There may be a lot of upheaval in Dallas right now, thanks to inopportune injuries and a cast of aging veterans who likely won’t be wearing the black and green much longer, but the Stars do have one enviable advantage: they’ve got a top line secured for the next half decade.
Check out the Stars’ stat chart and you’ll see three linemates all perched at the top. Center Brad Richards, he of the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy while a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, may not be a huge surprise with his 54 points in 46 games given his pedigree, but he has been on the upswing.
Since arriving in Dallas in a pre-emptive trade deadline deal two seasons ago, Richards’ numbers hadn’t hit his pre-lockout levels, but this year is different. Playing between two hotshot youngsters, the 29-year-old is leading the charge on a team playing without key offensive cog Mike Ribeiro and dealing with the inevitable slowdown from franchise cornerstones Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen.
Watching James Neal and Loui Eriksson play against Detroit Saturday got me excited about the near future in Dallas. True, the pair can already dazzle with their combination of size and skill, but things are only going to get better.
Eriksson already has a 36-goal campaign under his belt (2008-09), but his 45 points through 48 games this year puts the 24-year-old Swede on pace for his best offensive season yet. In fact, the left winger has increased his NHL point totals by double-digits every year, even doubling his output between the second and third campaigns.
The kid’s got speed and despite being listed at 6-foot-1, 183 pounds, looks bigger on the ice when he’s coming down the wing.
Neal, patrolling the right side, brings much of the same, albeit in a slightly bigger package. At 6-foot-3, 206 pounds, the sophomore NHLer is already showing signs of being one of those great immovable objects who compounds a defense’s worry with his hands. He had a great chance from the slot late in the Red Wings game (which Dallas won in a controversial shootout) and showed just how hard it is to stop him once he gets going.
Strangely enough, Neal is looking like one of those players who will be better in the NHL than he was at any other level. Perhaps it’s because he is still learning how to best use his frame (a great advantage because you can’t teach size, as is often said), but Neal is on pace for 61 points in his second campaign, which would represent his second-best point total ever – he had 65 with the Ontario League’s Plymouth Whalers in his final year of junior.
And here’s where it gets exciting: With each passing summer of training, Eriksson and Neal will get stronger, smarter and faster. Those tantalizing assets they possess will give them the chance to become unstoppable and with Richards as their pivot, they have a savvy veteran who has won at the highest levels and just happens to be a great setup man.
Left winger Jamie Benn has proven he belongs in the NHL and I suspect defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy will be next in that regard, so the Stars will be able to weather the inevitable loss of Modano, Lehtinen and whichever veterans they lose in free agency as the years go by.
But the core is there (though I’d be remiss if I didn’t say goaltending looks like a weak point right now) and the future is bright, so enjoy those young guns in Dallas, Stars fans.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.