Despite a slow start, the Dallas Stars are about where many predicted they would be in the standings: They are still contending for a playoff spot. Injuries forced the team to rely on more young players than they had planned to. How important age is to a player’s performance varies. Being 33 isn’t enough to make you a good leader. Being 22 isn’t enough to make you an optimist. Nonetheless, age is factor, and not only because of the salary cap.
A lot about the Stars organization is new, which carries with it the same unpredictability as youth. Dallas forward Erik Cole summarized the way the team has made the adjustment:
“It’s been kind of a process, with a big new group, new management, new coaching staff and everything, kind of reshuffling through everyone trying to find their niche on the team and things like that. … The guys I’m playing with right now, we’ve seemed to find some chemistry and hopefully we can continue that.”
Other teams made such major changes in recent years, but rarely all at once. Realignment didn’t do the Stars any favors as far as competition goes, so the Stars didn’t have a lot of time to find their legs. Despite being on a three-game losing streak (their longest of the season), the team has covered a lot of ground with those legs.
The Stars started the season slowly, winning just three of their first eight games. In the 34 games that followed, they won 17 and earned points in 24. That has been enough to keep them in the running for a playoff spot.
Before their Jan. 4 game, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock talked briefly about the Dallas roster:
“They’re light and quick, actually, and I think Garbutt and Roussel and Cody Eakin, and … [Nichushkin,] big time speed. Obviously Seguin is one of the best players in the league right now, he’s really dynamic with the puck, it’s magic. When you look at that, then your franchise, suddenly you have two I think upper-end players in Benn and him at a young, young age…”
One “young” wasn’t enough. Of course youth promises future returns, but now, this season, the Dallas Stars of all ages have games to play and points to earn.
I wondered how Dallas players and coaches thought about age. Tyler Seguin, when asked what the pros and cons are of having a young team, had a little fun with the question:
“Third periods we still feel pretty good, we’ve still got our legs. I can yell at Nichushkin saying that he’s 18, and I’m obviously 21 and a little older now so I can’t be carrying the skating load all the time.”
He went on to explain some of the emotional merits of having a young group:
“I think we bring a lot of excitement to our locker room every game. For a young bunch of guys we’ve done a pretty good job of turning the page after a win or a loss.”
Talk of a team’s young average age usually refers to a generalized inconsistency or lack of focus. One key to the Stars’ success might be uncommon mental resilience from their young players.
Seguin used the Jan. 2 game against the Montreal Canadiens to answer the second part of the “pro-con” question:
“We put together some good games there in a row, and last game I saw the youth again as a bit of a con. You get back playing an eastern team, you’re not used to it, you’re used to a heavy [western] game style, and see what happens, we ended up getting four goals but losing 6-4 which can’t happen.”
He added that he did not put the blame for those goals against on Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
The Stars followed up that performance by losing 5-1 to Detroit, which was supposed to be a bounce-back opportunity to finish the home stand. It is difficult to make a close connection between that loss and youthful inattention. A number of players were recovering from the flu. Perhaps a more veteran team would know better how to simplify their game in case of illness. Perhaps.
The Red Wings are not considered a young team. They rely heavily on veteran players. Before the Jan. 2 game, Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg explained why he enjoys playing against the Stars:
“I think they’ve been playing well. They’re very skilled. I think they have good goaltending every time we come in here. At the same time, it’s always a fun game when we play Dallas. I think it’s a lot of back and forth, and it’s a lot of chances, a lot of scoring chances. I think that’s the fun part.”
The game didn’t work out that way exactly, though Zetterberg did score twice. One of goals came from his team’s first shot of the game, at which point the Red Wings had been outshot 12-1. In the end, Detroit was outshot 45-27.
After the 5-1 loss, Dallas center Shawn Horcoff described the hazards of turning the puck over to the Red Wings:
“You can’t give those up against a veteran team. They do a real good job of shutting down; they’ve got a ton of backside pressure. We can take a real good lesson from that too, about working hard to come back and really trying to … minimize … if it is an odd-man rush, trying to negate it as quick as possible.”
The Stars limited the veteran Red Wings in terms of shots, despite giving the puck away 17 times to Detroit’s four. The Stars couldn’t finish, while the Red Wings did.
Having an older team doesn’t guarantee finishing. Several teams take a lot of shots, miss a lot of shots and lose while outshooting their opponent. Those teams aren’t all “young.”
Stars head coach Lindy Ruff described the influence of the team’s young players to be beneficial, but he didn’t talk about them as an age group. He focused on particular players:
“The youth has really pushed this team. You know even our group of Eakin, Roussel, Garbutt, the guys that have the seven, eight goals, they’ve been a real good supporting cast and the speed in their game is really good … They create a lot, they push the defense back. They do a lot of good things and they’ve been able to put up some really good numbers on the score sheet for a supporting cast which is really important.”
Only two of those players are young in years by NHL standards, but none of them sound inconsistent or unfocused. They sound like players getting the job done.
A couple of days earlier, Ruff talked about his team’s work ethic:
“There’s a lot of times, maybe we haven’t won or we’ve given a point away but you can’t say we’ve been outworked in a game. And that, when you’re standing behind a bench, is something you like about your team.”
When asked if age had anything to do with how hard the team worked, Ruff responded:
“I think there are times when the younger guys in tougher schedules still can maintain their legs and have good pace in their game. I think typically it’s a little tougher for older guys. They tend to get through tough schedules with smart plays and staying inside and being real smart players where the young guys still bring the enthusiasm and seem to have the energy for the game.”
The last three games have been rough on the Dallas Stars. They gave up five or more goals in each, have been plagued by turnovers, and they were outshot to boot on Jan. 6 on Long Island. It is a dismal pattern, likely to change soon, but it isn’t unusual for an NHL team to hit bottom before picking up again. If youth were a determining factor, the Stars wouldn’t be in the running for a playoff spot, not in the Central Division.
What is probable is that a young player has time to improve. If players such as Seguin, Valeri Nichushkin, Kevin Connauton, Cody Eakin, Alex Chiasson, and Brenden Dillon improve with age, the team could be a truly daunting opponent soon. Even Stars captain Jamie Benn, who at 24 is but a year or two from being considered “not young” by NHL standards, might yet reach a new level.
Which of these young players will still be Stars two or three seasons from now is uncertain. Plans change, schemes shift. What must be gratifying for their management is that the Dallas Stars of now are performing less like a very young team, and more like a very good one. Considering the progress they have made through half of the season, they might be much better than very good by the end of the season.