Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Morning After: Game 3 - Stars 3, Ducks 0 (Ducks lead series 2-1)

To watch the scene on Monday Night with your own naked eyes at American Airlines Center was a thing of beauty.  The drought that has been long documented had technically ended last Wednesday night when the Stars entered the playoffs for the first time since 2008 when they played the Ducks in Game 1 out in California.

But, for the 19,120 in attendance, the drought properly ended last night for two equally weighted reasons of importance.

1) - Because for an evening it was clear to anyone who gave it a moment that the sleeping giant had not died.  This city and this organization is and was capable of a hockey atmosphere that could rival any in the sport inside that building.  The premise that the truly electric nights died with Reunion Arena have been disproven before, but the decibel levels on Monday were so shockingly intense that you could simply tell that the fan base that loves this game and needs only a sliver of competitive ambition from its favorite franchise was loving every second of it.  The team was going to have an audience that would do everything they could to push their boys over the finish line, and if nothing else, it is motivation to extend this post-season just to drink from that fountain of adoration again with each home date.

2) - Because the Stars for the first time in this series were able to demonstrate on the scoreboard what many of us had felt we were seeing on the ice since Game 1.  That they are not out-classed substantially by the Anaheim Ducks despite the discrepancy in the standings before this series began.  We had documented the teams fortunes over the last 3 months and Dallas was actually the better team down the stretch and further, styles make fights and we could see that the speed of Dallas combined with their top end talent should really trouble the Ducks.  Well, both of those elements seemed true in Anaheim, but unprovable on the scoresheet.  On Monday, with a 3-0 win and a comfortable last period, they sent that message loud and clear to the league - this team is not out of their depths in the post-season.  Not so far, anyway.  

Either of those above reasons are enough to fire you up if you care about this franchise sufficiently to read a blog like this.  But, combined?  It is tough not to be over the moon with excitement now as we ponder Wednesday night and a chance to even this series with another home victory.  But, let's discuss some of the best talking points to Game 3, first - or the first post-season win for this franchise in 2,165 days.

Any recap of Game 3 should start with the performance of Kari Lehtonen.  This is a goaltender who does not need his quality debated for those who have never turned away from the franchise.  Over the toughest years in this stretch, he has won games by himself and certainly been on a very short list (with Jamie Benn) for the discussion of who the Stars' best player has been since Mike Modano went away.  Both of them have needed more help, but have fought valiantly over and over again until someone could build a team around them.  But, for those who have questioned his quality, hopefully nights like last night are enough to demonstrate what he is all about.  He stood tall and defended his goal brilliantly, aided by a team in front of him that were committed to limiting the chances.  Kari had to make 37 saves in his playoff shutout, but did so with such calm and poise that he was easy choice for the #1 star.  Lehtonen is not much of a talker, so perhaps with a bit more personality or Canadian roots he would be more highly regarded in the NHL.  But, that doesn't matter like performances like this one.  He proved he can grab a game and not budge an inch.

Benn, meanwhile, has looked just like a captain should through this series.  He is a physical force who now knows his true power as a player who backs people off with his frame and can dominate physically as well as any power forward, but with mitts and skates that make his attack complete.  His last year has been his most impressive step as he has matured into the captain role, which means making plays of significance and leading with a resolve that is most admirable.  Adding Tyler Seguin to his side has allowed him to take the next step on the stat sheets, but Benn's best trick is showing that he has leadership quality that wasn't always obvious.  There was a stretch of several years when the Stars' best were not able to equal some of the best in the league.  Now, with Benn and Seguin together, you can see that the top of the roster is up for any match-up and challenge in any alley or street.  They are able to fight you with skill and Benn is surely willing to battle you with a nice cross check or collision.  And when he banged home a rebound at the end of the 1st period, he gave the Stars a lead they would never surrender in that breakthrough playoff performance.

The story of Game 3 that cannot be emphasized enough, though, is the team game that Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill tried to create over this last year.  This is not an individual sport where the team with the best player wins.  This is a fantastic team game where the gang with the best 20 players on a given night (19 to be exact) will generally end up on top.  The fact that 11 players (12 if Brenden Dillon can  return in this series) of the 18 skaters are playing in their very first playoff battle is just craziness.  This is a time of year where we talk about playoff experience and know-how as currency that is indispensable.  The Stars are disregarding it and almost seem willing to field an entire team of first-timers, and the response they are getting is quite impressive.  From Valeri Nichushkin's extremely well-timed goal to Patrick Nemeth's performance that is blowing people away defensively, it is clear that every player that gets a jersey wants to prove he deserves it.  If playoff newbies like Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt are going to play like that on every shift, then perhaps we over-rate the improvement that could come with experience.  The truth is, those two, along with their running buddy Cody Eakin have been playing with their pants on fire since October.  They have just turned it up another notch now that they can get under the skin of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf on a routine basis.

The penalty killing was superb last night, and some of the extra curricular activities from the aforementioned might make that necessary.  But, that is part of the team game.  Play to the edge, and if you cross the line and go over the edge, you mates pick you up and kill off your transgressions with a timely kill.  That is what good teams do this time of year.  And, yes, the Stars appear to be a pretty good team.

In this space, I have spent a lot of time complaining about a lack of a "true ace" to steal a baseball term.  I believe in the dominance of a defense group, because Derian Hatcher, Sergei Zubov, Darryl Sydor, Richard Matvichuk, and Craig Ludwig taught me, and the personnel department has not been able to assemble that quality back there at this point.  However, a franchise does what it can, when it can, and I am required by my conscience to applaud this group for holding up their end of the bargain.  Those who stand at those posts presently attempt to prove that I have undersold their own ability and it should be recognized because they aren't here without those guys digging deep.  And maybe the most rewarding aspect of this season is not the quality of Lehtonen, Benn, or Seguin - anyone who watches hockey knew they would be good.  Rather, it is seeing someone like Trevor Daley rise up and maybe play the best hockey of his career right now.  I have always liked parts of his game, but to see him and Alex Goligoski take on the ice time and the assignments that they have and still battle with energy and composed rage is awesome.  Daley has really stepped up big.

But, go down that blue-line and it keeps impressing you.  If anyone had Jordie Benn as a #3 defensemen on the next Stars playoff team playing 23:29 of near flawless hockey against that team, then you should run to Vegas and try to get rich in futures.  Because, I will confess, I never thought he could do it.  And Nemeth?  That kid looks like he is ready to battle and not take any garbage from anyone on every shift.

The Stars are a team built on speed, so it was clear to all of us that teams would attempt to try to make them play a grinding game and see how badly this young team wants it.  Surely if a team is fast, they must hate a battle, right?  That is clearly what Bruce Boudreau wanted when he ordered the game to be played against the boards and for the Ducks to come out with such a defensive posture.  Drag the young Stars out to the deep water and see if they can swim, right?

The response has been clear.  Perry and Getzlaf are incredibly talented players, but much of their game is played by being bullies and then being protected.  Taking them out of that comfort zone is the name of the game.  Now, they are uncomfortable being surrounded by these pests who they have never heard of before, and are getting quite annoyed.  Boudreau even rolled out the reasonably talented sluggo, Patrick Maroon, on to the Perry and Getzlaf line to get them some more might and space, but that backfired when the Garbutt/Roussel/Eakin trio scored the 3rd goal because the wheels were too quick in transition.

It is tough to forecast where this series is going, except for the fact that the Stars now know the belong, if there was ever doubt.  The next chapter will be even more intense, and I am happy to report that the team seems interested in pushing this run a lot further than one magical night in April.  The Ducks response will be measured and their only objective was to get a split in Dallas, which is still very much in play in Game 4.

But, for now, smile.  It is back.  All of it.  The anger, the electricity, the nerves, the high-5s with total strangers, the headaches, the enemies, and the noise.

Ah, the glorious noise.

Bring on Wednesday.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Morning After: Game 2 - Ducks 3, Stars 2 (Ducks lead 2-0)

There are so many things that you miss about the playoffs when you are not involved that you actually forget most of them.  That is how long 6 years in the wilderness can be.

You forget how much hate drives a playoff series.  You forget about the headaches.  You forget about the save on one end and the goal on the other that rips your heart out.  And when it returns it all comes racing back quickly.

For the Dallas Stars and their faithful followers, as they fall behind 2-0 in a series where they can honestly feel like they have out-played the #1 seed Anaheim Ducks in many respects, it is possible that we have forgotten how finicky the hand of fate can be in a best-of-7 series.

The team that out-shoots the opponent does not win.  The team that out-skates the opponent does not win.  The team that out-works the opponent does not win.  All of that could lead to a win, but it could also lead to a plane ride back of total frustration for a team that worked its absolute tail off only to fall short in both games by a single goal.

