As the club got off to a sub-par start and languished in last place in the Western Conference standings in late October and through much of November, the biggest problem was that the Stars were uncharacteristically giving up a lot of goals.
It may be a coincidence, but the team’s better performance in the defensive zone began in late November, not long after Dallas re-acquired veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor in a trade with Pittsburgh on Nov. 16.
At that point, the Stars were 6-8-3 and while they struggled to a 1-3-1 mark in their next five games following Sydor’s arrival, they have been 19-9-3 since, the fourth-best record in the league over that span. Most importantly, the Stars, who surrendered 83 goals in those first 22 games (an average of 3.77 per game), have cut their goals-against dramatically, allowing 82 over the last 31 contests (2.65 per game).
The resurgence has enabled them to climb back into the playoff picture, as they currently sit in sixth, two points back of Anaheim for fifth.
For Sydor, 36, who joined the squad for the third time in his 17-year career after having left as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2007, the trade was a much-welcomed homecoming.
“Very excited to come back, obviously,” said Sydor, who ranks 10th in franchise history with 685 games played, 10th with 262 assists and 19th with 330 points. “Even though it’s the third time, it feels like I never left, like a lot of the norm. I’m excited to be back.”
Since his return, Sydor, who had been a healthy scratch with the Penguins 10 times in 18 games early this season, has played very well, primarily pairing up with second-year blueliner Matt Niskanen. In addition to helping revive Niskanen’s game, Sydor has provided steady defense, a solid veteran presence and impressive leadership.
“He’s been a strong influence, in the dressing room and on the ice,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “We talked lately a lot how he’s really stabilize Niskanen, he’s made Nisky’s game come up a long ways. Sometimes just a veteran guy can do that. It’s his personality as well as his play that has been real strong for us. They have been a very good pair for us.”
“His ability to inspire and just add intensity to the locker room is well-documented, but his calming influence with some of our younger defensemen, especially Niskanen that he plays with, has been real obvious,” added goaltender Marty Turco, who’s also been a key to the team’s reduced goals against. “For me as a goalie, he’s just a treat to have back - the subtle things that he does with poise, whether it’s with the puck or making defensive plays, right now is quite a bit and it’s totally rubbing off on guys.”
Niskanen, who had such an eye-opening rookie year last season, struggled at times through the first two months, but his game improved significantly once paired up with Sydor. He’s become so much more comfortable in the defensive zone, and that has allowed him to contribute more on offense lately, supplying eight assists in the last six games.
“He helps a lot, a great veteran leader, very vocal,” Niskanen said of Sydor. “He’s been around, he’s been very successful. He’s a big help for me and he’s someone that I can look up to and kind of model my work ethic off of his and see how he goes about his business every day as a professional hockey player. He’s a good role model. Just his voice in the locker room alone is very valuable and he knows how to win.”
Sydor certainly does have a history of winning, serving as a key component of the Stars’ 1999 Stanley Cup championship team as well as the group that went back to the Finals the next season. He also contributed to Tampa Bay’s 2004 Cup winning squad alongside center Brad Richards, in addition to other trips to the Finals in 1993 with Los Angeles and last spring with the Penguins.
But the humble Sydor shrugs off the notion he’s brought his 22-year-old partner’s performance up to another level.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s been fun to play with him and I remember when I was in those shoes and I played with older guys. You just try and talk to him a lot and help him out whenever he has questions and just try and keep him composed and mentally sharp. And he has all that, so it’s been a fun time playing with him.”
Even though he began his career as an offensive threat from the blueline following his selection in the first round (seventh overall) by Los Angeles in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, Sydor has concentrated much more on the defensive aspect of the game in recent years.
Sydor knows he is relied upon to provide solid, gritty defense these days, as his goal against the Rangers on Feb. 6 was his first since coming back to Dallas. He also has collected eight assists in 36 games here, while averaging over 19 minutes of ice time per game, a full five-minute increase from his total in Pittsburgh before the trade.
“The defense is what keeps you around, as long as you can be solid in that part of the game,” said Sydor, who has registered at least 30 points in eight different seasons, including seven in a row from 1996-97 through 2002-03. “I know what my role is. I know what I have to do to play this game, I guess I kind of know where we used to be. I think we came in and our attention to details in practice and in the games has gotten a lot better than it was, and when you get results from it, everybody buys in.”
Beyond his influence on the Stars’ on-ice fortunes, the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Edmonton native has also had a tremendous impact in the dressing room. As a vocal leader who commands instant respect because of his experience and personality, Sydor has helped alter the tone of the room to one of accountability.
“I don’t know if it’s settling it down, but he has a way of making sure the room is ready,” Tippett said. “I think when he came in, there was some turmoil or whatever, but he looks at everything moving forward, ‘What do we do to get better here?’ and he’s taken a big part in that.”
“He’s one man that just pulls everybody back in the fire when things get a little bit crazy or when it’s time to get fired up,” added Turco. “His leadership is very outward and vocal and he’s been just as big a part of this turnaround as anybody.”
With Sydor back in the fold, it seems like old times in Dallas - the team is putting forth a strong defensive effort every night and more importantly, they’re winning much more often.