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The Halfway Point: Looking forward, looking back

by Bruce LeVine / Dallas Stars

It has been said that a hockey season is a marathon, not a sprint, which is too bad because the Stars’ 11-3-0 start would have locked up home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. 

Unlike some of the other early season surprises, Dallas has been able to mountain a level of consistency throughout the first half. A team can’t win the Stanley Cup in the first half of the season but you certainly can have your big dreams dashed on the rocks of despair (reference Columbus and Anaheim).

Forty-one games in the books, forty-one more to go. At the halfway mark the Stars have a very respectable record (23-17-1) and are on pace to equal or better last year’s mark of 95 points. The bad news is 94 points probably won’t make the post-season. The reason to be optimistic is that Glen Gulutzan’s teams tend to trend upward as the season wears on.

Looking from a distance, this year looks like the past few seasons of Dallas Stars hockey -- good start but hold your breath once the 2nd half takes hold. For a myriad of reasons, Stars playoff hopes have blown up faster than the Death Star once Luke Skywalker discovered the Force.

While there is still half a season to be played, this year seems different. On and off the ice there is direction, leadership and a clear vision for the future. Most importantly the problems that vexed this franchise for the past few years have been either fixed or are heading in the right direction.

No ownership? Meet Tom Gaglardi. Since officially taking over the team in November, his presence has been felt throughout the organization. There is a new enthusiasm and feel at the games and in the office. In a town known for powerful ownership of sports teams, having an actual person in charge instead of mysterious “lenders” makes a huge difference in perception within the media and local community.

There will be several coveted free agents in 2012 (aside from Katy Perry). While the Stars may decide or not to pursue any, an owner in place mean that decisions can now be made on merit not bankruptcy. When Dallas beat the Stanley Cup champion Bruins on New Year’s Eve, the sell-out crowd was able to see Galardi and his family in the Owner’s Box actually rooting for his team. What a concept. 

Attendance low?  Enjoy the new ticket prices. The $9 dollar seats are a bit of marketing genius as all of the lowest price seats in the AAC are filled with fans attending and enjoying Stars games (there are many good seats upstairs that are only $25). During the first seven games since the new pricing was introduced, Stars’ attendance rose 27%. The team averaged 15,823 over those games after averaging 11,470 in the first 14 home contests. President Jim Lites knows how to market hockey in this town and fans returning is a major step in the rebuilding of the franchise.

The off-ice resurgence is desperately needed but it’s the on-ice product that will be the ultimate decider if 2011-12 is the year the Stars officially turn around their franchise. The story line going into this season was the 3-D’s, Defense Depth and Discipline. Coach Glen Gulutzan and his staff  have shown to be capable of overcoming adversity and keep the team in the playoff hunt. Team defense is much improved as shots on goal should never be confused with quality chances. Joe Nieuwendyk played “Moneypuck” during the offseason and for the most part the additions have paid off. (If the team wins the Pacific Division I recommend Kiefer Sutherland to play the GM role in the movie. He loves hockey and should already have a Canadian accent) When injuries hit in 2010-11, Dallas went into a tailspin and never fully recovered. So far this season, Brenden Morrow, Adam Burish, Kari Lehtonen, Stephen Robidas, Sheldon Souray, Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski have all missed significant time due to injuries, but the team has persevered. The Grand Canyonesque drop in talent from top performers to the 3rd and 4th lines has been replaced by overall depth. When the team was taking too many penalties, Gulutzan stated he would change the culture or move back to Saskatewan. The ratio of PK to PP has changed drastically to the benefit of the special teams and much to the dismay of realtors in Moose Jaw.

The players on this team proudly wear the moniker “Pesky Stars.” They know they are not the most talented team in the NHL but refuse to be outworked. If awards were given out at the halfway mark here is what they would look like:

Biggest Save of the Season: Any puck stopped by Richard Bachman. Stars fans went into complete panic mode when Kari Lehtonen went down with a groin injury on November 26 at Phoenix. All the rookie has done is win in LA, shut out the Rangers in MSG and put together a record of 6-2-0. Instead of the season crashing with the most important player gone, Bachman saved the month of December and possibly the playoff hopes for the year. He also gave us plenty of excuses to dig up 70’s rock tunes as hashtags #takincareofbusiness

Video most needed to be found: Any film of Steve Ott vs. the Flyers videotaped by the 24/7 crew. The 20 seconds shown on the show were great but not enough. There has to be multiple clips that went unused and Ott has raised chirping to an art form. All I ask is for HBO to turn over any Ott video and we’ll call it even for the last episode of the Sopranos.

