DALLAS -- Back in January, Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan talked about what he had learned from his rookie season behind an NHL bench, which ended with a 42-35-5 record and 89 points -- six out of a spot in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
At the halfway point of a 48-game schedule, the Stars are 12-10-2 (26 points), and enter Tuesday's game against the Nashville Predators 10th in the Western Conference, but only two points behind the eighth-place St. Louis Blues.
One thing Gulutzan has had to contend with thus far is not having a number of key players on the ice at different points this season, whether it was Jamie Benn missing the first five games due to a contract dispute or losing key veteran newcomers Derek Roy or Ray Whitney to injuries.
And with the Stars having a number of young players, including defenseman Brenden Dillon and forwards Antoine Roussel and Reilly Smith who they wanted to work into the lineup, the second-year coach has had to juggle lines for much of the season.
Only newcomer Jaromir Jagr, who has spent the entire first half of the season on Dallas' first line, and the current fourth line of Eric Nystrom, Vernon Fiddler and Ryan Garbutt, have remained in their same spots. Benn and Loui Eriksson have skated on the first and second lines while captain Brenden Morrow has been up and down the lineup through the first 24 games.
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Being able to find line combinations that work is a major skill for any coach to have no matter the level of competition, but Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk likes what Gulutzan has done thus far in that respect.
"I think he's done a terrific job, especially when they're transitioning and incorporating a lot of young players, trying to find those fits," Nieuwendyk said. "You think about what we went through earlier in the year, too … Jamie, not having him around for a while, Ray Whitney going down. We still haven't had our team on the ice yet. Guys have stepped up and they've done their thing. The coaches have been able to put guys in position to succeed both on the back end and up front."
With Benn (wrist) and Morrow (groin) out, Dallas won't have its entire complement of players available for the game Tuesday against the Predators, but Gulutzan will do what he's done best so far this season: make a few minor tweaks in his lines here and there and wait for Benn and Morrow to return later this week.
However, one big positive for Dallas is that the game Tuesday will mark the first for Whitney since Feb. 1. The 40-year-old forward has missed the past 16 games with a foot fracture and likely will return to the second line, which was where he skated for eight games before suffering the injury nearly six weeks ago during a game against the Phoenix Coyotes.
"I think that we've changed lines here out of necessity," Gulutzan said. "We've had injuries. We've had guys coming in and out of our lineup. I'd like nothing more than to have four set lines roll and find chemistry between pairs or trios, roll the [defense], roll the lines and play the next 24 games like that. It's not going to happen. I don't want to change lines that much because changing lines is like having meetings. If you're always having meetings, then something's wrong. For me, I want some consistency, and when we get healthy our goal here is to have four lines roll and play the next however many games that is and get in the playoffs."
Stars center Cody Eakin knows about changing lines all too well. So far Eakin, who was acquired in a trade with the Washington Capitals in June in exchange for Mike Ribeiro, has skated on Dallas' second, third and fourth lines. Like every member of the Stars' roster who has played up and down the lineup, he's just rolled with it.
"He [Gulutzan] has done a really good job," Eakin said. "Every team is obviously going to go through their injuries and guys are going to be in and out. We've had some big players that have been in and out and he's done a good job of finding chemistry between players and trying new things between lines. I think that's obviously a huge part of the game."
Roy, who is in his ninth NHL season but first in Dallas, agreed that changing lines is an important skill for any successful coach, and he, too, has been impressed with how well Gulutzan has juggled things so far this season.
"He's been doing a good job trying to get chemistry between the lines," Roy said. "He notices what a line needs. He's been doing a good job with that and been doing a good job getting us prepared for games."