From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.
1. That blue line…that sure doesn’t look like a Stanley Cup-caliber blue line.
Mike Modano. Brett Hull. Joe Nieuwendyk. Jere Lehtinen. Yup, that Stars team that won it all in 1999 had some great forwards. But let’s not forget: that team also had a great defenseman by the name of Sergei Zubov, as well as the big and tough Derian Hatcher.
Today’s version of the Stars has a similarly impressive collection of forwards, led by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and bolstered in the offseason by Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. Its blue line, however, falls short of matching the ’99 team’s. And more importantly, it falls short of matching those of current Western Conference contenders like Los Angeles, Chicago, and St. Louis.
Despite GM Jim Nill’s belief that they’re “going to be just fine” with a top pairing of Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley, you have to go back to the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes to find a Cup champ with a defense that didn’t feature a Norris Trophy candidate. Since then, it’s been teams with the likes of Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom, Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, and Drew Doughty that have won championships.
Yes, Sergei Gonchar helped the Penguins to a Cup in 2009 and he’s on the Stars now, but at 40 years old, he’s nowhere near the player he was in his prime.
Nill, though, is optimistic.
“I’m excited about our defense,” he said in July. “We’ve got three or four young kids that are knocking on the door from the Calder Cup championship down in Texas. We think we’ve got lots of different options. We know they’re all going to get better. We think we’re going to be just fine.”
But what does “just fine” mean? In the Western Conference, is “just fine” enough to make a deep run?
2. That Central Division is a beast. (Within the beast that is the Western Conference.)
Here’s the thing about the 2013-14 Stars team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2008 — it only won 36 games in regulation or overtime, and it only qualified for the postseason by two points over the Coyotes. Dallas still finished well behind the top four teams (Colorado, St. Louis, Chicago, and Minnesota) in its division.
Even with the additions of Spezza and Hemsky, the Stars are far from guaranteed of making the playoffs in 2014-15. Sure, Colorado could fall back a bit, but let’s say Dallas is once again fighting for one of the two wild card spots in the Western Conference. Nashville and Vancouver, two teams that missed the playoffs last year, could easily be right there with them. Heck, if the Jets can get even half-decent goaltending, Winnipeg could be, too.
3. Anders Lindback is the backup goalie.
Don’t laugh at the notion that the backup goaltender is important. Unless you believe the Stars have a large margin for error (which we clearly don’t), a playoff position could well rest on the shoulders of a guy who had an .891 save percentage last season in Tampa Bay.
“It is important,” said coach Lindy Ruff. “Ideally, if you can come out of a season and have your backup with a winning record, that’s a big deal. He needs to be able to step in and win games for you, play well.”
Assuming workhorse Kari Lehtonen can stay healthy (which he’s not right now), Lindback will still need to start anywhere from 15 to 20 games. That’s a decent chunk of the season, with no small amount of points on the line.
Standings wise, the top teams in the NHL last season all got strong performances from their backups. Chad Johnson in Boston. Frederik Andersen in Anaheim. Jean-Sebastien Giguere in Colorado. Brian Elliott in St. Louis. Alex Stalock in San Jose.
The back-up position matters. And it’s a big question mark in Big D.