Sometimes it’s just plain awful to be a fan.
We’re not talking about the occasional emotional bump and bruise, the kind fans get from a devastating last-second loss or a disastrous season-ending injury — or even when they watch their favorite team bow out in the conference finals, one round shy of a shot at the Stanley Cup. We mean years of suffering at the hands of a club that almost seems to delight in tormenting those who freely give to it their hearts, minds, time and money.
This is the second in our series on the 10 NHL franchises that take an ongoing toll on their fans, the teams that suggest that their devoted followers are either bottomless wells of hope or certified masochists — or perhaps just a touch crazy. Today we look at the Stars, once the shining example of Gary Bettman’s Southern plan, but now a franchise trying to regain its footing and relevance in a fickle market.
The Stars are like a once glorious mansion that’s gone to seed. Stanley Cup winners in 1999 and finalists in 2000, they used to be one of the league’s premier franchises, a team loaded with top stars that was a premier destination for elite free agents. But those good times are long gone, worn down by questionable financing schemes, inattentive ownership and poor management that either held on to marquee names well past their best-by date or grabbed other teams’ aging castoffs in an effort to patch its foundation instead of replacing it altogether. For too long now, Dallas has tried to sell sizzle instead of steak, promising much at the beginning of each season, but perpetually underachieving.
Most notorious moments
• The Brett Hull-Sean Avery debacle: As the team’s Ambassador of Fun, Hull was a man in full. A gregarious back slapper and a captivating story-teller, he could charm a room of corporate ticket buyers with the best of ‘em. But as the team’s co-general manager, he was a one-term disaster, ultimately brought down by the decision to sign Sean Avery before the 2008-09 season. The fractious, agitating winger was despised in the room and became its internal whipping boy after the team got off to a rough start. After his infamous “sloppy seconds” TV interview, Avery was suspended indefinitely by the NHL and let go by the Stars, but not before damaging the reputations of both Hull and the Dallas franchise.
• The bankruptcy years: Funny thing: All of the people who let owner Tom Hicks use their money to finance the Stars and his other sports holdings actually wanted to be paid back at some point. When that call came, Hicks turned his empty pockets inside out, and his hockey team went on an austerity diet that transformed one of the league’s biggest spenders into penny-pinchers and, eventually, bottom feeders.
• The playoff layoff: Dallas is mired in a five-year streak of postseason DNQs, the longest stretch in franchise history …. and is looking to make it six.
• Drafting Jack Campbell: The 2010 NHL draft aligned perfectly for the Stars. The team had an organizational need for a puck-moving defenseman in the wake of Sergei Zubov’s retirement, and the best one in the draft, Cam Fowler, fell right into its lap at No. 11. So what did Dallas do? Drafted Team USA goaltender Jack Campbell instead. Campbell, who is now playing for the AHL’s Texas Stars, may turn out to be a great goalie some day, but Fowler is already established as the No. 1 defenseman for the NHL’s top team, the Ducks, and will soon star for Team USA in Sochi. The impact he would have had in Dallas is incalculable.
• Trading James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski: As poor as the decision to pass on Fowler was, this trade may have been former GM Joe Nieuwendyk’s greatest folly. Neal was regarded at the time as part of a deep crop of talent on the wing and thus, expendable. Goligoski was regarded as a promising mobile defenseman, buried behind Kris Letang in Pittsburgh but loaded with potential. Three years later, Neal is one of the game’s top pure shooters, and Niskanen has stepped up to fill a significant role on the Penguins’ blueline. Meanwhile, Goligoski has become a whipping boy in Dallas, a puck-moving blueliner without the confidence to successfully move the puck. It’s one of the most lopsided deals of the past decade.
As of this writing, the Stars sit 10th in the Western Conference, seven points out of a wild card spot, after a 1-8-1 slide that all but knocked them out of playoff contention. There’s still a chance that they can get back into the mix with a hot streak like the one they had in early November, but the odds are against them. Sportsclubstats.com sets their postseason chances at just 15.8 percent.
Pretty bleak but hey, at least they have the league’s best pump-up video.
In the system
Hockey Prospectus ranked Dallas’ talent pool eighth best in the league, but that might be a little aggressive. Most of the sure things, like forwards Valeri Nichushkin and Alex Chiasson and defenseman Brendon Dillon, are already playing in the NHL, although wingers Brett Ritchie (No. 44, 2011) and Emil Molin (No. 104, ’11) are still percolating at lower levels.
Defense is the area that most needs addressing, but the Stars’ prospects, led by Jamie Oleksiak, Ludwig Bystrom, and Patrik Nemeth aren’t close to making the jump and probably aren’t as good as the team’s fans have been led to believe. Still, all three have a chance to contribute and could succeed if surrounded by carefully selected veterans.
That might not be true for centers Radek Faksa (No. 13, 2012) and Scott Glennie (No. 8, ’09). Faksa’s game has stagnated in the OHL and he was a non-factor at the World Juniors. He might still have a place as a defensive forward, but his offense hasn’t materialized as the team hoped. Glennie’s progress has been derailed by injuries, but he hasn’t shown much when healthy. He’s nearing the point where Dallas will have to fish or cut bait.
Better Days Ahead?
The present might be bleak, but the future couldn’t be brighter in Dallas.
Hiring Jim Nill last summer to serve as the team’s new general was a master stroke that immediately legitimized the regime of new owner Tom Gaglardi and brought a new, sharper focus to the organization. Nill quickly put his stamp on the team with the bold acquisition of Tyler Seguin and the selection of draft wild card Nichushkin. The two have combined (for much of the season) with Jamie Benn to form a top line that has the potential to dominate on any given night.
Young holdovers from the Joe Nieuwendyk era like Chiasson and forwards Cody Eakin and Antoine Roussel look like they’ll be useful pieces for the future.
The progress the Stars have made this season is undeniable. A team whose defensive style and lack of talent made it almost painful to watch the past few seasons is now younger, quicker and more aggressive under new coach Lindy Ruff. The transition hasn’t been smooth (again, that 1-8-1 skid), but it’s been promising and, on most nights, very entertaining — even when the end result wasn’t a W.
The trick now is to turn those moral victories into the two-point kind on a consistent basis. Fans have deserted the team in droves — introducing those in attendance by name at Tuesday night’s game against the Wild might have taken less time than it did to announce the starting lineups — but they can be regained. Dallas loves a winner, and the Stars are on the verge of returning to that status, thanks to the presence of Nill in the front office.
Are you a Stars fan? Got a tale to tell? Feel free to share in the comments section below.