Are the red-hot Dallas Stars legitimate?

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Predicting professional sports team’s future is a fool’s errand. It doesn’t matter if you’re making guesses based on a summer’s worth of transactions, guessing which team will win a playoff series when an 82-game season boils down to a maximum of seven contests or – in this case – trying to see if a small sample size indicates a bigger trend. Whatever the situation is, it usually isn’t much more than a coin toss.

What makes it fun isn’t being right or wrong (correctness is the goal and is certainly more fun, naturally), but rather determining why something will or won’t happen. The Dallas Stars were picked to finish last in majority of people’s Pacific Division predictions (mine included) based on their faulty defense and two years of substandard results. As you probably know by now, the Stars stormed out of the gate so far, going 3-0 with some convincing wins.

The question is: are the Stars for real or just lucky? Let me break down what won’t continue, what might and the variables that will make-or-break their season.

What should change

  • The Stars’ remarkable luck could run out. 82 games is a big haul. Expecting things to keep coming up roses for Dallas is a little bit much. The team has given up far more shots per game (34.3 allowed vs. 21.7 shots on goal) but is converting on startling amount of those shots (4 goals per game). If high shooting percentages indicate good luck then the Stars are eating salads full of four-leaf clovers.
  • On the bright side, their penalty kill will improve. So far, they have killed a league worst 64.3 percent of man advantages. That will obviously change, but if their PK remains weak, something else will change: they’ll stop winning despite allowing a bunch of powerplay goals.

What shouldn’t change:

  • Brad Richards should still be really good. He might not remain in the top 10 point scorers (though he could very well be within shouting distance) by the end of the 2010-11 season, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he matched or even surpassed his 91-point output from last season. Oh yeah, he’s also in a contract year. The last time he had a contact year, Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
  • The Stars forward depth will still be strong. One strength even the most negative of critics would acknowledge is the Stars’ considerable talent at forward. It’s not just Richards, either. Brenden Morrow, Mike Ribeiro, James Neal and Loui Eriksson can bring a lot of offense to the table, too. Steve Ott can score at a decent clip when given meatier minutes, too.

The variables

  • Kari Lehtonen’s health is always in question. Lehtonen has been pretty impressive so far, but it’s rarely been about talent with the former No. 2 pick (at least by what I’ve witnessed). Nope, Lehtonen’s chief issue revolves around staying healthy. If he can, the Stars could expect above average goaltending. If not, they must rely on someone like Andrew Raycroft. If that happens, they better score a lot of goals.
  • Will Ribeiro and Morrow’s magic continue? It’s highly unlikely that they will maintain their scorching hot pace, but if both players can stay healthy, they might represent one of the best “second” lines in the league. Teams would have to pick their poison: do you put your best blue line assets toward stopping Richards or that duo? Ribeiro-Morrow was one of the most underrated pairings back in the 2007-08 season.

One reason to believe that things will keep going strong for Ribeiro and Morrow: many athletes don’t truly rebound from major knee surgery until the next season, so maybe Morrow really is “back.”

Considering the high risk factors (Lehtonen’s health) and notable flaws (I’m still not sold on their defense or coach Marc Crawford), I would be surprised if they took the Pacific. However, with staggering forward depth and a little luck on the injury front, a playoff berth is perfectly reasonable.

What do you think? Are the Stars on the verge of being elite, just a playoff team or is this hot start just a blip on the radar of another disappointing season? Let us know in the comments.

It’s Carolina Hurricanes day at PHT

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The Carolina Hurricanes have been building up some buzz ever since Bill Peters helped transform a young core into an impressive possession machine.

Even so, whether you blame it on goaltending or some other factor, the Hurricanes haven’t made it to the playoffs since the 2009-10 season.

Management took measures to make some key upgrades in the off-season in order to break that slump.

Logically enough, Carolina searched for an answer in net, trading away Eddie Lack and boldly handing a four-year, $16.6 million contract to Scott Darling. With that, they’ll mix the future (Darling) with the past (Cam Ward) as their goalie duo.

Speaking of the past, the Hurricanes also brought back a vestige of their Stanley Cup victory, acquiring Justin Williams as a UFA. They added some additional championship experience by bringing Marcus Kruger into the mix, too.

Some of the biggest transactions come down to keeping players in the fold. The Hurricanes made it clear that, along with Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin figure into their long-term plans with substantial contract extensions.

Of course, the biggest decision may come off the ice, as the Hurricanes’ ownership situation remains fuzzy at the moment.

Switching gears, it’s easy to see why people are so excited about the Hurricanes. Aside from a Williams here and Lee Stempniak there, this roster is brimming with young talent, including players whose peak years are likely ahead of them.

Still, at some point, potential needs to make way for production. PHT will examine where the Hurricanes might be headed in 2017-18 on this fine day.

Lehtera: Trade from Blues to Flyers will be ‘good for me’

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Let’s be honest. Jori Lehtera felt like a bit of an afterthought in the trade that sent Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues and some significant picks to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Just consider the PHT headline: “Flyers send Schenn to Blues, take on Lehtera’s contract.”

That’s certainly a fair way to look at it, as the Flyers received the 27th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft and a conditional first-rounder in the deal. Would they have gotten such a haul for Schenn if they didn’t absord Lehtera’s $4.7 million cap hit, which expires after 2018-19?

Again, it’s easy to lose track of the human factor, as Lehtera was moved from the only NHL team he’s ever suited up for. While he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford that the news brought out both good and bad emotions, the 29-year-old believes that he’ll benefit on the ice.

