Sturm Words: Finding Identity
Well, here we are, two weeks into a new campaign and we see that some things are really different and some things are very similar to what we have grown accustomed to in the last few years. A game like the shootout victory over a high-quality team like the San Jose Sharks shows what this team is capable of, while a disappointment in Minnesota may demonstrate how anything less than the best effort of this crew might not be enough to compete.
So, 6 games in, what is new and exciting?
- The Stars are a team now that troubles its opponents with speed and skill. There are plenty of signs that Tyler Seguin is exactly who they wanted as he controls the middle of the ice with flash that reminds me of Modano in his prime. He moves at a speed that can be blinding and when he is on his game (quite often, it seems) you can see how he backs the defense off and plays much of his shifts in the opponent’s end with Jamie Benn and Rich Peverley complimenting him nicely. It appears that the Stars have personnel that now trouble their opponent and make them take great notice of the issues they may present.
- They are also a team that do appear to play with the puck more (relatively speaking). There are more players who can win and keep the puck then before, and this is a major step in the right direction. It can be a frustrating game when you don’t possess the puck, and as we have learned in past seasons, it is especially difficult to draw power play opportunities if you never have the puck. Any hopes of exhausting the opponent to a point where they are forced into a penalty is gone if you don’t keep the puck the majority of the game. This team isn’t where it needs to be in that category, but you can see that they are making strides and that is excellent news, as well.
- They surely look like a team that has plenty of forwards that all look the part of a team with forward depth. When you see the top 9 forwards, in particular, it does jump off the screen that there are many interchangeable parts, and although very few look like elite players, they look loaded up with very good pieces. Whether we are talking about Shawn Horcoff, Vern Fiddler, Peverley, Cody Eakin, or Ray Whitney, they all can make plays for 200 feet that will prove useful. Drop in some kids like Alex Chiasson and Valeri Nichushkin who both have remarkable puck skills and scoring punch that will continue to develop, it appears that the Stars now can field an attack where they can roll lines and still sustain pressure in their attack.
Conversely, there a fair number of old identifiable traits that have reared their head through the first half-dozen games.
- Way too many turnovers in their own zone that just cannot be acceptable. This is a team that has to grind out results, and when it does, nothing can sabotage those efforts quicker than giving up the puck and have it end up in your own net. Zone entries and exits are vital in today’s NHL game, and while zone entries have really improved, zone exits from their own end still can seem like a real adventure from time to time. This is an evolutionary process, as it is clear that as they grow in confidence, they are tempted to take more chances on breakout opportunities, but it sure looks like the safe play needs to remain the default setting. Going up the boards is not fun, nor pretty, but when someone tries to skate the puck out and then coughs it up for a demoralizing goal against, you can see how everyone’s shoulders sink.
- Faceoffs still find the Stars in the bottom third of the league in this incredibly small sample. We have to assume that Tyler Seguin in particular is going to start winning more faceoffs as he re-acclimates with the center position, but for now, he is winning about 1 out of 3. That has to improve, because starting sequences without the puck are not helping the cause – for obvious reasons.
- Shot differential is in the bottom 5 teams in the league. Now, this one, admittedly, is a combination of puck possession, faceoff wins, breakouts, and many other elements of hockey all pressed into one. But, in the history of the game, no number better correlates with scoring than shooting. Yes, there are trends where shooting percentages can stray and luck can enter the equation, but if team A is getting 35 shots and team B is getting 25, there is almost no way that team B can overcome this gap, regardless of shot quality, shot precision, or shot location. It requires a complete game to be able to out-shoot and out-chance an opponent, and through 6 games, it is still a major issue here that seems to encapsulate the real issues that are here. This is a build that will not happen overnight. Last year’s squad was always out-shot. The year before was the same. And so far, it continues to be a real indicator of how things are and how they need to change. Only a few clubs have been worse in this department through two weeks of the season, and of course, that will not cut it to have the absolute worst shot differential in the Western Conference.
- This team relies on Kari Lehtonen to save their bacon on too many nights. That remains an issue when Lehtonen is not on his game or when his annual injury absence emerges. To truly be a quality team, they will surely need to be able to survive a short-term injury to their top goaltender. This requires better play from a back-up and better play in front of him so that he doesn’t have to make 38 saves to get a win. Fewer chances require fewer huge saves, and for now, the Stars still ask too much of the man between the pipes.
Now, none of this is too troubling if you have your expectation level in a proper spot when this started. When this team cleaned house last spring, it was a sure indication that A) they were a ways away from their goals and B) they wanted to start their journey to get there.
This team did not get in this mess overnight and they won’t bust out of it quickly either. What we are looking for are strides. Strides where habits and traits change, even before results do. And as for the personnel, don’t think that they fixed this roster with a few trades and a few signings over one summer. The brain-trust is evaluating every part of this roster with each game and seeing that they still need to fix quite a bit.
They are learning identities and roles, and for now, it is tough to see what Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill think about who is the best duo on defense or what the shutdown checking line might be. They are trying to figure out the best role for their kid wingers and the best role for their redundant defense corps and so on.
Who makes sense on the first power play or penalty kill? They thought they knew in the preseason and training camp, but it comes into better focus when the live ammunition is being used.
I suspect that this team understands that this is not about short-term wins and losses right now, but rather building a foundation for a bigger picture. Ruff and Nill and their staff will continue to tinker and we assume continue to look around the league for ways to upgrade the roster, while tracking the development of the kids in Austin at the same time. More moves will need to be made, but again, it takes patience for the opportunities to present themselves.
Overall, I see that the upside of this team has been raised with the infusion of talent, but the downside remains with attempting to eliminate the number of nights they concede 30+ shots and untimely turnovers. And that is the trick, isn’t it? Increase the upside and eliminate the negative traits that have kept this team from post-season play since 2008.
I am enjoying the newness and the journey that the team is on. Games like the victory over the Sharks show that there is plenty of reason to believe that there is plenty of opportunity for improved performance. There is nobody across the league that is going to give the Stars anything that they don’t take. They must grow this roster so that they can overpower their opponents with might and quality. They have begun the trip, but anyone who expects that to be a quick process does not have an appreciation for the competitive level of 30 NHL Franchises fighting over the same Cup.
But, the ship has left the port. The boat still looks nice and the supplies are still high. The results are mixed as there are good days and bad. But, more than anything, each date on the schedule brings a bit of anticipation about what this team might grow into. And despite some familiar ailments, there are strides that are being made. This needs to be a trip where the journey is appreciated as much as the destination is anticipated.
We are underway. Now, let’s see where this journey takes us.