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Stars rely on their strength, outstanding defense

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

As much as frequent observers of the Dallas Stars suggested this past summer that the club needed to upgrade its goal-scoring abilities in order to be successful, the players know that this team’s primary strength is its defense and that is how it will win the majority of its games this season.

Sergei Zubov
With one of the most talented top-five groups of defensemen in the NHL, one of the league’s top goaltenders in Marty Turco (and one of the best backups in Mike Smith), as well as a solid and gritty group of defense-minded forwards, the Stars will undoubtedly be among the best defensive teams once again this year.

After finishing the 2006-07 season surrendering just 193 goals, nine more than Minnesota’s 184 that led the NHL, Dallas has returned much of the same group as last year. 

“That’s our identity, and that’s what’s given this team the success it’s had in the last 10 years here in Dallas,” noted captain Brenden Morrow. “The game’s kind of evolved a little bit, the rule changes have changed the way the game is a little bit, but I think the teams that are still having the success are teams that know their identity, play to their strengths and we’ve got great goaltending, good defensive players, good character players and I think we all realize what the identity of the Dallas Stars are and we play to our strengths.”

In fact, the case could be made that they have improved their impressive group of defensemen, having Mattias Norstrom for a full season, and if the performance of rookie Matt Niskanen in the first three games is any indication. 

With a crew consisting of offensive puck movers Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher, solid physical defenders in Norstrom and Stephane Robidas and an emerging all-around talent in Trevor Daley, the Stars are set on the blue line. Add in youngsters like Niskanen and Niklas Grossman, still considered a rookie although he suited up for eight games last season, and a depth veteran like Nolan Baumgartner, and Dallas has perhaps the deepest, most skillful group in the entire league.

“We talk about defense generally, but it’s our defense particularly that pulls it all together, that gets the bulk of the load, and doesn’t get much of the credit,” Turco said of the team’s defensemen. “The goalies get it, when we talk about team defense, and the forwards get it for playing a tight-checking style of hockey, when you don’t give up many goals, but those eight guys are certainly our anchors.”

Philippe Boucher
“Our top five guys, as far as the top five being the guys that we know and the guys that were here last year, those guys are special players,” added defensive center Jeff Halpern. “I still think that Sergei Zubov’s the best defenseman in the league and for a guy that should be getting worse into his late 30s, he seems to be getting better every year. It’s an amazing thing that he’s able to do that. Him as an anchor and guys learn from him. I think the other guys follow suit, in Robi, Nordie, Trevor and Bouch, those are special players that make everybody else’s jobs a lot easier.”

As Turco noted, he might get a large share of the accolades for the low goals-against figure, but he, more than anyone, understands how important the Stars defenders are to their success and greatly appreciates the contributions they provide every night.

“We’ve got a great group of D, I think that goes without saying,” Turco said. “They don’t get a lot of credit a lot of nights, you just look at 56 (Zubov), you talk about unheraldedness, what he’s done in his career, never mind for this franchise. He’s our go-to guy, we lean on him probably more than anybody. From then on, it just trickles down. Bouch had a great year last year amidst some personal anguish and we got some guys, Baumgartner wasn’t around all year, young kids Grossman and Matt, they’re new, even though Grossman was here part of last year. Niskanen’s a good kid, he earned his way on here, so he’ll get a shot in the meantime. Robi and Dales, our D are great, Nordie, these guys have been around and playing and our coaches are happy with the type of D we have.”

“It’s not such a bad thing, I guess, if they don’t get the recognition they deserve, but everyone in this locker room knows how valuable they are,” added Morrow. “We’re all happy to have them, so sometimes it’s nice to fly under the radar a little bit.”

With three of the top six defenders 30-or-under, their best hockey is still ahead of them. Young veterans Robidas, 30, and Daley, who turns 24 on Tuesday, are still developing and improving, while only the future will tell just how good Niskanen, 20, and Grossman, 22, will turn out. That bodes very well for the club long-term, and although Boucher is 34, he has continued to upgrade his contribution each of the last few years, so he is still very much in the prime of his career.
Mattias Norstrom
As for the other veterans, Zubov at 37 still logs as much ice time as ever (once again leading the team with a 25:56 per-game average last year) and has shown no signs of slowing down, and neither has Norstrom, 35.

On the offensive side of the blue line, the Stars boast two of the NHL’s top 15 scorers among defensemen last season, with Zubov registering 12 goals and 54 points and Boucher tying a club record with 19 goals and adding 51 points. They were also third and fourth, respectively, on the Stars in points. 

With Niskanen working on the power play’s second unit with Robidas over the season’s first three games (and earning his first two NHL assists), and Daley displaying his offensive abilities on occasion, this group of defenders can and will contribute to the goal scoring.

All that said, there’s no question that having the top-notch goaltending that Turco and Smith provide makes a big difference, too, and can compensate for the rare coverage mistake or defensive-zone giveaway.

“We feel like our goaltending is one of the key strengths of our team,” coach Dave Tippett said. “Both guys are very capable, and on any given night, they have the ability to win a game or keep us in a game and the guys in front of them are certainly important, but having that backbone of a goaltender is very, very strong for our team.” 

“Our success last year was because there was a limited amount of shots, and I think that’s been key too,” Norstrom said. “Then we have a guy like Marty back there, making those key saves when there’s a breakdown and that made the team so successful.”

As for the notion that the club needs increased goal-scoring, the guys in the locker room acknowledge that generating more offense can be a priority, but they also recognize they can’t change their style just to score more goals.

“I think that our team is built on good, strong defense, and yeah, we’d like to score more goals, and that’s certainly something that you try to focus on, but you’ve got to be careful,” pointed out Stu Barnes, who anchors the club’s shut-down checking line. “Just to say, ‘Let’s go play offense and that’s going to fix our problems,’ you can’t give up one to get another. We’ve got to find a happy balance of playing well, playing responsibly defensively and being able to create those opportunities to score, and when we do get a chance to score, finish them off.”

“We don’t need to score 100 more goals,” Boucher noted. “In the playoffs, we just needed that one at the right time. We have a lot of skilled guys on this team, and we think those extra goals are in this room.”

Stephane Robidas
The bottom line is the club has to play the type of game it has the best chance of winning with, and that is to play a sound defensive system. Because of the way the club is constructed, with a strong group of defensemen and outstanding netminding, that is the way they need to play.

“To a man in here, we believe that you have to play strong defense to have a good chance to win, and that won’t change from our game,” Tippett said. “We want to push our guys to be creative and be offensive, and believe me, we want to score as many goals as we can, but we have to recognize in the big picture what we have to do to win, and we have to play strong defense to win. That’s just the way it is.”

“We know that what’s going to win us games is playing that strong defense, and maybe not everybody agrees with it,” Norstrom said. “It’s not the most exciting way to play hockey, but for this team, last year having 107 points, that was the key to success, so there’s no reason to come up with something new.”
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