The Stars are one of the NHL teams to watch over the next couple of weeks.
A full 82-game NHL season is a wonderful thing.
If this were last year, the regular season would be just about over thanks to an inexcusable lockout.
Instead, this season is just about halfway over. That sounds much better.
The Dallas Stars have played 35 games so far this season, and although there is still a long way to go I've seen enough from them to hand out their midseason report card.
The numbers might not reveal just how special Kari Lehtonen has been for the Stars so far. Per ESPN, in 27 starts he is 13-8 with a goals-against average of 2.54 and a save percentage of .920. Those numbers are solid, but not mind-blowing. Lehtonen ranks just 14th league-wide in save percentage, and 21st in GAA.
But among goalies who have made at least 25 starts this season, Lehtonen ranks seventh in number of shots faced. It's a simple fact that the more shots a goalie faces, the more pucks find the back of the net. Lehtonen is having to support a Dallas defense that is allowing 32.7 shots per game, per NHL.com.
The numbers seem to be a bit misleading, then. Lehtonen has kept his team in more than his fair share of games this year. He has the complete trust of Stars fans every night. There is a reason this team is 17-12-6 in a ridiculous Western Conference. Lehtonen is at least 50 percent of it.
Call me biased if you want, but when Lehtonen is on his game he is one of the top five netminders in the league. His monster size, agility and lightning-quick glove allow him to make magical saves routinely—like this one.
Also, backup Dan Ellis has been a nice find. Per ESPN, he's just 4-3 with a .904 save percentage and 3.00 GAA, but he is a 4-0 at home and has generally performed very well on nights when Lehtonen needs a rest.
Per NHL.com, the Stars are scoring 2.86 goals per game. That comes in at ninth in the NHL.
To put that into perspective, a team that scores an average of three goals or more per game is considered an elite offensive team.
The Stars, by that stat, don't quite qualify as "elite." Their offense is very respectable, however. All the praise needs to be spread around.
General manager Jim Nill deserves credit for making the blockbuster trade for Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley in July. His plan of building a super top line with Jamie Benn and his 10th overall draft pick, Russian rookie Valeri Nichushkin, has materialized beautifully.
Coach Lindy Ruff should be lauded for preaching offensive discipline, particularly with puck possession and handling in the opposing zone. The Stars are clearly a much better club this year in that regard.
On the ice, Tyler Seguin has fully embraced his identity as Dallas' No. 1 center and has responded with by far the best season of his young career. In 33 games, Seguin has registered 35 points on 18 goals and 17 assists, per ESPN. He also features a plus-11 rating.
Captain Jamie Benn is on pace for a 65-point-plus season, and linemate Nichushkin is developing right before our eyes. He has become an absolute animal on the puck and he has an incredible nose for the open man. He has 18 points on six goals and 12 assists, per ESPN. Remember, this kid is just 18 years old.
Outside of that sparkling trio, the Stars have a nice company of players who provide toughness and scoring depth. Rookie winger Alex Chiasson is fourth among all rookies in goals and total points, according to NHL.com. Third-line center Cody Eakin has provided a nice 16-point punch and is a solid two-way player.
Recent AHL call-up Colton Sceviour has also added a scoring spark. Per theahl.com, he was leading the AHL in goals before his call-up last week. The pure energy of Antoine Roussel and Vernon Fiddler has been infectious.
Admirable speed and hustle, blended into a crash-the-net style of play, has long been the hallmark of the Stars offense. But now that they are adding in supremely talented scorers and playmakers, this offense will be lethal.
To say it's been the weak point of the Stars' play so far this season would be at least a slight understatement. Per NHL.com, Dallas' defense ranks just 22nd in goals allowed. How does a team post a 17-12-6 record in one of the toughest Western Conferences in recent memory with a defense that porous?
How does a team that scores 2.86 goals per game and allows 2.89 goals per game become a winning team?
That's how good Lehtonen has been. It's also what a top-10 offense does for you.
Remember, the Stars are playing in what might be hockey's toughest division. So really, the value of their offense actually increases, while it suddenly becomes a hair more acceptable to rank in the low 20s defensively.
The injury bug has absolutely hammered the Stars on the blue line. In the last three weeks, Dallas has lost defenseman and assistant captain Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, the longest-tenured Star, and Sergei Gonchar to injury. Robidas is a top-two defenseman for Dallas, and his presence has been sorely missed.
Miraculously, Dallas has only allowed two short-handed goals this season, which isn't bad.
The main problem with this D corps is age. The Stars are relying heavily on Robidas and Gonchar, both of whom are well past their primes. Brenden Dillon is extremely promising, but his progress is sometimes overshadowed by poor team defensive efforts.
It's a group that has it's moments, but relies on Lehtonen to cover far too many mistakes and shots allowed around 80 percent of the time. Inconsistency has defined the Dallas blue-line corps.
Because of a ridiculous amount of injuries, I'll give them a slight break on the grade here. Still needs to improve significantly to become a true Stanley Cup contender.
The Stars are a good NHL team. I believe they'll sneak into the playoffs in an absurdly competitive Western Conference, where 87 to 90 points might just be enough for a seventh or eighth seed. The critical thing to keep in mind is that this team is in rebuilding mode. They are a work in progress.
The team's core and the vast majority of its offensive punch are 24 or younger. But they are all clearly improving. It will take two to three more years for this club to be a true contender. But boy will they be exciting come that time.
The offensive is set to play at a championship level, and the defense can really only get better with the veterans Dallas has on its roster.
The Stars are already one of the most exciting teams to watch in the league, and it's no mystery why.