On Friday night, by any and all advanced metrics, the Dallas Stars beat the Ducks handily.  Of course, that doesn't matter.  In fact, of all of the playoff games played on Friday around the league (Montreal-Tampa Bay, Detroit-Boston) this one was the biggest mismatch from a puck-possession and shots-attempted standpoint.  The Stars had a 62%/38% advantage at equal strength which does not happen very often over the course of the season.  They had the Ducks stuck in their own end and found chance after chance against young goaltender Frederik Anderson.

They also conceded very little.  Aside from a sequence in the 2nd period where their 4th line was stuck in their own zone, they played very well defensively and kept the Anaheim cycle game with the big bodies from really taking grasp on the proceedings for a large part of the evening.

Additionally, they started well - much better and with much more composure than they did on Wednesday night in Game 1 and even found the opening goal to calm those young nerves on a team where 10 of the 18 skaters are playing their very first playoff series.

In short, the tactics were sound, the effort was fantastic, and the numbers on the paper that we look to as "indicators of success" all were where they needed them to be.

But the game of hockey is simple.  In the playoffs, it might even be too simple.  The cliches are many but the easiest one to remember is that "the object of the game is to put it in and keep it out."

And on Friday night, that went wrong.

Ducks 3, Stars 2.

it is often said that the playoffs are all about "special teams and goaltending."  And on that front, the Stars have to feel that this is the culprit for why they fly back to DFW now needing to win both home games to extend this series into the real frightful times that could come in Game 5-6-7.

Goaltending is sometimes a very difficult thing to judge and fairness is often lost in the occasion.  If you can recall how this works, it is basically that easy for newbies to wrap their heads around: Your goalie has to be better than their goalie. Now, unfortunately, the two goalies involved are never going to get a fair count on the volume of chances, the quality of those chances, and the assistance in quieting those chances.

But, on Friday night - and to a lesser extent on Wednesday night - most observers would have to argue that the Ducks have had the better goaltender guarding their net than Kari Lehtonen has done defending his.  This is based on seeing far fewer shots, but conceding more goals.  Not complicated, right?

This, of course, adds to the overall narrative of Lehtonen that keeps him very undervalued across the league (The Hockey News Rated him 19th amongst his peers in their Goaltending Issue last fall) that he is dead-solid average in his play.  Those of us who have watched him play hundreds of games would say that he is quality, and I would go so far as to rate him above a guy I greatly admire in Marty Turco, but this is the type of thing that needs some evidence - like a playoff series win against a team that is more talented than your side.

So, with the Ducks owning a talent advantage, but the Stars seeming to have some goaltending edge with Anderson making his first climb into the playoffs, Kari is simply going to be asked to even the score of the two teams by making a save or two to swing the game and the series.

I have no idea which puck Kari should have stopped on Friday night, because the two unassisted, turnover-created goals that the $8million dollar men, Ryan Getzlaf ($8.2m) and Corey Perry ($8.6m) scored were things of beauty that are scored by the types of guys you are willing to pay $8million to for playing hockey.

That leaves the shorthanded goal early in the third by Andrew Cogliano which resulted from Cogliano chopping Sergei Gonchar's stick in half and then chaotic moments where Getzlaf does what he does again, drawing the play to him before a cross-ice, back-door feed to Cogliano that left Lehtonen by himself to cover that chance from the back post of the crease.  He tries.  He slides over and fires his legs up in the air to try to get a piece of the puck, in vain.  Cogliano scores when he should have been headed to the penalty box and the Stars power play is demoralized yet again.

The Ducks goals, the first set up by Erik Cole's zone exit that Getzlaf deposited in a small hole on Kari's short-side; the second is a Corey Perry bomb from the face-off dot which was given to him because Tyler Seguin's pass to Jamie Benn was not ideal (a trend we saw a lot on Friday) right outside the Stars blue-line; and the third off a power play that could not control the puck and exit the zone - all were Ducks possessions that were slightly longer than the blink of an eye.  They were not set up with domination by any stretch.  They did not have the Stars out-classed.  They simply made the Stars pay for a slip-up in execution and made it hurt.

And perhaps that is what playoff experience makes you capable of.  Perry and Getzlaf have won the Cup, won gold medals, and have done just about everything a hockey player wishes to do.  They, despite personality traits on the ice that may be seen as unattractive, are accomplished stars in this league that don't need 10 chances to snap your neck.  They often need just one.

It would have been great if Kari could have canceled out those chances, but you are more advised to keep chances away from those two.  They are better than the goalies they face almost every time.

But, before the series, we fancied the Stars chances of having 2 players who could cancel out those stars.  Seguin and Benn are the equals of Perry and Getzlaf, right?

Well, that comes down to how the game goes on the ice.  And last night, you again saw the quality that 91/14 have, but you also saw that the Ducks did a very fine job of not giving them the opportunities that the Stars gave Perry and Getzlaf.  Then, you also saw Benn and Seguin unable to cash in - and often times even hit the net - like those two accomplished studs for Anaheim did.   The two Dallas talents had 4 shots on goal, but 6 more that missed the net altogether.  As we certainly know, you aren't going to test the goalie if your shot misses the entire frame of goal.

The Stars are getting strong efforts from elsewhere, and last night Alex Chiasson scored off a pass from Benn and Ryan Garbutt put one away from Shawn Horcoff and Antoine Roussel.  But, the roster does not have enough world class talents to expect to win very often without Benn and Seguin dragging them along.  That is enormous pressure on those two, but I would guess that Perry and Getzlaf know what that life is like.  If you want to be paid like the best in the game, then, with a salary cap, get used to being asked to do most of the heavy lifting between the two of you.  That is not to say that Benn and Seguin are paid like that yet, but I think we all know what their next contracts are going to look like if things keep progressing.

The Stars had chances late, including yet another demoralizing power play (1-6) that did not get it done.  There are some tactical issues being raised by Bruce Boudreau that are keeping the Stars frustrated and unable to get the puck into the zone, but rather are spending huge parts of the power play skating half speed at neutral ice and looking confused.  The Ducks are daring them to dump the puck in, and the Stars hate doing that.  Look for that to change in Dallas.

Much of the first two games have reminded me of the Dallas-Edmonton series from 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2003.  The Oilers would be undermanned, but determined to huff and puff and blow the house down each time.  They had young talent, including a few game breakers, but never the type of payroll or elite talent that Dallas had back then.  Sometimes, the Oilers would roll into Reunion Arena and outplay the Stars for the entire evening.  But, at some point of the game, Brett Hull, or Mike Modano, or Joe Nieuwendyk or Sergei Zubov would step up and make the Oilers pay for that one tiny little mistake and steal the game.  It would frustrate the Oilers and the Stars would grin and ultimately advance because they know how to win in the playoffs and those kids across the ice are trying to figure it out.  Then, we would laugh at their goaltending, even though their goalie (Tommy Salo, anyone?) was often asked to stop elite chances which of course, Ed Belfour or Turco weren't being asked to save.

It is the ultimate in "learning to fly".  Sometimes, a young team figures it out - like Chicago a few years back with all of those kids.  Sometimes, it never happens - Edmonton disbanded and sent Bill Guerin, Doug Weight, and others to various other parts of the league.

We think this young Stars team is building something special.  I cannot tell you how great this last year of progress has been to witness.  But, I do wonder how quickly they will be able to figure out how to deal with games like these.  Do they have to wait until they can add more talent?  Or can it happen as soon as Monday?

Monday is Game 3.  It will be in Dallas at a place that hasn't hosted a playoff game since May 19, 2008, when Dallas lost Game 6 to Detroit at the American Airlines Center.

Another playoff cliche talks about how a playoff series never truly starts until a road team wins a game.  Otherwise, it is all just everyone holding serve.  If no road team breaks through, then it comes down to a 1-game series in a game 7.  We should be so lucky.

The Stars have played very, very well in Dallas recently.  They are going to fight even harder that night.  Do they know how to win games like these?  Specifically, can they win this one?

Because if they don't, then they will have a very long summer to think about it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Morning After: Game 1 - Ducks 4, Stars 3 (1-0)

There were plenty of people who went to bed in Texas last night thinking that the Stars were exposed badly by the competition last night and outclassed on their way to a humbling defeat.

And those people did get the part right about being defeated.

Otherwise, the later the Stars wandered into the California night, the more capable they appeared and the more confident they played.  In the end, they fell just short in their bid to come all the way back against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 1, but I think one can report with relative belief that the Stars are most optimistic about their ability to steal Game 2 and then get back in front of their own fans as this series takes shape.

It is vital to remember a detail or two about this Dallas Stars team which is absolutely an underdog in this Best-of-7 series against a team that finished at the very top of the Western Conference;  and perhaps the most vital is that 9 of the 18 skaters from last night were playing in their very first NHL playoff game.

