December 23 2010 09:33AM
Calgary's season of utter futility resumes in Dallas this evening and after a diet of Wild and Blue Jacket games fit to put the most dedicated fan into a deep slumber, it's nice to see a different opponent on the Flames' docket. What awaits them at American Airlines Center is an outfit who appear to be taking the mantle of the team getting the most out of their bounces from last year's Avalanche.
The similarities aren't exact, but those two clubs do have a few parallels since the lockout in that they've gone from being amongst the league's big spenders to clubs that are in the league's bottom half payroll wise. Dallas hasn't gone quite as far as the Avs in terms of cutting veterans and salary, but they've certainly given a number of younger players major roles and let fate work as it would.
The Stars haven't obtained players via series of high draft picks either, with the three most notable young forwards on the roster coming in rounds two, two, and five. I do understand that as Flames' fans, the premise of actually holding on to a second round draft pick might appear to be a foreign and potentially unsettling concept, of course.
On-ice, we're also seeing something similar to what occurred in Denver last season. The Stars are being pretty badly outshot 5v5 thus far, and it hasn't mattered a lick because everything is going in for them and not much is getting past their goalies. The team is shooting nearly 10% 5v5 through the first first 34 games, largely on the back of some very juicy numbers from Richards, Neal and Eriksson.
As a pending UFA on a team currently run by the banks, Brad Richards is the object of considerable attention from fans of other teams around the league, and he certainly has a very good pedigree, but he's getting the bounces in a manner that might lead one to think he's due for a correction at some point.
It's a slight case of buyer beware, in other words. He's obviously a talented guy, though, and his two wingers have a nice mix of speed and brute force. James Neal offers a bit of both those qualities, actually, and I think Dallas did well to get him signed to a two year bridge contract at less than 3M a year.
The softer competition that Marc Crawford delivers to his first line has to be paid for by other players, obviously, and he's spent the last two seasons using Mike Ribeiro as his hard-minutes center. That idea might seem odd to people that watched him as a younger man, but he's managed to saw off the league's better players for the last two seasons, allowing others to flourish along the way.
I get that people don't like him for any number of reasons, but he and Brendan Morrow have permitted Crow the luxury of better ice time for his top scorers. The two vets have taken Jamie Benn alongside for a good chunk of the year, and Mikael Backlund's former junior teammate doesn't look out of place in that role. I do note that Benn, like a few younger players that appear to face harder competition in general terms, doesn't get every last defensive zone draw tossed his way, since Crawford saves that crap for the Burishes and Steve Otts of the world.
Again, though, that's sensible.
Dallas certainly has a very nice group of forwards to work with, but the defense corps is a string and baling wire collection. The Stars have less than 12M committed to their backline, which is a remarkably low number for a team spending just north of 50M on players.
Other than Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley and Nicklas Grossman, it's a pretty undistinguished lot as well, and if Dallas ever gets an owner with a few nickels in his pockets, that's the area of the club that could use an infusion of talent.
Joe Nieuwendyk took a bit of a gamble last year when he acquired Kari Lehtonen from the Thrashers, even at the cheap price of a scrub player and a 4th rounder. Lehtonen's ability was never in question, but he was perpetually injured in Atlanta, only playing more than 50 games once in his 5 years as the main goalie.
He's kept more or less in one piece this year, posting quality numbers while at EV. Maybe he just needed to wash the Don Waddell stink off of himself? (Note: premise might not apply to Ilya Kovalchuk.)
What's even more shocking than Lehtonen staying healthy is Andrew Raycroft offering a competent stretch as a backup. He's working on a small sample size, but I would have bet on Olli Jokinen leading the league in scoring before I considered the possibility of Raycroft posting a .930 EVSV% for more than one game in a row. At any rate, the Stars' goalie tandem has allowed a team getting outshot by about 4 shots a night to prosper in a very good division.
The plan of attack against the Stars is pretty clear. Their D can be worked, and their forwards, skilled as they are, aren't always exemplary in their own end when it comes to limiting attempts at the net.
Whether the Flames can do anything at all to exploit those flaws is, as always, the question of the day.