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Where We Want To Be

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It may not seem like it at first glance, but for Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett, this past season may have been one of the best coaching performances of his six years on the job. Missing the playoffs for the first time here may prevent Tippett from ever acknowledging it, but his ability to keep the Stars in the thick of the Western Conference race into the final week, despite all the injuries to key personnel, was impressive.

And in typical fashion, Tippett is not dwelling on the past - he has already turned his attention to fixing some of the problems and making sure the 2009-10 season doesn’t end with similar disappointment.

The coaching staff met with players for the final time last Monday, and Tippett spoke with each one, keeping his focus on the bright future this club undoubtedly has ahead.

“You never like things to come to an end, but when there’s an end, there’s another beginning,” Tippett said. “A lot of that was the discussion with the players of our expectations moving forward and where we want to be next year. Nobody’s happy about missing the playoffs and we have some things to correct and we start today.”

Because the most damaging development this season negatively impacting the Stars’ fortunes was undoubtedly the ridiculous rash of injuries they suffered, especially over the last two months, Tippett doesn’t have to worry about his job security.

“You could put Vince Lombardi behind the bench,” said co-General Manager Brett Hull, “and you have that many key players out and the other circumstances that happened during the season - obviously, the Sean Avery fiasco and some players maybe not having their best seasons or a down season. He did the best job he could. We have the utmost confidence in him. We’re not worried about him at all.” 

But while injuries may have been the single biggest factor contributing to the Stars’ sub-par showing this year, Tippett acknowledged that other issues played a part, too, so he planned to do a thorough evaluation of himself and his staff to examine how they might have done things differently.

“When you don’t make the playoffs, there’s always things that (can be fixed),” Tippett said. “We’re going to dig deep into our staff and look at things that we thought that we did well and things we can really improve on. Every year, it’s no different, but when you have a year like this when you don’t have the success you want, it maybe makes you work a little harder at it. We’ll look at a lot of different things, from our personnel issues to the way we play, to the way we handle our goaltenders, to special teams which were a sore spot all year. All those things we’re really going to have to dig into.” 

Tippett pointed to the way the club’s roller coaster season kept bouncing up and down as something that he’d like to improve on next year. 

“Obviously, consistency was a big factor,” he said. “That’s been one of our trademarks around here, is to be consistent throughout the whole year, continue to gather points right from the start to the finish, to give yourself a chance to be a playoff team. I didn’t think we had that.”

The club’s slow start, back when just defenseman Sergei Zubov and winger Jere Lehtinen were the sole occupants of the injured list, got things off on the wrong foot. And although the Stars later recovered with a strong mid-season from December through mid-February, a better beginning to the season would have given them a little bit of a cushion in the standings when the devastating injuries hit during the stretch run. 
“Coming into training camp, where we look like we’re set to go and the first day, no Zubov, no Lehtinen, no (Philippe) Boucher,” Tippett said of the veterans who started off in the trainer’s room. “That throws a quirk in things. There were some factors there that we’ll certainly look at, making sure our athletes are healthy and making sure our athletes are ready to go at full capacity and just making sure our group is putting in the work it needs to have a solid start.”

Probably the most significant problem the club encountered this year was keeping pucks out of its own net. After finishing no lower than sixth in the NHL in fewest goals against during Tippett’s first five seasons behind the Dallas bench, the Stars surrendered 257 this year, tied with Colorado for worst in the Western Conference and 25th in the league. That was the most goals the franchise had allowed since giving up 280 in the non-playoff year of 1995-96. 

“One of the biggest changes in our team this year from years past was our goals against,” Tippett noted. “I thought our goals against was just atrocious and some of that goes towards goaltending and some of that is our team play and there are some areas there that we really need to shore up. When you have a year like we have, everything is up for discussion and that’s what the players were told. The players that will be coming back next year have to recognize that we have to make some improvements and we’re going to do that.”

Tippett touched upon difficulties with goaltending; Marty Turco’s up-and-down year served as a bit of a mirror of the team’s overall. 

“I think, Marty, to get the best out of him, we need him to be at full capacity all the time and there was probably some times this year where he wasn’t,” Tippett said. “The way our season was going, we were looking for the consistency factor and you look to your number one guy to try to get you that and it was up and down all year.”

Another trouble spot for the Stars this year was the performance of their special teams.  After finishing second in the NHL last season in penalty killing and a respectable 13th in power play efficiency, Dallas ended up 24th on the PK and 27th with the man-advantage this year.

“It’s a big part of it,” Tippett said of special teams. “For me, it’s the combination of both the special teams - our PK is leaking and our power play has not been able to help it out and that’s what magnifies it more. Power play percentages are what they are, but if your power play can get you a goal at the right time or your penalty kill can get you a big kill at the right time, then that’s when your special teams have the most effect.” 

Tippett also pointed to the impact of missing key players had on the power play in particular, where missing Zubov all year hurt and having Brad Richards’ absent down the stretch really magnified the problems.

“When you’re missing key parts - there’s certain places your power play revolves around,” Tippett noted. “Richards is a guy that the power play revolves around him, Zubie would be a guy that the power play revolves around, so you’re looking for other people to step in and fill those holes and it’s been a struggle finding consistency in people doing that.” 

Overall, Tippett, who is heading overseas to Switzerland to serve as Associate Coach for Team Canada in the upcoming World Championships, has already seemed to put the frustration of the season behind him. Before leaving for Europe, he displayed an upbeat attitude when considering the club’s prospects heading into next season.

“This is the first year we have missed the playoffs, so we had our number of challenges this year,” he understated. “You have to look at all of them as experiences and you try to correct as many of them as you can. Obviously, I think there are some things we can do personnel-wise to help our group, there are some young guys I think really took steps forward this year that we expect them to take another step next year. 

“There are some real bright futures within the organization. We just have to get back to the consistent game that the Dallas Stars have become known for, to get us back to one of the elite teams, where we want to be.”
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