Jamie Benn, Alex Chiasson, Antoine Roussel, Ryan Garbutt, Cody Eakin, Valeri Nichushkin, Colton Sceviour, Patrick Nemeth, and Jordie Benn all made their playoff debuts on Wednesday night, and frankly, when you are playing 9 guys who have never been there before along with several veterans who have played sparingly in the last month - Ray Whitney, Aaron Rome, in particular, you are a team that is going to look a little out of sorts while you try to get your bearings.

Unfortunately, during that time, your prime scoring opportunities do not make an impact and the Ducks are cashing in on every chance in the other direction.  The game is getting faster and louder, and while you are beginning to see it is just a hockey game - but much faster, you are falling behind badly.

Kyle Palmieri settles a beautiful saucer pass from Nick Bonino on transition over the body of Aaron Rome less than 2 minutes into the contest, and it is 1-0.

Ryan Getzlaf tips home a close proximity shot after another blocked Dallas shot leads to Ducks flying back in the other direction when Matt Beleskey fires from the left wing and while Kari Lehtonen's helmet is rattled off his head, the big captain for Anaheim sends it home.  2-0.

Then, late in a shell-shocked first period, Sergei Gonchar takes a penalty and the Ducks are put on the job where they have a number of chances before Patrick Maroon finds Mathieu Perreault across the goal mouth and now it is getting out of hand at 3-0.

The first period ended and most of the people watching seemed to think that the chances of the Stars competing in this game ended as well.  It is the familiar theme of figuring that this was all too big for the youth in Dallas and that the gulf was just too big to figure out at this point in time.

And make no mistake, this situation is far from ideal right now without top physical defensemen Brenden Dillon - who also would have made his playoff debut last night - who was unable to go in at least Game 1 because of an undisclosed injury in the clinching game against St Louis.  To be very frank, much of the Stars fortunes are going to be tied to Dillon's return because last night the Stars did match or exceed the Ducks.  But the department where they didn't - the ability to deal with the Ducks on the offensive cycle - is a matchup deficiency where the Stars' defensemen have no answer for the physicality as presently constituted.  Gonchar took 2 penalties and Nemeth another, and the cycle puts them on the job, and the power play ends up making it worse.  Will Dillon be good to go in Game 2?  I don't know, but Aaron Rome and Sergei Gonchar played less and less as the game went along and mysteriously, the Stars play improved.

Think about what that leaves - Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski playing tons of ice time, both approaching half of the game, Patrick Nemeth and Jordie Benn playing about 20 each, and Rome and Gonchar down near 10.  If they have Dillon back, this has a chance.  But, it is clear that the defense corps is just not filled with options and they need those they can to play well and without penalties.

The Stars also need their trouble-makers to use their brains, and down 3-0 after a Cody Eakin opportunity, Ryan Garbutt thought he would stir things up by giving Frederik Andersen a snow shower.  This, of course, angered the Ducks and Stephane Robidas the most.  Before long, Garbutt's running buddy Antoine Roussel is jumping in and the Stars are sending Garbutt to the penalty box.

And, as the fortune has been going, take a ill-advised penalty down 3-0 in your first playoff game in years, and the Ducks make you pay and send even more Stars' fans to their beds with a sad posture.  This time a point shot from Francois Beauchemin ticks off the skate of Beleskey and the score is suddenly 4-0.

Shell-shocked.  And this has become ugly.

And yet, the whole time, the puck possession and the course of play was still not something where the Stars looked out of their element.  They were still generating their chances and their speed was still showing.  Yes, the defense looked up against that, but we know that will be a work in progress for the next few years.  It needs a full rebuild, but you go with what you got.  And what you have seem to be several players who have promise or are decent in the present tense.  Say what you want about Daley and Goligoski, but those guys have shouldered the burden with Dillon and Benn all year.  If this is a playoff team, then it is partly because of what positive things those guys have done.  You simply cannot survive 82 games if they are all liabilities.

Up 4-0, Robidas takes a penalty and then the Ducks while killing the penalty take a too many men minor to make it even worse.  If they wanted to let the Stars back in the game, putting them on an extended 5-3 power play is likely the best way.

Benn scores in his playoff debut to put the Stars on the board and the Sceviour gets some fortune on a seeing-eye puck and it is quickly 4-2 at the end of 2.  The only bothersome part of the sequence is a Corey Perry stick to the skates of Sceviour which sends the winger into the boards hard and awkwardly.  It seemed cheap (as Perry will be) but also unnoticed by our officials and with his arm hanging, they head to the room.

The Stars played confidently for the final 20 minutes, but could not find their 3rd goal until after they were done killing another Gonchar minor.  That was particularly impressive since he hardly played in the 3rd, but managed to take a penalty in short work.  But, after the kill and late, Tyler Seguin scored nearly 14 minutes into the final period on a gorgeous re-direct of a Daley point shot off a face-off win.  The pump of the fist said it all and they had nearly come all the way back and still had 6:07 to find the equalizer.  4-3.

Dallas pushed for their 4th with mixed results.  Eakin had a golden chance, but Nichushkin made a poor decision before a change and nearly handed Perry and Getzlaf a goal to seal the doom.  Kari Lehtonen bailed them out and honestly looked better and better as the game went along, but aside from the goal where he had the mask knocked over his eyes, there wasn't much he could have done to stop the goals.

Goligoski and Lehtonen had a moment of confusion in the 3rd that almost resulted in a free Anaheim goal, but Goligoski's diving stick saved that embarrassment.

Dallas pulled Kari late to get the extra attacker and again had lots of possession.  But, aside from Tyler Seguin ripping a shot off of Getzlaf's face, very little that could be described as a chance occurred.  Anaheim did a nice job of defending the perimeter late and the Stars left the ice feeling much better about themselves, but still a 4-3 loss.

This is the portion of the review where we remind you that a 7-0 loss and a 4-3 loss count the same.  So, in the department of morale, we must concede that the Stars lost the game and that is the only detail that truly counts.

However, most of us thought Game 1 might be uneasy with so many players making their first playoff shifts and with no Dillon.  I wish I knew he would be back soon, but this time of year - if we have all forgotten - trying to get injury information is a laughable exercise.  He is back when he is back and that will be as soon as any of us find out.

But, if the question is now whether or not the Stars are concluding that they can play with the Ducks and make them sweat and work hard to stand their ground, I think Lindy Ruff and his squad can go into Game 2 with a bit of confidence about their resumes.  Their own fans may be a bit pessimistic, but the Stars have played high-stakes hockey for a few months now and have never been outclassed for more than a moment.  Once they collect themselves, they are able to punch back and take the game to the opponent.

Whether we are ready to admit it or not, the addition of Seguin to Benn is an absolute item of fear that is now felt by opponents.  They are nervous playing the Stars and Dallas now has a legitimate answer to Perry and Getzlaf or whatever other strike forces that have put the Stars out of the mix so many times in the past.  Now, Dallas has to continue to build their organization to match the other portions of the team, but the Stars have game-breakers.  And Nichushkin showed signs last night that he is going to attempt to break out in this series, too.  He looked very optimistic in the offensive end at times.

The Stars will have issues.  They are not deep enough in several spots and we have detailed the defense deficiencies and why Lehtonen is asked to do so much on his own.  But, let's not lose sight of what they have put together.  Of those 9 making their debuts last night, almost none of them looked out of place.  In fact, it is unfortunate that some of the most veteran (and most well compensated) of the Stars are the ones that need to raise their games for this to happen this spring.

But, they took quite a punch from the Ducks and decided to stay and fight.  That is all you can ask of a #8 seed and they just about had a chance to steal Game #1.

However, "just about" is not good enough this time of year.  Back to the drawing board for Game 2.

The Stars have to learn how to deal with the playoffs, but so do we as observers.  The amount of give-up in my email box 20 minutes into a 2-week series reminds us that we need to learn how to watch this marathon.  There will be ebbs and flows that require a little resolve in a fan base.  Both sides are going to land punches in these heavyweight fights, but it won't end in 20 minutes.  They are figuring it out as they go and while there are no guarantees, keep in mind that the Stars made the playoffs for a reason - they are pretty good.  Good enough to win a series against a high seed?  That might be a question only they can answer.

Now, it appears that they have plenty of confidence to work with.  Settle in, for what I believe is going to be a long series.  And it will get longer if the Stars accomplish their mission of splitting in Orange County on Friday.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014 Cowboys Weekly Draft Notebook - Episode 13 - Cornerbacks

The cliche on draft weekend in the NFL has been repeated year after year after year.

"You always need a Cornerback."

And, teams always take cornerbacks.  There is never a bad time to get another athlete who can cover the numerous wideouts that are taking over the game.  Want to see the biggest shift in the NFL over the last 20 years?  Look at the use of 3, 4, or even sometimes a 5th Wide Receiver on the field at the same time.  Well, as that has shifted, the use of fullbacks has been nearly eliminated.  This cause and effect has made the defenses on the NFL load up on volume of corners and at the same time, it has also made them look and look for better quality at the position.

