The NHL trading deadline often plays out like the ending of a suspense film. Sometimes things are predictable. Other times they are a letdown where not too much happens. And then there are the occasional M. Night Shyamalan twists that no one saw coming. While it was not necessarily the biggest trade of the 48 hours leading up to the deadline, the Dallas Stars acquisition of two-time Vezina winner and former Stanley Cup Playoff MVP, Tim Thomas certainly falls into the latter category. To a lesser degree, even Tuesday’s move that sent Stephane Robidas out of Dallas after more than a decade of service with the club came as a relative surprise compared to other deals.
If someone would have told you at the start of the year that the only players traded off the team this year would have been Robidas, Dan Ellis, and Lane MacDermid, and the only player acquired via trade would be Thomas, you likely would have had them committed. What if someone would have told you that when the club started 3-5? Or after they lost nine of the first ten games of 2014? How about when rumors started swirling around unrestricted free agents-to-be Ray Whitney and Vernon Fiddler? You probably wouldn’t have believed it at any of those times either.
The Stars entered this year as a team with a brand new Head Coach, a new General Manager, a number of expiring contracts, and players assuming unfamiliar roles. Change was to be part of equation. Nobody was exactly sure what kind of change, but you knew it was coming. And it was probably expected by most to be more profound than a minor-league forward, a back-up goaltender, and a defenseman who (while he means so much to the organization) had missed more than half of the season due to injury.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the trading deadline.
The Stars became a really good hockey team.
Not just a team that is winning games and surprising a few opponents. They are legitimately a good team. Entering this week the Stars have gone 15 straight games allowing 30 shots or less. They are outscoring the opposition by a two-to-one ratio over the last month and a half. The Stars have an elite top line. They have outstanding goaltending (which just got upgraded). They have a true shutdown line that is a nightmare to play against. And believe it or not, they have been one of the best defensive teams in the NHL over the last two months. A team that was hoping to be in the playoff conversation at the Olympic Break and trading deadline, instead surpassed that. They became occupiers of a playoff spot at both checkpoints, and according to many are now the favorites for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
Now, there are certainly a number of teams still in the mix with 20 games left, and the Stars hardly have anything wrapped up. But they are playing strong enough hockey that there was no need to rock the boat at the deadline. Those whose contracts at one point did not figure into the long-term plans have made themselves too valuable to separate with at this point, and will be re-evaluated over the summer. Other players who might have been assets requested by other teams, bring more now than they could have returned. And overall, this group of players has formed something special. They have overcome injuries, illness, losing streaks, and bound together in the first year of a new regime to make themselves a relevant part of the NHL landscape. Even in defeat, they are managing to impress. The way the Stars played last week against Tampa Bay and Columbus, when they trailed 3-0 in both games says a lot about this team. Given all of the scenarios, it was just more than GM Jim Nill cared to disrupt. If you’ve watched the Stars – especially as of late – you get the feeling that things feel right.
In a sport where superstars are demanding out of locker rooms, players are refusing to play for certain coaches, and teams are spiraling down the standings, everybody on the Stars seems quite happy with the unified direction the team is headed. Guys are playing for each other, and the results look promising. Nill has spent his life in hockey. He is considered one of the best architects in the game. In other words, he knows what a winning roster looks like.
So when the NHL’s Point of no Return came around on Wednesday afternoon, it says an awful lot that he made the choice to stand pat. In fact, when an unexpected goaltender became available, he even decided to add a piece.
I still believe that this team’s brightest days are in the coming years, and this season will one day be looked at as the “beginning” of a lengthy, upward trend. But make no mistake – the Stars are ready to make noise this year. I believe that Nill feels that way too. He held true to his world and was not willing to mortgage the future for a rental player this year, of which there were many. But the moves that were – and were not – made, echoed loud and clear. This team can contend right now.
Over the next 39 days the Stars will play 20 games as they hope to break the five-year playoff drought in Dallas. The men wearing Victory Green down the stretch will be the same ones who have worked this team into a playoff spot thus far.
These are your 2013-2014 Dallas Stars. They have been all year long. Now let’s see how far this ride goes.
It’s another big, four-game schedule with a milestone flare this week. Here are some things to keep ‘On the Radar’ in the upcoming slate of games.
Handling Your Own Business
The Minnesota Wild have won five straight games, upgraded severely at the deadline, and are threatening to leave the Western Conference Wild-Card pack behind them. However, at least for now, they still remain in the mix, leaving six teams battling for two Wild Card spots. Of the remaining 20 games, the Stars have only seven against teams from that pack. This week features two of them, as they host Vancouver on Thursday and Minnesota on Saturday. Thursday’s game is huge. The Canucks enter the week, just two points back from Dallas, but have played two more games than the Stars. They also are in complete disarray. They traded their second #1 goaltender in the last eight months, their leading scorer is out for a while with an injury, and their top center is planning his escape from the team like a prisoner. They have just one win in their last 11 games. But they are still right in the thick of the race. The Stars can deliver a huge blow to them with a win on Thursday in the final meeting of the year. On Saturday, it’s the Stars final meeting of the season with the Wild and they can close the gap with them. At this stage, every game is important. However, the ones against your neighbors in the standings are even more so. This week begins with two of those.
Déjà Blue Jackets
On Monday night the Stars play the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second time in less than a week. It marks the third time this season that Dallas faces a team for the first and second times within a week. If a pattern holds, it’s not great news for the Stars. In each of the first two series, the team who won the first game also won the second. The Stars were swept by the New York Islanders six days apart in January, and then beat the Coyotes twice in five days in February. On Tuesday Columbus scored three times in the first period and held off a furious charge from Dallas in a 4-2 game.
Defense Providing Offense
The Stars have been praised for their terrific defensively play as of late. Part of the praise has been that both defensemen and forwards are chipping in to help. At the other end of the ice, the same thing can be said as Stars defensemen have ramped up their scoring as of late. Dallas blue liners have scored four of the last five Stars goals, and have contributed five goals in the last four games. By contrast, Stars defensemen had only scored 20 goals in 372 man-games heading into the Olympic Break. If Dallas can get occasional offensive help from their defensemen, it would be a huge boost down the stretch, as scoring typically tightens up and games get closer.
Saturday night features the biggest night of the Stars regular season, and one of the biggest nights in the organization’s history. The Stars are retiring Mike Modano’s #9 in a pre-game celebration for the ages. The festivities begin with the KIA Victory Green Carpet Show at 4:30 p.m. Memorable players and personnel from the Stars two-decade history in Dallas will be on hand, including the majority of the 1999 Stanley Cup winning team. The festivities continue with an in-arena show beginning at 6 p.m. sharp. The details are not all public, but the Stars have gone all out for this event and any Stars fan will regret missing a second of it. Whether you are attending the game, watching it on TV (before of course joining us on the radio later), make sure to be where you need to be by 6 p.m. Few teams in professional sports have one player who serves as such an iconic representation of the franchise. The Stars are very fortunate to have a player like that in Modano. Wherever you are, make sure to be a part of the celebration on Saturday. It promises to be a treat for every Stars fan and a night no one will soon forget.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.
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