Commentary

Midseason report: Stars have work to do

Updated: January 8, 2010, 12:59 PM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

The first half of the Stars season is over. It wasn't really a good or bad first 41 games. As coach Marc Crawford aptly described it, the Dallas Stars were just "OK." But OK probably won't get them a playoff berth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

The Stars entered Tuesday night's game at 18-12-11 for 47 points. They are currently out of the top eight in the conference. The Stars are on pace for 94 points, which normally would be enough to make the playoffs. But the conference has so many good teams collecting points that it's possible the eighth seed may have 100 points. It means the Stars must play better in the second half to make the postseason.

So as the second half begins this week -- with a busy, road-heavy schedule until the Olympic break -- let's give the Stars a quick evaluation. We'll look at which parts of the team have exceeded expectations, met expectations or are in need of improvement. (Note: Statistics are through Monday's games.)

Exceeds expectations

Brad Richards: The Stars' center has flourished in Crawford's up-tempo, aggressive offensive style. At times last season, it seemed that Richards was trying to figure out his role. This season, he's become a catalyst for the offense. He leads the team and is tied for sixth in the league in points with 48.

Most of those points come from setting up his teammates -- he has 37 assists. Loui Eriksson and James Neal were the primary beneficiaries in the first half (though Crawford moved Neal off the line recently in an effort to generate a spark and shore up the line defensively). Richards has also become an important leader on and off the ice for this team.

If there's a first-half MVP, it's Richards.

Young core: We are talking about Eriksson, Neal, Tom Wandell and Jamie Benn. All will be counted on as building blocks for the future of the team, though they are at different stages of their careers.

Eriksson and Neal are charged with becoming consistent goal scorers. That's not an easy task, especially for a couple of players who haven't been in the NHL very long. But both are getting the job done. Neal leads the team with 18 goals, and Eriksson has 17. Eriksson continues to benefit from Richards' play on his line. Neal 's production has dropped since he was moved off that line. Neal is also working toward re-establishing the physical game that he had earlier in the season. He plays his best when he's on the edge, but he also knows he has to find the balance of playing hard while avoiding suspensions and fines from the league.

Wandell and Benn have been two nice surprises. The Stars are high on Wandell, who shows flashes of skill that make it seem like he could be a quality No. 2 center in the future. He's fast, smart and takes care of his defensive responsibilities. Like most young players, he's working on consistency. Benn was a standout at training camp and has continued to play solid hockey since. He has a clear understanding of where he needs to be on the ice and reads plays well. His grasp of the subtleties of the position have impressed his coaches.

Watch these young players. They are integral parts of this team and should be on many more Stars teams in the coming years.

Stephane Robidas: He ended last season as the club's No. 1 defenseman and has cemented that role this year. Robidas may be the most underrated defenseman in the league. But like Richards, the new system really suits him. Robidas knows when to join the rush and help create offensive opportunities. He's become a good point player on the power play, and he anchors the Stars' top defensive pair with Nicklas Grossman.

Robidas has 21 points to lead all Stars defenseman. It's good enough for fifth on the team. His play impressed Team Canada, who invited him to its orientation camp and seriously considered for the 2010 Olympic team. He didn't make it thanks in large part to Canada's huge depth at the position.

Robidas is a scrappy player who is willing to give up his body in pursuit of the puck. He's also as tough as they come. Case in point: He had surgery to remove a bone pushing against a nerve in his cheek and was on the ice a little more than 24 hours later.

Meets expectations

Marty Turco: The goalie has put up better number this season than last, which was expected. But for most of his career, he's been in the "exceeds expectations" category, and that's where the Stars need him in the second half. At times, Turco has made brilliant saves and kept his team in games. But too often, he's allowed a late goal or one that he'd like to have back.

[+] EnlargeMarty Turco
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesStars goalie Marty Turco's numbers are better this season than they were last season, but he hasn't peformed at the elite level he's reached earlier in his career.

Turco has the history and ability to be an elite goalie. Now is the time to show it. He still has much to prove, and the Stars aren't going to the playoffs (or very deep in them) unless Turco plays better down the stretch.

Turco has received more breaks and time to work with his goalie coaches this season because the coaching staff trusts backup Alex Auld (unlike last year, when the staff didn't trust backup Tobias Stephan, forcing Turco to play a bundle of minutes and games). This is the time of year when that additional practice and work needs to pay off.

Brenden Morrow: No leader is more important to this team its captain. It's not easy returning to the ice from an injury that wipes out most of your previous season. And Morrow had some games early where it looked like he was trying to get used to playing again.

But he's still a scoring threat with 13 goals and is sixth on the team in scoring. Few players have more grit than Morrow, who will charge the net in an effort to make things happen. He, like the rest of the team, is trying to find that consistency that allows the club to go on a sustained streak of good play.

Karlis Skrastins: He could make a case for inclusion in the "exceeds" category, though his minus-10 is the lowest rating on the team. Skrastins is one of the top shot-blockers in the league. He knows how to find the shooting lanes and get in the way of flying pucks.

Skrastins provides a solid defensive presence, allowing his partners to get more involved in the rush. That doesn't mean he can't score. But his main purpose is to play smart, positional hockey. He's had some breakdowns, as his minus number shows, but he's also come up with some key plays at critical moments.

Needs improvement

Matt Niskanen: The young defenseman has been one of the biggest disappointments so far. He seems to have the size and skill to be a good defenseman in the NHL but hasn't put it all together yet. That was supposed to happen this season.

Niskanen has just one goal and at times hasn't played with confidence. He knows he needs to do a better job of forgetting about a bad play so that it doesn't impact him for the rest of the game. He'll have to earn his playing time with some other young defenseman waiting in the wings.

Blue line: This isn't to say the Stars don't have defensive players that aren't doing the job. They do. But if it's possible for general manager Joe Nieuwendyk to make a move at the trade deadline, grabbing a puck-handling defenseman has to be tops on that list. This team just isn't deep enough on the blue line.

Putting it together: One of Crawford's biggest challenges is figuring out how this team best fits together. Which line do you put Mike Ribeiro on to best fit his style and get the most out of his game? What's the best place for Mike Modano?

This team does have some chemistry in that the players like each other, and it's a close-knit dressing room. But it's also a quiet room with few really vocal leaders. Does that matter? Hard to say. But finding a way to put it all together into a winning, consistent squad remains the goal for the second half.

Richard Durrett covers the Stars for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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