And how many corners have been taken in the last 3 NFL drafts?  Would you believe 99?  99 corners have been taken in the last 3 drafts with 39 in 2011, 31 in 2012, and 29 more in 2013.  They are plentiful in supply, but there is also a huge demand.  And that is why teams consider corner a reasonable pick at any time of the draft, regardless of their depth chart.

So, do the Cowboys need a corner this year?

Well, the 2012 massive investments of $50 million in Brandon Carr and $16 million and 1st and 2nd round picks in Morris Claiborne have not come close to satisfying the levels of expectations around here.  In fact, 2 years after the gigantic expenditures, we still sit here wondering if Orlando Scandrick is the best corner this team has.  That likely isn't true because Carr has been really solid most of the time, but the fact that this is even a discussion speaks volumes.  What does it say about the wonder kid from LSU that was supposed to give us thoughts of Deion Sanders?  The status of Claiborne gives fans indigestion and the bust label has been suggested.  However, the idea that if he was playing well we would be pondering a forth-coming extension that would make your eyes pop out of your head.  And that hasn't even been hinted.  And rightfully so.  For now, he appears to be far more Mike Jenkins, which is ironic because that is who he nudged out of town for identical reasons.  Of course, Jenkins played out his rookie contract and left town, which is the path Claiborne is on right now as well (save for the Pro Bowl Jenkins achieved in 2009).

BW Webb is the 4th corner, and we still don't know too much about his fine work as he enters his 2nd season, but his cost is such that he populates the roster without expectation level, and Sterling Moore is a veteran 5th corner who has proven capable when called upon.  So, as it stands now, I don't consider the position an area of need, but in 12 months, Brandon Carr may have his deal reviewed for cap relief and in 24 months Claiborne may wish to be paid handsomely (despite his performance to this point).  As you can see, you always need corners.

With the draft averaging 33 a season, we can't profile very many.  But, here are the Top 7 or so according to many resources.  I try to spend enough time to see 3 games worth of snaps from each of these prospects and then give you my personal views on their performance.

Let's take a look briefly at each of these corners that fit in the overall Top 50:

Justin Gilbert - Oklahoma State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Justin Gilbert 6'02024.35/1.5535.5"


One of the truly premium players in this draft is a player many of us are familiar with Gilbert from Stillwater.  He is a very big corner for a man of is speed and athleticism.  He also has kick return ability and has returned an incredible 6 all the way back for Touchdowns in his time in the Big 12.  That is a huge number for a 6-foot tall player.

He also has a 7-interception senior season as well as a 5-interception sophomore year.  This would suggest he has definite ball hawk ability and if you watched him against Case McCoy, you have no doubts about that anyway.

He plays in press coverage plenty, but also can play off and soft in a zone.  He is aggressive and I liked the way he would stick his nose in and take on the run.  He is going for that ball and appears to have some leadership skills as well.

There are some questions that abound about just how good his technique is as a cover man, and how often he bites for a double move.  Mike Davis was able to run by him and beat him deep, but it appears at times his quest for the ball gets him looking at the QB and falling for the occasional ball fake which gives his man an opening deep.  That will happen to any ball hawk and can certainly be cleaned up by homework and coaching.

Does he have flaws in his game?  Sure.  But, if I had to bet on one corner in this draft, I am pretty sure I would have to go with this one, because his upside flashes are really impressive.  And in a league that wants their corner to be big enough to tackle you and fast enough to catch you, along with hands that can reel in errant passes, well Justin Gilbert is your man.

Kyle Fuller - Virginia Tech 

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Kyle Fuller6'01904.43/1.5938.5"


After Gilbert, there is some question about who the 2nd best corner is in this draft, but for me, I really like Kyle Fuller from Virginia Tech.  He is my kind of corner in that he is looking to put a hit on a running back who heads to his side of the field and can also cover quite well.  Then, when you let your guard down for a second, he blitzes from the blind side and crushes your QB.  And, since he plays for Frank Beamer, he also is totally sold out when you ask him to participate in your special teams - not that you always want a 1st round corner covering punts.  But, the key is he isn't above it.

There was one game that was different than the others that I watched with Fuller and it was against a Georgia Tech team that certainly is running a ton in an option scheme.  And that is where Fuller showed his versatility and basically played up at the line as a strong safety or a linebacker might and basically just crashed the backfield over and over.  This is not the cup of team of many corners on this list, but for Fuller, it was no big deal and he actually looked quite natural playing nearly the entire game at the line of scrimmage with the big boys.

As a cover man, he has proven that he can handle what is thrown at him.  His best game in this category in 2013 was likely on the big stage against Alabama and he was really, really solid against their wide outs.  He demonstrated great cover skills right on the hip of the speedsters, and while he played hurt as he damaged his shoulder on run support, he was still able to do his part to try to keep the Hokies in that game (in vain).

I just think this guy is a real find and a player worth investment.  He plays very hard and with an edge and also runs well, has good hips, and to me looks like the best pure cover corner in the draft.  There are questions about whether he can play his style and stay on the field, but that is awful difficult to project on draft day.

I would take him in the first round without concern.  He is a very strong player.

Jason Verrett - Texas Christian

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Jason Verrett 5'91894.41/1.5739"

37160 9 1

Verrett is another player that I have enjoyed watching locally for the last few years and every time I saw him I had the distinct feeling that I was watching a NFL corner before he got to the league.  He plays the style that gets these guys paid and always has under Gary Patterson.

Of course, that means if you are going to survive long-term as a player who is under the ideal height and under the ideal weight, you better have a body that can sustain the punishment.  And that might be the one reason that Verrett falls a bit.  Undersized corners are the last thing that NFL teams want to reach for when their are generally 3 dozen draft-able corners in a given year.

Otherwise, there is plenty to enjoy from his reel.  He is a real press cover guy who flies up to tackle.  He wants to smash your underneath receivers and closes fast going forward.  He has blitz skills off the edge and is playing ultra aggressive to jump routes, knowing he has safety cover over the top.

Now, he plays with tons of emotion, and we can see that crossing the line occasionally, but that often goes with the position at the next level.

Technique wise, I am not sure I can see him having huge success as a press corner on Sundays, because getting in a pushing match at the snap with the strong WRs who weigh 220 just won't go well consistently, so you better pick your spots.

I think you take this guy and you blitz him off the slot in a role that Orlando Scandrick holds here in Dallas.  A physical slot guy who can stick with the receivers that work underneath is his preferred spot that I see, although I am sure he can survive out wide, too.  I just don't know how high you want to go here, because again, he is very small.  But, he doesn't play small.  He plays like a warrior and I really like his overall game.

Darqueze Dennard - Michigan State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Darqueze Dennard 5'111994.42/1.63 -----


Yet another of my 1st round corners would be Dennard from Michigan State.  I am not sure I like him as much as most (I believe the general opinion has him above both Fuller and Verrett as the 2nd best corner in this crop) but there is plenty to like here.

He is a very physical corner with blitz skills and he really enjoys blitz opportunities.  Michigan State would have him out on an island on a regular basis and he generally did a nice job of passing tests where he was asked to cover without any help whatsoever.

You can see him sniffing out bubble screens and crashing down on run plays with great conviction.  There are some corners that have very little use for physical play, but I think Dennard is not going to have any problem hitting as much as the big guys do on your defense.  He seems to really enjoy the in-your-face coverage and attempting to make you fight for every reception you are going to get off of him on a given day.  He will battle hard, and I will always take a chance on that type of guy.

The biggest problem with Dennard leads back to the questions about why you see him clutching and grabbing so much.  The way NFL officials attempt to police the technique of the defensive backs, you are taught quickly that the guys who cover by grabbing handfuls of the man they are covering may not have the right to be called great cover men.  That's ok, because there are a lot of corners who manage to get by without being gloves, and Dennard has never struggled.  Just be prepared for a periodic flag with this guy, especially in the slot with the quick guys.

But, he has exceptional ball skills and he will go get that ball.

Now, there are a few more durability concerns here, including the very disconcerting concussion history that is enough to scare a few off the player in Round 1.  But, I think he is a real physical player who would be welcomed in a lot of places as the 1st round develops.

Bradley Roby - Ohio State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Bradley Roby  5'111944.35/1.5338.5"


As my friend Bryan Broaddus tells me, there are 33 flavors out there and not everyone is going to care for every flavor.  It doesn't mean he isn't a fine player with a fine future, but he is not for me.  That is the case with Bradley Roby from Ohio State.

