The Dallas Stars celebrate their overtime victory over the Vancouver Canucks (Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Dallas Stars may have been over-hyped in 2014-15, but this season’s team is putting up big offensive totals and crazy comeback wins. The Stars aren’t perfect and have room to improve, but they’re looking like an early season contender out of the ever-difficult Central Division.
The off-season hype surrounding the Dallas Stars in 2014 was huge. Stars GM Jim Nill had gone out and acquired Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators, brought in Ales Hemsky as a free agent and had fans in Texas excited about what could be the most gifted offense in the entire NHL.
Well, the offense certainly delivered. The Stars averaged more than three goals per game and their 257 goals were second in the NHL to only Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who scored 259 times in 2014-15.
But an exciting offense isn’t enough by itself to win games, and the bubble burst on the off-season excitement by the time the Stars had played their 20th game of the season. The Stars were 7-9-4, had just snapped a seven-game losing streak and the defense was weak at the best of times. Because the Stars had slid so far, it was an uphill battle to get into the post-season. Dallas made a late push, but it was too little, too late and the Stars missed the playoffs by seven points.
That was last season, though, and it seems like a distant memory. Especially considering through 10 games of the new campaign, it would seem foolish to believe the Stars are anywhere but playoff-bound.
The Stars’ 8-2-0 start to the 2015-16 campaign is the best in team history and it has the Stars looking like the team to beat in the Central Division. In their past two games, Dallas has shown the resiliency necessary to turn an also-ran into a Stanley Cup contender. Tuesday, trailing 3-0 to Anaheim, Dallas rattled off four unanswered goals and took two points from the struggling Ducks. The Vancouver Canucks had the Stars trailing 3-1 in the third period before tallies by Jason Demers and Patrick Sharp sent the game to overtime. And that’s when captain Jamie Benn went to work, sniping home the game-winner. As Benn goes, so too go the Stars. And things have been going very well.
Through 10 games, the 26-year-old left winger is showing that his Art Ross-winning 87-point campaign in 2014-15 was no fluke. And if there were any doubters, they’ve surely been quieted by now. Benn has banged home nine goals and 17 points for the Stars already this season, is leading the scoring race and well on-pace to break his career-highs for both goals and points. Benn’s scoring tear has helped the Stars power play get out to a fantastic start, and he’s also contributing to Dallas’ ninth-ranked penalty kill.
That the Stars have a penalty kill in the top 10 is a big deal for the club, even if it is early. Last season, Dallas’ penalty kill operated at an 80.7 percent clip, which was more in league with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets than it was the NHL’s elite. An entire team’s defense can’t be judged by performance when down a man, but that’s one promising sign on defense for the Stars.
The Stars’ puck possession game has also been impeccable. Through 10 games, Dallas’ 52.8 percent shot attempts for percentage at 5-on-5 is seventh in the NHL. That’s a great position to be in, and even better when considering puck possession teams tend to fare better over the course of the campaign and in the post-season than those relying on timely scoring or favorable puck luck.
That’s not to say there aren’t still some concerns for the Stars, however. The play of goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi hasn’t been stellar. Of the 35 goaltenders to play at least 150 minutes at 5-on-5, Niemi and Lehtonen rank 29th and 32nd in save percentage with marks of .907 and .886 respectively.
Niemi started strong with a shutout in his first outing as a Star, but has seen his numbers slip on nearly a game-by-game basis. Lehtonen was supposed to challenge and push Niemi, making for a goaltending duel that would cause both netminders to play their best hockey. Instead, Niemi has struggled while Lehtonen was shelled in his last game out, allowing three goals on 11 shots to the Florida Panthers.
Yet, thanks to the pure firepower in Dallas, the Stars remain atop the Central Division. The Stars are winning in spite of their flaws, and it doesn’t appear as if it’ll slow anytime soon. The hype for Dallas was huge in 2014-15. Maybe it should have been bigger for the 2015-16 team, though.