Sturm Words: Elite Playing With Elite
It didn't happen right away, but it also didn't take very long.
The fact is that the theme of the summer from where I sat was that the Dallas Stars had finally added the most important thing that they have been missing for a while around here.
And that is a bit of an abstract concept, I admit, but it is the idea of acquiring truly elite pieces to add to the one or two pieces that they already had. There have been proper foot soldiers here every season the franchise has been in existence, but the truly special - worth the price of admission - players have been disappearing with a great amount of regularity over the last decade.
Then, age and exits ensued, and short runs with a Bill Guerin here and a Brad Richards there helped keep the playoff runs going, but as Modano and Zubov succumbed to age, the list of all-league players dropped from 5 to 3 to 2 to just the lone presence of last season of young Jamie Benn and his friend between the pipes, Kari Lehtonen.
Now, as I have mentioned in the past, Benn and Lehtonen are only "elite" in certain generous spaces - like this one - but, I am not worried about whether the Canadian media is impressed. I have seen them play every game and every shift since they arrived in Dallas, and I believe they are superstars in any of those markets. Here, they are guys you have to argue with your friends about their credentials relative to the more famous in the league.
But, the truth is, that neither has ever played in a playoff game, and until they are able to extend their seasons into late April, it is difficult to argue too loudly on their behalf.
Which leads us back to the idea that a few strong players cannot be enough to pull a team into post-season play in the NHL. It takes a collection of strong players to do that - not the efforts of a few.
Enter the elite.
I know that there was plenty written about the trade with Boston from that end of the trade that tried to convince the fans of the Bruins that Tyler Seguin wasn't "their type of player" and some reverse-psychology on the fan base explaining that all of that potential he demonstrated was not what you thought it was. I read that and couldn't believe my eyes, given how even a Western Conference media guy has seen enough of the young Seguin to know how electric he was.
Did he score enough in last year's playoffs? Of course not. 1 goal is not enough. But, he also had 70 shots, which were more than anyone in the sport, except for Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Patrice Bergeron. So, to get 70 shots in the playoffs, I am guessing he was doing something pretty strong. Sample size abnormalities are fun to over-react to, but if you are running a team and have a 20-year old who had already deposited a 29-goal, 38-assist season, with a +34 rating, are you dealing him?
Well, Boston did. And then everyone fell in line agreeing that if Boston did it, it must be right.
Meanwhile, I am guessing the men in the Dallas front office couldn't believe it. I know I couldn't. Nobody wanted to lose Loui Erikkson, but are you kidding? Rich Peverley, too? But, Tyler Seguin is available at this age, with a contract that says you keep him for a long, long time?
Seguin, by almost every account is a guy who can be a #1 center. Put Benn and Seguin together and let's see what happens, right?
Fast forward to November of the 1st season.
19 games into their first season together and the Stars have already played 12 of those games on the road. The early results? Tyler Seguin is who we thought he was. An elite, legitimate, #1 center.
And Jamie Benn in his first year as team captain? Brilliant work all around. His 2-way play jumps off the screen.
Kari Lehtonen? 9-3-2 in 14 starts and amongst the league's best in Goals Against and Save Percentage.
The team faced a daunting task with 7 games with 6 on the road and the lone home game against Chicago. Then, they rolled through Ottawa, Boston, and Detroit with 6 points out of 6. Chicago showed them a great game, but ultimately, too much from the Stanley Cup Champions. But, then, back on the road to Western Canada and a shutout win in Edmonton and a domination in Calgary of the home sides. Vancouver awaits before the home games start rolling in, but the excellence has been shining through. This is a good hockey team that can play with the best and grind out the lesser opponents.
I am convinced of this point. And this is not a point that is easily convinced to someone who has observed many smoke and mirrors-based winning streaks over the last several years. There were times over the last few seasons that this team put some extended streaks of winning hockey, but it always seemed tenuous and based on goal-tending standing on its head rather than a strong team playing well.
Now, we are seeing the effects of having a team that can hold its own. One that is not being out-shot every night by a huge number and sometimes double digits, but rather one that seems to take the game to its opponent as often as they receive. They still aren't all the way back to where they need to be (positive numbers in this all-important category), but they are far exceeding the last few teams that have worn the Dallas uniforms.
For instance, in 2011, this team conceded 2.87 more shots they took every game. In 2012, it dropped slightly to 2.59, before trampolining up to an absurd 4.75 shot differential last year - representing the 27th best spot in the league. I realize this is an arbitrary date, but since Kari Lehtonen rejoined the team and they started this run of form on October 24th, the Stars are out-shooting their opponents by an average of 1.91 shots a game - demonstrating that they are starting to consistently out-play their foes.
This is what demonstrates the idea that not only are the results there, but they are passing the eyeball test of a team that appears to actually have sustainability and the power to continue to move forward.
So, is this team ready to win? I still fear there are plenty of renovations needed as there appear to be an awful lot of high-priced players on the back 9 of their careers that are not factoring in at a level that equals their cap number and of course, this team still seeks elite defensemen which seem to be another consistent characteristic of all long-term winners in hockey history and hockey present. But, hopefully you are seeing what I am seeing.
That is a team that has made tremendous progress and it appears to all come back to the idea that they now have a machine gun - elite playing with elite. Tyler Seguin has joined Jamie Benn and after the historic night in Calgary that saw one score 4 goals and the other deposit 6 points, they are both in the top 5 of NHL scoring at what is basically the quarter-pole of the season, and just 2 points behind league leader Sidney Crosby.
Let me say that again, the Dallas Stars have two of the top five scorers in the National Hockey League. Trust me, I am pinching myself, too. Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, the Stars are building around their versions of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane? Oh, I can hear the laughing from the north when I throw that out, but I don't mind.
And wait until 18-year-old Val Nichushkin gets cooking. And that shouldn't take long with him on that same line, a combination that makes me hope they don't change that around for a long, long time. Finally, the Stars have a top line that terrifies their opponent. One that even in road games when the opponent has the last change to get their preferred matchup, the guys still get their production. In fact, 14 and 91 are the top two scorers in the NHL in away games to this point of the season. They certainly have had many games on the road, but a combined 33 points by November 15? Acceptable anywhere.
Not every road trip is going to go this well. Not every trade or signing is going to work. And not every opponent is going to struggle like Calgary and Edmonton. But, we are seeing signs. Big signs.
Yes, I am aware they still sit 10th in the West. It is a long season, and there is all sorts of time to worry about the playoff brackets. Do yourself a favor and just watch the games and this fantastic young core until at least January. These last five years have taken a toll on my optimism, too, but I am telling you, this thing is being built on the shoulders of Benn, Seguin, Lehtonen, and some capable assistance from many more like Chiasson, Eakin, Dillon, and Nichushkin.
But, you have to have the elite. And the Stars have more right now than they have had in a long, long time.
Don't sleep on elite. It can take you to new heights.