I watched 3 different game to write him up - Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State.  And I was given a distinctly different view of him in each game.  Against Michigan, I saw the top end speed as he ran a few plays down from behind that were phenomenal shows of ability.  He is super fast and plays like it.  But, after watching this game (which I think we can all agree would be considered the biggest of games for an Ohio State) I was hoping to hear he was playing hurt.  Because he played a very passive style where I saw him passing on hits and not really fighting to get off blocks at a disturbing level.  He honestly looked like a track athlete playing football and while I promise that is not his normal posture - he has 179 career tackles in just 36 games - to see that bothered me quite a bit.

Then, against Wisconsin in another huge game for the Buckeyes, he was more physical, but Jared Abbrederis had his way with Roby all night in a way that suggest his cover skills are not the type that get you all excited, either.

He blitzes and does many of the things you look for in a corner, but man, I saw him get beat too much leading one to wonder about his football sense and whether or not he has that feel for the game that you look for and assume each player has.

This one is a tough study for sure and to be totally satisfied with my findings, I would like to grab 3 more games and start over with him.  He clearly has all sorts of ability and tests very well for all of his athletic attributes, but then you put on his tape and you see a guy who frustrates you a lot.  He played well at Ohio State which speaks loudly, so I try not to forget that.  But, man, I am just not sure he is a natural football player.

Marcus Roberson - Florida 

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Marcus Roberson  6'01914.64/1.6137.5"


And now, the exact opposite of Roby.  A player who does not test well and ran a time that freaks people out because a corner cannot run a 4.64 40.  In fact, I can see teams saying they don't want to touch Marcus Roberson because their stop watch took him off their board.

But, put on the tape.  He does not play slow at all.  In fact, he is Florida's punt return option and did it quite well.  He is very quick with the ball in his hands and has solid instincts there for sure.

As a cover man, he is a very solid man to man cover guy who can be very physical with his receiver.  He is quite athletic and smooth and seriously doesn't look close to a slow corner.  He defends very well in most occasions and I have no doubt that he can handle himself in coverage.

There are holes in his game as I don't think that he is particularly dying to stick his nose in there on run support, either.  But, he is still a nice player that I could see in Round 2.

He looks like a player who understands what is asked of him and plays his assignment well.  But, he is clearly down a tier or two from the top premium types.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste - Nebraska 

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Stanley Jean-Baptiste 6'22184.57/1.5841.5"


Finally, in this world where everyone is looking to build and copy the Seattle Seahawks secondary with giants at every spot, this Nebraska corner has received all sorts of coverage this spring as the type of guy who is in the right place at the right time.  He is in the draft after the Seahawks have won the Super Bowl.  If ever a tall corner was going to get over-drafted to balance out Richard Sherman lasting until the 5th round, it is Jean-Baptiste.

Well, someone else can over-draft him.

Of all of the corners I watched, this is the one that I am not recommending until the 3rd or 4th round. He looks like a safety trying to play corner and that is not a compliment.  He is stiff and not as quick as I need a corner to be.  His change of direction is difficult and in the open field against a quick and shifty receiver he is very stressed to bring the man down.

A corner has to be able to navigate through thick traffic when trailing on a crossing pattern over the middle, and I saw Jean-Baptiste get hung up on bodies too often.

Now, let me clear because I see that I am coming across as harsh.  He may have a future as a safety or even as linebacker.  He can clearly play football well.  I just am not buying that every big corner is the next market inefficiency.  Richard Sherman excels because he is big, with the mobility to stay with whatever receiver you throw at him.  He does not have tight hips - even though he clearly was not thought of highly on his draft day.  I think Stanley is big, yes.  But, I don't think he possesses what I need for a guy out on an island in the NFL.

At the right price, I may take a shot, but I am not sure I would put him on a Top 100 list for draft weekend.


My summary is this:  Gilbert, Fuller, Verrett, and Dennard are all very solid corners who can be starters for years.  I have major questions about Roby, Roberson looks promising but only at the right price, and Jean-Baptiste is not my cup of tea.

We are now up to 75 players profiled overall, with any that you missed now listed below.  Next week, I will not do a position, but rather I will add a few missed prospects that I have been meaning to do.

We still haven't touched centers, running backs, or tight ends, but I might just let those positions go as I don't see the Cowboys getting in those spots in the top 3 rounds (I hope).

Past Draft Profiles:

Weekly Notebook - Wide Receivers - Episode 12 - Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham, Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee, Brandin Cooks, Jordan Matthews, Kelvin Benjamin, Davante Adams

Big Board #1 - April 3, 2014

Weekly Notebook - Quarterbacks - Episode 10 - Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, David Fales, Zach Mettenberger, Jimmy Garoppolo

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Guards - Episode 9 - David Yankey, Xavier Sua Filo, Gabe Jackson, Cyril Richardson, Brandon Thomas, Dakota Dozier

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Tackles - Episode 8 - Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Zack Martin, Cyrus Kouandijo, Antonio Richardson, Jack Mewhort, Morgan Moses, Billy Turner

Weekly Notebook - Linebackers - Episode 7 - Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr, Ryan Shazier, Kyle Van Noy, CJ Mosley, Telvin Smith, Jeremiah Attaochu, Carl Bradford 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bag of Pucks - April 15 - Playoffs! Playoffs! Playoffs!

They made it, guys.

I know that the next mission is even more important and certainly is formatted in such a way that shorter attention spans can join in, but the most vital of accomplishments for the 2013-14 Dallas Stars was put in the bank last Friday.  It was a very enjoyable evening that will be remembered as the night this franchise punched its ticket back into the post-season by hammering a slumping St Louis Blues team on Fan Appreciation Night.

The accomplishment - said by some to be 5 years behind schedule and by others to be a year ahead of schedule - was required to catch the attention of a sporting city that often turns its back on teams that cannot at least qualify for their post-seasons.  That may seem finicky, but given that over half the league qualifies for its playoffs in the National Hockey League, it never seemed like a difficult prerequisite until this latest stretch in the wilderness.

It started with retirement of legends Mike Modano, Sergei Zubov and Jere Lehtinen all at roughly the same time.  We all wondered what would happen when those fantastic talents were no longer around to carry this franchise and now we have had it made abundantly clear.  There is no easy replacing of legends.  That is why we call them legends.

After the retirements - or in some respects, during it - we also were hit hard by bankruptcy and the franchise in such disrepair that the league had to basically take over the team to make sure that the bills and the paychecks were taken care of in a timely fashion.  The Tom Hicks run had hit an iceberg when he decided to buy another sporting franchise across the pond right before the economic crash of 2008 and suddenly, his baseball, soccer, and hockey teams all had to pay the price of a man who had over-extended his finances.  None of them had the money to compete anymore, and eventually, all 3 had to be sold to more capable owners.

It likely should be noted that today, the Rangers financial health has never been better, Liverpool's financial health has fully recovered (as has its club's fortunes), and the Stars have been taken over by an owner who was wildly cheered on Friday night when his face appeared on the big screen over the ice.  Tom Gaglardi took over the franchise in the 2011-12 season, but then moved slowly and deliberately on how to remake the team - especially with the lockout looming.

But, after the 2013 campaign came up short, he moved swiftly with the hiring of General Manager Jim Nill on April 29, 2013.  As many of you know, that was a move that was saluted around the league as a stroke of brilliance, due to the respect he had built in over 2 decades in the Detroit front office.  He took his time in finding his first coach, but then settled on another man with a sparkling resume, Lindy Ruff, to take over behind the bench in late June.

A week later, the trigger was pulled on a trade that required a large payment, but the bounty was Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley.  Seguin was the rarest of rare birds, a legitimate #1 goal-scoring center.  A quick look at the list of players who ended this season with more points than Seguin in the entire sport are Sidney Crosby (26 years old), Ryan Getzlaf (28), and Claude Giroux (26).  Seguin, who just turned 22 in January can absolutely be considered amongst the best young players in all of the sport - but, now you might just call him one of the best players in all of the sport, period.

With Seguin fitting so well with Stars' Captain Jamie Benn - who finished 10th in NHL scoring - the Stars have a future that is present.  They are both now playing where they are naturally supposed to play, with Benn back on the wing and Seguin back in the middle.  And they fit together because quality fits with quality.  Year one was supposed to be a "get acquainted" season as Nill and Ruff decide who fits for the future and who doesn't.  2014-15 is supposed to be the massive step forward year, and with the resources available in the summer to make another bold move to get that one more giant piece, many of us are excited about where that road may lead.

But, they made it in this year.

Now, that wasn't easy.  They barely are a playoff team this year.  In fact, by last year's format, with the Stars in the Pacific and Detroit and Columbus still in the West, the Stars don't make the playoffs.  Also, if the league went back to the old format where the Top 4 in each of the 4 divisions made it in to truly divisional playoffs, the Stars would have missed (finishing 5th in the Central).  But, with this brand new modified divisional playoff that includes two conference wildcards, one of which would be sent out to play in a divisional playoff that they weren't even a part of, the Stars are in, and for the next month or so, they are a Pacific division team again.

