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The Best Team in the NHL

It’s just too bad the Dallas Stars play to empty houses — plus the rest of the week in hockey.

Dallas Stars

We just want to be coming in waves,” the Dallas Stars’ Eric Nystrom told Yahoo!’s Greg Wyshynski following his team’s 5-2 victory over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night. “We keep saying, ‘Every guy’s the same, every guy’s the same.’ That’s a great mentality.”

It’s not just a great mentality, it’s one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the platonic ideal of team-first hockey. Visually, the metaphor works: the nonstop motion, the surging forward, the knocking down, the checking back, the fresh new players cresting over the boards. And functionally, too, it holds up. The best hockey teams are the ones with consistency and unyielding depth, with a “bottom six” that bring just as much effort and create just as many opportunities (however ugly) as the top two lines’ stars. Every guy’s the same.

Unlike most teams, the Dallas Stars don’t sport a logo on the front of their jerseys; they just have the word “Dallas.” It’s fitting, because on the ice, too, they don’t have the traditional big-name, super-marketed, marquee star players, though they do happen to have some of the best. When Brad Richards, this offseason’s biggest-name free agent, took off for the bright lights of New York, there was a sense that Dallas was done for. But a month into the season, that idea couldn’t be more incorrect.

At 11-3-0, the Stars currently hold the league’s top record, and they employ what is currently one of its most impressive lines. Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson have combined for 13 goals and 21 assists, yet they’re under the radar of those who make Discover Card commercials or set up the pairings for the Winter Classic. But those two — along with new linemate Michael Ryder, who scored twice against Washington, and who came from a Bruins squad that last season learned the benefits of sharing the load — are leading a team that has made everyone on it seem brighter.

Take Sheldon Souray. Once an All-Star player with the league’s hardest shot, Souray signed a five-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers that began as a happy return home to his native province of Alberta and ended in mutually assured destruction.1 The defenseman ultimately became a free agent after Edmonton bought out his contract, and Dallas, looking to shore up its D, rolled the dice on him with a one-year deal this summer. It has paid off so far: Souray is third on the team in scoring, and is currently riding a four-game point streak.


1.

Tortorella was incensed that Girardi was left off the All-Star ballot — to give you an idea of how things go with that, Staal, who has not played a minute this season, made the list — noting that the league was “ass-backwards” and saying that he was snubbed because “there’s no pedigree there.”

Or take Kari Lehtonen, who spent the early part of his career as a talented but injury-prone (and overweight) goaltender in Atlanta. After renewed dedication to conditioning in the offseason, he’s first in wins and was named the NHL’s second star for the month of October. And then there’s a guy like Nystrom, who began the season being waived by the Wild but has been on a tear with the Stars: He has four goals in the past five games, including a streak of three straight. (His goal count so far this year matches his entire season’s output last year in Minnesota.)2 It’s fitting that he would be the one to so aptly verbalize the team’s current philosophy.


2.

You may also recognize Nystrom’s name from his part in a collision earlier this season that broke the femur of Edmonton’s Taylor Fedun and raised fresh concerns over the NHL’s “no-touch” icing rule.

It’s not going to get any easier for the Stars, who no longer have the luxury of taking teams by surprise. And then there’s the problem of the team’s dismal attendance, which can no longer be explained away by the Texas Rangers being in the World Series, and which has gotten so bad that Eriksson admitted, “It’s also nice to go on the road, too, playing in some big arenas with a lot of people.”

But for now, it’s nice that the league’s top team is, well, such a team. Every guy’s the same.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

http://nhl.cdn.neulion.net/u/videocenter/flex/images/evp.swf

Dallas’ win over Washington included this flying, Bobby Orr-reminiscent effort from Nystrom, whose mother and famous NHL father, Bobby, were there in the stands.

And the week was heavy with hat tricks. Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos scored three times from just off the left post, Colorado’s Matt Duchene continued to break out of his early-season funk, Tyler Seguin’s three goals in a Bruins 7-0 win over Toronto gave reporters one more reason to pester Phil Kessel about his 2009 trade, and while Detroit’s Johan Franzen’s third goal Tuesday night came on an empty net, it was basically the most skilled empty-net goal possible.3


3.

Next thing you know, he and Pavel Datsyuk will be conspiring to score on an empty net via the from-behind-flip move.

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

The misery continues for the league’s bottomest-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets, who have only five points on the season. (For reference, the second-worst team in the NHL, the New York Islanders, have twice as many points in the standings and have played two fewer games.)

