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Stars must take solutions from paper to ice if they want a turnaround

The climb from a 1-6-1 hole must begin now for Dallas or other avenues of change will start to enter the conversation

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- These off days give you a lot of time to think.

The Stars have decided that in an attempt to increase their energy levels this year, they are going to get out on the ice and skate a little less. It's particularly important right now, as the team is playing its first 10 games in 17 days. It's the most condensed schedule to start this NHL season, and they also have a flight between nine of the 10 games.

Yes, they get to fly in comfort and stay in fine hotels, but they still are getting in at 2 a.m. most mornings after a game. And there are physical and mental challenges that go with that, particularly when you are losing. So, they're trying to use logic and research to make good decisions.

On paper, it makes sense.

Just like on paper, this team can make sense.

 

[MORE FROM MIKE HEIKA: Better not enough for Stars, who fall to Blue Jackets for fourth straight loss]

 

Under new head coach Jim Montgomery last season, the Stars started slow, played their best hockey of the season in the second half, rolled Nashville in the first round, and took eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis to double overtime in Game 7. They were one Jamie Benn wraparound goal from advancing to the Western Conference Final. That really happened.

Along the way, players adapted to their third coach in three years and looked like a unit by season's end. From Jan. 19 on, the Stars had the second-best record in the Western Conference at 20-11-3 -- behind only St. Louis. That's a .597 clip over 34 games, so it's definitely something this team can accomplish.

What's also interesting is that the team scored just 2.61 goals per game during that run. They didn't instantly find a strong offensive game. They were a grind team that was "hard to play against" and "relentless," and all of those other coaching phrases that drive you crazy.

That's who they were, that was their "identity."

So when Montgomery tells you he believes that's who they are this year, that's who they can be, he means it. Yes, he wants to be an improved offensive team. Yes, he wants to aspire to take the next step in constructing a squad that is better than last season, but at the core of his blueprint is fundamental, structured hockey in which Dallas plays smart, makes few mistakes, and grinds down the opposition.

Video: Montgomery: 'We'll keep fighting together' after loss

I'll be the first to tell you that it's not the most eye-popping brand of entertainment. That first period in Buffalo the other night was dreadful to watch, and yet it was even after one on the road, so it fit the plan.

I'll also be the first to tell you (probably too many times) that the old Stars also had long stretches where they choked the life out of the game, but it fit the plan for them. Of course, that team had six Hall of Famers, so it's probably time to put those comparisons to rest and start living in the present.

So what is the present?

Are the Stars too old for the young NHL?

Are they too slow?

Are they not flexible enough to adapt to different game plans?

Possibly. But they also are who they are right now. They have the contracts they have, they have the same coach for the second year in a row, they have what they considered to be a very good plan in the summer. So while you might want to blow things up at home, they can't do that.

It's not logical.

This can be the team that overwhelmed Nashville last season in the playoffs. This can be the team that traded punches with the Blues. They have the same top three forwards in Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn. They should have better versions of Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson and Miro Heiskanen. They should have significant upgrades over Jason Spezza and Brett Ritchie in the form of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.

They should be better.

So my guess is they have to stick to that plan for the rest of the season.

Now, pressure changes everything, so if the record doesn't improve, then all options are open. But if we're just spit-balling here, then the most logical decision is to believe in what you built. It doesn't force you to restructure your team in October, it doesn't force you to do salary-cap gymnastics to go find a savior.

It seems frustrating, it seems like you're not addressing the problem, but it really makes sense when you sit down and talk it out.

Video: Bishop tips hat to Milano on highlight-reel goal

The return of Perry to the lineup is expected to add some emotion to this team. He looked pretty good Wednesday in a 3-2 loss at Columbus. He looked like he can find his spots to create scoring. It's what he has done in his career. Maybe that will help.

If Blake Comeau and Roman Polak return in a couple of weeks from their injuries, maybe that will up the grit factor. Yes, it makes the team slower and older, but maybe it also would help them play closer to their identity.

On paper, you can talk yourself into that plan.

But the game isn't played on paper, and everyone has injuries, so this current group has to step up right now. If they don't, then other avenues of change will start to enter the conversation.

Now, if this 1-6-1 team wants some inspiration, all it has to do is look across the ice on Friday. Pittsburgh has lost five of its top nine forwards to injuries, including Evgeni Malkin. But they have won four games in a row led by Sidney Crosby, who has eight points (three goals, five assists) in those four games.

Things on paper matter, they really do, they form the basis for decision-making on personnel, strategy, and preparation. That's why they're talking about pretty much every aspect that can be studied or changed right now -- like more off days from practice.

But you also sometimes have to just go out and find a way to do it on the ice. Other teams have. The Stars did it last year. The solutions are there, the people in the room just have to go and find them.

At least that's what makes sense on an off day in Pittsburgh.

 

Stars (1-6-1) at Penguins (5-2-0)

Friday, 6 p.m. CT

Where: PPG Paints Arena

TV/radio: FOX Sports Southwest; KTCK 1310-AM, 96.7-FM

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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