And here come the Ducks.  The Stars are matched up against the #1 seed from Anaheim so as much as we were happy to say goodbye to the constant match ups with teams in California, we have to deal with Corey Perry and Getzlaf all over again in a clash of foes that feature 1-2 punches.  In fact, if any team can look at Benn and Seguin and offer a knowing nod, it would be Perry and Getzlaf.  They have been running this game for several years.

But, this series is perhaps a chance for Kari Lehtonen to rise up and earn a bit of credibility on a national scene.  Anaheim has goaltender chaos and Kari, who has played briefly in the playoffs a long, long time ago could be the advantage the Stars need to take a big step forward.

I doubt the Stars are being given a huge chance nationally, but I will tell you that when you look at it from a number of perspectives, the Stars look like they can compete with the Ducks.  We shall see how they respond to the bright lights of the big stage, but at first glance, there is confidence to compete.  You just wonder how they will deal with Benn and Seguin being hounded by the shackles of the playoff game-plans will be handled.  I assume they will shrug it off and keep going, but that is the matchup.  And it should be awesome.

Meanwhile, it is a chance for old friend Stephane Robidas to return to Dallas.  This trade has never made sense to me (given the absurd lack of depth on the blue-line), and with Brenden Dillon's health in question, it would sure be nice to have Robidas on our side until this summer (when he is a UFA), but the trade was made and it is done.  I assume he will be involved in a scrum in Game 1 and we will quickly be reminded that friendships are fun, but once the game starts everyone fights for the sweater they wear.  That is how hockey players are programmed and fans follow quickly when he is on the side of Francois Beauchemin (for once).

I think the Stars can win this series, but given how many variables there are, I do not pick with much confidence.  The Stars still have weaknesses and are not ready to contend for a cup, but I do think that they are on the right path.

I think that special teams and goaltending decides these, and I really expect the massive bodies of Perry and Getzlaf will surely remind us that Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski need assistance from a 6'4, 230 pound #1 defensemen who can play 28 minutes in the summer.  I think Kari can cancel some of that out, but will it be enough?

My head says Ducks in 7.  But, I am so giddy to be in the playoffs that I am telling my head to shove it and I am forecasting a very close and drama filled battle that will be decided on some overtime goals.

I think Cody Eakin shows his value and the Stars somehow pull this thing out.

Stars in 7 (with a double overtime winner in the Pond in the final game).  There, my cheerleading has already started.

Don't forget, the mission was to make the playoffs.  This year, it is all with casino money and the jubilation of playing high stakes hockey again.  Next year, we can get entitled and angry about a post-season crash and burn, but this one spring, let's just enjoy the ride.  The team can take a deep breath and know that this is all frosting.  The cake has been made.

Here we go.

Friday, April 11, 2014

DallasStars.com - Finish Line

The Dallas Stars hockey franchise has existed in some way, shape, or form for 46 seasons now.  With ancestors from Cleveland, it was born in Minnesota and then, as you are well aware of, moved to our fair city 21 years ago.  Then, a new house was moved into 12 years back and that is where they presently live.

During that stretch, many different men have managed and coached this team, and hundreds have played for it.  The clothing they have worn when representing the squad have changed several times, but the franchise has proudly worn its crest since the expansion of 1967.

But, this team is eager to carve its own mark into that proud history.

Let me clear:  Tonight is not the biggest night in franchise history.  Even if you think it is.  And if tonight against St Louis doesn't go perfectly (and when does this team do things the easy way?) then Sunday at Phoenix will also not be the biggest night in franchise history.

This team has won a Stanley Cup in 1999 - that beautiful grail that is impossible to attain, but when it is, it is only won in June.  They also played in the Stanley Cup Finals on three other occasions, 1981, 1991, and 2000.  In 1968, 1971, 1980, 1984, 1998, and 2008, this franchise also went to the "final 4" of the NHL playoffs.  Those years all likely rank as more historically significant than what we are watching right now, despite how badly my head hurts.

But, I'll be honest with you;  As much as I enjoyed many of those years and cherish the memories, they are not on my mind right now.  What is on my mind right now is this team and its quest to stop the longest post-season drought in franchise history - and it really isn't even close.  The last 5 years in the desert are on the verge of becoming 6 unless this band of brothers has another result in their bag this weekend.  In the history of the Minnesota-Dallas franchise, the longest playoff-less streak had been 3 years before this post-season sabbatical that is nearly twice that.

This team represents the future.  It has kids everywhere.  They fight like their predecessors would want.  They play fast and with skill.  They battle hard and don't give in.  They win often, and now appear to be ready for their next level.  They simply have to walk through that door.

This team, the 2013-14 Dallas Stars have a chance to lock up the 30th playoff berth in the franchise's history books this weekend. They are, as I type this, but 2 points from the finish line.  Of course, the finish line is actually the starting line for another race that is even more exciting, but let's put that aside for a bit longer (although surely that is a Christmas present that one cannot wait to unwrap).

This team was assembled over several years of building and is quick to tell you that they still believe they are just at the building stages.  This is not the finished product, and some of the higher-ups have even talked about how the playoffs this season are important, but perhaps a year early in the ladder back up the power ranks of the NHL mountain.  They don't want to just pop in once and then fade again.  They are trying to build something that sustains and that fights for Cups when it is fully developed.

That seems like a lofty goal for now, but then again, we as a hockey community have forgotten what spring-time playoff hockey was all about.  And that is what this season has been for me.  It has reminded me how awesome it can all be.  The building, the fans, the look on the player's faces when they score a goal, the fact that it is on my mind all day that today is the day for the big game.  And this has been the playoffs in a way - the race to get into the playoffs.  Contenders laugh at that premise - heck, we laughed at that premise when the Stars were running the Western Conference back in the day - but, I cannot describe how fun this ride has been since late January when the Stars found their game after a 10 game stretch that almost sunk their ship.

This team has demonstrated fantastic resolve, great ability, and now have emptied their tanks to put them in this spot where they have 3 different opportunities to walk through that door.  Opportunity #1 is the most attractive to me and likely the other 18,000+ who will be there tonight for Fan Appreciation Night.  As someone said on twitter last night, if you want to show the fans you appreciate them, win one more game on home ice (easier said that done).  But, the symmetry of walking through that post-season door with Ken Hitchcock, Brenden Morrow, and Steve Ott on the other side is almost spooky how fictional that all sounds about the Stars trying to build a new identity at the expense of the old in front of fans who feel strong emotions for both the old and the new.

Opportunity #2, if needed, would be Saturday night in Phoenix, where the Stars will physically be, but won't actually be playing.  The San Jose Sharks will play at Phoenix and if the Sharks win that game in regulation, than it is also game over.  Now, we can talk about whether "backing into the playoffs" due to the Coyotes losing their few games matters or not, but I am not sure we should be too choosy about how this mission gets accomplished.  They don't ask "how", they ask "how many" when totaling up the results at the end of the season.

Opportunity #3, if necessary, will cause a stressful weekend for all involved.  It means that Friday and Saturday put that Game #82 back in play and that there is a 1-game winner-take-all showdown against Dave Tippett, Mike Ribeiro, Jeff Halpern, and quite possibly, Mike Smith and the rest of those Phoenix Coyotes.  They have out-lasted the Stars at nearly every turn since Tippett was sent away, and that symmetry is not lost on us long-time observers, either.

If there is a play-in game for the playoffs, we should all enjoy what should be amazing theater, but there is no way most of us will be able to.  There is too much at stake and too much history and DFW sports baggage to forget about and move on.  Stars-Wild in 2011, Cowboys-Giants in 2011, Rangers-Orioles in 2012, Cowboys-Redskins in 2012, Rangers-Rays in 2013, Cowboys-Eagles in 2013 all were 1-game and advance scenarios to enter the post-season and all went horribly wrong.

That has nothing to do with Benn, Seguin, and their 18 buddies, but it has everything to do with most of us who are fighting the doubt that will not go away until the finish line is crossed.

This team has built something here.  Every one of the names bears mentioning because everyone has roped and everyone has rode.  But, they haven't closed the deal yet.  Is this a year with great memories with a bright future ahead or is it a playoff year with great memories with a bright future ahead?

They have one last hurdle to jump.

Let's hope, for the weekend headache count in the fan base, that the deal is closed on Friday, but be prepared to see this thing through until Sunday if necessary.

And, either way, let's hope those boys make more home games very necessary this month at place where nothing would be more fun than playoff hockey.

Cross that finish line, boys.

This team.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

2014 Cowboys Weekly Draft Notebook - Episode 12 - Wide Receivers

This week, we're going to tackle the top part of the Wide Receivers group.  My stated and intended goals in this series was to make sure we have a feel for just about any and all players that go in the Top 2 rounds and hopefully most of the Top 3.  A Top 100 list is too ambitious, but this group takes us past 60 player profiles and we still have a month to go.

