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Depth Charge

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It is a testament to the depth of the Dallas Stars that they have continued to receive balanced offensive production from its group of forwards throughout this season, despite having anywhere between two and four forwards sitting out at any given time due to injuries.

For example, although veterans Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen each spent most of the first month of the season on Injured Reserve, the Stars still managed to score 46 goals through the 14 games that Modano was out of the lineup (two of which Lehtinen skated in), a nice average of 3.5 per game.

Modano is back now, and with two goals and two assists in the last two contests, he has really taken off, becoming the last regular skater on the Stars’ roster to record a point. As of Sunday morning, Dallas ranked sixth in the Western Conference with 59 goals for and was in a four-way tie for seventh in the standings with a solid 8-5-6 record.

As other players were hurt for small stretches, coach Marc Crawford shuffled the lines around a bit to accommodate the changes in personnel, but the Stars never seemed to miss a beat. Even when forced to move defenseman Mark Fistric up to forward, like Crawford did in Phoenix Saturday night, or call up different players (Aaron Gagnon, Perttu Lindgren and Francis Wathier) from their AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, to fill in for a game or two at various times, the group has been effective. 

In other words, no matter who was hurt and who was on the lineup card, the quality of the Stars’ performance never seemed to suffer.

“We have four lines, we’ve been rolling four lines throughout the year and everyone’s kind of producing offensively, playing well,” noted center Mike Ribeiro, who ranked fourth on the squad with 15 points (five goals, 10 assists). “And guys look like they have more energy, too. By playing four lines, guys are playing well like that, I don’t think we should change anything. We have different lines every night that can produce and get the game-winning goal that we need, it can be anyone.”

Ribeiro was playing solidly on a line that usually included captain Brenden Morrow and rookie Jamie Benn, but impressed Saturday with Modano taking Benn’s slot. 

But although the line groupings have had to change regularly with guys going in and out of the lineup, Crawford has found the right combinations.

“I haven’t really juggled the lines,” said Crawford about shifting around players like interchangeable parts. “We talk about how one of our strengths is depth and when we can throw that kind of depth on a line, that’s an advantage for us and we want to utilize that advantage. We’re going to try to keep everybody involved, we think we’re going to have to use all 23 guys from here to the end of the month at least (when the club has eight games in 13 nights) and it’s nice that you don’t have a drop-off in players when the need arises.”

That wasn’t necessarily the case last season when the Stars were decimated by injuries. After losing Morrow for the season in November and having Steve Ott, Lehtinen and Brad Richards each miss large chunks of time with various ailments, the Stars eventually ran out of legitimate NHL forwards and failed to qualify for the playoffs.

But in 2009-10, some of the players that got pressed into more prominent roles last year have matured quicker than expected and are now integral components of the Stars’ forward corps. Guys like Loui Eriksson and James Neal had breakthrough seasons and are now two-thirds of the club’s top-scoring line along with Richards. Ott stepped up and performed very well in Morrow’s absence on Ribeiro’s wing and on the power play unit. Even youngster Tom Wandell, who came over from Sweden last year and scored one goal and two assists in 14 games, has advanced quickly and is now contributing regularly, with two goals and six points through 19 contests.

The fact that Modano, Lehtinen and Ott served as the third line for a few games, and with solid, dependable players such as Brian Sutherby, Fabian Brunnstrom, Toby Petersen and Krys Barch on the bubble battling for spots in the lineup any given night, depending on the injury list, is further evidence of the Stars’ impressive depth.

“For sure, it’s healthy competition,” said Sutherby, who was scheduled to be a healthy scratch Thursday until Lehtinen’s tweaked groin forced him to sit out the last two games. “It’s been like that for my entire career, being anywhere from 8-12th forward, or 13th, it’s always something that’s a motivating factor to try and stay in the lineup and sometimes that’s the way it goes. You’re in, you’re out. I don’t think anyone deserves to be out of the lineup right now. That’s sort of tough, but you just got to roll with it.”

Barch, who missed three games with a back problem last week, bluntly refuted the notion that having extra competition amongst themselves for those last roster slots further motivates them to dig in harder.

“I don’t think I need to work harder, I always work hard, so that’s not the thing,” said Barch, who has fights in each of his last two outings. “You want to play every night. That’s what you’re here to do, it’s your job, and when you sit out, it’s an insult. I want to play every night.”

During much of the time Modano was out, Sutherby teamed up with Wandell and Brunnstrom to form an effective third line and the trio scored goals in three out of four games from Oct. 24-31. As well as he played, for Sutherby to be nearly taken out of the lineup speaks volumes about the club’s depth.

“Obviously, you want to play every game and you want to be in the lineup and you want to be trying to help the team and if you’re not, you never enjoy sitting out,” said Sutherby, who had four goals and one assist, along with an impressive +6 plus/minus rating in 17 games before sitting out Saturday’s contest in Phoenix with a groin injury of his own. “We have a lot of depth up front and a lot of veteran guys and guys that have been here a long time and are very good hockey players. And that’s only going to help our team, the longer we’re healthy and the more depth we have, is only going to benefit us. If you’re not in the lineup, you just have to try and stay sharp, stay ready in practice working to get back in there.”

The last couple of games, Crawford paired Wandell and Ott on the fourth line, installing Barch on the other wing Thursday and moving Benn there Saturday. Having the luxury of being able to deploy such skilled players on the bottom line provides the Stars with a definite advantage over almost any potential opponent.

“I love Ott with Wandell,” Crawford said. “I think Wandell eventually is going to be a very good offensive player. We don’t have enough opportunity for him to be an offensive player. It’s great, he’s learning the defensive side of it as well, and he has the opportunity to become one of those great defensive players that Dallas has always had, going back to the Carbonneaus and Lehtinens. Wandell has that ability. He thinks the game and he positions himself really well and he’s got offensive skill to go with it and playing with Ott, you got a little bit of energy and antagonistic edge. And (Ott) thinks the game real well, too, so we’re looking for them to give us a little bit of that.” 

All of the forwards recognize the situation and are appreciative of the way the guys on the bubble have been contributing.

“They’ve been doing a great job - I think Wandell was doing a great job when Mo wasn’t there,” Ribeiro pointed out. “Mo just jumped in and if he could stay healthy here and if we can roll four lines, I think our third and fourth lines are better than other teams’ - Richie’s line has been doing amazing, (my line) can do a little bit better. But it’s a team effort and everyone’s doing their job right now and that’s the important thing.”

That will mean some tough decisions for Crawford about who’s in and who’s out once/if everyone gets healthy. At least the Stars can feel confident that if they do run into another rash of injuries, they are better equipped to deal with it than at any point last season.

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