[Editor's Note: This is a long one. Grab a sandwich and dig in.]
The past few weeks have been difficult for Dallas Stars fans as the chance of yet another season without the playoffs gets closer and closer to becoming a reality. While the Stars aren't suffering a breakdown this season as we've seen in the past, with undisciplined games marred by questionable efforts and motivation, it's perhaps more frustrating to see the team struggle to win despite some valiant efforts. The losses the team has suffered this month have not exactly put an end to all postseason hopes, but with each passing game that opportunity slips further away.
What we must remember is that making the playoffs this season was always the goal, but it was the long-term success of this team that has truly been at stake. With the sale of the team not becoming final until just before Thanksgiving, setting out to truly improve the roster for this year was a monumental task. After the departure of Brad Richards, the Stars attempted to build depth on the roster with a number of blue-collar veterans and while the team has remained competitive, it's been tough seeing them come up short against obviously better teams.
The playoffs are still an option and will likely remain a possibility until the final month of the season, even if the Stars completely bomb the next week -- that's just the nature of the Western Conference this season. For the Stars, however, the building process under Tom Gaglardi starts with the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline and with fans looking for any glimmer of hope to grasp onto, this next week is crucial first step in proving that a clear plan is in place -- and optimism for the future can finally return.
There was, of course, always a chance the Stars could find some magic and make a surprising run to the playoffs under rookie coach Glen Gulutzan. Unfortunately, the lack of overall scoring depth on the team was exposed with several injuries throughout the season and the Stars have yet to truly find their groove after an incredible run in October. Jamie Benn is enjoying a breakout season and Kari Lehtonen is playing at an elite level but it hasn't been nearly enough, with the Stars struggling with confidence and execution as the offense continues to remain stagnant.
This has led to talk about what should happen next. While making the playoffs -- for some -- would still be the top goal for the Dallas Stars, it's obvious that any roster moves at this point should be made with the future squarely in mind. The Stars front office continue to talk publicly about a "plan" and the ideal way of building a team, consistently using Detroit and San Jose as examples.
Since Tom Gaglardi has purchased the team, Stars fans have yet to get a clear sense of just what this plan might be. With the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline looming less than a week away, this is the first chance for Gaglardi and GM Joe Nieuwendyk to stop talking about the mythical plan and begin to show exactly what that plan might be. There are, of course, a number of obstacles in the way of the Stars pulling off the exact plan they'd prefer to follow but for the first time in nearly four years, this is the chance for the franchise to finally take a big step toward the future.
When we look at the struggles of the current team on the ice questions inevitably fall to "how did this happen"? While we as fans have strong feelings for the players on the ice, who we see working so hard each and every night yet falling short, the harsh reality is that this team is perhaps the least talented roster the Stars have had since 1995. A combination of poor drafting and the lack of an owner or financial backing certainly didn't help but the true cause of the team's current state was the lack of any sort of actual plan -- a problem that started four years ago.
Looking back now, and knowing what we do now, it's easy to say the Stars should have started the rebuilding process years ago. With the retirement and departure of several veteran defensemen, notably Sergei Zubov and Mattias Norstrom, the process of a steady decline for the Stars began. Unfortunately, the team -- and the fans -- were blinded by the incredible success of the 2008 team and in subsequent seasons it was generally considered that the Stars were not far off from being that same, magical team that made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
Unfortunately, the slow degradation of the team began that season following the playoff appearance when the Dallas Stars needed to turn to the NHL for financial help. The Stars lost the ability to turn to free agency or trades to help improve a roster that was, with each passing season, becoming less and less like the one that had last made the postseason.
Since that time, the Stars have been mired in well-documented financial difficulties. The promise from the start was that he process would not take nearly as long as it eventually would and it seemed that those that worked with the Stars believed it as well. Joe Nieuwendyk, hired in a last-gasp attempt at success by Tom Hicks, was faced with the daunting task of keeping the Stars competitive with little to no financial support.
With Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson, a blossoming Jamie Benn and a healthy Brenden Morrow on the team, it's understandable to think why the Stars would have never considered rebuilding at the time. We know now just how bad the financial situation was but at the time we had no clue the sale of the team would not be finalized until late 2011. To jettison the core of the team and start rebuilding at the time would have been preposterous.
The problem, of course, is that the Stars were never able to improve around that core. Whether it was a lack of maneuverability financially or the lack of overall support from an owner, with each passing year the Stars would only be able to make fringe additions that helped the team short term and not all that significantly -- and rarely made additions for the long term. Only the trades for Kari Lehtonen and Alex Goligoski could truly be seen as future investments and while both will be instrumental in the building of the team for the future, the Stars needed so much more.
The Stars are at where they are now because they chose -- through necessity or conscious decision -- to play for the present and attempt to hold serve from the success of the 2008 season. This has led to a stagnation of sorts, with the Stars now fighting with mediocrity and a fanbase that sees nothing but a general lack of moves made to actually improve the team. It's created an apathy of sorts towards the Stars and a "why should I care if they don't" attitude -- while the hardcore fans remain devout and committed, we've seen the majority of the casual fans slowly walk away as the Stars continue to struggle.
