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On the Radar: Great Expectations

by Josh Bogorad / Dallas Stars

There I was hosting the Stars Post-Game Show on The Ticket last Sunday night, after Dallas gave away a 3-1 lead at Anaheim, eventually got blown out, and fell to 3-5 on the young season. The loss was their fourth straight on the road, and third overall in the last four games, and naturally most Stars fans were feeling down in the dumps. As we began to take calls, it was suggested by one listener that it’s time to admit that we all got duped into entering this season with too-high expectations, and set ourselves up for disappointment once again. I immediately disagreed, and in spite of all of the issues the Stars have faced so far in the first month of the season, I still do.

Now, first off, any time you’re having a discussion relative to expectations, you have to establish just what those expectations were in the first place.

If you thought Dallas was going to roll to a division title, lead the league in goal differential, Valeri Nichushkin was going to average a point per game and run away with the Calder Trophy, and it was already time to start planning a parade route down Victory Ave., then yes, you were reaching, and the disappointment of reality is on you. But, if you were like me, your outlook for the 2013-2014 Stars fell a little bit more in line with the following:

You thought that the Stars top line would immediately turn heads. You thought the tandem of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin would lead this team, and folks in Boston would quickly lament that they let him get away. You thought the addition of Sergei Gonchar would help settle down the back line and the defense would be improved – though still not entirely water tight – from seasons past. You also thought Gonchar would help QB a power play unit that took advantage of all of their new offensive weapons.
You thought Alex Chiasson would obviously see a drop off from his pace last season, but still prove that he was no fluke. You thought Kari Lehtonen was going to make a strong opening statement, and show that he still could steal games for you when he faced 40+ shots. But you also thought that for the first time in his Dallas career he wouldn’t have to every night. You thought the depth at forward would be an upgrade from last season, and you thought within five games Nichushkin would have a puck at home commemorating his first NHL goal.

But you also knew that this team had weaknesses. You knew that the vast majority of a defense that allowed way too many shots and scoring chances last year was back. You knew that almost half of your opening night roster consisted of players with less than one full season of NHL experience on their resume. You knew that this team lacked a top-tier defenseman who could eat up 27-30 minutes a night if they had to. You knew that despite added depth to your forwards, at the time that training camp opened, there still was not anyone who clearly was labeled as the #2 center, and you would have to ask someone to step up and seize the opportunity. You knew that Lehtonen had suffered injuries in each of the last three seasons, and hoped it was a pattern that did not return. You thought that Lindy Ruff and his coaching staff (including heralded defensive coach, James Patrick) would help fix some of the inherited issues, and had faith that there would be defined improvement. And you thought that whatever needed to be done in terms of roster upgrades would come when they were available, courtesy of one of the most praised hockey minds around in Jim Nill. But when all was said and done you understood that Rome wasn’t built in a day. And Cup winning teams are not built overnight.

In short, you expected this team to go through the growing pains that most new units suffer through, but you expected that there would be more good than bad. And if the Stars were going to be playing hockey in late April, they’d likely get there by snagging one of the two Western Conference wild card spots.

Truthfully, through eight games, some of those expectations have been met. Benn and Seguin look to be as advertised playing together. They are so much fun to watch that you find yourself eagerly awaiting their next shift just to see what they can do. Rich Peverly has been a very nice addition to the roster, and provides the undervalued ability to play multiple positions and win key face-offs. Chiasson is just under a point per game player, and seemingly finds at least 2-3 quality scoring chances every night. And as for Kari? Well, the sample size is small, but in the three games he played before being sidelined, he was lights out. If he can regain his pre-injury form upon his return, the Stars instantly have a chance to win every game they play – simply based on their netminder.

There has been good. It’s hard to see clearly through the fog of a sub-par record and glaring problems that resurface nightly, but there has been good. Honestly.

Unfortunately though, so far there’s been a bit more bad. A never-ending sea of turnovers, a number of newcomers who were counted on to add something that have yet to produce, a chronic lacking of team defensive-zone awareness, poor starts, and a propensity to allow a soft, back-breaking goal…just to name a few. And those were things that were not expected. At least not with the consistency and number in which they’ve occurred.

But I don’t think expectations are to blame. Just because someone or something underachieves, it doesn’t necessarily mean expectations were too high. Sometimes it simply means performance is too low. Through eight games, that’s the case with the Stars. I refuse to believe that my expectations were the culprit in this equation. In fact, I think my expectations were a lot more realistic at the start of the season than what’s actually transpired. Compare my aforementioned list to the following:

-The Stars third and fourth line forwards have combined for one goal all season (not counting a PP goal scored by Horcoff when he was on the second PP unit).

-The top D-pair to open the season has combined for one assist and a -16 so far this year.

-The clear-cut #1 goaltender got hurt midway through the 3rd game and hasn’t returned since.

-The #10 overall pick has one assist and no goals seven games into the season.

-The Stars have surrendered a goal in the opening 12 seconds of play in one-quarter of their games.

-Dallas has scored one third period goal all season, and none in their last seven games.

Was there any way that was possible to predict at the start of the year? Absolutely not.

But there’s also no way that it continues all season. How much better it gets will play a large role in determining the fate of this team, but one thing is for sure. It will get better. This pace will not continue. It simply cannot. The bottom two lines are going to score more than 10 goals all season, and the Stars won’t be held to a single digit number of third period tallies this year. It’s a fact. Just as Chiasson’s goal per game pace had to fade eventually, so too do the negative trends.

