantastic week of progress back in June with the acquisitions of Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin, but tonight’s opponent in Edmonton demonstrates to us that having the very best in elite talent on your roster does not constitute a contending team in the best league in the world. Like in just about every sport, having the best player means little. The best team wins. And right now, the Stars are climbing the hill with plenty of encouraging signs, but anyone that thought it would be a 6-month turnaround project was perhaps dipping their cup into the streams of optimism a bit too liberally.
The good news is that this is nothing that can’t be turned around with a nice week of results, but the bad news is that it has to stop immediately and those of us who are with this team every time they play know that January has brought many dream-dashing slumps in the last several years so the benefit of the doubt is not easily given right now.
The biggest culprit for the uneven play? It still has to be special teams. A key power play goal changes the games in New Jersey, Madison Square Garden, and countless other times this season. But, alas, through 45 games, the Stars have been given 161 power plays and have cashed in just 20 times. That 12.4 rate is 29th in the league and puts too much stress on the 5 on 5 play. They are much better than they have been at even strength (which to me is the true measure of a team’s quality), but you can’t finish 29th with the man advantage and get anywhere. If you want a common theme in these 6 years in the post-playoffs, post-Zubov era, it is that the power play has consistently killed them. And there we sit again, with a largely new cast, in largely the same spot.
The penalty kill is at 80%, which is not great, but it is much closer to league average in conceding 30 power play goals in 150 chances. Again, a power play is a chance to feature your top end talent with an extra man, and the fact that the Stars are a -10 against their opponents in power play goals might be the story of the standings. And, if you look at shot rates, the Stars are getting chances on the power play. But, at this point, as you know, it is often more demoralizing than rewarding.
14 games until the Olympic break, with 9 in Dallas. You would think the Stars would have to be within 4 points of 8th to seriously consider a "go for it" deal in March. Otherwise, with this young of a roster, you begin looking at moves that help your rebuild in the macro-view. So, every point is imperative in the next month of hockey.
And now, back by popular demand, your hockey emails! Todd W. White
Ottawa says they are dealing and seem to have a fair share of prospects. Any hint of the Stars dealing some of their veteran free-agents or soon to be free-agents to the Sens?
Well, let’s start with the UFA’s to be. There are 4 veterans who are on expiring deals right now, Ray Whitney, Vern Fiddler, Ryan Garbutt, and Stephane Robidas.
There is another group of older vets who expire in the summer of 2015 who would also be candidates to be shopped in the right deal: Shawn Horcoff, Gonchar, Erik Cole, Aaron Rome, and Rich Peverley.
For me, Peverley is not really in this group because he is just 31 and I would need quite a bit to want to move that useful piece. The rest are a question of whether they have created a market for themselves, which, of course, is linked to their play. Cole has been excellent in the last month and Fiddler is always useful for a number of reasons to a contender.
Beyond that, Whitney, Gonchar, and Horcoff have not really ever resembled $5m players in a Dallas uniform this season. So those players would either have no market for shoppers or a minimal return on expiring deals like Whitney. In other words, I would be rather shocked to see Horcoff or Gonchar get you anything, except perhaps a chance for a buy-out this summer in their current form.
Todd W. White
You sound like you have the proper helping of realism packed in with your optimism. I think that is a good stance right now.
Clear keepers as foundation for your next contender who are currently in Dallas: Jamie Benn, Seguin, Nichushkin, Eakin, Dillon, Lehtonen.
Possibilities: Chiasson, Connauton, Roussel, and the riddle of Goligoski.
The rest? Useful parts that can fit in the right spot perhaps, or they are just guys who are rolling through town during their careers. You can never tell and your opponents are going to ask for guys listed above in all deals, so to add to this stack without subtracting is not very common. The good news is that there is still plenty of talent below this growing on the farm as well, so let’s see.
