With the NHL at the All-Star break, the self proclaimed "Pesky Stars'" are in the thick of a Western Conference playoff hunt that is most certainly top heavy. Detroit, Vancouver, and San Jose occupy the top three spots of the West as it stands now, though one could argue that San Jose is a bit of an overrated three seed. By virtue of leading the Pacific division, San Jose sits at third but only has 60 points. If the playoffs began tomorrow they would play the Chicago Blackhawks, who have 64 points. The Nashville Predators, the fifth seed, also have 64 points while the fourth seeded St. Louis Blues have 65. While the top is loaded with quality teams, the seventh and eighth seeds are very much up for grabs. Dallas' Pacific division rival Los Angeles has 58 points at seventh, while Minnesota holds the 8th spot with 55 points. Colorado, Dallas' main competition for the last two playoff spots, is ninth with 54 points. The Stars have set up camp at the 10th spot with 52 points, with Calgary and Phoenix breathing down their necks with 52 points also. The last two playoff spots will be a dogfight as the second half of the season begins, and while Dallas definitely has a chance to vault themselves into the playoffs they just as easily could stumble down the stretch and miss out. It's dependent on a variety of factors:
1. The Stars need more production from their defense duos. One of the things that has held Dallas back over the past couple years has been the play of the blueliners. This year is no exception. Looking at the top teams in the Western Conference, you can see that production from their defensemen is crucial to success. For Dallas stat wise, the top two defenders are Sheldon Souray (4 goals, 13 assists, 17 points) and a tie at 16 points between Trevor Daley and the newly extended Alex Goligoski. Goligoski has more goals, Daley leads in assists and plus/minus ratio so it depends on what you value. If you compare these numbers against the top two defenders for the bonafide playoff clubs in the West you get startling results
Detroit: Nicklas Lidstrom(10 goals, 18 assists, 28 points), Ian White(6 goals, 18 assists, 24 points)
Vancouver: Alex Edler (7 goals, 27 assists, 34 points), Kevin Bieska (4 goals, 22 assists, 26 points)
San Jose: Dan Boyle (4 goals, 25 assists, 29 points), Brent Burns (7 goals, 10 assists, 17 points)
St. Louis: Alex Pietrangelo (8 goals, 16 assists, 24 points), Kevin Shattenkirk (6 goals, 17 assists, 23 points)
Nashville: Shea Webber (10 goals, 24 assists, 34 points), Ryan Suter (5 goals, 23 assists, 28 points)
Chicago: Duncan Keith (3 goals, 24 assists, 27 points), Nick Leddy (2 goals, 23 assists, 25 points)
The Stars don't yet have the top flight talent to match up with pairs like this. With that said, Goligoski did miss time at the beginning of the season -- and judging by his production thus far, you could guess that he would be in line with the tops of the West if he was healthy all the way through. The fact that Dallas was willing to sign him for four more years and a little over eighteen million dollars shows they have faith in him to put up quality numbers. But Golly Goose is only one man, and you've got to get him some help even if you see him as your premier defenseman.
2. Stay off the Injured Reserve List. The team has had issues staying healthy in the first half, Goligoski, Brenden Morrow, Kari Lehtonen, Tomas Vincour, Stephane Robidas, Souray, Philip Larsen, Mike Ribiero, and Jamie Benn have all been on IR at some point this season. Injury problems like that are just crazy, but especially when they happen to such important players as Morrow and Lehtonen. While the injuries have allowed for Loui Eriksson to shine on his way to what could be a career season, it's very hard to stay in contention when half the team is off the ice dealing with injuries. Granted, there's nothing you can coach to keep these guys healthy. It's really going to come down to just hoping the injury bug got its bowl of blood in the first half and doesn't come back for more.
3. Trading for another goal scorer before the trade deadline. Michael Ryder and Eriksson lead the club with 17 goals apiece, and dirt-cheap Eric Nystrom (quite possibly the best addition in the West, all things concerned) has notched 14 goals thus far. Not bad production, but with the team currently a minus 10 when it comes to goal differential, there's always the option of bringing in another potential scorer. I will note that there's a good possibility that this stat could be skewed due to Richard Bachman and Andrew Raycroft playing in the absence of Lehtonen. That said, relying on Nystrom as your third best goal scorer is not what a playoff team can afford to do.
When Brad Richards took his talents to the New York Rangers, one of the holes he left that Dallas couldn't fill was that of a superstar. Jamie Benn has been put in almost a CJ Wilson like situation, thrust into the spotlight when he's just not ready for it yet. It would make some sense to bring in another player to give Benn some breathing room and take some of the heat off of him. The Stars were linked earlier in the year to Calgary's franchise icon, Jarome Iginla, and I'm not a fan of that at all. The guy is 34 years old, and will make seven million dollars next season. You'd be renting him, and you've also got to consider what you might give up for such a rent-a-player. I have my doubts that Iginla would make this team a Cup contender, and possibly dealing away part of the future for a guy that's past his prime and won't stick around is risky.
New Jersey left winger Zack Parise is also a name that has floated around, but he's headed for free agency after the season so there's no real reason to pay a king's ransom for the guy when you're going to see him for a few months with no guarantees about his performance. If GM Joe Niuwendyk wants to add to the current group, he'll have to get very creative.
The reality of the situation? Barring the surprising situations involving an All Star brought in to help take the stress off Benn and Eriksson, along with the teams in front of Dallas doing their best 2011 Boston Red Sox impression I think 10th is roughly the best Stars fans can hope for this season. They may put together a run near the end of the year and sneak in as the eighth seed, but it's unfortunately not especially realistic.
This is a club built for the future. There are plenty of Texas Rangers parallels to draw from this team, especially if they finish strong but out of the playoffs come season's end. There's a lot of youth on the team, with talent in the pipeline, and a new ownership group wanting to party like it's 1999 all over again. While that might not add up to the playoffs this season, it does add up to optimism and hope looking towards the future.