This is clearly crisis time and not in any way, shape, or mode what Lindy Ruff and company surely had in mind after finishing 2013 in a fantastic way. As the clock struck midnight on December 31, all was great and there were smiles all around about what could be the optimistic future of this side and a strong run at rejoining those playoffs.
But, as it always does, adversity came smashing down in these last 17 days and has hit Dallas right between the eyes. After leaving the old year on the very edge of the playoffs (for a few hours, they actually held the 8 seed), they have now tumbled to 10th, a full 8 points off the pace, and more importantly, chasing 3 teams for the final 2 spots with Minnesota, Vancouver, and Phoenix. Meanwhile, Nashville has pulled even and even Winnipeg is just 2 points behind the Stars for the 12th spot in the West.
When a great stretch to end 2013 happens, you allow yourself to imagine that your team has made tremendous strides forward. But, when a horrid stretch to start 2014 happens, then you fear that you have actually taken steps back. Of course, the truth is in the middle - with fortunate bounces of the puck put a bunch of wins together, and now, the same is true in the other direction. Things are "evening" out and in the end you have a 14 or 15 games sample that likely suggests the quality of this team at the present: 6-7-2 over the last 15 and 21-19-7 for the season.
The Stars, for now, are good enough to be in most games, but not good enough to impose their will on opponents of great quality over the long haul. Yet.
Boston is a great test. In fact, in terms of the Top 5 in goals against defense, the NHL offers Los Angeles, Boston, St Louis, New Jersey, and Montreal. I believe if you review the last month of hockey, you will see all of those teams accounted for on the Stars schedule, and that may have as much to do with what we are seeing as anything.
Because from the eyeball test, it looks like the Stars are going through a stretch that would show you the personnel deficiencies that presently exist. When you play who the Stars have been playing (with the exception of the Islanders games which I have no great explanation for - especially the Sunday home loss) then you will quickly see that teams are attempting to counter the Stars strengths by making them face their weaknesses.
In a way, we should all be flattered. The Stars turned heads in November and December so much that teams had to closely monitor how Dallas was getting results. They broke them down and looked carefully. The speed and transition game was running opponents ragged and the opponents had to address this and study how to play Dallas in a way that made sense for most opponents.
And, how do you stop speed? With power, size, and more than anything, responsible defensive coverage and play. And without Toe Blake's ability to explain the concepts of the sport, allow me to suggest how I see it right now.
Opponents are now playing the Stars with the intent of respecting the speed. What this often means is that whether or not these teams generally have defensemen that would join the offensive attack, when they play the Stars speed lines (Seguin-Benn-whoever, Eakin-Roussel-Garbutt) then they are keeping both defensive men high in the Stars' defensive zone. This, makes the Stars have to string several passes together to get the puck to the other end and then when it comes time for a zone entry, the opponents are now making sure that the Stars are tempted to carry the puck over the line, rather than dumping the puck in.
They do this by basically inviting the Stars to dump the puck in, knowing that although they are fast, they are generally smaller than their opponent. If you dump it in, unless you have a lot of conviction, muscle, and purpose as a 3 man forward line, then you likely not win the puck back. This is basically a demoralizing and sometimes passive turnover. Conversely, if you can make the Stars' zone entries rather 1-dimensional with the "carry in", now your 5-man unit is standing at the blue-line and making you either dump it in and lose it, or attempt to carry it through the 5-man wall. And both of those choices are difficult when you clearly prefer only one. When the Stars play well, they are getting a ton of transition chances and open ice and now that is being taken away with this blue-line dilemma which all starts because they are keeping both defensemen from leaving their posts on the other end to try to pinch down.
Now, the next aspect that is coming into focus for the Stars and their opponents: If you can turn the transition game off, then you force the smaller Stars to win in tight spaces in the opponent's zone in what amounts to "half court offense" in basketball. Just like there, turn off the fast breaks and make them beat your set defense and now we can see together that this is not the Stars forte. In fact, with many of their lines, it seems to demonstrate that the amount of secondary scoring on the Stars is incredibly limited once you proceed past Seguin and Benn. Who else is able to score? Well, usually, it is whoever plays on their wing (Nichushkin and Cole) and as far as other lines giving them consistent scoring....It is not happening at the present.
So, slowing the Stars down is leading to making them win in the half-court game, and there you see that several of the Stars lines are not going to do that because of a number of reasons - with quality being the biggest. Too many guys are unable to create their own offense in tight quarters, so now, to generate any offense once the opponent decides to match up their best players against Benn and Seguin, the Stars must cheat down a defenseman. In fact, you can argue that they are doing it a lot and likely too often, because when you cheat down defensemen against a well positioned team, for every positive play you create, it seems that you risk several odd man rushes the other direction.
And tell me if this isn't a familiar trait in these 8 games in the new year: Very little offensive production, even fewer golden scoring opportunities, and way too many odd man rushes at Kari Lehtonen. It seems clear that he is keeping them in these games, but with a power play that cannot be the great equalizer, then it appears that in many of these games, it is a matter of time before the levy breaks and the game is lost in the late stages.
See how it is all connected? The opponent stays home on offense and seems to understand that to deal with the Stars you must respect the wheels and take them away. Then, you clog the ability for Dallas to get in the offensive zone with the puck on their stick, and you would rather they dump it in which they clearly don't prefer. Then, you stay home again on defense and make the Stars throw more men forward to try to find scoring opportunities, and when they do, you are ready to pounce with a counter-attack 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 break the other way.
What are remedies? Well, the clock has struck midnight on the ability for this team to win without the power play helping. There is but one team in the league with a worse power play goal differential than the Stars at -10. Again, the Stars at equal strength have done a nice job this season - although they are going to have to find a counter punch to their preferred habits that are being taken away, but now they need the aid of special teams because the well is running dry.
Beyond that, we need to remember that we are early in this rebuild. Nobody wants to hear patience again around here, but to ask Jim Nill and Lindy Ruff to fix this in 6 months is just not a realistic plan. Rebuilds take a while. The Cowboys added Michael Irvin in 1988, Troy Aikman in 1989, and Emmitt Smith in 1990. To get Seguin and Nichushkin so quickly might have given us a false sense of how difficult this project is, but clearly, this all starts with adding more quality along the blue-line and on the secondary lines by any and all means necessary.
Great teams can play any style you want, but the rest of the league finds out what they can do well and tries to do it a lot. Unfortunately, there are brilliant minds on every NHL bench and they see what you like and take it away and make you find success elsewhere. The Stars are in the middle of this right now in their evolution and I am interested in seeing how they bust out of it.
The trouble is, that the clock is really ticking down in 2013-14. They must make a pre-Olympics push to get the margin down to 4 points or so before the break to have any chance. And they are running out of games to do so.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Bob Sturm is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can listen to Bob weekdays from 12-3 on Sports Radio 1310AM and 96.7FM The Ticket and follow him on Twitter @SportsSturm.