Dallas Stars at the Quarter Pole: 3 things to watch for over the next 20 games


The Dallas Stars defeated the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night 3-2. While they are happy with the win, in all honesty they know they could have played better. Tyler Seguin scored twice and Rookie phenom John Klingberg scored from the far side of the blueline, on a fluke slap shot that knuckled and  floated on its way to Viktor Fasth’s net, beating him underneath the glove.

Nov 25, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars rookie defenseman John Klingberg (3) passes the puck during the third period against the Edmonton Oilers at the American Airlines Center. Klingberg scores a goal. The Stars defeated the Oilers 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

While the goal gained Klingberg quite a bit of recognition from  national media, it should have never gone in. The Stars surrendered a short handed goal and gave up another to Taylor Hall on a beautiful feed from Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. It was a defensive breakdown that was very indicative of the struggles the Stars have had all season.

The Oilers have yet to win a game against a Western Conference team so had the Stars played the way they did against a more formidable opponent the results might have been drastically different.

One quarter of the way through the season the Stars are 9-9-4. Second to last in their division yet only 5 points out of a playoff spot. However, most thought that the Stars would be challenging for a top 4 spot in the stacked Western Conference. There is plenty of time left for that to happen but the Stars are going to have to make a big push right now before they get too far behind the pack.

Nov 15, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak (5) pushes Minnesota Wild left wing Jason Zucker (16) to the ice during the third period at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Here are three things to watch for over the next 20 games:

1) The Development of the young defensemen.

The Stars are currently starting three NHL rookies on their blueline. This is extremely significant because defenseman typically take much longer to develop in the NHL than forwards. There are certain nuances to playing solid defense at the NHL level that just take time to learn. Gap control, defensive responsibilities and breakout passing are complicated and very costly when not executed properly.

If a defenseman makes a mistake and turns the puck over the only guy left to clean it up is the goaltender. If a defenseman can lead the rush up the ice and make the perfect breakout pass he can keep his team in the offensive end creating scoring chances. A defenseman who can do both is what the Stars are looking for.

True #1 defensemen like Duncan Keith and Shea Weber play nearly 30 minutes a night, make top dollar, are rarely traded and are very few and far between. The Stars have not had a true #1 since Sergei Zubov was forced to retire from the NHL due to injury in 2009.

Nov 18, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars defenseman Trevor Daley (6) skates off the ice after the Carolina Hurricanes score their fourth goal during the second period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jordie Benn and Trevor Daley had great seasons in 13-14. They played with poise and consistency and allowed the Stars to claim a playoff spot. They have both regressed drastically. While Daley’s offensive numbers look decent when you dig deeper you can see just how poorly the team has performed while he’s been on the ice. Likewise for Benn. He’s played his way in to the press box being a healthy scratch for the last three games.

Nov 4, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Los Angeles Kings left wing Dwight King (74) checks Dallas Stars defenseman Brenden Dillon (4) during the first period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Brenden Dillon and Sergei Gonchar played their way on to other teams. Gonchar was never going to fit in to what the Stars want to do in their system. Too slow, too old and just not quick enough. He welcomed the chance to go to Montreal and play in a different system. Dillon was a drastic fall from grace.

There were some who thought he might have had some consideration for captain just last summer but after a lengthy contract holdout that cost him all of training camp he got off to a slow start and seemed to be in Jim Nill’s doghouse. I have no inside information on that I’m just speculating based off of some chatter I’ve heard and the fact that he was given only a one year contract  gave me the impression that the Stars and Dillon weren’t on the same page.

Enter the youth. Patrick Nemeth,  Jamie Oleksiak, Jyrkia Jokipakka and John Kilngberg. Nemeth played very well in both the NHL and AHL playoffs last year but was lost for the year  when he was cut on the arm by a skate blade. That opened the door for Oleksiak and the others.

Oleksiak was the Stars number 1 pick in 2011. He is very young at 21 but is 6′ 7″ and 245 pounds and skates very well for a player his size. Stars fans have been waiting for years for him to make the jump and it looks like he is going to stick.  Paired right now with Jokipakka , his partner during the AHL playoffs, Lindy Ruff is giving them quality minutes in defensive situations and has publicly heaped a great deal of confidence on the pair. Jokipakka was very impressive at camp and makes good use of his size to win puck battles and force turnovers. The two are growing game by game.

Sep 24, 2014; Sunrise, FL, USA; Florida Panthers right wing Scottie Upshall (19) collides with Dallas Stars defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka (2) in the second period at BB&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The real Belle of the Ball so far has been John Klingberg. We did not get to see much of him in camp due to recovery from a hip surgery but he has played top minutes in the Swedish Elite league and rumors were he might be the best of the young guns. He has been more than anyone could have hoped for.

In his first 8 games he has 8 points, a Stars record since the team moved to Dallas. Ruff has inserted him in to the top pair with Goligoski and the two have been fabulous.

His first NHL goal was a thing of beauty. He made a beautiful toe drag around a Phoenix forward, took two small stutter steps to his right and then ripped a wrist shot top corner over Mike Smith’s left shoulder. The AAC went nuts and you could feel  a tingle run through the building as those that know started to realize we might have something special here.