Fans want to see a plan, a commitment to a certain ideal that defines what the Dallas Stars will become under Tom Gaglardi. Joe Nieuwendyk is now facing his third straight season as the General Manager with no playoff game to speak of and while he deserves some credit for maintaining the Stars at a competitive playing level, now is the time to prove that he has what it takes to build a legitimate successful hockey team.
Leading up the trade deadline, Nieuwendyk and Gaglardi spelled out the same general plan. "Playoffs are the goal" and "we need to add scoring depth". Gaglardi has gone on record as saying he doesn't believe in making rash decisions at the trade deadline and that he believes a team needs to be built through the draft and through smart free agent signings. With Gaglardi willing to spend and to get the Stars away from being a cap-floor team, the franchise finally has the ability to follow through with this plan of actually adding talent -- for the first time in nearly four years.
Of course, there is much more than just saying "we need to add talent and we're willing to spend to acquire it" -- and this is exactly where the current frustration with the Stars is embedded. For three years now the fans have heard talk about the situation wasn't as bad as it really was and how the light was just at the end of the tunnel; four years after the last playoff berth the Stars are facing a full rebuild after another lost season.
The key is for fans to see some sort of commitment in one direction or the other, something to hold onto as they look towards trying to determine just what the future will look like. Will the Stars go all in this season for the playoffs and make a series of moves to get there, since making the postseason will go a long ways towards convincing the casual fans that the team is on the right path to improvement? Or will the Stars jettison this season and look to the future, realizing that a solid core exists but one that needs serious help and time for the Stars to become contenders once more?
The Stars have been hesitant to take risks over the past few years, especially with some of the younger players and prospects in the system. While trading James Neal for Alex Goligoski was certainly a risky trade to make, the Stars have been slow to allow progress for several young players in an effort to maintain the NHL team as competitive as they can. Playing prospects and young players in significant minutes with bigger roles is a risky decision that will certainly have some bumps along the way. Yet as we face a season that is likely leading to a youth movement on the roster and a "rebuild" of sorts, it's tough to look back and say that not giving certain players a chance was worth it.
It's unfortunate that during a season in which the Stars would need scoring the most, Brenden Morrow began to physically break down. Coming off the best offensive season of his career, Morrow's regression has had incredible ramifications on the rest of the roster -- something that the Stars could not have planned for. We knew the Stars were going to struggling with scoring this season but when the supposed top line for the team headed October stumbles and never recovers, it creates an even more daunting task for a team struggling to pick themselves up.
What can't happen is for the Stars to straddle the line once more, to appear indecisive about what the plan might be and not make a commitment to a defined path for the franchise. There are ways for the Stars to make a move at the deadline to improve for this season and beyond, to be able to continue to fight for the postseason while also maintaining a set plan for the future as well. The worst decision would be to make the decision to stay the course with what is on the ice now, a formula that is obviously not working for a myriad of reasons.
The Stars are currently a team without an identity and you can see that each and every night on the ice. For two years now the Stars have preached "hard to play against" and "pesky", but as an actual team identity those terms fall incredibly short. These players are fighting with consistency and confidence, both with themselves and with each other and it's obvious that when adversity hits in the middle of a game the Stars confidence wavers -- which is a major reason for the Stars losing by multiple games in most games they don't win.
This is also a franchise without an identity for the future, and while we can get a good sense of what sort of team Nieuwendyk is attempting to build with his drafting history, the lack of a clear and concise plan has created a very muddled future to predict. What sort of additions need to be made but more importantly, what sort of team do the Stars want to build with those additions? What is the identity of the team now and how do future acquisitions fit into that identity? Those answers do not exist because for the past three years the Stars have fought to remain competitive without a clear plan as to how to get through the hardships of the sale of the franchise. "Stay the course" seemed to be plan and now, with yet another playoff hope fading, we can see just how damaging that lack of a cohesive plan at the NHL level has been.
A plan for the future can follow many paths and there's no clear idea of just what that path may be for the Dallas Stars. The Stars can begin to define that path with the trade deadline this spring and continue defining it this summer in free agency. Going all in at the deadline is certainly not the right answer, as a panicked move to try and instantly improve the team could be disastrous. What needs to happen, however, is for Joe Nieuwendyk and Tom Gaglardi to show their hand and follow up on their words with legitimate action, in one direction or the other.
Straddling the fence has not worked to this point and it's driven many casual fans away. For the Stars to really and truly bring those fans back means winning, first and foremost. It also means showing that a plan exists with a defined structure of how to accomplish that plan. Don't tell the fans, show the fans, through decisive action that begins to shed light on just what the future for this team will look like.
It all starts at the trade deadline. The short-sighted goal in the playoffs and making the postseason this year would certainly be a great thing for the fans. Yet a long-term goal desperately needs to be defined and followed through with, when for too long one barely existed. An owner is in place, with money and the willingness to spend it. He says he's committed to building a winner; now it's time to show us.