By Allan Muir
No one’s planning a parade route in Dallas just yet. But on the night when Jaromir Jagr powered the Stars to a gritty 4-3 season-opening win over the Phoenix Coyotes, you could see exactly what GM Joe Nieuwendyk envisioned with his offbeat, offseason makeover of the team’s top-six forwards. And why Stars fans are thinking this team could be the first in five years to work its way back into the playoffs.
Jagr was brilliant, his four-point night the most prolific by a Star in his first game since Brad Richards had five assists after being acquired from the Lightning in 2008. No one’s mistaking him for the small “s” star who captured five Art Ross Trophies during his prime, but nearing his 41st birthday Jagr seemed like a fair approximation of the player who could dominate games early last season in Philadelphia, still strong enough to barrel over defenders and fast enough to slip into open space down low where he could take advantage of his quick release. He created three premium scoring chances on the night and cashed in on two of them. Not a bad rate of return.
And he wasn’t the only newcomer who paid big dividends in his Dallas debut. Derek Roy had a few rough moments, but assisted on Loui Eriksson’s game winner and won 70 percent of his draws, usually outdueling the formidable Martin Hanzal. Ray Whitney, Phoenix’s last scorer last season, had a goal and an assist against his former team and logged 20:16 worth of ice, tops among Dallas forwards.
That’s three goals and four assists between them, a pretty decent first impression. Not that anyone’s expecting the trio to score at that pace every night, but then that’s hardly the point. Because those numbers don’t reveal as much about Dallas’ 2013 potential as the way the newcomers rang them up.
The “Pesky Stars” of 2011-12 were great at playing pain-in-your-ass hockey. They buzzed and banged and made unholy noise but they were about puck pursuit, not puck possession. They had Eriksson and Jamie Benn — still sitting at home waiting for a suitable contract offer from the team — but they didn’t have enough players who controlled the biscuit in a way that forced the opposition to consistently take penalties. They generated just 244 power play opportunities last season and once they had the extra man, they lacked the creativity, patience or touch to make the other team pay the toll, scoring a league-low 33 power play goals.
On Saturday night, Jagr, Roy, Whitney, along with promising rookie Reilly Smith, looked capable of changing that. Smith drew a pair of second period penalties with his shifty speed, and Jagr made Phoenix pay with a pair of power play snipes. And both goals came after stretches where Dallas’ new forwards controlled the puck with purpose.
For Stars fans who’ve advocated declining the power play in the past, it was amazing thing to see. Going 2-for-4 might be just another night’s work for a team like the Penguins, but that pair of goals is as many as Dallas scored in their final 10 games combined last season. And that failure to connect with the extra man contributed to a 3-7 skid down the stretch that kicked the Stars to the postseason curb.
Again, it was just one game. And it’s fair to point out that there were plenty of critics of Nieuwendyk’s AARP approach, myself included, and in time we may all look like the geniuses we think we are.
But right now we’re readying our plates for a serving of crow. Even if the Stars stumble in Sunday’s stiff road test against the Wild, this feels like a team that’s building a new, more dangerous identity for itself thanks to an infusion of old blood.