Tablet Sports

Mac Engel: Stars are team you can trust, but improvement needed

The bandwagon is small at this time of year, full of only the diehards and puck heads who slavishly await the start of a hockey season the way the rest of America regards football.

Hockey forever remains one of those sports where you either get it, buy in, or mock its TV ratings and niche following.

Fans of hockey, the Dallas Stars and the NHL are wise not to listen to those who ridicule their sport, but rather we should always embrace them when their interest is piqued every spring. Even if the fans don’t know the significance of pairs, lines and double shifts, the more the better.

The hockey neophytes are coming, and until they arrive next April — when the NHL playoffs begin — at least celebrate the return to relevance of the Dallas Stars on the micro level. A team that more than a decade ago was one of the top three in the NHL is back. The Stars are finally in the “good window.”

The NHL’s 82-game schedule, which the Stars’ begin Thursday at home against the Chicago Blackhawks, can be a brutal investment because the payoff might be a swift kick. For the first time since the start of the 2007 season the Stars have a team that feels as though it won’t waste your time or completely let you down.

They need to evolve out of the “nice little team” phase, which can only be accelerated by the growth of their defensemen, and a goalie who must perform when everybody watches.

The Stars reaching the playoffs last spring after a five-year absence was wonderful, but there is so much more to be had.

“It’s good to have expectations. There were a lot of questions whether we could get it done,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said.

Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin now have the additions of veterans Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky to comprise the most talented group of forwards in the NHL. The top trio is all under 25, not close to its prime, and the collection of forwards is good enough to make the Stars the eighth seed in the playoffs.

The only way the Stars become an NHL monster again — and something more than a “nice little team” — is for their defensemen to catch up to their forwards and for the goalie to be in the playoffs what he is during the regular season.

Defensemen in the NHL are like pitchers in baseball — the good ones are hard to find, so you keep bringing them in until a few hit.

The Stars have good young ones in Brenden Dillon, Patrik Nemeth and Jordie Benn. The one to watch is 21-year-old Jamie Oleksiak, who at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds has the potential to be another Zdeno Chara. The problem with tall people is they take years to develop, and there are many moving parts to align in order to be effective. When it comes together, it’s an All-Star.

The Stars for years have invested top draft picks on their defense and this group needs to be more than what it showed in last year’s playoffs.

Speaking of playoffs, goalie Kari Lehtonen has to suffer through another regular season before he can quell any concern that he’s not the guy. He is the guy right now because the Stars paid him — $5.9 million for the next four years — and for his first three years here, Lehtonen consistently gave the Stars a chance despite an inadequate roster.

Now that the roster is adequate, Lehtonen must drop the reputation as a guy who lets in the soft goals and who is not good enough to carry his team for a game or two in the playoffs.

In today’s NHL where the rules are designed to negate the effectiveness of the goalie, every so often he must be the best player on the ice for his team to win. Lehtonen, 30, is no bum. He was a goalie for the Finnish National Team and is a former No. 1 pick. But he has no playoff series wins. Some of that is because of the teams he played for, but if this team can’t win a series this year Lehtonen figures to receive a bigger portion of the blame.

Right now the Dallas Stars are a nice little team that people are noticing because of their names at forward.

“Minnesota jumps out to me as a team that will be really dangerous, as do the Dallas Stars,” NBC’s NHL analyst Keith Jones said this week during a conference call. “They’ve both improved from the outside, and their younger players gained valuable experience in the playoffs. Both will be right there, and difficult outs come playoff time.”

This team has a little playoff blood on its sweater. It has suffered, it is young, it is hungry and it is talented.

Watching this team this season will be rewarding. Next spring the bandwagon should be taking a new, larger load of customers.

Until then, the diehards and the puck heads should rejoice. Game On.