November 03, 2008
Every few weeks, the NHL needs a Team on the Brink of Irrevocable Disaster, just to keep the cosmos in order. First it was the Tampa Bay Lightning, then it was the Philadelphia Flyers and now it's the Dallas Stars, who are bursting at the seams like some Under Armour knockoff made in Bangladesh.
The Flyers emerged from being a Team on the Brink of Irrevocable Disaster by cranking up the offense to compensate for an injury-plagued and ineffective defense. The Lightning are doing the same by getting good goaltending and finding some semblance of chemistry in Oren Koules' hockey Petri dish.
But the Stars are a different situation, because neither of those other teams publicly aired their frustration like the Stars have during their struggles (3-5-1 in their last nine games).
It's one thing to hear a grumble here or there; it's another thing for a conference finalist to have a veteran star like Mike Modano call out his teammates for "one of the most embarrassing things I've seen." Or for goaltender Marty Turco to both blame his teammates for his struggles while questioning their faith in him. Or for the team's two-headed general managers' office to threaten emphatic changes if the situation doesn't resolve itself on the ice and in the locker room.
Are the Dallas Stars headed for one of the biggest flops of the 2008-09 season?
Let's start with Modano. He was enraged after the Stars' 5-1 humiliation against the Boston Bruins, in which Sean Avery and Steve Ott combined for 39 penalty minutes and jawed with both officials and fans in Boston:
"Tonight, it was idiotic and stupid," Stars center Mike Modano said when asked what the team identity was. "It was one of the most embarrassing things I've seen. If that's what we're going for, then they need to find me an office job."
"It was dumb penalties, dumb situations, that's kind of been the trend all season," Modano said. "There's no mental toughness. We're allowing the refs to get involved in the game with and spending more energy on them than the details of winning the game."
Eric McErlain called this Modano's "Ned Braden moment" on FanHouse, and that's not exactly a stretch: The Stars have gone from 10th in the League in penalty minutes last season to second in the League (247) this season. That's Hanson Bros. territory. And it's not just Avery and Ott playing penalty-filled hockey: Captain Brenden Morrow was leading the team in penalties earned per 60 minutes entering the Boston game.
Modano is one of the few players in the NHL that could take this kind of moral stand, based on his own penalty track record and the level of respect he has in the locker room.
But respect is something his goalie, Marty Turco, is wondering whether or not he still has.
Reporter Mike Heika grabbed some incendiary comments from the struggling goaltender (3-5-2, 4.34 GAA, .837 save percentage) recently, in which Turco said of his teammates: "I haven't played great, so maybe they don't trust me to make the saves."
"From my perspective, it just seems like all of the time I've got guys trying to be goalies, going after pucks," Turco said after allowing five goals on 24 shots to the Boston Bruins. "We need guys to take men and give us the lanes to see. It's getting old, and it's disheartening. I don't know if it's pressing and the need to feel they need to do everything out there. It just doesn't work, it's a team game and we need to play like a team."
While Turco expressed optimism that this would all turn around, he also was a realist:
"You come into a tough game and a tough building, after a night like last night (in a 5-2 loss to Chicago), think it's all going to come out of us, get some guys out of our shell, total opposite. It's sad, it's embarrassing. There's no sugarcoating anything anymore. We're in a rut that I haven't seen in a long time. It' going to not just be a couple days that are going to get us through it. Everybody has to be on board. I don't know what's going to happen with anything. I know what I need to do and what I need from my guys. We're just not getting it."
General Managers Brett Hull and Les Jackson have taken notice of all of this, with Hull coming off rather bluntly to the Star Telegram:
"Either they need to kick themselves in the (butt) or we're going to do it for them," he said. "What it is, you don't know, but something has to change."
That the Stars don't play another game until Friday night against the Anaheim Ducks -- say, no chance of penalties in that game, huh?-- could mean a week to shake off this funk or a week to let it fester.
There is a glimmer of hope today: Defenseman Mark Fistric, who was absolutely awful against the Bruins, was sent down to the AHL along with James Neal and Chris Conner. These moves were made with an eye towards the return of veteran stalwarts Sergei Zubov and Jere Lehtinen to the lineup; moves that seriously lend a stability to what's been a volatile situation. They'll help.
In the end, this all comes back to Turco. His steady play in the postseason helped propel the Stars to the conference championship round. His baffling awfulness thus far this season has torpedoed the team at every turn, to the point where Tobias Stephan has appeared in four games and started twice. He's last in the League in both GAA and save percentage, and has given up more than three goals in all but one of his games this season. He's been the worst goalie in the NHL, and it's not even close; Marty Biron can't even see him in the rearview.
Is that the fault of the defense, as Turco claims? Losing Mattias Norstrom (retirement) and Zubov at the start changed the complexion of the blue line. Add in the losses of Niklas Hagman and Antti Miettinen to free agency, and there's no question that the Stars' on-ice chemistry has lacked cohesion in front of Turco. But he's also seen more rubber fly by him than the flag man at a NASCAR race, and the majority of those goals have been soft.
Turco needs to be better, the Stars need to play smarter; but if the struggles continue, does Dave Tippett's future start coming into question? He's signed through the 2010-2011 season. One imagines that the players will go before the coach does, even if there's a track record to managerial changes translating into on-ice success in Dallas.
The Stars can fix those holes quickly enough to make this a competitive season. After all, they made their run to the Western Conference finals out of the fifth seed and need only to finish in the top eight to make the playoffs. With 70 games remaining, there is far too much time to panic.
But they can't be cavalier, either.
These same players vowed a 1-5-1 preseason was a fluke. These same players promised last week they could fix their defensive woes quickly. They have four days to find answers.