For better or worse, through good times and bad, we all have our favorite teams. But those looking for a thrill – a jolt of fast-paced, fire-engine hockey – swear by the Dallas Stars.
Recently, The Sporting News ranked them second-best in terms of “watchability,” behind only the Chicago Blackhawks. But fresh off a return to the postseason, and with the addition of some veteran talent, many are beginning to believe the Stars are more than just a lamp-lighting side show: They might just be a legitimate contender in the NHL’s Western Conference.
Before last April, Dallas hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008, back when Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov (all remnants from Dallas’ only Stanley Cup win in 1999) were still lighting it up in Texas. After a few years in the wilderness, the Stars have been brought back to hockey’s elite, and it’s of no small thanks to a British Columbia native they picked in the fifth round (129th overall) of the 2007 NHL Draft named Jamie Benn.
Benn, the captain, has seen his point total steadily grow in each of his last four full-seasons, from 41 to 79, with a career-high 34 goals in a 2013-14 campaign where he brought his team back to the playoffs and won a Gold Medal at the Olympics. Now, he’s determined to carry that momentum over to the new season.
“I got my first taste of playoffs last year, and the fans have so much support for this team, and it’s only going up from here,” Benn tells me. “It’s pretty special to win here.”
Benn and general manager Jim Nill – a former front-office standout with the Detroit Red Wings – have been the flag-wavers for this franchise, and are building this club around the idea that players will want to play with guys like the tough-yet-elite Benn, Russian man-child Valeri Nichushkin, former Boston Bruins Stanley Cup winner Tyler Seguin, and veteran coach Lindy Ruff.
“That’s what we’re hoping, we’re trying to build something here,” Benn says. “It’s gonna take a few years still, but I think we can win now. We started with a few guys, then we brought some new ones in to complement the core of this group. Jim Nill’s done a great job the last couple of years here. We’ve got a lot of depth now.”
Those “new ones” include Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff and Jason Spezza, traded here from Ottawa in the offseason. Spezza wanted out of what appeared to be a worsening situation in Canada’s capital, and has discovered a new lease on life playing with Benn and Seguin.
“The team wants to play an up-tempo pace, the group is hungry, a lot of young guys,” Spezza says. “Good goaltender, which is big in the league. There’s a lot of pieces in place for us to keep getting better and maybe come back again year after year.
“From the outside, it looked like a team that was going in the right direction,” he continues. “An organization that seemed in gear to be one of the competitive teams every year. It looked like they had a bit of a hole that maybe I could help fill and just kind of add to it.”
And that’s putting it mildly: the Benn-Spezza-Seguin line has put up an almost-absurd 34 points in the season’s first eight games. Only Los Angeles’ line of Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson (33 points) is even close to start this season.
Spezza’s reminded of the years he spent playing with elite offensive talents Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley in Ottawa, a team that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, and admits this line is probably the most talented one he’s played on since.
“I don’t know how long we’ll stick together – I think Lindy’s talked about having a lot of options so he’ll be able to split us up in situations – but it’s nice to play with two guys who are so dynamic,” he says. “You try to read off each other and give them the puck. We’ve had some early success together, so we just want to build off of it.”
But, for all the talk about the future, the time appears to be coming for the Dallas Stars. Of course, there are still plenty of flaws that need to get worked out: On Saturday night, the Stars surrendered three goals in the third period, losing 7-5 to the New York Islanders (they also coughed up a late lead last night against St. Louis). Their offense is clicking, but after watching Dallas’ D scramble, my first thought was “How quickly will they screw this up in the playoffs?”
Both the Stars and Islanders were kind of the NHL’s offseason champions. Neither were necessarily picked to win Lord Stanley’s Cup, but the general consensus was that few others had improved themselves faster – or set themselves up better for prolonged success. Not that it matters to guys who’ve been through the wars like Spezza.
“I think it’s important for us to know we’re not sneaking up on anybody,” said Spezza. “I don’t know who’s picking us, but we’ve got to know that every time we come into a rink, teams are talking about how we have a good team and play an aggressive style. If anything, it just makes you more ready to play every night, and the way our division is, you’re going to have to win a lot of games to make the playoffs.”
That said, Spezza and the Stars are reveling in that role, and exuding confidence. “It’s good to have that challenge nightly,” he says.
Dallas may not be Stanley Cup-bound just yet, but anyone who’s a fan should be pulling for a deep postseason run. After all, hockey will be a lot less fun once they’re eliminated.