ST PAUL, MN - MARCH 13: The Dallas Stars congratulate goalie Kari Lehtonen #32 following a win against the Minnesota Wild on March 13, 2012 at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minnesota. The Stars defeated the Wild 1-0. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
The biggest difference for the Stars this season has been their ability to plug in players into their line-up without a huge drop off in production.
There's been a lot of factors to the Stars success this season: From the growth of guys like Jamie Benn, Mark Fistric and Kari Lehtonen to a new ownership and a new coach has brought life back into this organization and its fan base.
However, the biggest factor has been the outstanding depth throughout the organization from the Stars to their AHL affiliate, something that has been sorely missing in the past four years.
Remember what happened to this team when injuries hit last year? Remember how much the Stars had to rely on Brad Richards? Remember how Adam Burish was somehow the key piece to whether this team won or lost last season? Remember when every time Jeff Woywitka stepped onto the ice how much each and every Stars fan wanted to cry and curse at Mark Crawford?
1) The Injury Situation
The one thing that can kill a team, any team, is injuries. The Stars dealt with injuries last year and had they're plaguing this team once again. The difference is that this year, Dallas has the depth to deal with losing guys.
It's not the injuries to the most important players that made the difference. Losing a number one center for an extended amount of time like last season with Brad Richards will kill the season of just about any team. Dallas had that problem this season when Jamie Benn and Mike Ribeiro were both out at the same time. Dallas lost all five of the games that those two players missed. No team survives when both the number one and two centers are gone.
It's the injuries to the role players that did the Stars in last season. When Adam Burish went down with an injury last season, this team couldn't win a game. When he was out of the lineup, this team was in scramble mode on how to replace him with guys like Brandon Segal, Brian Sutherby and Krys Barch. I like Burish but come on, a third or fourth line energy player should not be the difference in whether this team wins or loses.
An injury to any defensemen also screwed up the team. At no time should someone like Woywitka be on the second pair of defensemen. He's a third/fourth pair bit player for any team that hopes to make the playoffs. He was overexposed last season and it cost the Stars dearly.
When injuries hit the role players on the team this year to guys like Burish, Brenden Morrow and Sheldon Souray, this team managed to survive them all, even thrive a for a while without them. Morrow was this team's leading goal scorer last season and replacing that kind of production is usually difficult.
Savvy signings of Michael Ryder and Eric Nystrom have more than made up for when Morrow was out. Ryder is now this team's goal scoring leader and looks poised to thoroughly outpace what Morrow had last season. With 11 games left in the season, his 30 goals are only 3 behind what Morrow had all of last season. Nystrom is fourth on this team in goals (with 16) despite being mostly a third line energy guy and penalty killer.
Injuries to important defensemen like Souray and Robidas haven't been as detrimental to the team either. Philip Larsen and Mark Fistric have vastly improved their games and become important cogs on this team. Fistric is now one of the leaders on this team on the penalty kill and Larsen fills in spots all over the ice.
Heck, the depth in the d-core this season was good enough that Nick Grossmann was shipped off to the Philadelphia Flyers in a trade. Grossmann was a leading penalty killer on this team and a second pair defenseman. Guys like that don't get traded from playoff teams lightly unless there's more than enough to replace them.
2) It's Allowed Jamie Benn To Be Jamie Benn
Perhaps no player on this team has improved this season as much as Jamie Benn has. Benn has gone from a solid player to a superstar number one center that can take over a game. His inclusion into the All-Star game is all you need to know as to how good he can be.
A shift to the center position and roster depth have allowed him to blossom into a star. Last year, Benn was a first team penalty killer and spent ample time on the PK. For someone like Benn, that just equates to time on ice where he can't make a difference on the offensive end. Working on the PK can really tire out a forward and Benn wasn't as effective last season.
This season, with established penalty killers Radek Dvorak and Vernon Fiddler on the team, Benn is only an emergency option on the penalty kill. He's averaging barely 30 seconds per game on the PK, a full minute less than last season. As a result, he's become an offensive juggernaut on the team and the offensive MVP of this team. Last season, Benn had 22 goals and 34 assists in 69 games.
This year, Benn has 21 goals , including seven game-winning goals, (which puts him in the top-10 in the NHL) and 35 assists in just 60 games played so far. He's tied his career high in points (56), one behind his career high in goals and has already set a career high in assists. He's even averaging less time on ice this season (10 seconds less) and still producing better numbers than last season.
Benn is now free to do what he does best, be a playmaker.
3) The Penalty Kill Is Actually Acceptable
Now a lot of this is due to the greatness that is known as Kari Lehtonen but as far as the non-goalies go, this is made possible mostly due to two players, Dvorak and Fiddler. The pair of forwards have taken over the role that belonged to Jamie Benn, Adam Burish, Steve Ott and Jamie Langenbrunner (remember him?) last season. Fiddler and Dvorak are guys that are actually made for the penalty kill and it's really shown in the numbers.
Last season, Dallas was ranked 23 out of 30 teams on the PK. They allowed 55 goals and were only successful 80.1% of the time. This year, the Stars are ranked 10th in the league (43 goals allowed) with a success rate of 83.3%. This is important because the Stars take more penalties than just about every other team in the NHL. They've gone shorthanded 257 times this season, fourth most in the NHL (The Flyers lead the league with 277).
On the back end of things, Mark Fistric and Trevor Daley have been great on the PK. Fistric is a physical player (much more physical than Nick Grossmann) and really helps to keep things clear in front of the net for the goalies. Daley is an underrated player and has been excellent all around this season. He has the second most minutes among all players on this team on the PK and leads the team in total ice time.
Minutes are being distributed among all the players so that no one guy gets overused and tired out as the season wears on. Stephane Robidas led the team last year in short-handed time and does so again this year. He's getting 20 seconds less per game this year though, which helps to keep him fresh.
4) The Backup Goalie Situation Doesn't Suck
Two words, Andrew Raycroft. That's what the Stars had to roll with last season and the first couple of months this season as a backup goalie. The Stars were rewarded with a guy that had a 3.52 goals against average and a .898 save percentage this season in 10 games. Tough to win when your goalie is giving up nearly four goals a game.
Richard Bachman has been a much better backup (Bachup?). He doesn't give up rebounds at an alarming rate like Raycroft has and he's been able to make the amazing save that's very Lehtonen-like. There's a confidence among the team and fans in Bachman that was just missing when Raycroft was around.
5) Depth Scoring
Depth scoring. It's something that every team in the league hopes to have. Dallas has some of it this season and it's helped this team stay in the winning column. Now most of the scoring in the Stars most recent winning streak was from Eriksson, Ryder and Ribeiro but the depth scoring has been there throughout the season.
This season, the Stars have 13 guys with 20+ points and two more players could reach that mark by the end of the season. Tom Wandell is five points away and Adam Burish is three points short. Last year, the Stars only had 8 players with 20+ points.
The top three scorers on the team last season (Brad Richards, Eriksson and Ribeiro) accounted for 40% of the Stars points. This year, Eriksson, Benn and Ryder account 35% of the team's points. 5% may not seem like much but that supplementary scoring is a huge help to the team. It's 25 extra points for this team that was missing last season.
All of this depth comes from one thing, the management of the team. GM Joe spent smartly last offseason and nearly all of his signing have paid huge dividends. Michael Ryder has been one of the best free agent signings for any team this year and Nystrom was the best waiver wire pick up of the season. With a new ownership in place and ready to spend money, this offseason could be another fruitful one for the Stars as they fill in more holes on the team.