“I have no idea why (the Blues traded me), but I think it’s better for me that I got traded, so I don’t really care why,” Lehtera said. “That’s the business part of hockey. It’s always tough to leave when you know all of the guys and the city. But hockey-wise, it’s going to be good for me. I didn’t play well at the end, but I think a new start will be really good for me.”

It’s been an interesting few years for Lehtera.

His numbers have dropped from his nifty rookie season (14 goals, 44 points) to 2015-16 (34 points) and finally last season (22 points).

Context matters, naturally, as centering a line of Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko inflated his numbers, especially earlier on.

Still, that couldn’t have been a promising trend for both the player and the team.

The challenge will be to really make a mark with Philly. With Claude Giroux, Valtteri Filppula, Sean Couturier, and possibly even Nolan Patrick in the way, Lehtera would have plenty of competition down the middle. It wouldn’t be shocking if he was asked to move to the wing on occasion.

Lehtera certainly has plenty to prove, but he also gets a chance to make a positive first impression. If he can make an impact, then he’ll make Flyers GM Ron Hextall look that much brighter in the process.

Report: Avalanche will soon have AHL affiliate in Colorado

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There are upgrades that improve teams in dramatic ways, and then there are moves that improve quality of life.

Mike Chambers of The Denver Post reports that the Colorado Avalanche will make a tweak that would likely be a big plus in the quality of life category: starting in 2018-19, the Colorado Eagles will be their AHL affiliate. The Eagles will be bumped from an ECHL team to the AHL.

At the moment, the Avs’ affiliate is the San Antonio Rampage (pictured). So, yeah, there will be a nice advantage in a) calling players up and b) management having more opportunities to keep an eye on prospects.

The Budweiser Events Center is about a one-hour drive to the Pepsi Center according to Google Maps, depending upon traffic. So yeah, that’s an easier situation than traveling from Texas.

The Avalanche haven’t made this news official; Chambers cites two anonymous sources. With the change coming for 2018-19, it’s possible that confirmation might not come for a while. More from Chambers:

The Avs, citing their contract with the Rampage, declined comment, but vice president Jean Martineau confirmed the team’s contract with San Antonio ends after the 2017-18 season. Eagles general manager Chris Stewart could not be reached for comment.

Will Rangers fans warm up to Vigneault this season?

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

From the way many New York Rangers fans discuss Alain Vigneault, you’d think he was presiding over the era of 1997-98 to 2003-04, when the Rangers missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons.

Impressive results

From a sheer win-loss standpoint, Vigneault’s been a success, even if the Rangers haven’t been able to win it all. The Rangers’ points percentage has been at .628, almost as strong as his .632 mark with the Canucks, when AV took Vancouver within one win of that elusive Stanley Cup title.

(Breaking: things haven’t gone so smoothly for Vancouver since he left town.)

The Rangers are 192-108-28 under Vigneault. They made an unexpected run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and also brought them to the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

Plenty of critics

Of course, Vigneault wasn’t on the ice winning those games, and many would (understandably) attribute the Rangers’ successes to the players, most notably Henrik Lundqvist. In the eyes of many, this team’s successes come despite Vigneault.

Again, the criticisms are often as harsh as they are widespread.

Sometimes people find his defensive pairing decisions maddening. If you want to make some Rangers fans wince, just utter the name Tanner Glass. SBNation Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter provides a portal into such angst, with headlines like “Rangers demise started at the top” and failing grades for his playoff maneuvering.

Twitter can honestly get a little weird with the AV vitriol, although … maybe that’s to be expected? Consider this a random example that’s on the more, well, SFW spectrum:

Not everyone is bashing Vigneault, mind you, but his critics can sometimes resemble a chorus.

Glass floor

Of course, any passionate fan base will have its qualms with coaches. People have been discussing “the pros and cons of Alain Vigneault” for ages.

It’s easy to get caught up in your favorite team and ignore the notion that virtually every coach has “their guys.”

In this case, “their guys” means marginal players whose elevated roles leaves fans shaking their heads. Jon Cooper seemingly favored Andrej Sustr and arguably never really trusted Jonathan Drouin. Maple Leafs fans weren’t always thrilled to see, say, Roman Polak getting serious minutes. The list goes on and on.

A turning point?

With that in mind, the 2017-18 season could be an especially fascinating chapter in the love-hate affair between Rangers fans and Vigneault.

Frankly, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton took measures to protect Vigneault from himself, and those changes might just leave fans begrudgingly agreeing with more AV moves than usual … or it might send some over the edge if old habits die hard.

As much as people criticize individual moves, Vigneault made a strong argument that he’s a versatile coach in 2016-17, taking a more modern approach with the Rangers. It mostly worked, and now this team has better tools to improve their transition game.

To an extent, it’s addition by subtraction, as Dan Girardi‘s time mercifully ends, and with it the motivation for AV to give him big minutes. This opens the door for more mobile defenders to get time, such as promising young blueliner Brady Skjei.

The actual additions are most important. Kevin Shattenkirk stands, on paper, as a massive upgrade, especially if he slides into a pairing with Ryan McDonagh (who some believe has been dragged down by Girardi for years).

Another key will be how Marc Staal is used. If the emphasis shifts from Staal to Shattenkirk, McDonagh, Skjei, Brendan Smith and maybe even Anthony DeAngelo, stats-minded Rangers fans might be pleased.

Maybe most importantly for the mental health of some fans, that lure to put Glass in the lineup is also gone.

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To some extent, criticisms are just the nature of the beast for coaches in professional sports. Vigneault’s been around long enough to realize that.

Even so, the highs and lows of Vigneault can sometimes be quite dramatic, making him a polarizing subject for fans. This season should be especially interesting to watch from the perspective of Rangers fans, whether AV makes changes or continues to frustrate them in familiar ways.