All those surprised by the Dallas Stars raise your hand.
Yes, I am typing with one hand, with the other held high. I, for one, didn't think they could bring all the parts together and play a fast enough game to make the top eight in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Not only do the Stars look like a playoff team, they lead the Pacific Division and have yet to lose in regulation this month, posting a 6-0-1 record.
There is a lot of credit to spread around, but GM Joe Nieuwendyk heads the list. Some of the moves he made last season are now having a major impact and his recent subtle touches have likewise been astute. Bringing in Marc Crawford to coach at the beginning of the 2009-10 season looks better now than it ever did. Crawford favors up-tempo aggressive hockey and that's what he's preached to the Stars from the outset.
Good coaches analyze and adjust, and even one with more than 500 wins and a Stanley Cup on his resume has to modify things based on the personnel at hand. "This year, we took a step back -- made sure we were sound defensively first," Crawford explains. "It has always been the identity of this franchise as constructed by Bob Gainey and through Ken Hitchcock. We maybe got a little ahead of ourselves, so we changed the order of our focus this season and we've made strides."
Crawford is quick to point out that goaltender Kari Lehtonen's strong start "gave our team confidence early" and helped create the overall mindset that success was possible. The former second overall pick in the 2002 draft inked a new three-year deal worth $10.65 million after coming over from the Atlanta Thrashers in a trade late last season. Lehtonen's 12-game audition with the Stars (6-4, 2.81 GAA, .911 save pct.) led to that new contract even though his arrival was awkward with incumbent Marty Turco still in the fold. But Turco is gone now and Lehtonen is already a 20-game winner.
And if Lehtonen's strong season is due in part to a new start, good health (finally) and a level of professional maturity that comes with time, backup Andrew Raycroft has similarly found a sanctuary in Dallas. After winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie in 2004, Raycroft has led a nomadic existence, but is now seemingly comfortable in the role of playing when needed. Both reclamation projects give the Stars a goaltending tandem that is relatively young and inexpensive but with plenty of NHL experience.
More recently, Nieuwendyk acquired veteran Jamie Langenbrunner to add proven grit and leadership and he scored his first goal since rejoining the Stars in his 1,000 NHL game. Langenbrunner, who has a knack for playing his best in big situations, has always been more valuable come playoff time. So, his main value will come later, but the message to the rest of the team was obvious: we can win now as well as in the springtime. It was a decisive move with purpose and it rings positively throughout the locker room.
With centerman Brad Richards having a season that should garner Hart Trophy consideration and Mike Ribeiro finally accepting his second-center status and playing a team game, the Stars are solid in the middle. Both are premier playmakers who fit perfectly with the Stars' big wingers led by captain Brendan Morrow. With Loui Eriksson (who is currently on a 10-game point streak), James Neal, Jamie Benn and Langenbrunner, the Stars have two potent scoring lines. All but Eriksson are big bodies at over 200 pounds -- and he is a lanky 6' 3", 190-pounder himself -- who can grind and get to the net.
The defense? Well, that was the area that I thought would be the Stars' undoing. But they've gotten strong play out of the group and the goaltending has muted some shortcomings. But coach Crawford's approach this season has limited the exposure of his team's perceived weakness, and don't be surprised if GM Nieuwendyk makes another move to enhance the depth of his blueline corps. And that is why the Stars have had such a fine first half-plus. They've identified who they are and addressed it along they way in order to be the team they want to be. They havn't been flashy, just impressive -- even more so in their subtlety.
Make no mistake. These Dallas Stars are a good team. We can all put our arms down now and watch them continue to compete and succeed the rest of the way.