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Searching for Sergei Zubov

by Ralph Strangis / Dallas Stars

He fell to us from the gods, a unique bounty that comes around once in a generation, and not to everyone, and only if your luck substantially exceeds your intellect and hard work.

The timing of his arrival coincided with the franchises burgeoning roster solidity, and yet with all those other most significant pieces, I’m going to make the case that without Sergei Zubov, the degree to which the riches were reaped, the grand scale on which the attention was garnered and the near embarrassment of successes that were accrued, none of it would not have happened. The seismic shift for the Dallas Stars was felt immediately upon his arrival and throughout his time here, and when he left, it was as if the Stars literally fell into the deep black hole created by his departure. And nearly 6 years later, we’re still climbing out.

The most compelling part of the argument is that the numbers used here are not really his. There will be only cursory mentions of Zubov’s personal statistics. That he is the only defenseman in NHL history to lead a Cup Champion in scoring (New York Rangers, 1993-94 Regular Season), or the only power play specialist to lead three different teams to the NHL’s top ranked power play (New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Dallas Stars) or that he left the game as the NHL’s highest scoring Russian Born defenseman are mere sidebars.

Stanley Cup champions and contenders by rule have one of these. Detroit had Lidstrom for 20 years and grabbed 4 cups, LA has Doughty and they’ve won 2 of the last 3, Chicago’s won twice in the last 5 years with Keith. Boston has Chara - Anaheim had Pronger and Niedermeyer. There are so few exceptions.

This season, even the Stars’ brightest have had struggled with LA (Doughty), Nashville (Weber), Chicago (Keith) and Minnesota (Suter). These are players who play almost half the hockey game, and the hardest half – against the other team’s best players and in the game’s most critical moments. They play power play and penalty kill, they’re out there seemingly every time you’re trying to push. It’s like hitting the lottery to get one, and these days if you’re in that spot, you have to be ready to write a Powerball check to lure one over or keep the one you have tethered.

The year before Zubov got to Dallas, the Stars had Mike Modano, they had Jere Lehtinen, they had Joe Nieuwendyk and Darian Hatcher and Richard Matvichuk and Darryl Sydor and Guy Carbonneau. Ken Hitchcock took over behind the bench mid-season. And that team won 26 games and accumulated a paltry 66 points, and finished last in the Central Division. They gave up 53 more goals than they scored. Their special teams were woeful. Andy Moog’s GAA was 2.99 and his Save % was .900. The Stars used 5 goalies that season who combined for 2 shutouts.

The following season the Stars won 48 games, amassed 104 points and won the Central Division. Look to the rafters next time you’re at the American Airlines Center. It is the first of 15 team banners lifted during the Zubov era. None have been hoisted since he left.

That season, Andy Moog, a year older, saw his GAA drop to 2.15 (almost a full goal a game) and his Save % go to .913. Stars goaltenders recorded 6 shutouts and the Stars outscored the opposition by 54 goals (a swing of an astonishing 107 goals from the previous season). Special teams improved to mid-pack.

The next season, the Stars won 49, put up 109 points, won the Central Division again, outscored the opposition by 75 goals and had the NHL’s best power play, and the leagues 2nd ranked penalty kill. Ed Belfour joined the party, and put up eye-popping numbers; 1.88 GAA/.916 Save %. Stars goaltenders had 10 shutouts, and the backups accounted for 12 wins (Roman Turek had 11) and a combined 2.22 GAA and .901 Save %.

In their Stanley Cup Championship Season, 1998-99 The Stars won their new division (the Pacific) and the President’s Trophy with 51 wins and 114 points. They scored 68 more goals than they allowed and their PP and PK were both ranked 6th. Belfour had almost the same stats he had the year before, Turek kicked in 16 wins and similar numbers, and the two combined for 6 shutouts.

And on it went. During the 11 seasons Sergei Zubov was a Dallas Star, the team was routinely contending for deep post-season runs. Their regular seasons featured top 10 (and many times top 5) special teams on both sides of the puck, elite goaltending and defensive numbers, and enough scoring to continue large discrepancies between what they got and what they gave up. He was a steadying influence at both ends of the ice, and an athletic freak. Opposing players and coaches including Lidstrom told me on several occasions the one guy they couldn’t game-plan for was Zubov. He made everyone around him better, and he had an impact on absolutely every area of the game, and especially the goaltenders behind him.

Marty Turco’s first season as a backup saw him post 13 wins and a 1.90 GAA and .925 Save %. He had 15 wins as a backup the following season, and in his first season as a starter, Turco had record setting numbers; a 1.72 GAA and a .932 Save %. Fast forward to the first year without Zubov, (where Sergei played only 10 games in 2008-2009 and none thereafter) Turco’s GAA went to 2.81 and his Save % dropped to .898. The power play that year ranked 27th, the penalty kill fell to 24th. It was the first season since 1996-97 (Zubov’s first year) that the team allowed more goals than they scored. The Stars were -27 in that category – an unimaginable 62 goal swing from the previous season.

In the seasons since Zubov’s departure the Stars have averaged bottom-third in special teams and goals allowed, Shutouts are down from an average of around 10 to about 3, and backup goaltenders who could be counted on for a dozen wins a year have only once found double figures and it hasn’t mattered who the backup has been. The Stars did not make the playoffs for 5 full seasons.

Last year, they got back to the post-season, but there is still a void. Their power play was 23rd, penalty killing was 21st, and their four backups combined for 7 wins. They outscored the opposition, but by a total of only 7 goals over 82 games. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin were beasts and led the way, and a strong supporting cast fought very hard and scored enough, Kari won 33 games, the young and emerging blueline stepped up and worked it out, and Lindy Ruff did a masterful job keeping his team on task. And this season - injuries and a very difficult conference where too many teams have that guy and where everybody knows the Stars are dangerous - it’s tougher.

The New York Rangers drafted him and won a Stanley Cup with him in 1994. They haven’t won since. The Pittsburgh Penguins had him in 1995-96. He put up 66 points, quarterbacked the NHL’s top PP, and helped the Pens to 102 points and a division crown. When he left, they struggled so badly they netted high draft picks that got them Crosby and Malkin. But it took a decade. And then there’s his effect here.

That he had a tremendous supporting cast here – there is no argument. But they had him. Ask Mike Smith for example. In Dallas, with Zubov in 2 seasons, he posted a 2.30 GAA. As a starter in Tampa it swelled over 3 seasons and peaked at 3.09. Finally he got to Arizona where Tip played it a little closer to the vest and Keith Yandle and Oliver Eckman-Larsson are among the NHL’s least known and underrated defensemen. But they aren’t Zubov. Not yet. And Smith has been erratic and holds a higher GAA now than he had in Dallas.

The Dallas Stars now, like they did in 1996 have strong and committed ownership, a sharp GM, a gifted head coach, and a wonderful young core to build around. The areas in which they struggle are the areas directly impacted by a stud blueliner. Look around the NHL, look at goaltending and special teams stats and wins and losses by the upper-echelon teams. Almost always in these places, the power play is good, the penalty killing is where you need it, they outscore the opposition, and both their starters and backups have really good numbers.

I write this partially to explain the continuing issues facing the Stars, but also to acknowledge a guy who was never in it for personal recognition. He came to work early, left late, perpetually smiled during practice and warm up, and held the whole thing together during the best days our franchise has had.

We weren’t searching for Sergei Zubov when we found him, we’ve just been looking for him ever since he left.

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