Goodbye, Daley. You will be missed.

We need to take a break from code for a moment to discuss another important matter. I’m going to do my best to make this not sound like an obituary, but in some ways, it feels like it should be.

Friday evening, I was faced with the news that the Dallas Stars had made a trade: Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt sent to the Chicago Blackhawks in return for Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns. Most of the analyses have centered on what Sharp can bring to the Stars, but I’m heartbroken by who they lost.

I started watching the Stars (or hockey for that matter) in the 2001-02 season. (I did watch them win the cup in 1999, but I didn’t really understand hockey then.) In 2003, I saw a new face on the ice. I was amazed by his level of effort and his drive toward the net. As a defenseman, you wouldn’t expect to see Trevor Daley behind the opposing net, but night after night, that’s where he’d end up. He was everywhere. His focus was on pushing the puck forward, away from his own net. He had a very offensively-minded defensive style that I found intriguing. In addition, he always put everything he had into the game. I could see that he felt that if he didn’t give his all, it wasn’t worth playing.

However, that first year, his style got him in trouble on more than one occasion. He’d regularly get caught with the other team’s offense behind him with an unchallenged shot at the net. This did little to garnish the favor of the fans. Contrary to popular opinion, however, I thought it was just a matter of being new to the NHL. It’s just a different level, and you can’t take the same risks as you can in the lower leagues. And in the years since, I’ve seen this pattern repeated with other players. It seems that there’s simply a huge jump going to the NHL.

Over the next couple years, I could see that his offensive push diminished a bit as he concentrated on elevating his defensive awareness to what he needed at the NHL level. I saw a player with great potential becoming well rounded. He was growing, and I cheered him on.

Through the next seven or so seasons, the various coaches reorganized the team to be more defensively-minded as a whole, instilling a mindset that said, “You’re a defenseman. You shouldn’t be trying to score. You should be keeping the other team from scoring.” While that strategy works well for many teams, Daley’s style didn’t seem to fit in. Even so, he played the part; he did as he was told. As a result, he received a lot of criticism stating that his defensive play just wasn’t up to par and that he was actually a detriment to the team. I was just convinced he was being asked to play in a way that didn’t work well for him, much like Mike Ribiero’s stint with the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes. It was during these years which I expected him to leave the team or be traded. I continued to support and defend him on various forums and the Stars Facebook page when the “fans” started hounding him. In 2008, I purchased his jersey: authentic, not replica. I finally got it signed at the end of the 2010-11 season. I was proud to wear it, and I proclaimed Daley’s unseen greatness.

This is my Jersey, but the image didn't load for some reson. All you see is text.

When Lindy Ruff came to coach the team in the 2013-14 season, he brought with him a new play style: everyone assumes all roles. A player’s position would still dictate their primary responsibility, but all players were also responsible for every aspect of the game. Defenders could attack, but it became the responsibility of the forwards to back-fill the defense when they did. It resulted in one of the most fluid and dynamic Stars teams I’ve ever seen. It was a fresh idea, and it worked remarkably well.

His new philosophy on team cooperation meant that Daley was encouraged to play his natural style once again. It took him a few months to get it back, having played an exclusively defensive style for years, but once he started pushing forward again, that drive which I saw when he was a rookie returned.

At the end of that season, Daley’s play style had returned, except it was reinforced with years of defensive training. He was unstoppable. It was a joy to watch him play. That trend continued through the rest of his tenure with the Stars, earning him the coveted A on his sweater for his last season with them. His unique playing ability helped the Stars secure a playoff position for the first time in six years, tragically losing to the Anaheim Ducks in the first round.

RECAP In game six of the first round of the 2014 playoffs, the Stars were up 4-2 on the Ducks with only a couple minutes left in the game. Within those two minutes, the Ducks would score twice, sending the game to the first overtime of the series. Shortly into the overtime period, the Ducks scored again, winning the game and the series, and knocking the Stars out of the playoffs. Daley wasn’t on the ice for any of those last three Anaheim goals. Update: I had forgotten to mention that he scored two of the four Dallas goals that night.