There are glimmers of hope: Columbus acquired Pittsburgh center Mark Letestu for a fourth-rounder Tuesday night, and Jeff Carter, another center who came from the Philadelphia Flyers in a major offseason trade and was expected to be one of the team’s top contributors, is close to returning from a fractured foot suffered in an October practice. And one of the team’s biggest off-ice distractions is no longer: former Columbus head coach Ken Hitchcock was brought in by the St. Louis Blues to replace coach Davis Payne, ending the ongoing speculation that he’d be returning to his former position and the palpable awkwardness that existed as he continued to lurk around during Blue Jackets practices.4


4.

Hitchcock was fired as Columbus coach in February 2010 but until Sunday had still been under contract with the team; rumors flew that he’d be back as head coach after he was spotted “watch[ing] several Blue Jackets games and practices with [team president Mike] Priest and [GM Scott] Howson” in a sort of Isiah Thomas situation.

Asked about his job security, Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel said recently in an interview, “I’ll keep showing up until somebody tells me I’m not supposed to.” Inspiring words, to be sure! But you can’t really blame Arniel: As comical and futile as that sound bite may be, it’s a mentality you wish extended to more of his players.

Taking It Coast to Coast: A Skate Around the League

  • Following the Washington Capitals’ 5-2 Tuesday-night loss to Dallas, Mike Knuble had a few things to say about his own team. “[Opponents] are not scoring ugly goals, either,” he said. “They’re snapping it around and backdoor play, goalie not even in the net. They make you look bad. It’s like embarrassing when you’re on the ice and guys are beating you. The other night, get beat one on four, just playing like a bunch of losers.” Later he likened the team to “a bunch of clowns.”5
  • Dear L.A.-area media: Please continue to ask Kings GM Dean Lombardi about Dustin Penner at all times. Last year, after acquiring the winger at the trade deadline, Lombardi told Craig Custance that Penner could “either become a dominant power forward in the National Hockey League or be a dominant no. 4 hitter for the El Cid Lounge in a men’s softball league — the choice is his.” This past week, Lombardi had more upbeat words for Penner, who went into Tuesday night’s game tied in points (one) with Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick. (He added two assists in the team’s win over Nashville.) “The one thing, to his credit,” Lombardi began, before redefining the backhanded compliment: “He’s not in elite shape, but he certainly made the effort to get in average shape … I see him here, working out in the gym before practice, something that he never did before.” That’s … incredible. I want to embroider a quilt with everything Lombardi has to say about Penner and wrap myself in it every night, but I have a feeling it would provide zero warmth.
  • According to CSN Philly’s Tim Panaccio, Flyers captain Chris Pronger went to slip into something a little more comfortable before an interview Tuesday and returned wearing a T-shirt that said, “Go Screw Yourself.” I really hope it was this one.
  • After scoring a goal and adding an assist in the first period of the Winnipeg Jets’ game against the Buffalo Sabres, Winnipeg’s Tanner Glass went searching for the fight that could complete his first Gordie Howe hat trick. He found a more-than-willing participant in Buffalo’s Cody McCormick, who left the ice bloodied but unbeaten. Buffalo commentator and former pugilist Rob Ray called it the best fight he’d seen in two years; the bloodthirsty masses on hockeyfights.com agreed that it’s been this season’s best,6 though two tilts from last year earned higher overall scores.

5.

This wasn’t the most colorful and descriptive language to come out of that game, though: That honor went to the Dallas broadcasting team, who remarked that the Caps’ Alexander Semin “has wrists the size of a woman’s waist,” which became my favorite instance of an announcer comparing a player to a woman since Pierre McGuire, in the first NHL game of the season, referred to the Bruins’ Zdeno Chara as “the meanest mother in the valley.”

6.

They weren’t quite as impressed with another of last night’s altercations, between Nick Johnson and Jarome Iginla, which featured an awkward finish that looked less like a “head butt” to me and more like a dog nudging a tennis ball toward your feet.

