Friday, March 19, 2010

Five Things to Start the Optomism for 2011

First off, I do not condone abandoning the ship of your team until there is no possible way for them to get into the playoffs, and I will continue to watch games, highlights, and read about the Stars until the end of the season. Having said that, over the years my childhood allegiance to Dallas has waned in favor of a more holistic fan hood of the game of hockey and the NHL itself, so the Stars missing the playoffs, while frustrating, will not sink my hockey spirit, especially as we get to the playoffs, the greatest time of the year.

Looking forward though I think that there is reason to be optimistic in Stars land and here are 5 reasons why:

1 - New Ownership: The Stars have stuck to their internal budget for two seasons with the mounting financial issues of owner Tom Hicks, which has clearly affected the on-ice product. Bob Sturm had a nice piece a while back comparing the Stars spending on defense with the rest of the league, and found there is a pretty big gap between the spending on Dallas' blue line with what some of the top teams in the league are spending. I understand that dollars do not equal talent or success, but as a believer in the efficiencies of markets, it is not a bad metric. With a hope of new owners by the beginning of next season, Dallas may have the ability to lure in a top Defensemen, who can help bolster the back end confidence, as well as provide some more leadership for the Stars young guns.

2 - The Young Forwards: Specifically, Jamie Benn, James Neal, Mark Fistric, Nick Grossman and Tom Wandell. Jamie Benn is having a terrific year, especially considering that he was asked to switch to the center position (a new place for him) mid season. Playing center, especially at the NHL level is very difficult, but Benn has done a great job of playing a simple game, being defensively responsible, while also being physical and aggressive towards the net. His ability to adapt and create have been exciting to watch, plus this kid has some serious one on one ability unlike anything I have seen in Dallas, with the exception of Mike Ribiero. As he grows as a player, and with it he increases is comfort and confidence, his combination of smarts, size and ability with the puck will make him a standout, and a huge component of a winning Dallas club.

James Neal has also had a nice year, starting at near point a game pace, which has cooled off, but there was certainly no sophomore slump after his terrific rookie season, and I don't think there is a better puck pursuit artist on this roster. I am excited to see what he can do with Richards and Eriksson going into next year, hopefully continuing their success from this year. Tom Wandell was also really starting to look good before he went down with a knee injury, and hopefully that setback will not stunt his development going forward. He looks like he will be the next Selke candidate on this roster.

3 - The Young D: The two young defensemen have played very well this year, and Fistric specifically has managed to be the only significantly positive plus/minus player on the roster (+17), with Grossman being the only other plus defensemen (+1). With Robidas, Skrastins and Daley, plus these two, I think the acquisition of one really solid puck moving defensemen could turn around the unit. Unfortunately, I think the Stars need to part ways with Matt Niskanen (draft day trade possibly) because he seems to take two steps back with every step forward, and I don't see a development in confidence that I would expect in his third full year.

4 - New guard in net: We don't know for certain if Marty Turco is done in Dallas, but it doesn't look good for him. Unfortunately he could not keep up the momentum that he got rolling prior to the Olympics, and the poor play in the games following the break probably will be a large part of why Dallas will miss the playoffs, as well as signal his end here. With that though brings new blood, and I am excited about Kari Lehtonen. I wrote a few days ago that he needed a big showing against the Sharks and needed to get a lot of action down the stretch. Well, he delivered the goods against San Jose and played a strong game against Philly last night, despite the loss. He really is a big guy and takes up a lot of the net, which i think will eliminate some of the soft goal issues that Marty has had the last two seasons, which are crippling morale wise. Also, Kari is not going to play the puck nearly as much as Turco has, and while I was on the fence about this at first, because Marty did make some fabulous plays with the puck, I think that letting the defense handle the forecheck, without having to anticipate Marty's play will simplify their job and help make a cleaner exit from the zone, even though they will probably have to take more hits as a result.

