A morning scan of the ever-changing Western Conference in the NHL shows that once again those pesky Dallas Stars sit near the top of the conference and at least for the moment, the very top of the Pacific Division.
The margin is certainly noteworthy for those who predicted a 15th place finish in the Western Conference (Hello, Sports Illustrated), but it is also the morning of December 2. That day merely signifies that 25 games are down, and 57 remain in the race to end a 3 year playoff drought for the once proud franchise.
It would seem altogether absurd to jump to conclusions based on 2 months of hockey for the big picture or the cliched "grand scheme of things", but I do think we can draw some micro conclusions from the first 25:
1) - It seems possible that the Stars have found a coach that can get them to either achieve their maximum performance level or maybe even overachieve.
Glen Gulutzan is the head coach of this team after being summoned to Dallas by Joe Nieuwendyk in June. He arrived as a coach that very few knew anything about. He likely met the main criteria for the job opening in that he did not have a very high salary requirement by coach's standards. If Nieuwendyk had wanted to hire anyone in the league for this post, I am pretty sure he was handcuffed with the same financial restrictions that governed every other move he aspired to make in the last few years. But, whatever the method for finding a new coach was, the early results are quite interesting. The team is seeming to find a mode of play that suits them and their personnel. They seem to respond from losses quite well by throwing a solid effort out the next night. The team doesn't seem to concede results because they are down with injuries. These are all very important characteristics to compiling enough points to go to the 2nd season come April. Many coaches arrive as unknowns and some of them make themselves known throughout the league in time. Time will obviously be the judge of whether this is a sleight of hand trick or a foundation is being built for the long term, but so far, one has to be impressed with what he is done out of the gates.
2) - Despite the new ownership and the optimism of change, the city will require a lot more than that to rush back to the rink.
There are two types of sports cities. The first is one where you are the only show in town and because of this exclusivity you have on the minds and wallets of the citizens, you have their loyalty no matter what. The other type of city is the one we live in here in the Metroplex. It is a city of many teams and entertainment avenues and it turns into the survival of the fittest. The team that constructs the best group of talent and gets them to perform at a top level reaps the benefits of the support of the city. Better product means full arena. Full arena means greater profits. Profits can be turned back into the roster with new signings. And the new signings make more people interested in the team and the cycle continues as more people want to come see you play.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If the city doesn't think you are trying to win, they lose interest. The more people that lose interest, the emptier your building is. The emptier your building is, the more money you lose. The more money you lose means less will be invested to improve the team. And the less you invest in your team causes fewer people to care how you play. And that is where the Stars are right now. There remains a circle of loyalists still plugged in, but the lion's share of the city's sports enthusiasts have moved on to other amusements. Last night, with a Thursday night affair with Ottawa, the announced crowd of just over 10,000 fans seemed extremely optimistic. The team is playing well, but very small patches of the city seem to notice. New ownership and management can turn this around, but it won't happen overnight.
3) - The roster is reasonably well fortified at many spots, not fortified at others.
Let's face it, when you have to hurry and sign a player before you get in trouble with the league for not spending enough money on your payroll to stay above the salary cap floor, then you are not going to be able to compare your roster with those who are finding ways to fit another play under the cap ceiling. It is simple economics and a stark reminder why different players earn different salaries -- because better players get paid more money!
So, when you are spending to the floor and others spend to the ceiling, that roughly 15 million hurts you in two ways. Top shelf talent cannot be afforded - thus the loss of Brad Richards to the New York Rangers - and enough depth to overcome a rash of injuries is often the other way. To the Stars credit, they have lost a ton of talent in the last month, (Adam Burish, Alex Goligoski, Brenden Morrow, Kari Lehtonen, and Trevor Daley are all down right now) and yet they continue to achieve. They have many reasons to plummet in the standings presently, and yet they keep grinding out results. Their run of form in their last 6 games (4-1-1, 9 points) has been outstanding, including the Colorado and Ottawa games this week where they found wins without their franchise goaltender, 4 other regulars, and a power play that almost seems to conspire against them.
After they play the New York Islanders on Saturday, they leave on a huge 5-game roadtrip that includes California and New York. During that trip, they will not have Lehtonen between the pipes and many of the regulars will be touch-and-go. But, if they can somehow still be sitting near 1st place by Christmas, I have to believe new ownership will feel that this season is worth investing in. With the injured players returning (allowing the depth to make moves) I would then expect an aggressive approach to working the phones for the first time in the Nieuwendyk era.
And that aggressive move is when the city raises their collective eyebrows and head back to the building in masses. This won't happen overnight, but it can happen rather quickly. Just give the finicky Dallas sports fan something to believe in. The team needs to keep playing hard, and the return of the Stars to relevancy in their own city could happen this season.