Of all the surprise success stories in this young NHL season the Dallas Stars could be considered the unlikeliest.
I know. I know. How could the Stars, not too far removed from cup-contender status be considered a bigger surprise than the Senators in full rebuild or the Baby Oilers?
Consider this: Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk spent the offseason handcuffed by ownership issues in Big D while the two superpowers of the Pacific Division stepped it up in a big way. San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson added a top-pairing d-man in Brent Burns as well as forward Martin Havlat in separate deals with the Wild. In Los Angeles Dean Lombardi did the near impossible landing a top line centre; that makes the Kings one of a select few teas to boast a pair of capable first unit centremen. Nieuwendyk dipped in to the free agent market to land Michael Ryder, Vern Fiddler and Radek Dvorak.
It looked like Dallas had already written off 2011-12 at last year’s trade deadline when they shipped budding power forward James Neal to Pittsburgh for Alex Goligoski. Goligoski, considered an underrated power play quarterback, didn’t seem like a fair return for a scoring threat of Neal’s caliber and the optix weren’t good. They were even worse when the Stars felt they had to reach out to former 20-goal D-Man Sheldon Souray who spent last season in the AHL.
Fast forward to present day and the Stars are not only sitting in first place in the Pacific but in the Western Conference, Souray and Goligoski combining for 18 points through 13 games.
Incumbent blueliners Stephane Robidas, Nicklas Grossman and Trevor Daley bring a rugged brand of hockey to the Stars’ D-corps, but despite the new-found defensive depth the Stars are allowing the most shots against per game.
When Ondrej Pavelec made former second overall draft pick Kari Lehtonen expendable in Atlanta Nieuwendyk scooped the oft injured puck-stop for an overdue prospect and a pick. Lehtonen did little to shake his reputation for being brittle in his first year in the Lone Star State but then logged 69 starts for the Stars last year and has started 11 of 13 games this season posting a sparkling .936 SV% and losing just one of his starts thus far.
Up front the consensus most underrated player in the league, Loui Eriksson, and Wunderkind Jamie Benn are tied for the team lead in scoring with 15 points. Eriksson and Benn are joined by a host of players previously considered to be good second line forwards: Ribiero, Ryder, Morrow, Dvorak, all of whom are experiencing varying levels of success this seaon. But it’s not the bigger names that are making the difference in Dallas but the depth forwards like Steve Ott, Adam Burrish and Fiddler who are providing great secondary scoring as well as plenty of sandpaper.
The scary thing is that when Morrow, Ribiero and Ryder hit their stride this team could really take off. Nieuwendyk and Co. are looking like geniuses for trusting the core they had assembled while picking up undervalued talent like Souray, Lehtonen, Goligoski and Ryder. It’s not quite Money-Puck but the Stars have done an awful lot with an underrated group so far this season and I don’t see them fading out.