Underrated All-Stars: Both Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn were named the most underrated players in the NHL by 179 of their peers in a poll by Sports Illustrated. each deserve a trip to Ottawa for the All-Star game. Eriksson is easy to overlook because he does everything well and ever so stealthly. Offense, defense, power play, PK are done expertly and consistently. Benn is on the list because he plays in Dallas. As his coach said, “If Jamie Benn played in Toronto or Montreal or New York, he would not be able to walk the streets without being mobbed.”  It won’t be long before Benn is recognized everywhere in DFW. His goal against Columbus on October 18 should be in the running for play of the year. If ESPN showed more than slam dunks and the occasional bicycle kick on their Top 10 list, Benn would be a permanent fixture. He’s that good.

Biggest Point of Concern (Local): The Stars power play could be the difference between the playoffs and tee times in early April. Dallas has the 25th ranked power play in the league and that has to improve. Games against Pacific Division foes (especially LA and Phoenix) will be tight checking, offensively smothering affairs. In most cases the first team to score twice will win. The Stars power play will need to come through in big moments and so far has struggled to do so. The best power plays in the league usually have the biggest names and the highest payrolls. Pesky is nice but doing damage with a man-advantage will be more important down the stretch

Biggest Point of Concern (National): The NHL’s inability to come to agreement on realignment for 2012-12 is a very bad sign for hopes of avoiding a lockout next year. The  business concept of never giving up something for nothing in a negotiation is a tested axiom. But the NHL and NHLPA had more than a month to figure this one out for the good of the game. The owners tried to play business as usual and failed. The NHLPA’s excuse about travel concerns doesn’t really hold water either. At some point in time almost every hockey player has ridden a bus for 18 hours, stayed in a cheap motel and then played. Can’t see how a couple of extra trips on a chartered plane, eating catered food, only to spend the night at a five-star hotel is a hardship. The playoff scenario, while not perfect, allows the same amount of teams in the postseason, so no change there. The ending of realignment for 2012 can be best explained as a loud warning shot across the bow of the SS Bettman. The NHL has never had to deal with the likes of Donald Fehr before. Be afraid, hockey fans, be very afraid.

Consistency Award: Goes to the line of Fiddler-Dvorak-Nystrom.  These guys are like steak, potatoes and a salad, not the flashiest thing you’ll ever see but on most nights pretty darn good. The fact that they had never played together before this year makes their success even more impressive. Could easily be a top checking line on just about any other team in the NHL.

Biggest Surprise: Eric Nystrom. The former top ten pick seems to have found a home in Big D. Hard to believe if the Rangers had not waived Sean Avery, Nystrom might have begun the year in the minors. A career high 12 goals and a perfect complement to his line mates: Runner up; Philip Larsen. Called up to big club due to injuries, has proven he can play at the NHL level. Hopefully he heals up soon.

Biggest Point of Concern #2: Hard to explain how this team can beat Boston and the New York Rangers, yet lose at home to Columbus and the New York Islanders. I know it’s a long season but teams that make the playoffs beat teams they are supposed to defeat.
Sniper award: This is an easy one to give to Michael Ryder. Like most pure goal scorers he can be red-hot or ice cold. But when Ryder is on his game no one on this team has a better natural talent for getting into position to score. Having a world class snapshot to the top-shelf doesn’t hurt either. He’s on pace for his first 30-goal season since 2006-07.

Best In-arena adjustment: As much as I appreciate the Ice Girls Halloween extravaganza, props need to be given for the musical selection at the AAC. Even the new goal song is growing on me. As for the tunes, there is no school like the old school.

Most carefully watched body part:
Kari Lehtonen’s groin.  During the first two months of the season, Lehtonen was simply the Most Valuable player for Dallas and the NHL leader in wins.  A huge part of the team’s 11-3-0 start was the Big Fin was able to steal victories while his teammates began to gel in front of him. Back from injury, Lehtonen is still the most important factor as to whether the Stars can break the playoff drought. Bachman is a capable #2, but Lehtonen is world class. Dallas will need him to be at 100% down the stretch.

When the season began, Dallas had no owner, no president, dwindling attendance, a first year coach and a near unanimous consensus from the hockey world that this team had no chance of making the playoffs. (We haven’t forgotten that last place in the conference prediction, Sports Illustrated) It has been a remarkable half-season for the Stars as the franchise itself is being rebuilt on the fly. But as learned the hard way the past two seasons, no one makes the Stanley Cup tournament based on 41 nights of hockey. The ghosts of second half collapses past will need to be exorcised in order to have this year be a success. The Pesky Stars and their young coach have confounded the experts so far, but in the marathon that is an NHL season there is so much more left to be done.

Bruce LeVine is the post-game co-host for Dallas Stars road games on Sports Radio 1310 The Ticket.  Email Bruce at or follow him on Twitter @BruceLeVine22

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