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Taking stock at 20 games

Stars have been inconsistent, but they've kept their heads above water over first quarter of season

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

The 20-game mark is usually a good time to take stock of an NHL team. It's basically one-quarter of the way through the season. So what does Stars GM Jim Nill think of where his team sits after 20 games?

"I really feel like we've just come out of training camp," Nill said. "You look at where we started the season, we had six of our top nine forwards out. Not that you are ever satisfied, but I think the guys have done a pretty good job from the coaching staff to the players. We had a lot of guys come in and play probably different roles than they are accustomed to this early in their careers. You are never happy where you are at, but I think we are satisfied that we've kept our head above water."

The Stars are 8-7-5 (21 points), and while the record doesn't look pretty, the Stars aren't operating in a vacuum. There's not a lot of pretty going on around them. Those 21 points have them sitting in third place in the Central Division and just two points out of the second best record in the Western Conference through Monday's games. Even if you go by points percentage, they are tied for eighth in the West. So the first 20 games haven't come close to sinking them.  

"It's tight. The league is tight," said Stars center Jason Spezza. "Everybody is probably feeling the same way. Everybody is probably shaking their heads some nights about the way they've played."

It's been a bumpy first 20 games for the Stars, who have been able to string together consecutive wins just once. They are middle of the pack in offense (2.65 per game) and rank 29th in goals against (3.30). The word inconsistent was used by both players and coach Lindy Ruff to describe the Stars over the first quarter of the season.

The injury issues haven't helped. The Stars have lost 97 man-games to injuries or illness, 94 of those to forwards. At times, the Stars had six forwards out of the lineup.

"You expect to start the season with your full team, and we didn't and it probably got frustrating for everybody involved," Spezza said.

The Stars have used 26 different skaters, 17 forwards and nine defensemen. There have been more than 30 different line combinations used over the first 20 games. But the Stars weathered the injury storm thanks to organizational depth. Guys like Devin Shore, Adam Cracknell, Gemel Smith, Justin Dowling and others have stepped in and helped fill the holes.

"Depth is what has kept us ahead of the water," Nill said. "if we didn't have that depth we would have been in a lot of trouble."

The Stars seemed to hit rock bottom with an 8-2 loss at Winnipeg on Nov. 8, but they seem to have turned it around since then, picking up points in six of their past seven games (4-1-2). In five of those games, including all four wins, the Stars have allowed just two goals. The goal scoring is just under three per game during that run. The Stars see that stretch as a sign that the tide may be turning and are hoping to build off it over the next 20 games. 

"The next 20 we hope to improve," Ruff said. "This recent stretch - and you can throw out a couple games - has been our most consistent, if you want to go back the last seven, eight, nine games. We're trending in the right direction."

Klingberg back in Wednesday? Ruff undecided

The defense pairs in Tuesday's practice in Frisco were the same as those used in Monday's 3-2 overtime win over Minnesota. John Klingberg and Stephen Johns, who both were healthy scratches in the game, skated together as a fourth pair.

Ruff said he was undecided if Klingberg would play Wednesday in Nashville. Klingberg was scratched Monday after showing up late to a team meeting the morning of the game.

"I haven't made that decision yet," Ruff said when asked if Klingberg would play Wednesday. "In the past, when we've won a game I don't change the lineup. It's something that I am going to mull over."

Ruff also talked more about the discussion he had with Klingberg after the meeting incident.

"You want him to learn from the experience. The first thing you do is meet with the player. You find out, if you can, why he wasn't there, what caused him to be late. And then you move forward," Ruff said. "We had a discussion, and it led to a discussion about the year and how his year has been going, where I wanted his game to get to and where I felt his game was at. I don't think we are quite on the same road yet and I think we are closer to where we need to be."

"We ask him to do a lot but within certain confinements. The point I have been trying to make through this first 17 or 18 games is to start simple first. We reset around game eight where I wanted him to stay simple, make the easy play, make the outlet pass. If the forward is open, give it to him. Teams got a book on him, and they know what he is going to try to do, and they are making it extremely tough on him. You've got to counteract that by making the right decisions."

Hudler skates

Stars forward Jiri Hudler, who has missed the past eleven games due to illness, was in Frisco Tuesday and skated prior to the teams' practice. Stars coach Lindy Ruff said it is going to take some time to get Hudler back to where he can play.

"We have a timetable. He skated before the team today," Ruff said. "I think it is within days before he joins us in practice to some extent. I think it is going to be a good period of time to get him back physically after missing this amount of time."

Tuesday's practice lineup

Patrick Eaves did not skate Tuesday, so Curtis McKenzie took his spot on a line with Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp. Other than that, the forward lines and defense pairs were the same as Monday's game.

Jamie Benn - Cody Eakin - Tyler Seguin
Curtis McKenzie - Jason Spezza - Patrick Sharp
Antoine Roussel - Radek Faksa - Brett Ritchie
Lauri Korpikoski - Devin Shore - Adam Cracknell

Dan Hamhuis - Julius Honka
Esa Lindell - Jordie Benn
Patrik Nemeth - Jamie Oleksiak
John Klingberg - Stephen Johns

Antti Niemi
Kari Lehtonen

Maintenance: Patrick Eaves

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski 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 follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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