I do not count Wide Receivers at the top of the list of priorities - or even close in comparison, really - for the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, because with Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams (now the #2 with Miles Austin gone), Cole Beasley, and Dwayne Harris they should be ok to start the season, but as you can see, there is no real depth to speak of and Beasley and Harris are plenty limited in what they can bring to the table.

However, the first time there is an injury to one of them, this could unravel rather quickly.  Further, we are a point in the NFL now where we should begin to discuss wide receivers like we do cornerbacks.  For years, cornerbacks are that position where at any point of the draft in any year, a team takes a cornerback not because they need another one, but because you can always use another one.  Now, same for receivers.  In a league that passes more than ever and runs less than ever, you can never have too many capable receivers that can be inserted into situations that are built to simply spread out the defense, isolate the weaknesses, and allow your QB1 to pick them apart.

And that is why we should not be surprised if the Dallas Cowboys spend on a receiver, and if the right guy is there as high as in the 1st round, you can understand the logic behind investing heavily in making your offense dynamic and dangerous.

So, here is the top of the group, but you should know that receivers are widely thought of as extremely deep in the 2014 draft, so while I consider these the best of the WRs, we should not be shocked if another several go in the top 2 or 3 rounds.  As many as 15 or 16 could go in the Top 100 picks quite easily.

Let's take a look briefly at each of these potential studs:

Mike Evans - Texas AM

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Mike Evans6'52314.51/1.6037"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 

The player who I think is the very best of the bunch (although I realize I am certainly not joined by the masses who love Watkins more) is Evans, best known as the "guy Manziel would throw jump balls to who would then constantly bail out his QB" from people who do not think highly of Johnny Football.

Given that I think they are both wonderful prospects - and perhaps the player at each position with the highest ceilings - I think that is a bit of a reduction of Manziel.  But, it does properly seem to summarize what Evans is capable of doing.  He is an absolute freak in every sense of the word, and if you have to find a kid from the college ranks that may have a shred of Megatron-level DNA, I might start here with a guy of similar physical attributes.  It should be noted though, that Megatron ran sub 4.4 in the 40 and also had a vertical over "40, so I am not saying they have similar physical scores on the testing.

But, 4.5 is very fast for a player of this size and if you watch his film, he is absolutely strong enough to bully pretty much anyone who tried to cover him and borders on offensive pass interference on a regular basis.  That, to me, is what you are looking for at the NFL level - a receiver that not only defeats physical coverage, but punishes it so that the last thing you want to do is try to press cover him.  Evans does that and just throws your press coverage off to the side and runs by with no concern at all.

I assume if you are a fan of football on any level that you saw the Aggies play Alabama last fall and saw one of the most ridiculous performances ever put together by a wide receiver as Evans put on an absurd clinic of dominance against a defense loaded with NFL prospects.  He showed aerial skills that were crazy, speed that pulled away from everyone - despite being bigger than everyone, too (thus the Megatron comps) - and then, when needed, was too strong for people to handle, too.

He also has the upside card working for him, as he has only 26 college games and almost no football experience until late in his scholastic career.  He is a basketball player that converted and you can clearly see the crossover application of skills in the air.

So, why do people like Watkins more?  Obviously, Watkins is great, too, but to me Watkins has no issues at all and Evans has one or two.

First, speed wise, if there are so many that are sub 4.5, it is tough to say a guy at that speed is the best of the bunch and I understand that debate but given that Dez Bryant is 4.5, I can deal with that.

But, if Evans is fairly debited for anything at this point in his development, it would be that he seems to not be great close to the line of scrimmage in crosses and short routes that require precision and perfectly-run timing movements.  That is something that can generally be fixed with coaching and precision, but he can do so many things that are unreal and frankly, uncoachable that this would not frighten me away at all.

I think he has superstar capabilities and if he somehow gets to #16, he is the type of player that would make me consider scrapping all defensive objectives and just go take the guy who could change the offense immediately.

Sammy Watkins - Clemson

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Sammy Watkins6'02114.42/1.5634"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
362403,391 2714.1

So, now, the respected Mr Watkins, a guy who needs no introduction.  There is nothing stopping Watkins, as he has almost no weaknesses as a polished player who can step right in and take over games on Sundays from September on.

He is as fast as you may ever find a big receiver in that he is over 6-feet tall and over 210 pounds and can still run right at 4.4 with a 10-yard split that is quickness generally attributed to guys who run 4.3s.  He combines that with silly strength in breaking tackles and running across the middle.  He is so physical as a runner that Clemson had no problem routinely running him out of a RB alignment - sometimes as a decoy because the defense would have to account for him so heavily - and then running all manner of end arounds, screens, and fakes all based on making you respect Watkins.

His hands are phenomenal and has catching skills that stick out even in a group of guys who all snag the ball with ease.  He looks like he is incapable of drops sometimes and then high-points the ball in an aerial battle and makes it look unfair as a defensive back stands idly by.

The argument on why this guy is so dynamic is that he can dominate the entire route tree right now, rather than having a guy that can only excel either deep or shallow, either inside or outside.  Watkins can do whatever you want, wherever you want and can instantly take over.  He finds a crack at 4.4 and he is gone, but then, as he showed against 1st round LB prospect Ryan Shazier from Ohio State, he decides to just run you over with his power and can make you look silly, too.

If there is anything that sticks out that may be a tad disconcerting, it is that he appears quite comfortable showing up his QB if he was not happy with the ball location from Tajh Boyd, but that should not surprise us that a WR has expressive habits that may not fall in line with our sensibilities, right?

He is awesome and a franchise guy.  I like Evans more, but that is purely ceiling based because this guy has no weaknesses.  He looks like he could be a better version of Dez, and that really says something.  He is more than a WR.  He is a devastating weapon that can be used in so many ways, and it starts with something as simple as a smoke screen or even a handoff.

Odell Beckham - LSU

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Odell Beckham5'111984.40/1.6038.5"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 

After those top two, it becomes a game of "what flavor of ice cream do you prefer" rather than some industry consensus on who is next off the board.

For me, that guy is Beckham from LSU who really looks like the real deal, although his production is behind the others on a per-game basis until his 2013 at LSU.  This, to anyone who follows that program, is clearly a reflection of the QB chaos that the program has dealt with, rather than an issue with Beckham, and he clearly looked better as that situation improved.

Beckham is a player with blazing speed and while he has average size, he can play with some physical pop in his game as well.  He plays with routes that look precise and proper, but still packs a ferocity that is quite appealing.  He can play in the slot or on the outside, and with massive paws is a player that wants the ball and is ready to do something with it.

In the games I watched, he really showed he could make adjustments on the ball and come up with catches on passes that may not be on the numbers.  That ability to scrape a pass off the ground or to go up by the uprights and grab a pass in the sky is the sign of a playmaker and he does all of that.

He also has KR/PR ability, which never hurts a player's total package value, and there runs with confidence and intent as well.  He saw lots of press coverage and battled it as you would want, and if you want to know his biggest flaw, I would say it is the common practice of not looking too terribly interested in run blocking.  While that is something you would want to see improved, it does stick out like a sore thumb at a place that runs it as much as LSU does.  

Allen Robinson - Penn State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Allen Robinson6'22204.58/1.5939"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
351772,47417 14.0

The next player on my personal preference list is Robinson from Penn State.  Obviously, I have not watched much Penn State recently, but when I gave him a chance on the tape, he blew me away.  He won at least one game all by himself, it seemed, and I would not pass on a chance to add this guy to my squad.

Robinson is very good in traffic, as he is quite strong and finds the ball well.  He is what you would call a big YAC (yards after catch) guy, which may seem a bit odd given his 4.6 40, but look at that 10-yard quickness split.  Very quick in short spaces - like maybe in traffic in the secondary.  He also has that gigantic vertical which would make many NBA players jealous.  He can run the entire route tree as well, and it is tough to say if he looks better in the middle of the field or out by the sideline.

He throws a corner out of his way on a physical pass route, and then runs hard on an end around for a big gain.  He appears at times to be simply too strong for a corner to deal with.  Penn State is not loaded with talent these days, so you know defenses had him circled all day, so to see his productivity was still very high is more impressive.

He will have the occasional drop and I am not sure he is quite as comfortable on the deep pass as others on this list, but he is the everything you want when it comes to a must-convert play in the NFL - you know where the ball is going and you still cannot stop him.  That is something that was said about him quite a bit over the last few years.  He is a real stud.  Perhaps not as spectacular as some of the others, but if you want a real solid guy, keep him in mind.

Marqise Lee - USC

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Marqise Lee5'111924.46/1.6138"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 

Lee is a bit difficult to figure out, because the first time you watch him you are ready to call him elite and maybe at the top of this class.  And, there is plenty to like about him for sure.  In fact, when you watch the tape, his strength is very Dez-like and you love the ferocity that he plays with.

