One of the less talked-about aspects of the NHL season has been the utter failure of the Dallas Stars, a team that was one win away from a Conference Final just last year.
They’re 5-4-1 in their last 10 games, but that includes a three-game losing streak. In fact, the Stars have seven streaks of at least three losses this season. They’ve only won three in a row once.
The extent to which this club struggled was, as I’ve said many times, foreseeable. You knew the goaltending situation was going to be horrendous, and here we are with a team .900 save percentage versus a league average of .913. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have cost the team a collective 28 goals, probably about nine points in the standings, give or take.
But those nine points only get the Stars to 80 in 74, which still isn’t close to a playoff spot here. You’re not wrong to blame the goaltending, but the problems go much deeper. The loss of Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski to free agency for what ended up being effectively nothing (Arizona gave up a fifth-round pick for the rights to negotiate with Goligoski) had a huge negative impact on this team’s ability to remain competitive, especially because GM Jim Nill had no plan to deal with their loss.
Esa Lindell went from having 56 minutes of TOI in the NHL to being the team’s No. 2 defenseman. It hasn’t gone well: he has a negative possession impact, only 14 points despite well over 21 minutes a game. Dan Hamhuis has been a somewhat effective replacement for Demers insofar as he’s performing well enough on the second pairing (though providing only one goal and 15 points doesn’t help much), but after that it’s a mess. Jordie Benn and Johnny Oduya, before they were traded, were having more mediocre years in a long string of them.
The other guys? Well, clearly Lindy Ruff didn’t trust many of them. Julius Honka only got about 16:30 a night in his 10 games. Greg Pateryn, coming over from Montreal, is getting less than that. Jamie Oleksiak isn’t doing much of anything in sporadic appeances.
So the question for Nill quickly becomes: How do you move this team forward without just committing to a full-on rebuild? The idea that you’d in any way bail on a Seguin-and-Benn-in-their-primes group with a solid support cast is foolish, as is the idea that you’d trade either Seguin or Benn (or both?) in pursuit of worse finishes. Probably safe to say, too, that just continuing to fly by the seat of your pants as you did this year is a waste of everyone’s time, energy, and money.
The good news is they have some money coming off the books. Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky, and Jiri Hudler save you $11.9 million if you don’t re-sign them. And they only have to retain role players and lower-end guys coming off their ELCs. Maybe you even buy out one of these awful goalies. That gives you money to spend.
But here’s the problem for Nill: You need a couple top-six forwards, clearly. You need at least two middle-pairing defensemen, but ideally a top-pairing and middle-pairing guy. How many of those are going to hit the market this summer?
The list of pending UFA defensemen isn’t exactly star-studded this year. That’s going to become increasingly true as time goes on, because the ability to draft, develop, and retain puck-movers is the Next Big Thing in hockey, if it’s not already. Who do you identify as a guy — ideally in his mid- or late-20s — who fits that role? The amount of money someone’s going to throw at Karl Alzner this summer is already unconscionable, and after that your best option honestly might be Brendan Smith. At least Nill already knows Kris Russell isn’t worth pursuing.
The picture is also pretty bleak up front. Unless you want to throw yourself into the Alex Radulov sweepstakes (assuming there is one, and you can get Lindy Ruff to actually play him despite his nationality), what kind of difference-makers are you even going to find up front to fill out that top six? T.J. Oshie? Thomas Vanek? Teddy Purcell? These aren’t good options either. And you probably have to dramatically overpay for them given the small number of options available to you.
Then there’s the goalies. Even if you buy out one of your two current problems in net, what do you spend the rest of the money on? Not Ben Bishop, right? A Steve Mason reclamation project? Maybe Brian Elliott or Chad Johnson? There just aren’t a lot of good options here either.
Maybe you hope the Vegas Golden Knights kick some stuff loose for you, giving you the option to make some trades. It’s a tough situation, but Nill has kind of painted himself into a corner.
You look at the problems this team has on the ice, too, and a lot of it boils down to not generating enough quality chances, and allowing too many. Pretty simple formula for problems, and while you can say it’s one that springs from personnel, you also have to say Ruff has no concrete answers here. The problems have only gotten worse as the season progresses here, and they’re bigger now than they’ve been at any point in the past two years.
Perhaps you blame the talent sell-off (which was the responsible thing for Nill to pursue) but they’ve been around a lot longer than the deadline.
Would the Stars fire Ruff and go out in search of a new coach? Tough to say. Should they? I’d argue yes. Because if you’re getting these kinds of performances from a veteran coach given the quality of the top half of this roster, why not see what new ideas do for you instead? Other coaches have done more with less. Ruff’s doing less with more.
Not that firing the coach necessarily fixes the problems this team obviously, predictably has. But it at least starts a process whereby you can say “We’re trying to fix this.” It’s the easiest change to make at this time and probably moves you in the right direction.
If results don’t improve under a new coach — and I would expect they wouldn’t take any sort of huge step forward — then you kick the tires on bigger, more institutional changes. But if the Stars’ window is already closing, given the talent they have at the top of of that lineup, it’s a big problem, and you can’t come close to blaming anyone but Nill.
Depth should be the easiest problem to correct, but here we are anyway. Having traveled down the only logical road this team could have taken, the path out shouldn’t be this difficult, should it?
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: Seems like maybe Brandon Montour is a player.
Arizona Coyotes: Clayton Keller, come on down.
Detroit Red Wings: Folks, Steve Yzerman, who is the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, played for the Red Wings. Not sure if you heard about that but it’s true. One of those Mike Modano or Daniel Alfredsson things where he played one year there.
Florida Panthers: Twenty-eight goals is a lot for a guy they got basically for nothing. Hmm.
St. Louis Blues: Well they, uh, got the point at least.
Tampa Bay Lightning: I hate this!
Toronto Maple Leafs: Best Leafs highlight on Saturday night? Eichel scoring an effortless goal and celebrating directly in front of a few Leafs fans who made the trip down to Buffalo.
Vegas Golden Knights: Amazing, truly.
Play of the Weekend
Ryan Donato, hello.
— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) March 26, 2017
Gold Star Award
College hockey is the best hockey. Don’t let anyone tell ya different.
Minus of the Weekend
If you have a small daughter who knows how to skate, please don’t let USA Hockey convince her to play at Worlds. They’re getting desperate, and no one wants to be a scab for them.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “Le Grec” is Going For It.
To NYI: Duchene, Landeskog
To COL: Nelson or Strome, Lee, Barzal, Pulock or De Haan, 2017, 18, 19, first round picks…
When you go home tonight, there’s gonna be another story on your house.
(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)
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