Which leads us back to our pre-season prognosis of this team. Are there some expectations that we had that look like they might not pan out? Unfortunately, there are. Are there some performances that may wind up meeting (if not exceeding) our expectations? Fortunately, there might be.

So, are the Stars a playoff team? I don’t know yet. And neither do you. Yes, even you, the guy who is ready to write off the postseason after a bumpy start. What I do know is that 8 of 82 games are far from finalizing April’s storylines. However, they are enough to give the Stars an idea of where they are right now. And it’s not good enough. The players say it, the coaches say it, and the fans are saying it. The key here isn’t to lower expectations as much as it is heighten performance.

I like that people had strong – but realistic – expectations, and hope that they still do. It breeds accountability and change when things aren’t working. Sometimes you change a system, sometimes you change effort, and sometimes you change personnel. We’ve seen the latter so far this week in practice with new line combinations, new defensive pairings, and the probable inclusion of new players to the lineup. Plus, Lehtonen looks ready to return to action for a much-needed boost. The key right now is changing how to meet the expectations, not changing where you had initially set them.

Those without expectations have no direction and nothing to strive for. They are drifters. They are apathetic. They are the Cleveland Browns. No one wants that.

So for now, I’ll maintain my expectations as a whole and simply hope that the level of play rises to meet them. We all know it can. Remember how you felt after Dan Ellis stopped Brent Burns in the shootout and the Stars became the first team this season to beat the Sharks? Remember all of the excitement, and hope, and expectations for the future? Well that was less than a week ago. A lot can change in a week, no? I EXPECT this week will be a much better one for the Stars.

If Dallas is going to regroup this week, here is a look at some key elements to keep On the Radar:

Across the Ice

Winning a NHL game is not easy. Every team has talented players and is capable of putting together a solid night, and no team should or can be taken lightly. That being said, not all teams are created equal. Last week the Stars played four games in six nights, in four different cities against some of the top teams in the league. They will probably not have a harder stretch all season long. At the time that they played the quartet of Colorado, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Anaheim, those clubs were a combined 22-4, for an insane winning percentage of .846. The Stars needed to be better last week for sure. But don’t discount that the opposition helped play a role in Dallas’ 1-3 record. This week affords the opportunity to get some of those lost points back. With games against Calgary and Winnipeg at home, and trips to Buffalo and Montreal, Dallas gets set to face a group whose collective record right now stands at 14-20-4. Plus, something tells me they’ll have a little extra jump in their step on Monday in Buffalo. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but I just have a feeling.

This Third’s no Charm

As mentioned before, the Stars remarkably only have one third period goal all season. It came on opening night when Brenden Dillon scored a go-ahead goal vs. the Florida Panthers in an eventual 4-2 loss. They have played 152:28 of third period hockey since then and not scored. If that were broken down in other terms, that’s more two and a half full games without a single goal. Since the Dillon tally, the Stars have been outscored 10-0 in the final period. Considering that six of eight Stars games this season have been tied or a one-goal margin heading into the third, the Stars inefficiency in the final frame could easily have been the difference between a win and loss on most nights. They must find a way to improve their numbers in the third.

Sluggish Starts

We just focused on how Dallas has been closing games. Well, if you’re not finishing strong, you better be starting strong. And unfortunately the other end of the spectrum hasn’t treated the Stars all that kindly either. While the scoring has been more balanced in the first (10GF vs. 11GA), there has been a scary trend developing this season. The Stars have allowed at least one first period goal against in seven of their eight games this season. More concerning is that in four of their last five games, Dallas has surrendered multiple goals in the opening frame. Especially for a team struggling with confidence, constantly playing from behind makes life a lot harder. In the one game during the stretch where they didn’t allow two first period goals, they cracked one minute into the second in Anaheim, and quickly let that lead get away. The Stars have not spent a lot of time playing with the lead this year. Quicker starts will help settle this club down, and keeping the opposition off the scoreboard in the first period could go a long way this week in helping Dallas turn the tide.

Keep Calm and Kari On

No player has more influence on the outcome of a game than a goaltender. So with the Stars needing points, there is no better time than the present to welcome back number-one netminder, Kari Lehtonen.

Lehtonen was activated off of IR this week and appears ready to return to the lineup for the first time since Oct. 11. No one is exactly sure how close to 100% he feels, but anything close right now is music to the ears of the Stars. Granted there were other reasons involved, but Dallas has gone 2-1 with Kari in the lineup and 1-4 without. Even in his opening night loss, the Stars backstop was terrific. In 153 minutes this year, Lehtonen has stopped 81 of 85 shots against and looked spectacular in the process. No disrespect to Dan Ellis or Jack Campbell who were both called into duty in Lehtonen’s absence, but if this team is going to be successful this season, it’s likely going to be on the back of the Finnish native. The Stars again play four games in six nights this week, and there’s no telling how many Lehtonen will start. When asked earlier this week at practice, Ruff said his plan is to take everything one game at a time. But if Lehtonen is ready to shoulder the majority of games and looks like he did in his first three starts, he just may be the key to Dallas closing October above water.

Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for the Stars radio broadcasts. He can be heard 30 minutes before face-off and immediately after games all season long on SportsRadio 1310 The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Josh Bogorad is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars.


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