Two great discussion points. I never totally believed Chiasson was this sniper that he appeared to be in his first 10 games or so, and while he seems to have some very strong attributes for a goal scorer, he also seems to not really create too much on his own nor does he have much of a physical edge to me. I am yet to be convinced he is a difference maker and I hope he is just going through a stretch and will emerge soon with clear signs of growth. I don’t know what his market would be, but if you can flip him for something proven, I would currently authorize that as I think his hype/numbers are better than his reality.
As for Goligoski, I really wish I could figure him out. He plays really well some nights, and I might still contend that he has the highest ceiling of any defensemen that the Stars own, so when fans want him dumped in the trash, I think they are focusing on his meltdowns that occur way too often. He isn’t a kid, isn’t being paid like one, and therefore has to be better. But, he is also being overextended, and just because you paid him like an elite defenseman doesn’t mean he is one.
His numbers are just nowhere near where they need to be and honestly, if you want to know how the power play could improve, it would likely be with better play from his spot in particular. This is where Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill have to be smart. He is under contract for a ton, so the best move is to figure out to have him perform here. But, man, it is tough to keep a brave face with him on the scene too often when things go wrong in the defensive end.
Depending on answer do you think that need to make the playoffs will (or should) change how we approach trade deadline moves?
Ryan, you hit on a very good topic. Does the hockey side and the business side agree on the proper route to the team’s objectives of a contender and a full arena? A rebuild that takes time means too many crowds of 13,000 when the arena holds 18,000. People don’t want to pay to watch a 10 seed very often in a market like this, so where does that take us?
Does Tom Gaglardi understand all of this? Does he have the patience to cash in some more chips to keep building the under-25 portion of his franchise. Given the trades of Steve Ott, Brenden Morrow, Jaromir Jagr, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy in the last 2 seasons should tell us the answer, but everyone has a limit to their "wait for next year" mantra.
With cap room and lots of kids, there comes a time where you start to look for guys who are ready now. I was optimistic that Jay Bouwmeester’s availability last spring might have been considered, but St Louis was willing to act right away because they are in a different spot. Teams are looking to shed money and waiting to get studs via free agency is sometimes too pricey. Sometimes, you help teams who need to move players and find value (like Seguin). So, I might expect a slight move in objectives this time around.
Surely, there is concern, but for now, they can’t rush this. They need to give Jamie Oleksiak and Gaunce every chance to grow in the minors with other prospects of high regard, because they can’t go acquire the entire unit. Dillon is fantastic and I have great optimism for Connauton. If you have 3 keepers in that group of 4, then the future can be very soon. But, you still need that "ace" and they don’t grow on trees for sure.
Are there any top defenseman out there now that are available without leveraging our future? I heard rumors of Shea Weber being available, do we have anything reasonable that Nashville would want?
For those unaware, Shea is in year 2 of a 14-year, $110 million deal at the age of 28 in Nashville. I think if you could add him to the Stars, they would be a Top 10 in the NHL that quickly. He is fantastic and maybe the best at his position in the league. That said, Nashville has paid him a king’s ransom in the first 2 years of this deal and would be looking for the world to move him after all of that trouble. If he was made available, the movers and shakers in the East would be fighting each other to overpay for him as he should be elite for years to come and his deal really has 4 cosmetic years tacked on to the end.
He is everything they need, and they actually have the financial capability of pulling it off, but like I said, you would likely have to give 3-5 wonderful pieces to make it happen (Wild Guess: Dillon, Jack Campbell, Nichushkin, and draft picks?) and I am not sure if that would get it done. Trust me, I would be tempted because I think he is that great, but let’s understand that this is an extreme long shot on all manner of levels and trading Dillon and Nichushkin should be considered insanity for a team in the Stars spot, anyway.
As for other top defensemen available? Not many. I wanted them to throw an offer on PK Subban after the lockout, but they were too busy getting Jamie Benn back under contract. The #1 defensemen is out there, but they seldom come available if they don’t have warts (or even if they do).
This is going to be the key for the next great team here as we simply look back to the Stars co-#1 defensemen in Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov that always gave the Stars an advantage against most opponents. But, again, they are tough to find for sure.