The only thing more maddening than watching the Dallas Stars surrender 17 goals in 3 games might be considering what came just before it.
In their last 6 contests before the Olympic break they were scored on a total of 8 times. (1.33 GAA). One of those Brenden Morrow fired into his own net with a kind of (mistaken) ferocity. 7 goals in 6 games was the reality of it, and though Marty Turco may have received much of the credit, it was definitely a team effort.
Team is the key word there, because it's the same team they have now. The exact same team. Their inactivity on trade deadline day was supposed to give them consistency moving forward in the playoff race. Three games later, however, the only thing the pre and post Olympic symmetry provides is a canvas on which to scribble questions we'll likely never know the answers to. Primarily these ones:
How can the exact same group of players and coaches produce such dichotomous stretches of defensive hockey? How can the team afford to move forward with the same group and get better? Wasn't the new system supposed to supplement the defense with more offense?
Dallas hockey was built on defense and GAA. Credit Ken Hitchcock. Credit Doug Armstrong. Credit Sergei Zubov, Ludwig, Hatcher or Eddie the Eagle. Credit whoever you like. Two goaltenders, two coaches and countless changes on the back end have seen the Stars stay true to that same brand of hockey for a decade; until now. 64 games into this new era, fans find themselves more interested in how to get back the way things were, rather than the way Marc Crawford said they're going to be.
After the jump: The who's and what's of the defensive collapse in Big D....
No one likes change:
Marc Crawford has been called into question by Stars fans recently. They don't like his demeanor. They don't like his post game comments. They don't like his lines, and they don't like his system. Most importantly, they don't like seeing their old coach (Date Tippett), cruising with a bunch of perceived misfits and young guys into the playoffs, quite possibly with home ice advantage. In short, fans don't like losing, and they don't like change. Welcome to the human condition.
5 years from now, with hindsight on our side, we'll be able to look back and make a proper judgment. For now, we'll reiterate something we've said in this space many times: He's not going anywhere. When an owner commits to a general manager, who in turn commits to a head coach, they typically get more than 64 games to state their case. We have no reason to believe it will be any different this time.
Still, the culture shock that has everyone so up in arms is no surprise when you look at the history of the club:
It's not hard to see where the fan base may have gotten a little spoiled.
18th in the league was enough to send Coach Hitchcock packing. 25th was enough to send Dave Tippett packing. 24th, or whatever it might be will not, however, be accompanied by a coaching change. It might not be accompanied by any (personnel) changes at all.
ESPN Dallas asked Joe Nieuwendyk straight up the question on the mind of every Stars fan this week (and since the beginning of last summer, really).
Q: To improve your defense, do you think you'll have to make some wholesale changes because of the budget?
A: I don't think so. You go through our defense. Who don't you like? [Nicklas] Grossman and [Stephane] Robidas are fixtures. I like what Trevor Daley brings for us. Would you like to see 20-plus goals from Daley? Absolutely. It's probably not there. But he brings 22, 23 minutes every night and has great skating ability and is a great defender. We could probably use somebody back there that can add a little more offensively and that's an area to work on. But our defense, we kind of like them all.
We've had growing pains with [Matt] Niskanen, but after Robidas, he's probably our best puck-moving defenseman and he's young. Look at the improvement of Mark Fistric. Patience is an important part of it. Who doesn't like Karlis Skrastins for what he does every night? He puts his body on the line and doesn't complain. Our defensemen get a bad rap when we say we have to improve our defense. We have to look at that area, but it's overrated about the wholesale changes people think we need.
Joe Nieuwendyk spoke those words just as the Olympic break began, on the heels of Dallas' wonderful six game performance in February.
To go through his man by man breakdown again after these last three games might cause you some incredulity and/or manic laughter. Just remember: It's not Joe's fault. He had good reason to say those things when he did, and would have said them anyway even if he didn't. General managers don't make a habit of trashing their guys publicly (though we've heard Gm Joe be critical of the goaltending position).
