After a four-year drought, the Dallas Stars will be making a return to the playoffs this season. The kids and superior goaltending will be leading the charge.
Of course, Stars fans have a plethora of reasons to be excited about the team’s chances to contend. It’s also well known that the Stars are no strangers to coughing up their playoff chances in the last week or two of the season. So it’s understandable why most hockey fans outside of Dallas are writing them off.
But cast the doubts aside: This team is once again ready to represent Texas in the playoffs.
It was a busy and productive offseason for the Stars. The new ownership group led by Tom Gaglardi as well as GM and former Dallas Stars center Joe Nieuwendyk have shown a commitment to improve this team from the ground up with an emphasis on youth development.
Sure, through trades and free agency most teams acquire seasoned veterans for their knowledge of and experience with the game. The Stars certainly brought in their fair share of veterans this offseason (center Derek Roy, defenseman Aaron Rome) and even geezers in the form of a couple 40+ year-olds: center Ray Whitney and living legend right winger Jaromir Jagr, who turns 41 this week.
But homegrown talent, originating from draft picks, is where many teams find their success on the ice. This is the Stars' single greatest strength. This year, that class of players is a major part of the team’s core. It is headlined by 23-year-old rising star center Jamie Benn and winger Loui Erikkson, 27, along with fleet-footed forward Cody Eakin, 21, and the mammoth defensemen Brendon Dillon, 22, and Jamie Oleksiak, 20.
In a season where every team is playing 48 games in 99 days, physical and mental fatigue will certainly set in. The Stars will need the energetic legs of its younger players to compete the whole year. These kids are ready though, and they’ll provide that energy while leading the team into the playoffs.
If the single most important aspect of successful hockey teams is the infusion of talented youth, then elite goaltending is an extremely close second.
In hockey it is often said that the goaltender is the backbone of the team, and the “most important defenseman.” It is no secret that the Stars have a special one of their own.
Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen has earned elite status as a goaltender. Over the last two seasons he has posted a combined goals allowed average (GAA) of 2.44 and a save percentage of .914. In those two seasons, he ranked in the top 10 in the league in number of opponent shots faced.
He has improved every year he’s been in a Stars uniform. So far this season, Lehtonen is tied for second in the league in wins, and is boasting a GAA of 2.30 and a save percentage of .928. In a lockout-shortened schedule where the Stars play a gauntlet of exclusively western conference teams, those numbers are highly respectable.
When he’s on his game, Lehtonen is easily a top 10 goalie in the NHL. He constantly keeps the Stars in game with his lightning-fast glove, and an ability to control the puck off rebounds in traffic. He possesses great net play and instincts, knowing when to cover up the puck or shoot it down the boards and out of the defensive zone.
His only flaw is that he is somewhat prone to injury. During his tenure with Dallas he has dramatically cut down his time on the injured reserve list. The Stars will need Lehtonen healthy
and consistently on his “A” game this season.
It’s been almost 10 years since the Stars truly competed for the Stanley Cup. While the Stars are not yet a championship-caliber team, they are well on their way to re-establishing
themselves as one. But for now, get ready, Texas and the rest of the hockey world – you’ll be seeing the green, black and gold on the ice in May, taking their next big step back to glory.