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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.

Penguins face a difficult road in their quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champs

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates by hoisting the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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After the Penguins paraded the Stanley Cup through the streets of Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby took it to his hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, Evgeni Malkin to Moscow and Phil Kessel to a children’s hospital in Toronto as part of the summer-long celebration.

If there’s one thing champions in the NHL have learned, it is to savor those moments because history says they won’t happen back-to-back. No team has repeated as Cup champion since the salary-cap era began in 2005, and the last back-to-back winners were the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

Sorry, Penguins. And sorry to the San Jose Sharks, as no team in the past eight seasons has lost in the final and gotten back the next year.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are rested from an unusually short spring, the Tampa Bay Lightning boast the deepest team in the league and the Washington Capitals are virtually unchanged after dominating the regular season. All those things, plus playing into June, stack the odds against the Penguins raising the Cup again in 2017.

“You’re coming off such a high, it’s going to be tough to get to that (level) right away,” Pittsburg defenseman Trevor Daley said. “How you become a great team in this league is you have the hunger every night. Teams that are proven winners are usually the great teams, the L.A.s and Chicagos. Pittsburgh is right up there now in that conversation. We’re hungry to do it again.”

Because they have two top goalies in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins are perhaps the best positioned team to repeat in recent history. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.

Online sportsbook Bovada set the Penguins and Blackhawks as co-Cup favorites with the Capitals, Lightning, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues and Sharks not far behind. It wouldn’t be a surprise if any of those teams make it through a World Cup of Hockey-condensed regular season and a grueling division playoff format and get to celebrate in June.

“The parity in the league allows for a lot of teams to have the same goal and actually legitimately have a chance at it,” said Washington winger Justin Williams, who won the Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014. “There’s a handful of teams that have those aspirations and they’re real.”

Rather than parity, commissioner Gary Bettman prefers the term “competitive balance,” which speaks not only to the lack of repeat champions and the death of NHL dynasties but the variance in playoff teams. Of the 30 teams, 24 have made the playoffs at least once over the past three seasons.

“Unless you’re (cheering for) the team in the dynasty market, you could care less,” Bettman said. “All you care about is that your team is competitive.”

Competition isn’t the problem. It’s so high that playoff teams can’t miss a beat or fear they’ll drop out. The Florida Panthers look like a team just beginning a run of playoff appearances with young stars like Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov, but president of hockey operations Dale Tallon knows it’ll come down to breaks and injuries because “it’s going to be a battle to return to the playoffs.”

It’s a battle because the top teams haven’t lost much.

The Penguins made a few tweaks and will be without Cup-winner Murray to start the season, but they can turn to 2009 winner Fleury and still lean heavily on Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. Elsewhere in the East, the Lightning re-signed Steven Stamkos, the Capitals are primed for another run with Alex Ovechkin and Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, and the Montreal Canadiens should be back in contention with all-world goalie Carey Price healthy after missing most of last season with a knee injury.

Chicago has cycled pieces in and out while winning the Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, but the core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith is as strong as ever. The Blackhawks would have liked to go deeper in last year’s playoffs, but not doing so could pay dividends this season as it has in the past.

“It might be good for the guys to have a longer offseason and come back hungry for the start of the season,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said.

Trading off years with the Boston Bruins’ 2011 championship mixed in, the Blackhawks and Kings know all too well about the Cup hangover that the Penguins will try to avoid. Peaking at playoff time and maintaining that level amid injuries and bounces takes a lot, plus the system is skewed against back-to-back champions.

“It’s more hard than before when teams were really dominating and could spend so much on salaries and they can buy different players,” said Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa, who lost in the final in 2008 with Pittsburgh and 2009 with Detroit before winning three times with Chicago. “In this modern day, it’s extremely hard. … It’s really, really hard to repeat.”

Brennan, Granberg among list of players put on waivers

VANCOUVER, BC - MARCH 14:  T.J. Brennan #25 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates with the puck in NHL action against the Vancouver Canucks on March 14, 2015 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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Veteran defenseman T.J. Brennan lit up the American Hockey League last season, with 25 goals and 68 points in 69 games to earn a two-way deal from the Philadelphia Flyers in July.

That deal came only three months after he received the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman.

But on Friday, he was placed on waivers by the Flyers, as per Renaud Lavoie of TVA Sports, and is available to be claimed by another NHL team within a 24-hour span.If not, he can be reassigned to the minors.

Still, for Brennan, he chose this summer to remain in North America for a chance at the NHL. It was reported in June that he had received a “lucrative” offer from a KHL team, leading to talk he could take his talents to that league for the 2016-17 season.

That was before his deal with Philadelphia.

Petter Granberg of the Nashville Predators was also waived Friday.

Granberg, a 24-year-old depth defenseman, and the Predators were able to avoid arbitration this summer when the two sides agreed to a two-year, two-way, $1.225 million contract. It was suggested that he could take on more responsibility with the Predators this upcoming season.

In total, 25 players were placed on waivers Friday (check out the list here, here, here and here). Also on that list is former first-round pick Jordan Caron, who was waived by the St. Louis Blues.

Sharks prospect Meier out four weeks with mononucleosis

SUNRISE, FL - JUNE 26:  Timo Meier poses for a portrait after being selected ninth overall by the San Jose Sharks during the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center on June 26, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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The San Jose Sharks have revealed the illness that prospect forward Timo Meier has been dealing with during training camp.

A statement from Sharks general manager Doug Wilson:

Timo Meier is expected to be unable to play in any NHL or AHL games for approximately four weeks after being diagnosed with mononucleosis. He will remain in the Bay Area where he can skate and train as his recovery allows.

It was reported yesterday that Meier, selected ninth overall in 2015, had been held off the ice for five straight days due to the illness. It was also noted that his time away could open the door for other prospects to perhaps crack the roster.

The fact he’s expected to be out for up to four weeks means that, unless something changes, he won’t be ready for the start of the regular season.

On Friday, prior to the Sharks providing an update on his illness, the San Jose Mercury News reported that Meier skated with his teammates earlier in the day.

“I’m trying to stay positive,” said Meier. “I’ve only missed preseason games and obviously, still trying to make the team. But I still have some time and I’ll try to make the most of it once I’m back.”

Byfuglien leaves Jets preseason game with lower-body injury (Updated)

WINNIPEG, MB - FEBRUARY 11: Dustin Byfuglien #33 of the Winnipeg Jets prepares for the faceoff in second period action in an NHL game against the Boston Bruins at the MTS Centre on February 11, 2016 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)
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The Winnipeg Jets will be without defenseman Dustin Byfuglien for the remainder of Friday’s exhibition game versus the Edmonton Oilers.

The Jets announced that Byfuglien will not return for the third period due to a lower-body injury.

Byfuglien was involved in a scuffle with Matt Hendricks earlier in the game. Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun reported on Twitter that Byfuglien went to the dressing room during the off-setting penalties.

Update: The Jets later announced that Byfuglien was held out of the remainder of the game for “precautionary reasons.”