He is very impressive in space and looks like a bull in a china shop in traffic and appears to be the type of guy that some defensive backs are not looking forward to dealing with.  He runs those dig routes very well and that is one of the primary bread-and-butter routes of any X receiver in the NFL.

But, my biggest issue is his drop rate.  He clearly is having some issues with either concentration or technique because I have seen his drop rate at over 10% which doesn't sound like a ton, but it really is.

Now, there are some players that you are willing to deal with the occasional drop because they are so dominant - Terrell Owens comes quickly to mind - and Lee is making some massive plays and by the way, averaging over 100 yards per game for his entire college career.

He is really good and it is because he is built as a very thick human being, but still possesses top end speed to boot.  I also like his technique in using body position to make himself difficult to get around in battles for the ball (something Kelvin Benjamin could use help with) and is a very willing blocker.

Overall, I like him a ton, but just know that there are going to be moments where you have a big play about to happen and the ball falls harmlessly to the ground.

Brandin Cooks - Oregon State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Brandin Cooks 5'91894.32/1.5636"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 

There is a place in the NFL for the smallish WR, we definitely know that.  Now, with this league all about quick passes to players with quickness and the ability to run away form everyone, the ability for these guys to head up the list is clearly happening.

Well, what if that guy ran a 4.3 40, and also put up stunning performances on a routine basis like Brandin Cooks did at Oregon State?  1st Round, please.

He has great PR ability and will definitely flip field position on a regular basis in the NFL on that front, but his real ability is just amazing short routes that are some of the more electric crosses you have seen.  He runs at top speed in short order and runs his routes very well.  He takes a beating in traffic and pops right up and is absolutely difficult to track down in traffic because he is incredibly slippery.

I have heard one scout say that he is not DeSean Jackson in terms of being a big-play guy.  I think I disagree.  He looks just like DeSean Jackson, save for the enormous pain in the butt that Jackson was to all of those on his coaching staff.  His hands are not perfect, but they are really good and he is dangerous in many, many ways.  Screens, crosses, deep, digs, between the hashes, on the sidelines.  Cooks can do a lot.

Now, he is small.  There is no way around the fact that he is 5'9, but if I am a team that is not worried about that and believe that Randall Cobb, Steve Smith, Jackson, and many others have shown that receivers don't need to be 6'4 to break down secondaries, I am all over Cooks.

He really seems like just the type of guy Chip Kelly could do wonders with for 12 targets a game.

Jordan Matthews - Vanderbilt

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Jordan Matthews6'32124.46/1.5735.5"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 

I will be the first to admit that I don't watch Vanderbilt play under normal circumstances.  The exception is when word filters out that the most underrated receiver in this draft has been doing his work in that conference at a very high level for 4 years in a row, without ever really playing for a strong team.  Again, like Allen Robinson, this provides quite a test for receivers on poor teams in that they are constantly crowded and receivers of attention from safeties constantly.

Now, if both of these players are any indication, it makes them and their teams become more creative in ways to use them, which in turn develops their skills on a really versatile level.  Matthews can do just about everything and the distant cousin of Jerry Rice looks like a guy who just loves to study his sport.  There are certain players who get a reputation for trying to study the game on a higher level, and when Matthews mentioned he was disappointed that the Senior Bowl did not provide him with game film to study those who would cover him, we figured he wasn't your average bear.

Let's get to his skills, which are substantial.  The first thing that sticks out when you watch Matthews play is his hands are just so awesome.  He catches everything that is even close.  And, then he varies his routes in such a way that you come away convinced that he can do just about anything you ask of him.  He is capable of all of the routes and and depths.  He catches everything close (as you would expect from a guy who has just about all of the SEC receiving records).

If I had to find a comparable receiver from my rolodex, it would be Greg Jennings, except 4 inches taller.  But, he has the same catch skills and versatility in what you can ask him to do.  I am not suggesting he is the best receiver in this class, but I was very, very impressed with watching what this guy has done - which is pretty much demonstrate ability on all of the routes.

Kelvin Benjamin - Florida State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Kelvin Benjamin6'52404.66/1.6732.5"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 
28841,50619 17.9

In nearly every positional grouping, there is a prospect that it seems gets plenty of buzz and praise in draft season from the usual suspects that when I make sure I do my due diligence on, I just don't fully get it.  For me, that is Florida State's Benjamin.

Now, don't get me wrong.  He has some very impressive positive markers.  For instance, he is huge and very, very imposing.  He had a crackback block on a linebacker in the NC State game that hurt to watch.  He has some catches that are just insane.  He had the Florida game this year which looks like it could be candidate for game of the year by a receiver where he just went nuts.  He also had this catch against Clemson that should not be overlooked at all.

He has giant hands and despite not having great speed on the stop-watch, he really seems to get behind a lot of defensive backs who are supposedly faster.

So, what are my issues with Benjamin?

Well, many.  First,  I don't really think he is quick enough to stay at receiver.  In fact, as Bill Parcells used to say, he appears to be a few biscuits from being a tight end.  Now, if you want to sell me on him being the next amazing tight end with power forward skills?  I am interested, but that constitutes an unknown about a transition and I don't like spending 1st round picks on unknowns.

His routes are sloppy and often awkward, his hands are inconsistent, and he flashes high and low.  You love him and then he frustrates you.  But, more than anything, I think his technique lacks in that his body should be his greatest weapon.  Instead, on passes, he waits on the ball and reaches with his hands back to the QB, which of course, is a high school mistake that is then corrected by going to meet the ball and using your body to box out your defenders.  Too many times, he reaches and basically plays like a guy much smaller than he actually is.

I want to be clear - there is a lot to like and I think he could fix a lot of that with simple coaching.  But, at 4.66 as a kid, that is a time that generally doesn't age well.  I think he will always be a red zone talent, but in this draft there are so many more complete WR candidates for me that I really don't value him like many others in this group.

Good, but well down the list for me.

Davante Adams - Fresno State

PlayerHt   Wt   40/10        Vertical   
Davante Adams6'02124.59/1.6439.5"

GamesCatches YardsTDsYPC 

Finally, this is a player that you cannot help but notice due to the amount of games we are all watching to evaluate Derek Carr.  I came away from those games a bit underwhelmed with his QB for a number of reasons - mostly having to do with the preponderance of passes he throws behind his line of scrimmage.

But his main target - Adams - is a real interesting player who is now squarely on everyone's radar with his tremendous productivity.  A redshirt sophomore who caught over 100 passes in both of his 2 college seasons and had 14 TDs in 2012 and followed it up with 24 more in 2013.  He is a playmaking WR.

Now, I am a little concerned with some catching technique issues with his hands, but beyond that, he runs all sorts of routes, including a number of shallows, followed by a double move deep.  He is as confident as they come, and seems to catch a fade pattern with as smooth a process as you can imagine.

He is a real competitive playmaker and is also coming off a college career that was absurdly productive and had plenty swagger to let you know that he doesn't think he can be covered.

His issue was his timed speed at the Combine which was before a 4.56 and a 4.59 depending on who you believe.  From there, it dropped into the mid 4.45-4.49 range at his pro day according to published reports which could be enough to get him into play for the Cowboys 2nd pick at #47.  He is amazingly slippery underneath and has caught more screens at Fresno than you would ever need.  For the slot/3rd receiver in Dallas, he makes plenty of sense from where I sit.  He also loves going up and winning battles for the ball with a crazy 39.5" vertical leap.


My summary is this:  I like Evans more than Watkins, but they are both franchise wide outs.  The next tier is sort of taster's choice with Lee, Beckham, Cooks, Robinson, and Matthews all Top 20-40 talents and could go in any order.

Then, tier 3 for me is headlined by Matthews, Benjamin, and Adams are all guys who belong in the 2nd round (roughly).

By the way, the depth in this draft might mean that everyone gets pushed down because you might not want to use a pick if you think there will still be receivers later.  And there will be.  In fact, there are several more than I like that I didn't include here, who could also be in the Top 2 rounds as well.

Past Draft Profiles:

Big Board #1 - April 3, 2014

Weekly Notebook - Quarterbacks - Episode 10 - Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, David Fales, Zach Mettenberger, Jimmy Garoppolo

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Guards - Episode 9 - David Yankey, Xavier Sua Filo, Gabe Jackson, Cyril Richardson, Brandon Thomas, Dakota Dozier

Weekly Notebook - Offensive Tackles - Episode 8 - Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Zack Martin, Cyrus Kouandijo, Antonio Richardson, Jack Mewhort, Morgan Moses, Billy Turner

Weekly Notebook - Linebackers - Episode 7 - Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr, Ryan Shazier, Kyle Van Noy, CJ Mosley, Telvin Smith, Jeremiah Attaochu, Carl Bradford