WithOut, & Co. Have Not Been Enough
After Friday night's game against Boston, the easy and quickest reaction to the game was to blame poor execution and total lack of effort. The Stars were out-skated, out-huscled and outworked in every facet of the game, leading to an embarrassing loss in front of a big home crowd. Just a few nights later, back on home ice, the Stars played a similar game and lost once again by three goals. Fan reaction is to, once again, see the lack of production and the turnovers and say to themselves "this team just isn't trying hard enough."
While it's true that the Stars are lacking in aggressiveness, attitude and energy at times, it's tough to look past the issue that is the biggest threat to the long term success of this team: production and depth at center.
With Brad Richards, Mike Modano and Steve Ott all missing last night's game due to injury, the Dallas Stars suddenly looked like the team that floundered down February and March of last season. The injuries have forced the Stars to play call up several prospects much sooner than planned, who all were asked to step in and contribute right away. It hasn't gone well.
Aaron Gagnon, Perttu Lindgren and now Francis Wathier (called up today) will all have made their NHL debuts within a week of each other. More than that, they've been asked to step into the center position on the third and fourth lines, working to create instant chemistry with teammates they barely know. While all of these players spent time together in training camp, no one expected Gagnon to hold onto a bond with Fabian Brunnstrom and Brian Sutherby.
It's one thing to ask a young player to step in and play his first NHL game in front of a home crowd; it's another to have that same player come up and center a line between two established NHL veterans. It's a daunting task and it was obvious to see Gagnon and Lindgren were a bit overwhelmed at times and tentative with the puck. While Gagnon was far from awful in his one game played, he did see just nine minutes of ice time with a shot on goal (he did win 62% of his faceoffs, however).
Tom Wandell, once thought a long shot to just make the NHL team, has found himself playing significant minutes as a center between the third and fourth lines. He's also spent time on the penalty killing unit and was instrumental in preserving the win in Chicago with a last minute stand against a 6-on-4. Unfortunately, it's been Wandell's line that has been plagued the most on the ice as he and his linemates constantly fight to cleanly clear the puck from the zone. He seems to be chasing and pressing with the puck, unable to mount any sustained pressure on offense while constantly scrambling on defense.
With young centers making shaky debuts and a Mark Fistric playing as a right winger, Crawford was forced to double shift Mike Ribeiro last night in an effort to jumpstart the Stars' offense. Without Brad Richards and Steve Ott and the Stars playing Brian Sutherby on the wing, the Stars are low on scoring depth down the middle. Gagnon, Lindgren, Wandell; these players do not possess the experience and skill to step up and make the impact the Stars need.
Wandell is not a grinding, defensively-minded center, yet that's the role he's been forced to adopt with Mike Modano out since the season opener. The hope was to develop him on the fourth line with some gritty wingers at his side, yet he's since slid into the center position on the checking line. Wandell has yet to show that speed and determination that he had while playing in Sweden last year; except once.
Against Calgary, perhaps the Stars' most complete game of the season (Nashville is not a good team) Wandell saw much more significant minutes on ice and ended up with the game-winning goal. His line was tenacious with the puck, hounding the Flames in their own end and creating chance after chance. This was the Tom Wandell the coaches saw when they decided to keep him in the NHL to start the season. He finished with nearly 20 minutes of ice time, four shots on net and was a +1 in the game.
With Brad Richards still questionable tomorrow night in Anaheim, it appears that Crawford will have Wandell center the second line between James Neal and Loui Eriksson. Perhaps this is where Wandell will shine, when he can push the offensive play up ice and use his skills to compliment his talented wingers. Hopefully this will take the pressure off the top line, who tried to win the game on their own last night against Los Angeles. With Wandell on the second line and Steve Ott back on the ice then Toby Petersen should take over the third line center between Ott and Fabian Brunnstrom, a position he has the ability to thrive in.
It must be said that all of the blame cannot go on the young centers alone. Jame Neal, Loui Eriksson, Fabian Brunnstrom and Brian Sutherby were all but invisible against Los Angeles and with Modano, Richards and Jere Lehtinen injured it is upon them to step up and make good things happen on the ice. No longer are they the wingers that rely on others to create chances and drive the tempo of the game; they are now the leaders on this team. The ambition and energy needs to come from these players, not just from Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro or from a young center playing in just his 8th NHL game. An attitude that speaks to a hunger to win needs to breathe throughout each player, and not just from a select few.
All of these issues speak to just how important Brad Richards is to this team. He presence on the second line (or first line, however it may be) provides the Dallas Stars with depth and experience, as well as two dangerous scoring threats when combined with Ribeiro's line. The Nashville Predators are a perfect example of what happens when a team has just one scoring threat and the Dallas Stars are close to falling into that same trap.
Injuries happen, but it's how a team responds and overcomes those injuries that will define their season. Last year, the Stars could not. A reduced payroll negated the Stars from having the chance at adding any veteran depth at forward, but it was hoped that the return of Richards would be enough. Yet once again the team is playing the same game as they fight to find balance and depth outside of the top line.
Brad Richards should return soon, but it's important for him to wait until his sore groin is fully healed. The Stars can only hope to survive in the short term with him out, because the long-term prospects without Richards do not look good.