Young Leadership Core Emerging
Stars beginning to lean on younger leadership core
Coming off their fourth straight season without a playoff spot, it’s almost amazing to see just how vastly different the Dallas Stars organization is today compared to the one that last made the post-season back in 2008.
Virtually all components of the front office have been turned over, with a new owner, new president and new executives in place, a new General Manager, a new coaching staff, and most importantly, a new, emerging core of young leaders on the ice.
|Jamie Benn and Kari Lehtonen celebrate after a Stars win.|
The club still relies upon the experienced wisdom of captain Brenden Morrow, along with alternate captains Steve Ott and Stephane Robidas, both on the ice and in the dressing room, but a new group has begun to shoulder more responsibilities in both areas.
With players like third-year center Jamie Benn, 28-year-old goaltender Kari Lehtonen, and 26-year-old leading scorer Loui Eriksson growing into more crucial roles on the ice, they have also begun to assume similarly important voices in the locker room.
“I’m very pleased with the future of some of our young players who are our best players,” said Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “I thought Loui Eriksson made tremendous strides this year. I’ve felt in the past couple of seasons that maybe he got a little tired at the end of seasons, but this year, he maintained his weight, and for me, took a real leadership role and really wanted to make a difference. Jamie Benn is getting better, he’s 22 years old… sometimes we forget that and sometimes we want to push him to do things that 22-year-olds shouldn’t, but I’m really pleased with him.”
“They’re amazing,” added Morrow, 33, regarding the new wave of Stars leaders. “Jamie Benn’s a special player and he’s going to be for a long time. Some people may have questioned whether Loui was going to be able to keep pace without (Brad Richards) feeding him the puck and he proved to everyone he can. Kari’s healthy in the net now and he looks like a top-five goalie. I think that the youth and the young core here is pretty strong.”
On defense, add the 26-year-old Alex Goligoski to the mix as well. Since his acquisition from Pittsburgh in Feb. 2011, Goligoski has provided a much-needed offensive dimension to the blueline, leading Dallas defensemen with nine goals and 30 points in 71 games this past year, while gradually taking on a leadership role as well.
“I think it’s a role that I kind of want to step into, maybe would have liked to do more this year, but next year for sure,” said Goligoski of assuming a larger leadership stake. “It’s the same thing with me, I’m going to work hard this summer and come back, and whatever the team looks like next year, there’s going to be a lot of urgency and anxiousness to get started and to put this year and even the year before behind us and just move on.”
Another player who stepped into a significant role for the Stars this past season was right winger Michael Ryder, who at 32, was the club’s most important newcomer in 2011-12. With a personal-best, team-leading 35 goals, Ryder displayed impressive chemistry with Eriksson and center Mike Ribeiro for a key stretch in February when the club went on a 10-0-1 run.
“It was definitely a different opportunity for me here in Dallas and I got to play in a lot of different situations,” said Ryder, who helped Boston win the 2011 Stanley Cup before signing as a free agent with Dallas last July. “I was just grateful to get the chance to come here and to do that, get more ice time and try to be one of those impact players. That’s what I wanted to do, try and help this team make the playoffs, but we just came up a little short there.”
As for Eriksson, who recorded a team-high 71 points (26 goals, 45 assists) this past season, he acknowledged that he felt a responsibility to be one of the Stars’ go-to offensive contributors, something he has embraced enthusiastically.
“That’s what I’m supposed to be doing… you’re playing on the top line, you have to go out there and try to score goals and create chances and come up with the big plays,” said the 6-foot-2, 196-pound Swede, who has also become one of his national team’s top performers. “You always try to get in and help the team as much as you can and I’m trying to do that this year too. I’d been having a fun year again too, but it’s too bad when the season ends like it did. But that’s what I’m going to try to do next year, I’ll try to get even better and help the team even more.”
And even though Benn is still just 22, he took another step in the right direction this season, posting career-highs with 26 goals, 37 assists and 63 points, not to mention a strong +15 plus/minus rating in 71 games, while also serving as the Stars’ lone representative at the All-Star Game in January.
“I think I got a little taste this year and I believe that I am a leader here and being a young guy, it’s just a number,” said Benn, who has yet to skate in an NHL playoff game. “Next year, I’m going to come in with an even bigger role, a better attitude, and just try to get these guys back into the playoffs. You just believe in yourself and the people around you. We were doing that all year. No one ever thought we couldn’t make it, just keep pushing to the end, but we came up a little short. Nothing in the NHL is easy, you just keep working hard and hopefully, we can turn it around next year.”
With guys like Benn, Eriksson, Lehtonen and Goligoski leading a still-improving young core, assisted by some of the still-effective wily veterans like Ryder, Morrow, Ott and Robidas, the Stars look like a dangerous team next season as the growing process accelerates - both on and off the ice.
“I’m proud of the way our team competed hard, I’m proud of the way they came together as a team, which to me, is a big part of the battle,” Nieuwendyk said. “It’s always the goal early on for a group of guys to come together and to respect each other and to play hard for each other and I think we had a lot of good efforts from our group this year.”