For him to give such a glowing review of his d-men two weeks before the trade deadline suggested to Stars fans that they weren't intending on making a move, couldn't afford to make a move, or believed they lacked the ammunition to make a move. When weighing the sketchy financial future of the team with what he had just seen prior to the break, I believe they truly felt that standing pat was the best thing to do.
As far as the off-season goes, Mr. Nieuwendyk might not be able to say it, but the rest of us can: Wholesale changes are needed.
The defense isn't limited to defending in today's NHL. Something we update every now and then are the scoring figures of Dallas blue-liners. Of particular interest this year was Marc Crawford's favorite training camp phrase: "Activating the defense." We heard they were going to "activate" the you-know-what out of guys like Trevor Daley and Matt Niskanen. Let's see how things are shaping up:
Total offensive contributions (points) from NHL defensemen on Western Conference teams as of 3/7/2010 are as follows:
|Team (current seed)||Points from Defensemen|
|San Jose (1)||137|
|Los Angeles (5)||132|
|St. Louis (10)||122|
Hey, look, a list where the Oilers aren't last. Also, note that the top 5 teams in the conference are top 5 in blue-line scoring. It's not a coincidence. Let's see how it stacks up against a pretty famous table that Bob Sturm put together earlier this season:
|Rank||Team||Money on Dmen|
That table is from January 7th, 2010. It was compiled by Bob Sturm of Sports Radio 1310 The Ticket. Obviously things have changed since then with the trades and the whatnot...that's fine. It still illustrates a point. One point it illustrates is that Detroit and Edmonton weren't getting what they were paying for on their blue lines at the time... but I digress.
The real point is that $8.7 million is not enough money if your blue line is going to be taken seriously in the hunt for a playoff spot. The payroll distribution does not follow suit with the rest of the conference. You might say their lack of offense has nothing to do with their horrendous GAA. That's fair, but other teams blue liners are helping to erase their mistakes. Outside of a nice stretch for Robidas earlier this year, the Stars d-men are not.
The Stars WILL spend more money on defense next season:
|Player||2009-2010 Salary||2010-2011 Salary|
The five players they're keeping next season already cost them $2.85 million more than the same five did this year, and they have to re-sign Nick Grossman and
replace figure out what to do with Matt Niskanen. Robidas' raise is well earned. Whatever increase Grossman gets is well earned. Fistric is reasonably priced, and offers perhaps the greatest potential for growth of the bunch at this point. Pre-Olympic Karlis Skrastins was very reasonably priced as well. The rest...well you can do your own math on them.
When I talk to people about the budget situation next year, the first words out of their mouths are always "They'll free up $5.6 million from Marty Turco, plus Modano's money and Lehtinen's money. They'll have money to spend." The above is yet another reason why that is simply not true. Robidas and Eriksson are already getting substantial raises, and we hope James Neal and Nick Grossman do as well. Then there's Kari Lehtonen; For better or worse, he needs a deal worth about $3 million. You start to see the problem.
The bottom line:
If the Stars should decide to get serious about upgrading their defense for next season, it will come at the expense of the forward group. It simply must. The dollars do not allow for it be any other way.
The conversation surrounding the blue line will invariably end up sounding much like a Texas Rangers pitching discussion. "Their "#1" guy isn't a true #1. He's a #3 guy on a good team. Maybe lower." With a proper pitching staff (or D-core) everyone moves down a couple of notches. They start to look like more suitable pieces in those roles, but until things change dramatically, they'll be expected to stretch themselves and perform at a higher level. I would break it down for you X's and O's style if I knew precisely what was wrong; But I don't feel bad about not knowing. Evidently the team doesn't really know either or it wouldn't give up 17 goals in 3 games.
I'm not expecting it to change, is what I'm trying to say here. I don't see how it can without drastic sacrifice. Like everything else, we end the discussion with a prayer for new ownership. It's getting old, but that's life in big "D."
That pushed the Stars GAA rank from #24 to #25 in the league. They'll have a chance to do something about it when they meet the league's #1 (by far) offense in Washington tonight.