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Sunday, August 28, 2011
Stars hope depth will help with grind of long season

By Mark Stepneski

The Dallas Stars have had their ups and downs over the past couple years and a lot of those downs have come over the second half of the season and down the stretch. And it’s cost them a shot at the postseason. It’s something that’s caught the attention of Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, and it’s something he wants to address.

“In our division and our conference, especially the division, with the time zones we have to cross, it’s a grind,” said Nieuwendyk. ” That’s the one thing I’ve seen for two years now with our hockey club is that we wear out. It’s hard not to with the schedule.”

The Stars’ record the last two seasons offers some proof of the toll that grind has taken. Whether you want to break it down by first half vs. second half or pre-Olympic/All-Star break vs. post-break, the Stars have faded in the second part of the season. The numbers are in the table below.

Sure, there were times injuries were a factor. Still, Nieuwendyk wants to make being prepared for the long grind of an 82-game season a focus in 2011-12.

“I think one of the messages is that every day counts and everybody matters within our team,” Nieuwendyk said.

That much talked about depth the Stars focused on adding during free agency is one important factor in helping the Stars deal with the rigors of the long season.

“We have some more depth,” said head coach Glen Gulutzan. “Vernon Fiddler, (Radek) Dvorak and (Jake) Dowell have been added up front. (Michael) Ryder. We have to use that.”

The Stars want to be a team that uses four lines, helping spread out the ice time more evenly among the forwards. The model for depth last season was Stanley Cup champion Boston. Of the 17 forwards the Bruins used over the course of the regular season none averaged more than 19 minutes per game and not one averaged less than 10 minutes.

For the Stars it was a much different story. Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson were over 20 minutes per game and Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro averaged more than 19 minutes. And 10 of the 20 forwards the Stars used averaged less than ten minutes. Gulutzan said he'd like to see the minutes for this season's high-end players a little lower this season.

“When I look at it, those guys’ minutes won’t come down significantly but they may come down a minute a game. When you have more depth those other guys need time,” Gulutzan said. “The players I have talked to are all excited about the depth of the team. What everyone realizes is that when you have more depth you have to spread things around a little bit more. So maybe some of our high end guys won’t get as many defending minutes, but they are certainly going to get all of their offensive minutes that they are accustomed too.”

The addition of players like Fiddler and Dvorak can help in that both are expert penalty killers. Fiddler ranked 11th overall among NHL forwards last season with an average of 2:53 of shorthanded ice time per game, and Dvorak ranked 48th with 2:13 per game.

“You’ve added two PK specialists to your group so that has to take away minutes from somebody. That’s just the way it has to be. It’s reality,” said Gulutzan. “And I think the players are ready for that, to embrace that. Some of the players felt that – and I didn’t hear from every guy – but certainly the consensus was we faded, tired or were overused. Whether that’s right or wrong, I don’t know. When you have the horses that are specialized in areas like that you have to use them.”

The Stars also would like to make the best use of their two goaltenders. It wasn’t so much that Kari Lehtonen played 69 games last season, but that he started the final 23 games in 2010-11 and was probably running low on fuel late in the season.

“I thought we wore him out,” said Nieuwendyk.

Nieuwendyk added the Stars will do more than just try to use all their players as they combat the grind of the long season.

“We’re going to do some things different this year by trying to keep our guys at the top of their game. We built a weight room downtown at the American Airlines Center. That’s in the process right now,” Nieuwendyk said. “We’re going to dedicate days to where we are just maintaining our fitness and our strength, so that we are better prepared to handle the rigors of a full season.

“And that’s why we have to use all our people. We have to use four lines. We have to use two goalies.”

And the Stars hope all that will help them weather the grind of a long 82-game season.