While he’s always been a slick, speedy skater, Daley has been outstanding defensively all season and with top blueliner Sergei Zubov out for the year following his hip surgery, has assumed a more significant role on the club, logging a lot of ice time partnered with All-Star Game-bound Stephane Robidas
Besides Zubov, who skated in only 10 games before leaving the lineup, the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Daley’s average ice time of 22:23 trails only Robidas’ total on the club and demonstrates just how important he has been to the club’s fortunes.
“He’s been thrown into the position that we need him to be rock-solid and he’s responded with a lot of minutes and some consistent play,” noted goaltender Marty Turco. “He certainly has grown over this season, we’re going to need him to be a catalyst. Talking about quality minutes, as much as he’s going to play, he’s going to be a difference-maker, and the more feels like that and prepares and gets better accordingly, we’ll all be better off for it.”
“He’s been really good, he’s a smart player defensively,” Robidas added. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s always in good position and he’s got the skating ability where, if he’s out of position, he can recover. But the main thing with him, I think a lot of times, he’s in good position, he makes a good first pass, he’s a good skater, and he’s been really easy to play with and he’s been really, really good.”
The durable native of Toronto, who was the Stars’ second-round selection (43rd overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, has missed just nine games over the last four seasons and has gradually improved in every one. Daley’s ice time has increased accordingly, going from 16:02 his rookie year to 18:40 to 19:23 to 19:40 last season before jumping almost three minutes per game this year. It’s clear that the better he plays, the more confidence on the ice he feels and the more the coaching staff wants him out there.
“He started that process last year and responded well last year,” said associate coach Rick Wilson, who handles the defensemen. “I think his maturity is showing all the time. His puck poise has improved and his patience in his positioning is good. He doesn’t get rattled if something negative happens - he’s able to park it and move on. Those are three big factors.”
“He’s grown a lot as a player,” Robidas agreed. “Even last year, he played real well in the playoffs. Even last year, during the season. And with injuries and everything, he’s one of the veterans now on defense. When you look at it, that’s the bottom line. He’s the third-oldest guy on our defensive corps, so he’s been really good and I really enjoy playing with him.”
Stars coach Dave Tippett is most impressed with how Daley, who scored 20 goals and 53 points in 57 games his final season of junior hockey with Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL in 2002-03, basically transformed his style upon turning pro from an offense-oriented one to a solidly defensive one.
“We’ve always known Dales is a good player,” Tippett said. “He’s getting rewarded with a few more points this year. The thing about Daley that I really like, he’s a defenseman that plays all situations and he was an offensive player in junior, kind of looked upon as a real renegade, (leading the rush) up the ice, and what’s happened here is he’s really got a strong defensive base underneath him. That’s positionally, he’s not a big hitting guy, but he’s positionally sound. He uses his assets very well.”
“I think it’s coming, definitely,” Daley said of his overall development as an all-around defenseman. “I think there’s still lots to come, too. I’m just going to keep working hard and keep trying to improve and see what happens. “
In addition to raising his level of play in the defensive zone, Daley’s offensive contributions have increased as well. He has notched two goals and an assist in his last six games, including the dramatic overtime winner in a 5-4 come-from-behind OT triumph over Detroit Jan. 12, just the fourth game-winning goal of his career.
“It was a big goal for the team,” Daley said of his OT tally that beat the defending Stanley Cup champions. “We worked hard for that win and it was a big goal for us.”
“That’s the puck poise and he’s got a little more confidence with that,” Wilson noted, regarding Daley’s offensive talents. “He’s also been given a little more opportunity and that goes hand in glove.”
Daley’s goal the next game, against Buffalo last Thursday, was his fifth of the season, leading Stars blueliners and matching his career high from last year. He also now has 17 points, second to Robidas among club defensemen and just seven shy of his personal best, also set last season.
“We’re just trying to help out on the offensive side,” said Daley, whose +4 plus/minus rating ranks third on the team and second to Robidas among Dallas defensemen, of himself and his fellow defenders. “They’re not holding us back from doing it, so when you get a compliment for it, it makes it a little better.”
“He’s finally getting to the point where he’s got some confidence with the puck and he’s jumping in the play more,” Tippett said. “When you see him jump in the play, and you see he’s got speed to get down low around the net, maybe a year or two ago, that puck would have been just dumped out in front and hope something good happens - now, he’s got some poise there. He’s coming around the net figuring, ‘What are my best options,’ rather than, ‘I got it to this point, now, boy, I better do something before I get into trouble.’ His experience, his poise with the puck has grown and he’s turning into a better player because of that, because he has the defensive base underneath him. You look at the minutes he’s playing for us, and right now, him and Robi, they’re playing all the critical situations for us and he’s done a very good job.”
As Daley continues to mature and improve, the Stars will undoubtedly rely on him even more to lock down those crucial, game-on-the-line scenarios.
“It’s a good sight to see a guy that’s paid his dues, worked real hard to get to the position he’s in” Turco said, “and now, given a chance, he’s proving his worth to this organization.”