Sep 26, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg (3) against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

He has incredible poise for a rookie. The confidence he shows in his break out passes is astounding for his experience. He does a fantastic job of surveying the ice before chasing down the puck so that he knows what he wants to do with it as soon as he has possession.

Those extras few seconds gained allow the Stars to beat an aggressive forecheck that most teams have been using against them this season. The Stars D has been very guilty of freezing and turning the puck over when they gain possession in the corner but with Klingberg’s ability to exit the zone quickly and efficiently they have been much better since he joined the lineup.

Ruff has turned the keys over to the kids and said it’s your time show us what you got. The success of this season is going to depend on their continued development. If they find form the Sars will be very very good. If they perform as most rookie defensmen do we may see another trade or two or the Stars may hold pat, gain experience and fight for next year.

Nov 25, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) waits for play to resume against the Edmonton Oilers during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Stars defeated the Oilers 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

2) Kari Lehtonen’s ability to play a lot of minutes.

This sounds like a broken record. Since Kari came to Dallas back up goaltending has been a serious issue. So much so that the Stars signed two players in the offseason to create competition for the spot. The goal was to lower Kari’s appearances and keep him rested for a playoff run. Anders Lindback won the position in camp over Jussi  Rynnas but has been just dreadful. He has  .845 Save% and a GAA of 4.52. He has appeared in 4 games and has lost all of them.

Kari got off to a slow star this season but has come on strong over the last few weeks. His save against Jarret Stoll is a save of the year candidate and helped secure the shutout win in a road game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. He has played in 19 of the Stars 22 games this season.

In the past Kari has been better when playing a lot of minutes but it’s not necessarily a recipe for long term success. Not only does fatigue set in when playing night after night but the more you play the more you increase your chance of injury.

The Stars have back to back games this weekend against division opponents. They are home against Minnesota on Friday and then travel to Colorado to take on the struggling Avalanche on Saturday. Look for Kari to start on Friday against the Wild and Lindback to get what could be his final shot on Saturday in Denver.

Nov 8, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars goalie Anders Lindback (29) allows a goal to San Jose Sharks left wing James Sheppard (15) during the first period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Avalanche are the only team below the Stars in the Central division. Their season has been very similar to the Stars. After and unexpected run to the playoffs last year they have regressed this season. Compounding the situation, they have just lost starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov for undetermined amount of time after being placed on IR. This is the second time this season he has gone down with a groin injury and the Av’s are going to be cautious.

Lindback simply has to win this game if he wants to stay in the NHL. The Stars cannot afford to give up points to teams below them in the standings… who are starting back up goaltenders… who are in their division.

It’s now or never for Linback. If he loses or wins and plays poorly it’s likely that Rynnas will get his shot or Jim Nill will go shopping for a backup. He had success unloading Dan Ellis last season so there is no reason to think he won’t do the same thing again this year.

3) Ales Hemsky and Eric Cole must start to produce.

Nov 4, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars right wing Ales Hemsky (83) and Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar (11) battle for the puck during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Kings won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Ales Hemsky has been absolutely snakebit this season. He started out a little slow as did the rest of the Stars. He had multiple performances where he was out of step, turned pucks over in bad areas and missed wide open looks. He had one assist in his first 15 games leading to him being a healthy scratch against the Kings on November 13th.

In the 6 games since he has 4 . He has yet to score a goal but he has had good chances. He has passed up some good looks and put others directly into the goaltender but an elite talent like like Hemsky should work his way  out. There were a few games early in the season where he was just fantastic in both ends buts but for whatever reason he just didn’t get the breaks. The last few have  been promising so hopefully he is headed in the right direction.

Erik Cole has been as up and down as Hemsky. I could almost cut and paste the two paragraphs and just change the numbers. Both are high paid and both are expected to be finding the back of the net.

Nov 18, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward (30) makes a save on Dallas Stars right wing Erik Cole (72) during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Hurricanes defeated the Stars 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

He missed a meeting earlier in the season and landed himself in Ruff’s doghouse. His minutes were cut and he went up and down the lineup. Most recently he has worked his way back on to the second line with Hemsky and Jason Speeza.

The big difference between Hemsky and Cole is that Cole is in the last year of his expensive contract. Hemsky is younger and in his first. Hemsky is going to be given much  more leash than Cole. If Cole doesn’t start to produce he becomes a semi-valuable trade asset. Nill won’t hesitate to move him for prospects, picks or players. There are plenty of young guys who can come in and gain valuable experience playing next Speeza and Hemsky and put up the same numbers Cole is producing now.

So far this season GM Jim Nill has shown that making the playoffs is still his goal with a couple of trades to shake up the underperforming defense and Head Coach Lindy Ruff has preached patience with his young team.

The goal is still the same after these first 20 games and will be after the next 20 as well. We really won’t know what the fate of this season will be until we play the next 40. If they are anything like the first 20 this season will be a regression, not necessarily a disaster but certainly not what we were expecting. Either way a Stanley Cup was likely out of the question this season. The ultimate goal is 2 or 3 years away and that realization can make you feel a lot better about the first 20 we seen so far.

Nov 25, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin (91) and defenseman John Klingberg (3) and center Tyler Seguin (91) celebrate Seguins second goal against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports