The Stars have kicked off the new season in a nice fashion, winning their first two games on the road against the Devils and then the Islanders. Then winning the home opener in convincing fashion over the Red Wings was exciting for fans to see, and shows this team is not the same team as last season. Two wins in extra time, (one in OT and one in the shootout) are promising. Last season the Stars were inconsistent on the road and horrible if the game lasted longer then the 3rd period. So picking up points, much less 4 out of 4 points, on the road to start the season is a good sign. Then making it 3 in a row for the first time in a season and a half was even better to see. Watch out, we may have a real team here this season.
Many people have discussed some of the big things that will decide what the Stars are able to achieve this season or big areas that need improvement over last season. But I want to put my spin on it and give you the things I am seeing as a fan/young writer that has been watching the game since I was a kid. I agree with some blogs or sites, but I felt I should put up my key areas too. So without rambling on too much, here are the top 3 things that will most affect the Stars success this season:
1. Brenden Morrow
Not everyone has a captain in them, despite what some say. Sure the defense and goaltending situations will be important for the Stars. But the biggest thing that I see that will dictate the Stars this season is if Morrow can offensively rebound and also be THE leader for Dallas. Everyone keeps talking about how Dallas is in a time of transition and many don’t expect the Stars to be a playoff team this year. I think this team is transitioning, but they are not as far down as many think. But a big reason for the belief is that the identity and face of this franchise is now up in the air. Longtime fan favorites and faces of the franchise Modano, Turco, and Lehtinen are all gone from the team. Lehtinen might come back, but at this point I think it is good for him and the team if he doesn’t. So while Morrow has been the captain of the team for years now, there is now very little outspoken or noticeable leadership. Morrow helped carry the team a few seasons ago and was the big part of their run to the Western Conference Finals. But a couple of seasons of injuries and struggling to get back into form have made some question Morrow and wonder if he could ever be the same. Now Morrow and linemate Ribeiro came into camp and the preseason this year in great shape and both seem to be focused. The results are showing, because after lighting up the lamp often when on the ice during the preseason, the two have combined for 9 points in only 3 games. Hopefully it continues and Morrow really is back. But another promising sign so far is that he looks a little more physical and has been outspoken off the ice so far. Now is the time, he is 31 and is the captain of a team that now features a lot of guys younger then him. How good and what kind of leader Brenden is this season will greatly affect how well this team can do.
2. Kari Lehtonen
The 2nd biggest factor will be the play in the net, and if the Stars new #1 goalie can stay healthy. It is well documented that Dallas traded one of their few top prospects in their system and a draft pick to Atlanta last year at the trade deadline to pickup Lehtonen. The former 1st round pick came in and showed some signs that he working to get past the injury history and still has the potential many saw within him. But a two seasons of almost constantly being injured and a system full of high draft picks via years of sucking, and the Thrashers lost faith in him. The Stars still saw something though, and after a summer in which Turco was not brought back and Kari got a nice big contract, it is now his team and his crease. Word around the team and by many was that after a summer he spent focusing on conditioning and endurance, that Lehtonen is in great shape and probably the best he has ever been in. It has showed so far, with a solid preseason and even though he let in some goals in the first two games of the season, he was also a huge part in keeping the team in games or holding onto the lead. The time is now for Kari Lehtonen to climb his way back to where people see him as a #1 NHL quality goalie and a young talent. And if he can do that, the Stars can have a shot at making the playoffs.
3. The Three Young (Maybe not wise) Men
The Stars biggest question mark besides possibly the crease is their defense. Behind the veteran Robidas, there is a group of young and/or average defensemen. The concerns on defense led to many around the hockey world predicting the Stars would miss the playoffs for a third year in a row. There is a trio of young defenders that were all here last season but growth and steps forward by them could help this defense improve. Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric, and Matt Niskanen are the future of this defense right now for better or for worse. I am with many who think Niskanen should have been traded to try and improve the D or get value back. After a great rookie season, Nisky has had a couple of bad years and has looked downright awful at times in his own zone. But management and the coaching staff has chosen to keep him. Hopefully he can continue to grow as an offensive blueliner but find a way to get back to not being such a danger and risk in his own zone. Grossman and Fistric have been the bright spots for the Stars on the defense. Both are young and defensive minded, and with continued growth and a bigger role could help improve the defense. Grossman has taken over on the top line next to Robidas and plays on the PK, and while Fistric is not overly talented, he plays with heart and is learning to positionally be solid in his own zone. With this team own a ownership-imposed cap, help and improvement for the defense and penalty kill will have to come from within. And while these are not high-end prospects, with some growth and learning from each it could help the defense get better until new ownership comes and maybe they can go after a nice free agent. Some improvement and consistency from these three young blueliners would go a great way to helping the team finish higher this spring then they did last spring.
There are other big factors this season. Brad Richards and his line having another banner year (and they have started off as possibly the most dangerous line in hockey) could be huge. Robidas being a leader for the defense and continuing his all-out style of play is something as well. But in my opinion, and here mine matters, these three…well areas or such….will dictate the most on how the Stars do and if we can again return to the postseason. Leadership and a rebirth by Morrow, Lehtonen stepping into the crease and living up to his potential, and the trio of young blueliners taking a combined step forward. Let’s hope these do happen and one way or another the Stars are not playing golf again in mid-April.