5 - Brenden Morrow: Morrow has had a below average year for his standards. I think the Olympics really got him going and its because he is a passion player. When he is depended on, he brings his game and leads his team, and that is when he is best. The team's up and down performance, ownership issues, goal tending and other personnel issues, have made it hard for the captain to engage at the level he is capable. Couple that with this being his first year back from a major knee injury and I think that this was just a personal rebuilding year for the captain. Furthermore, Morrow's best partner on the team, Mike Ribeiro missed significant time with a throat injury and the two are just now getting back onto the same pageI am excited to see what Brenden has in store for us next year, knowing that he is healthy, and that his team's issues have been addressed and they are ready to follow him back to the top of the western conference.

Enjoy the weekend.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Kari Lehtonen Needs to Show Something

Tonights Stars - Sharks matchup is a big one for Dallas. Not only do they need to win just about every game through the end of the year to have a chance at the playoffs (not likely barring divine intervention), but they need to see what the big Fin netminder, Kari Lehtonen, has up his sleeve to give GM Joe Nieuwendyk some idea of what the stars will have in net going forward. Having not seen either of his two appearances first hand, it is hard to know exactly how to interpret Lehtonen's poor numbers.

I know everyone is cutting him some slack because of his long absence from the NHL, the Stars pourous defense, and the fact that his first start was against the defending champs, but he needs to show at least a gilmmer of hope that he can be the stonewall of the future, otherwise dire times, for both the club and anxious fans, are ahead for Dallas. I believe that Kari has the right tools to be a great goaltender, and if a stronger work ethic, somthing I hear may be lacking in his game, can be instilled by the leaders of the team (read: Brenden Morrow and Stephane Robidas), that talent could be realized and help bring Dallas back to contender status in the West.

Thinking about where this team is currently positioned as a franchise - mediocre in the standings and on the ice, but with a fairly deep pool of young talent, prospects and a high draft pick coming, cap room, and a ownership situation that will hopefully be resolved in the near future - the future does not look so bleak. Specifically, the Stars have their recent first-round pick Scott Glennie performing well in Junior, he maybe a year or so away, and they have the prospect of picking in the top 10 in a deep 2010 draft, starting a new direction for the club.

I do not know how the Stars will regroup after two (probably) non-playoff years, but for the rebound year to be in 2011, the Stars will need to hope that Lehtonen can shine, and the front office can shore up the defense. If those two things happen and the Stars can have a confident, efficient, puck-moving back end with a reliable safety net in goal, then a Marc Crawford system could function as drawn up, utilizing many of the Stars talented and gritty forwards pushing the pace, and Dallas may have a chance to head to back to better days.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Over the line?

I'm sure many have seen the hit that Alex Ovechkin laid on Brian Campbell over the weekend. If you havent seen it here is the video.

I think the reactions to the hit have changed tone a bit after hearing that Campbell may now miss the rest of the season with a broken collarbone, broken ribs, and a Grade 2 concussion, and I think that is fair. Bob McKenzie has a solid point that in every part of life the severity of the consequence as the result of some misguided behavior plays into the punishment.

Considering that this is part of a string of incidences involving Ovechkin, and now by far the most significant in terms of the resulting injury, the NHL needs to take a hard line with its star player and let him know that these hits are unacceptable. Furthermore, reaction to the hit needs to not only come in the form of supplementary discipline by the NHL, but the league's players should be vocal about abolishing the dangerous, necessary, blind side hits, which put every player at risk. The NHL has always had a tradition of allowing the players to police the game, and while dropping the gloves can sometimes be effective in controlling an isolated match, that will not have any effect on the over arching problem.

Instead, it is important that respected NHL leaders speak out about these hits and adamantly lobby for fitting discipline by the NHL. I applaud Bill Guerin for calling out his own teammate, Matt Cooke, for his dangerous hit on Marc Savard, which consequently may cause Savard to miss the rest of the season with a concussion. I know some will criticize Guerin, citing conduct detrimental to the team, but I think that every player, especially a Guerin (well-respected veteran and has roles in the NHLPA), has a higher duty as a hockey player to deem these plays as intolerable.

