For both hockey fans and players alike there isn’t a better time of the year than when the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs start. However, for those who follow or play for a club who doesn’t make the postseason, this can be a tough part of the year to get through.
Unfortunately, that is currently how things are for the Dallas Stars. Glen Gulutzan’s club fought valiantly throughout the year but for a fourth straight season fell short of their ultimate goal, securing a spot in the postseason.
Their fate was made official on Thursday night in Nashville with a 2-0 loss to the Predators and it’s safe to say disappointment is currently the prevalent emotion throughout the entire Stars organization.
“It’s obviously very difficult,” Dallas General Manager Joe Nieweundyk said before Saturday’s game with St. Louis. “We’re the NHL bridesmaids two years in a row and it’s tough to swallow. I think the good thing is we have an owner now that is committed to getting better and we’re going to be aggressive at getting better too.”
After Saturday’s season-ending loss to the Blues at American Airlines Center, the Stars players gave the jerseys off their backs to lucky fans and their head coach addressed the more than 16,000 fans in attendance, an address he admits was difficult to make.
“It was tough,” Gulutzan said. “I certainly do [feel better days are ahead]. I think anything you do in life, even outside this game, it’s not really so much where you are but what direction you’re heading and I know I’ve learned a ton. I can be better and we all have to adopt that motto. We’re heading there. Experience is a valuable thing. I think if we just keep our eye on the prize, keep doing things the right way and learn from our mistakes, we’re going to get to where we want.”
However, the club’s head coach and GM aren’t the only ones feeling a bit down about missing the playoffs yet again, the Stars players are also bummed about how things turned out this season.
Veteran defenseman Stephane Robidas
is one of a small number of players who were with the club when Dallas last made the playoffs in 2008. And as he gets another year older, he realizes he’s running out of chances to realize his ultimate goal in hockey.
“It gets annoying. I’m 35 now and there’s not many years left. Every year that goes by and you don’t make it, it’s another year you don’t make it to win the Cup and that’s my goal. That’s my dream. That’s all we play for but every year that you miss it [it’s tough],” Robidas said. “When you’re younger and miss it, you say you’ll get another chance. There’s not that many next years, so it’s tough.”
Starting goaltender Kari Lehtonen
was stellar between the posts for the Stars for much of the season, an overwhelming choice as team MVP. However, he too has yet to experience playoff hockey in Dallas and wouldn’t have any postseason experience were it not for the two games he started for Atlanta back in 2007.
“Well, it’s difficult. It hasn’t hit me yet really. It usually happens when you start seeing other teams playing in the playoffs,” Lehtonen said. “Of course, we’re all disappointed. I think we tried our hardest. Hopefully everybody can improve a little bit for next year.”
And for Stars’ forward Jamie Benn
, a 2012 NHL All-Star who just completed his third season in the league, he continues to await his first taste of playoff hockey at this level.
“It’s not fun. Every year I’ve been here, haven’t got in. It’s four now for us,” Benn said. “It’s disappointing and frustrating. You definitely want to get a taste. You’ve just got to get in and we didn’t get in.”
So, what do the Stars need to do going forward in order to ensure their playoff drought doesn’t reach five seasons? Two of the more veteran players on their roster have a pretty good idea about what that would take.
“We have to be consistently good, not just good for two weeks and then bad for a week,” Lehtonen said. “That’s not what great teams do. There’s a lot of good teams and a few great teams. We certainly want to be one of those.”
Robidas also chimed in about what he and his teammates need to do differently next year in order to experience playoff hockey.
“We kind of blew it at the end. All we had to do was win our games and we didn’t do it, so it’s frustrating. There’s nothing we can do now,” he said. “All we can do is learn from what we did wrong. That just shows you how valuable points are every night, first game of the year, game 34 in Columbus or whatever, they all mean a lot. Every point that you can get you’ve got to get because that’s what happens.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom going forward for the Stars. In fact, there are considerable signs for fans of this club to have hope that this run without playoff hockey will be ending soon. For one, Dallas looks to be in good hands with Gulutzan behind the bench.
“I think it was pretty solid,” Niewendyk said when asked to rate Gulutzan’s performance this season. “I think he learned a lot. He’s going to grow with the team that we’re going to hopefully put together in the next few years. Always viewed him as a guy who is going to be a long-term coach, you have to go through some bumps in order to move ahead. I think he experienced some bumps this year but we’re all going to push forward together.”
And besides the obvious cornerstones of Benn and Loui Eriksson
, a 2011 All-Star, there are a number of prospects, names like Brenden Dillon
, Scott Glennie
, Jamieson Oleksiak, Austin Smith
and Reilly Smith
among others who are on the their way.
In fact, Dillon and Glennie made their NHL debuts in Saturday’s loss to the Blues and performed well.
“I think it’s important,” Nieuwendyk said. “We’ve been kind of waiting their arrival in Austin for some time now. I think under the circumstances, it’s good to give them a look. It’s good to get a look at these guys. I think it’s important to see how they play and how a kid like Brenden Dillon
stacks up against some big forwards at this level. If anything, it’s good experience for all of them.”