https://www.youtube.com/v/IdicuYZuUFc?version=3&feature=player_embedded

  • With the Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks set to face off tonight for the first time since they swapped players in two sets of summer trades, things are getting all wistful. Devin Setoguchi tweeted that it’s “gonna be weird playing in the tank again …” while Sharks defenseman Brent Burns compared his feelings about his former team to those regarding ex-girlfriends, turning to that tried-and-true genre of love lost and regrets held: country music. “You don’t really want her to get the ole’ white picket fence and a great job after,” he told CSN’s Kevin Kurz. “It’s like that good country song, you’re praying for her … to get hit by a car.”7
  • A really nice story out of Calgary about Miikka Kiprusoff and a 13-year-old goalie battling a series of brain surgeries. (That goalie mask puts Gerry Cheevers’ to shame.)
  • Amid everything that’s going on at Penn State, a hockey angle to keep an eye on: Last fall, Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, a PSU graduate, made the largest private gift in school history — $88 million — to build a new rink on campus and kick-start Division 1 men’s and women’s hockey programs. (The teams will begin play next year at the school’s existing facilities, while the 6,000-seat Pegula Ice Arena is slated to open in 2013.) Pegula released a statement today that is decidedly up for interpretation. “[T]rust will need to be re-earned,” he said.”
  • New Jersey’s best rookie for most of this season has been 18-year-old defenseman Adam Larsson, who hasn’t logged less than 20 minutes of ice time yet this year. But another young Adam has been making his own Calder case lately. When New Jersey center Jacob Josefson fractured his collarbone in late October, the Devils recalled Adam Henrique, 21, from their AHL affiliate in Albany to help bolster their lineup. He’s done that and more, scoring four goals — two of them game winners — in the past three contests alone.8 Henrique uses an unusually flat-bladed stick that recently caught the eye, in a bad way, of his assistant coach Adam Oates. “It’s the Mike Modano curve!” Henrique protested. His breakout of late comes as no surprise to Windsor Spitfire fans who watched him play terrific hockey in the OHL alongside Edmonton’s Taylor Hall, who went no. 1 overall in the 2010 draft.
  • You know things are uneasy in Anaheim when perennial Lady Byng vote-getter Teemu Selanne is racking up 22 penalty minutes and getting tossed all against Detroit on Saturday. If that wasn’t bad enough, the man had to lie to his own children about whatever the “too much” was that he said.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post titled “Paulina Gretzky is using the Twitter machine properly” and am contemplating mapping out which photo I most closely represent each day in lieu of, like, paying for a therapist. Today, for example, I’m photo no. 16, which is bad. Ideally, I’d live life as no. 2 or no. 15, while no. 23 would be reserved for those times I have to act all professional.9

Chirping Like a Champ: The Week’s Best Mouthing Off


7.

Lyrics to the song he was referring to include: “I pray your tire blows out at 110 / I pray you pass out drunk with your best friend / and wake up with his-and-her tattoos / I pray your brakes go out running down a hill / I pray a flowerpot falls from a window sill / and knocks you in the head like I’d like to.” Country music is the best.

8.

He’s such a goal scorer that he even put one in on his own net against Carolina, though he made up for it by later winning the game.

9.

In less important Gretzky news, Georges Laraque and Darren Pang had a Twitter kerfuffle over Laraque’s claims that Gretzky was the “worst coach” he played for. See, I told you it was less important.

Well, that was interesting. It wasn’t one player stirring things up this past week, but rather an entire team. In their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning last night, which was televised nationally, the Philadelphia Flyers sat back and refused to move, protesting what they consider to be an unwelcome, oppressive, and ultimately unsustainable system. This “Occupy” stuff really seems to be catching on!

To back up: The words “neutral zone trap” have long been the NHL’s Kryptonite: In the post-lockout era, the league made a number of rule changes that were specifically designed to eliminate hang-back, clog-the-middle systems that were used to great success by teams like the Devils during their heyday. But, in the words of Sports Illustrated‘s Darren Eliot earlier this year, “neutral zone sludge is slowly beginning to build up across the league.”

In particular, the Tampa Bay Lightning under coach Guy Boucher made it to within one game of the Stanley Cup finals using a “1-3-1” forecheck that, at its best, was described by the Wall Street Journal as an offensive “turbocharger.” At its worst … well, thanks to the Flyers’ strategery, last night was probably its worst. Watch this video, taken 30 seconds into the start of the game, to see what I mean:10


10.

Props to the NHL, by the way, for being so freaking cool about embeddable digital media. They even titled this video “The Waiting Game.”

http://nhl.cdn.neulion.net/u/videocenter/flex/images/evp.swf

It went on like that all night. (The refs, baffled, even called up the NHL’s “War Room” in Toronto to confirm that it was allowed.)

“You want it? Come and get it!” taunted the Flyers. Tampa, obedient to its coach and his system, did not. The Flyers refused to budge. So did Tampa. The result was a series of I’m Not Touchiiiinnnggggg Yoooouuuu standoffs that somehow managed to be both entertaining and absolutely unbearable, and which will no doubt lead to several days of discussion that will be more of the same. (Kicking things off in that vein: a fed-up Mike Milbury walking off the studio set.)

“That’s not hockey in my book,” Pronger said, and suddenly that choice of T-shirt earlier this week made all the more sense.

Hockey Haiku

NHL linesmen:
Beware the flying punches
Of Cal Clutterbuck.

Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Katie Baker:
Wedded Blitz! The October Marriage Season
The Rise of the Female Distance Runner
Benching Ovechkin
The Horrible Habs
Coming to Grips With the Winter Classic
The Endless Battle Over Hockey Fights
Week 1 in the NHL

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