Personally, I think that Colin Campbell should hand out a suspension to Ovie of no less than three games to send an adequate message that he needs to be in more control in his physicality on the ice.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Silver Lining

It has taken me over a week to shake the funk that I found myself in after the US lost to Canada in the Olympic gold medal game, in what to me was one of the greatest sports events that I have seen in some time. On that Sunday, I strolled out of my apartment with a few friends clad in my 1980 USA sweater and other obnoxiously American accessories (read: 10-gallon cowboy hat) and proceeded to cozy up in a bar with large majority of Canadian patrons. Now, Canadians are generally pretty nice people, so while I and my company heckled every Canadian player (I laid off Brenden Morrow, I just couldn't bring my self to besmirch the Dallas captain), they more or less laid off ours, and on many occasions chuckled at some of our more ridiculous taunts. When Zach Parise tied the game in the final minute, I found myself at the top of my hockey enthusiasm (arguably on par to when Brett Hull scored the cup clincher in 3-OT), and then 20 minutes later met my low. I mentioned that the Canadian fans were not to harsh on the US through out the game and that continued after Crosby won them the gold, and thank god, because I am not sure how I would have handled an annoying gloating Canadian fan.

I digress, but the moral of the story was I was in a serious funk. I watched no hockey for an entire week, didn't check standings, or my fantasy team, or even survey the blog sheets - nothing. See, usually a sports loss of this magnitude comes when you have an entire offseason to take away from the game (see: Stars loss to Devils in 2000, Rockies loss to Boston in 2008, and many every Denver Broncos season since 1998). However, since the NHL season got back into gear the NEXT DAY, there was no time to get over the loss away from hockey, and thus I took my own hiatus. Now that I am back, partially thanks to a nice come from behind, on national tv, win by Dallas (i.e. Marty Turco) over the Capitals, I am ready to share my thoughts on the two weeks of hockey glory that were the Olympics.

Non-Obvious Stand Out Players:
As a general hockey enthusiast I watched just about every game of the tournament, and focused really on watching individual players. After the games in Turin, a few Olympic standouts made the switch to the NHL (namely Finland's Ville Peltonen), and as a wannabe GM thought I would try and find this years. I was really impressed with a number of guys and will now present my list of Top 3 non-obvious Olympic Standouts (as in they are not current NHLers).

3. Ziggy Palffy and Jozef Stumpel - How about a nice turnout for two guys who I thought were distant memories of hockey players. Turns out both still play and both managed to put together a nice tournament for a Slovakian team that has to be considered the surprise of the tournament. Yes, I know they were more stacked than some of the lower tier teams, but they played every team tough, ousted the defending gold medalists, and came one cross-bar away from taking Canada to overtime (coming back down 3 in the third, and the Canadians starting to look very shaky) for a spot in the gold medal game. Eight points between the two of them and a nice throwback to great hockey names of my childhood.

2. Edgars Masa─╝skis - The Latvian goalie was an absolute beast through much of the tournament. Yes I know the Latvians got smoke in 3 of their 4 games, but it was not because of this guy. He faced an incredible 170 shots in his games (~43 a game) against three of the more stacked teams in the tournament (Russia, Czech Republic, and Slovakia). The highlight of his tournament was in the qualifying game with the Czech Republic where he stopped 47 of 50 shots and willed the Latvians to a third period comeback, until late into OT when the Czechs managed to get one by him to take the game and advance. I was up late watching this match and went from dozing off early in the third period to being completely up and alert watching this guy frustrate and bewilder the Czech scorers while at the same time driving the momentum his team needed to tie the game late and send it into OT.

1. Roman Wick - Admittedly, I spent more focus watching this Swiss forward as the Group A (Switzerland, Norway, Canada, US) games were at better times and I had more of a vested interest. But in the four games i watched closely, SUI v. US (Prelim), SUI v. Canada, SUI v. Belarus and SUI v. US (Quarter final), Wick was constantly the most noticeable forward on the ice, and that says a lot considering the talent that he was playing across from. As the Swiss leader in forwards ice-time (85 minutes in 5 games = 17 minutes a game) and points (2-3-5), Wick not only was the most effective Swiss forward but he did it against the best lines on the opposing teams.

There you have it. 

Leading Picture Source: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY