The Dallas Stars have been far and away the best team in the Western Conference and arguably the most exciting team in the NHL.
They have had their best start in franchise history (18-5), have two of the three top scoring forwards in the NHL (Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin), the highest-scoring defenseman (John Klingberg), have scored the most goals and possess the best power play in the West and … still know the hard work’s ahead of them.
A few weeks ago, their veteran coach, Lindy Ruff, in his third season with the Stars after coaching the Buffalo Sabres for 15 years, sensed his team getting high and mighty after a 12-3 start. They lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs the next game, so he made sure to remind his team, “As good as we started, we’re four points out of eighth. That isn’t a big deal.”
The Stars entered Saturday’s game against Minnesota with six wins in seven games since and had stretched that conference lead on eighth place to 11 points.
Still, Ruff wants his team keeping its foot on the gas. He knows how critical early-season points are to one’s playoff aspirations. Despite a late surge last year, the Stars dug themselves an early hole and couldn’t catch up after Seguin, riding high at the time, Ales Hemsky and Patrick Eaves got hurt in the same February game against Florida.
Ruff was hired in June 2013. A few weeks later, GM Jim Nill acquired Seguin, the second overall pick in 2010, from the Boston Bruins. He scored 37 goals in each of his first two seasons with Dallas.
“I didn’t know much about him, but watching him the first couple practices and watching us our first couple practices, our real good team speed jumped out,” Ruff said. “So we tried to build our attack around that team speed and just try to play the game real quick.
“It’s a hard game to play, but it’s fast, it’s exciting. If you’re playing the game real quick, there’s room for mistakes. But we try to get our defensemen in the rush every time. I call it the forward version of backchecking. That fourth D getting up, that’s a backchecking role for you. The only time I get real frustrated is when our D don’t put the work in, because it’s part of our system.”
One D Ruff never has to worry about not joining the attack is Klingberg, who leads the NHL with 21 assists and 25 points after leading all rookie defensemen with 40 points last year.
You’ve heard of Klingberg, right? The guy that somehow was selected 131st overall in 2010, the guy Nill somehow re-signed for seven years at a $4.25 million cap hit ($833,000 more a year than the Wild’s Jonas Brodin, the 2011 10th overall pick who is smooth and fast but hasn’t evolved offensively).
“Still some maturing to do, but [Klingberg] is a really special player,” Ruff said.
Ruff tries to get Klingberg on the ice every time the Benn-Seguin-Patrick Sharp line is out there. Benn, last year’s NHL leading scorer who currently leads the league with 17 goals and is second with 33 points, and Seguin, who ranks third with 32 points, get all the accolades, but this is hardly a one-line team.
Go up and down the Stars’ lineup, and every line scores.
“It’s not just the two big guys,” Ruff said. “[Benn and Seguin] get all the tough assignments, so the secondary scoring is a big deal. But together, Benn and Seguin are as good as there is in the league.”
Benn, the Stars captain, said they can’t slow down.
“We’re happy with where we’re sitting right now, but there are teams right on our butts,” Benn said. “Tyler and I love to score goals and we take a lot of pride in that, but we want to be complete players and those two-way players that are tough to play against.
“I get more excited where we sit in the standings than where we sit in the scoring race. This is about winning a Stanley Cup, not scoring titles.”
NHL short takes
If it’s true Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen is listening to calls about center Ryan Johansen, that’s the type of player Wild GM Chuck Fletcher should get in on, not Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic.
The Wild doesn’t need a top-four defenseman. It needs a No. 1 center.
Johansen, 23, the fourth overall pick in 2010 taken one slot ahead of Portland Winterhawks linemate Nino Niederreiter, scored 59 goals and 134 points the past two years.
Still, he appears on the outs in Columbus. Johansen recently was demoted to the fourth line by coach John Tortorella. Last year, a contract dispute ended with him signing a three-year, $12 million deal.
Who knows if the Wild has the assets or dollars to make it happen (Johansen will want big money in two years). The Blue Jackets need a D, but would Fletcher be willing to dangle Jonas Brodin or Matt Dumba or Gustav Olofsson?
Johansen is trying to ignore the rumors. “They’ve told me before that they’re committed to me and they want me to be their guy here,” he told the Columbus Dispatch. “When you’re on a losing team … there’s going to be speculation.”
Division of death
The way things are going, the sixth team in the Central Division could end up with more points than the third team in the Pacific and wind up out of the playoffs in the NHL’s playoff format wisdom.
“Your division record could be what gets you in or gets you out,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “If you can play over .500 in your division, you probably have a good chance of getting in.”
WILD’S WEEK AHEAD
Tuesday: 7 p.m. at Chicago
Thursday: 7 p.m. vs. Toronto
Saturday: 7 p.m. vs. Colorado
Player to watch:
Patrick Kane, Chicago
Despite not skating for more than a month leading to training camp, the Blackhawks star is leading the NHL in scoring.
“I haven’t taken a sip out of a water bottle in three days.”
Defenseman Nate Prosser, on trying to avoid a stomach bug/strep throat that has stricken Wild players.