Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill has made it clear that he is happy with the defensive corps the way it is, but is he right to not make a move?
Since his hiring just over a year ago, Nill has done nothing but earn the swooning and never-ending praise of Stars fans across the board. He acquired Tyler Seguin, drafted Val Nichushkin, and just recently acquired Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky on the first day of free agency. However, a lot of fans and experts alike have suggested that the final piece in the puzzle is an improvement on defense.
Nill has certainly proven that he knows what he's talking about, so let's go ahead and assume he is right about keeping our defense relatively unchanged save for a few of the young guys stepping up. This now begs the question of where the significant improvement will come from. Well, let's take a look.
It's been no secret that Sergei Gonchar really underperformed last year. He came in hightly touted as a veteran leader and an offensive d-man but only racked up two goals and 22 points through the whole season. That's not the part that bothers me. When you look through his advanced stats, you'll see that he faced the worst quality competition of any player on the Stars (meaning he was consistently on the ice against the other team's worst players). He also has a negative relative corsi percentage, so not only was he on the ice against third or fourth lines, but the Stars were allowing more shots against during his TOI as well. (Patrick Nemeth actually had the worst relative corsi for percentage but his sample size wasn't enough to warrant a quality reading.)
If the team moves forward with Gonchar as part of the picture, his redemption needs to start on the power play. He was supposed to be the quarterback that the Stars had lacked before, but instead his weak shot and ineffectiveness led to an abysmal PP% throughout the year. The power play can take up a whole lot of space, but in the fewest of words, Mr. Gonchar needs to treat this as a redemption year before he most likely retires. It's his chance to go out on top.
Okay, so let's just say Nill needs to rely on a few sturdier (and in some cases younger) legs to carry the weight of defensive improvement. What better than the first pair from most of last year, Goligoski-Daley, to do most of that lugging. No, they're not the shutdown pair of Keith-Seabrook or what Weber-Suter used to be, but they can get the job done. The huge positive for those two comes with the end of last season. They both slumped early (Daley was injured for a bit, too) but finished as strong as you could have asked.
Despite losing the opening series, the Stars and especially Goligoski and Daley showed their talent. At home, Lindy Ruff was able to match them up against the toughest lines in the Western Conference with marked success. Daley scored some highlight reel goals down the stretch of the season and in the playoffs. The pair had two incredible games in crucial situations, helping shut out St. Louis to clinch a playoff berth and Anaheim to win game three of the series. They can both build on their performances and go into this season brimming with confidence. And by goodness, the Stars will need every bit of that swagger when they line up against the likes of Paul Stasny, Anze Kopitar, Thomas Vanek, and on and on and on.
So far we have a more confident first pair and an old guy looking to prove his worth one last time. There's still a big gap to get the improvement the Stars are looking for, and it comes via the young kids. Because Daley and Goligoski aren't shutdown defensemen, the workload needs to balance well among all three pairings on defense. That means Brendan Dillon and Jordie Benn need to step up more, but also the influx of young, rich talent in the minors needs to shine.
Here's looking at you, Jamie Oleksiak. During the stretch of the season when it seemed like every D-man was injured and Nill called the Big Rig up, fans were convinced that it was finally time for him to hoist the team on his gigantic shoulders and carry them straight to Lord Stanley's Cup. Instead, he looked like he forgot his skates in Cedar Park. Well, kid, it's time to start throwing your weight around and start doing it well at the NHL level. He's got a Calder Cup now and is more than ready to take the reins in Dallas. It's just a matter of doing it well for a few games and gaining both momentum and confidence in his abilities.
The same goes for the rest of the unproven but incredibly talented group of young guns. Nemeth, Jokipakka (who impressed me even last year in training camp), Klingberg, and Gaunce all have a chance to have an immediate impact on the season. What better way to find out than opening night against those pesky Blackhawks.
There have to be a lot of things that go right for the Stars to prove Jim Nill right in not making any moves to shore up the blue line. But then again, if you look what he's already done for the Stars, it's easy to be a believer.