The 28-year-old Toronto native impressed at both ends of the ice, displaying more frequent bursts of offensive flair while recording career-highs with eight goals, 19 assists and 27 points, as well as 131 shots on goal.
His development continued defensively as well, as Daley averaged a personal-best 22:29 of ice time per game, ranking second on the club to fellow blueliner Stephane Robidas
, and posting his best plus/minus rating ever with a +7, which was tied for second on the squad.
Skating on both the power play and the penalty killing units, in addition to his regular shift anchoring the Stars’ second defense pairing, Daley, who also finished third on the club with 124 blocked shots, had an impact on games in multiple ways all season.
“Just trying to take steps forward and just continue to do that this summer and continue to do that next year,” the humble Daley said of his performance. “That’s my goal.”
And despite his relatively average size, at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, the smooth-skating Daley remained remarkably durable throughout the year, suiting up for all 82 games for just the second time in his career. Typically, he downplayed the accomplishment, deflected praise to his three teammates who also achieved that feat.
“I think the other guys, it was Morrow, Otter, Ribby - for Otter and Mini (Morrow), it’s pretty special they can do that,” Daley said. “And I think Robi missed one game because of a suspension and you see the type of style that guy plays, so you really got to put all three of those guys in the same category. For myself, those guys play the game really physical and it’s a good accomplishment.”
Still, as successful a season he may have had personally, Daley was far from happy with how it turned out in the end, with the Stars missing the playoffs for a third straight season. He knows the bar is set high in Dallas, so the fact that the Stars came so heart-breakingly close, with a chance to sneak in by winning their final game but losing 5-3 in Minnesota on April 10, was difficult to stomach.
“It’s tough, it’s a tough way to end it,” admitted Daley, who had skated in the post-season every year as a pro before the club failed to qualify in 2008-09. “Looking back, you try to take the positives out of what happened this year, but for being here as many years as I’ve been here and the attitude we’ve had around here, it’s a win-win-win attitude and that’s it. To accept that you’re not going to make the playoffs for the third year in a row is pretty tough. Considering, it was a decent year, but it’s still tough to swallow.”
Daley did begrudgingly acknowledge that there were plenty of positives and that the Stars did improve substantially over the 2009-10 version. The team finished with 95 points, tying the league record for most points by a club that didn’t qualify for the playoffs, while cutting a crucial 21 goals against off its total from the previous season.
“I thought this year you just look at the numbers and the stats, we improved a lot this year,” Daley pointed out. “It’s tough to know that there was a lot of positives that we went through this year - a winning record, almost 97 points, that’s a pretty good year. Most years it’s a playoff team. You look back at games - how’d you miss out on two wins? It’s tough to reflect on stuff like that. You try to soak it all in, take the positives and get ready for another one.”
Paired alongside Jeff Woywitka most of the season, Daley developed impressive chemistry with his partner and remained hopeful that Woywitka, who becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1, will re-sign at some point.
“I would love to keep the band together,” said Daley, who was the Stars’ second round selection (43rd overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. “The chemistry with me and him has been great. We enjoy playing with each other, we feed off of it, and we’re becoming great friends off the ice. I would love to see him back for another year. It would be good for our team and I really enjoyed playing with him, so we’ll see what happens.”
“Me and him got a good relationship,” added Woywitka. “We played together all year and I’ve learned a lot from him and the way he handles himself. He’s a tremendous player. He’s the kind of player that, for this day and age, that you want your defensemen to be - jumping up, moving the puck, being quick in transition and he’s got that. I felt comfortable with him all year and we had some great moments in our play. I felt comfortable with him, we got along really well and it showed.”
What has also showed, in flashes here and there over the years, is Daley’s immense skill at rushing the puck and generating scoring chances. And although it still doesn’t happen quite as often as Stars fans would probably like, Daley increased his contributions to the scoresheet this season, as the statistics demonstrate.
“We want to help out on the offensive end, and in today’s game, in order to win, you’ve got to be able to keep pucks in,” said Daley, who put up huge offensive numbers in junior hockey, averaging close to a point-per-game through four years at OHL Sault Ste. Marie. “Especially with our forwards, they’re so highly-skilled, they get so many shots and so many chances off those chances, it comes around and it’s up to us to keep those pucks in and keep those plays alive, so that’s what we’ve been keying on to try to do.”
“I think it’s always important to get a little help from those guys back there,” noted Dallas assistant coach Charlie Huddy, a former NHL defenseman himself. “And I think we’ve always given the D, when they’re on the blue line, the free reign to be able to come into the slot - never force the play, but if there’s an opening and you see the forward has an eye on you, you can come in and get involved.
“And Dales, he’s got the legs to skate it. That’s part of his game. When he’s going and skating like that, it makes his game a lot better, and we need that. It’s good to have that element in our game for us.”
For Daley, becoming comfortable and confident enough to utilize his offensive instincts more frequently has been a gradual progression and one that will hopefully continue to move forward next year.
“It’s definitely been a process,” noted Daley, who scored 20 goals and 53 points in 57 games during his final year of junior. “When I came into the league, I came in with a pretty defensive hockey club, with one of the best offensive defensemen in the game, and my role was to play defense and to learn the defensive game. I had such a great coach to do that with (former Stars associate coach) Rick Wilson that I could speak so much about him, but now it’s time to take the game to a new level and to add some offense. It has been a focus of mine this year.”