DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 14: Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars in goal against the Colorado Avalanche at American Airlines Center on January 14, 2012 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Take away the top two centers on any hockey team and they are bound to struggle. Take away the top two centers on a middle-of-the-pack, low payroll hockey team and you're talking about all sorts of issues, especially if that hockey team already suffered from depth issues at center.
With Jamie Benn and Mike Ribeiro likely both out until after the All Star Game break, the Dallas Stars are going to have to find a way to not only keep their head above water but actually attempt to make up some ground in the playoff race. With the Stars sitting just outside the top eight in the conference and with plenty of games in hand on nearly every team above them, this was set to be a crucial stretch of the season -- even with Benn and Ribeiro healthy.
Now that the two are injured (or recovering from surgery), the Stars are now heading into an important part of the season without their top two centers. Jamie Benn was this team's offensive catalyst and we've seen how when he's not scoring, the Stars struggle to win on a consistent basis.
Unfortunately, the Dallas Stars were already searching for answers before Benn was lost for two weeks. With the Stars playing inconsistently, unable to win more than two in a row and going 5-5-0 over their last ten games, Glen Gulutzan was already under pressure to get this team fighting upward in the standings -- not just treading water.
Joe Nieuwendyk stated that one of the main reasons he decided to fire Marc Crawford last summer was because of the inability of the Dallas Stars to fight through adversity, specifically when the Stars were hit with injuries at a crucial point in the season last year. The Stars are now entering that same phase of the season and while it's only two weeks or so, Gulutzan must find a way to win without two of his best players -- something Crawford was unable to do.
It seems that as the season has progressed, each stumble along the way has been met with reasoning and excuses. Whether it's the schedule, or the travel, or injuries to some defensemen -- this has been a season of rationalizing and excuse-making. Not so much by those on the team or the coaches but by those of around them, the fans.
We see a team that is capable of beating the best in the NHL who can turn around and lose to the worst in the league two days later. The inconsistency is maddening and we search for a reason that this exists, telling ourselves that the absolute truth -- that the Dallas Stars are an average team at best this season -- is never something that we're willing to admit.
The desire, the need, for this team to make the postseason is higher than it has ever been before. With new ownership in place and a new front office that has made it clear it's dedicated to winning and bringing back the fans that have left over the years, heading back to the playoffs is the surest way to instantly put this team back on the local map.
The ability to make the postseason, even with a completely healthy roster, was always going to be tough. While the Stars certainly flirted with the top spot in the division for a few weeks, it's become clear that the reality is this is a team that will be fighting for the final few spots in the playoff seeding.
With the injuries the Dallas Stars are now dealing with we now have a completely different level of explanations for why this team will struggle over the next two weeks. The Stars won't have Benn and Ribeiro, their top two centers and two of the team's highest scorers, during an absolutely crucial stretch of the season against very stiff competition. I'm sure after any loss we'll rationalize that if Benn or Ribeiro had been present, things would have been different.
Yet every team in the NHL faces adversity and the best find a way to fight through it. The St. Louis Blues, who the Stars face tonight, have lost twice the man games the Stars have so far this season: 97 to 183. Yet the Blues have become one of the toughest teams to face in the NHL, especially at home. While I wonder just how good the Blues would be if they lost both their top two offensive players at the same time, there's no denying that it's possible to overcome adversity of this nature.
We discussed this last season with Jamie Benn and Brad Richards were both out, how the Stars now needed other players to step up. Unfortunately, the Stars continued to struggle and never could find a way to get over the loss of those two players for a few weeks. By the time Benn returned it was nearly too late, as the Stars struggled mightily without him.
Glen Gulutzan states that this is a challenge that he is embracing, that this sort of adversity is what helped him get to the NHL in the first place. He's shown that while he may not be the best in-game strategic coach, he knows how to prepare his team and motivate them to play well. His predecessor lost his job because of a similar situation -- while I don't think Gulutzan is nowhere the hot seat, this is certainly a moment that can set the tone for the rest of his NHL coaching career.
While the loss of Benn and Ribeiro is going to hurt this team and it's going to be more than obvious what their dual absence means, the Stars can fight through this with the individual efforts and team play of those that are left. Guys like Eric Nystrom, Tom Wandell, Vernon Fiddler will get even more opportunities and more minutes than before but the real pressure will be on Kari Lehtonen and the defense to hold this thing together until their top centers return.
While Gulutzan and his coaches, already dealing with a struggling power play, will have to find a way to generate offense without Benn -- it's the play of Lehtonen and the defense in front of him that can really hold things together. It's going to take a team effort but if the goaltender can put this team squarely on his back once more, fighting through this tough spot will become much easier.
The Stars are facing their biggest test of adversity this season, heading into the most crucial part of the schedule this season. It's moments like this that define the path a team is going to take and being able to fight through this and come out on top on the other side will go a long way to this team getting back to the postseason.