This past season was a career highlight for Daley. He outperformed his past efforts and lead the team in just about every statistic. His style began to permeate throughout the defensive core, and one could see the others begin to adopt his drive, while the forwards started to drop back and provide defense in order to cover the defenders while they were attacking. Now, I understand that a lot of the team change had to do with the coaching, but I think Ruff recognized what he had in Daley (and others) and tailored the team to incorporate individual players’ talents. I’m sure that he wasn’t focusing just on Daley, but it was apparent that he worked hard to incorporate Daley’s style. No other coach had done that. I think I saw Daley smile more this season than I had in the previous seven, which indicated that the joy of the game had returned, and it was good to see.

So that brings me to Friday’s trade announcement. Let’s summarize the players involved:

  • Trevor Daley – Defenseman. Just had a career year, and he’s getting better and becoming more mature. His skating ability is unrivaled, and he is arguably the best defenseman the Stars have.
  • Ryan Garbutt – Forward. He’s a good support player, which doesn’t do much on personal statistics, but helps the team immensely.
  • Patrick Sharp – Forward. Lead the Blackhawks to win the 2015 Stanley Cup. A great play maker and goal scorer.
  • Stephen Johns – Defenseman. An unknown. A prospect. No NHL experience.

While I understand that there were other factors involved (e.g. salary caps), in my mind the players should take precidence in any trade. That said, I can’t figure out how to compare these players in a way to make it sound like an even trade (or one that benefits the Stars). Maybe the offense of Garbutt and Daley combine for the same of Sharp, but the untested Johns can’t make up for the defensive experience of Daley. Also, Sharp is two years older than Daley, and four older than Garbutt. While that brings NHL experience to a very young Stars team, you’re talking about two players with fair experience for one with just a little bit more (granted that a good portion of that experience involves winning the Stanley Cup). And with more experience comes a shorter future. At best, Sharp has six or seven years left, whereas we could probably squeeze another decade out of Daley and Garbutt each. Also, the Stars really need players who bring defense (and goal tending, but that’s a different conversation). So we look to Johns. He still has to go through that NHL transition that I spoke of before. And with the Stars’ roster as young as it is, I don’t know if we can afford another player learning the ropes (or, more pedantically, the boards).

Just to illustrate what Daley has done for this team, I present the following trends that I’ve noticed while watching the Stars over the past 11 years:

  • Daley didn’t take many penalties, but when he did they were usually costly. Most fans blamed those goals-against on Daley, but I recognize that this means he was instrumental on the penalty kill. That portion of the special teams was significantly more effective with Daley than without him (because he’s in the box).
  • There were many times I can recall where the opposing team would get behind the defense, and, because of his skating ability, Daley would somehow catch them and turn a potentially costly break away into a fantastic defensive play. (In fact, I modeled my own skating style after his.)
  • He’s certainly not known for being a fighter. He likes to let his game play speak for him. However, he will get physical to protect his teammates when needed. That kind of play shows honor on the ice.

All in all, I think this trade is bad for the Stars, which is contrary to popular and analyst opinion. The Stars need Daley, and more players like him: well-rounded, talented, and driven. In addition, I don’t look forward to the Stars having to play against him. He’s a good player, and I don’t doubt that he’ll show them that they’ve made a bad decision. And… it just seems wrong to have him play for another team. It’s like when Modano decided to wear a Wings jersey for a while. Ew.

Lastly, why the Hawks? Anyone but the Hawks… or the Wings… or the Sharks… or the… They’re a division rival. I’d have preferred that, if he must go, he go to the Toronto Maple Leafs, in his home town. This gives me a sad. I probably won’t be wearing my Daley jersey anymore. Instead I’ll likely take this opportunity to have it properly cleaned and frame it for display. Maybe I’ll feel differently after the dust settles.

UPDATE Defending Big D has posted a number of memorable moments of Daley.

Trevor, if you find this. Thank you for your time in Dallas. You’ve been my favorite player since you were drafted, and you’ll always be a Star to me no matter whose jersey you wear. I’ll see you when the Hawks come to Dallas for the season series opener on December 22. Until then, happy hockey.

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