Dallas Stars Path To Improvement: A Long & Difficult Road

As it happens after most losses this season, Dallas Stars fans reacted with questions and rationalizations trying to determine just went wrong. For most games it's about execution or energy and the frustrations with consistency from game to game grow with each loss. For others it's about injuries and how a full compliment of Stars players, who are healthy, would have fared much better rather than suffer from the latest defeat.

Against the San Jose Sharks, just as we've seen against teams like Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the Dallas Stars measured up poorly against a team that is obviously superior in depth and talent. On some nights, the Stars are able to play well against these sorts of teams -- such as the victories against the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins -- but for the most part they have struggled against teams that are heads and shoulders above them in overall talent.

The system brought here by new coach Glen Gulutzan was hopefully supposed to offset the lack of overall talent by creating and building a team game that plays to the players' strengths. For the most part this has happened, as the Stars are competing well against teams that either on the same level or even somewhat above them in talent and payroll. Yet the Stars also have some shortcomings in how their players are used in game and sometimes systemic changes aren't enough to overcome shortcomings of talent.

There's nothing wrong with accepting that the Stars just aren't as good as the San Jose Sharks. I thought that last night the Stars showed decent jump early and were playing well, until a bad break frustrated them and then they found themselves in penalty trouble for most of the game. While there were certainly issues with the performance of the team, it was apparent that the Sharks are just better overall -- and they've proven that over the course of this season.

So, what should the Stars do to fix this? With Tom Gaglardi running the show, fans have expected some sort of change or splash already and with the trade deadline approaching the anticipation is growing for improvement. The exact answer on how this is to be accomplished, however, is complicated.

I'm going to piggyback on Erin's post from earlier today and reprint the quotes by Tom Gaglardi concerning his financial outlook for the Stars for the near future. Talking to Mac Engel, Gaglardi states that he understands the biggest weakness on this team is the scoring depth on the top two lines.

"Are we looking at making our team better in the top six? The answer is yes. If that means more payroll, are we prepared to do it? The answer is yes. The question is, what is the cost?"

"If you look at the age group of our players, we are still a young team," he said. "Jamie Benn is the next Mike Modano; he's only 22. Does it make sense to bring in a guy that's 35 years old to make the playoffs this year? I don't think so. We want to build around our young guys and be an up and coming team where we know we are going to be good for several years. That is where Vancouver is right now; they put the team together, stuck together, and is now having success. This is where Chicago is and Boston, too. That's the way to do this thing. You can't go out and trade for a bunch of things.

Gaglardi would go on to say that he knows the Stars can't be a low-payroll team and not only compete in the NHL, but compete in the Dallas market as well. The Stars are falling behind in relevancy and while making the playoffs this season is important but not necessary, they also can't afford to go into a full rebuilding mode that would essentially start this team over from scratch for the next few years.

So the answer is to become a hybrid of fighting for competitiveness now while also maintaining that specific plan for the future. Gaglardi obviously recognizes that making a trade for an aging veteran or pending UFA is pointless, even if it's in the name of making the playoffs this season -- something that desperately needs to happen. Yet to do so would not only be focused solely on this year but would also likely compromise assets that would be valuable for the future.

If the Stars were to make a trade, a significant one, then they would likely be targeting players that would not only help in the short term but also be a big piece of the puzzle for the future as well. A significant scoring threat in the top six would be absolutely ideal, but players like that come at a significant price at the trade deadline -- especially if they are under contract past this coming summer.

There's also the fact that the Stars are more than just one or two pieces away from truly having a legit contender on the ice. While "one or two players", that are significant upgrades, would certainly go a long ways towards building towards that goal, sacrificing valuable assets just for those two pieces would be an incredible mistake. The Stars must maintain diligence in any trade that is made, especially considering that Gaglardi has stated he's willing to open up the pocket books in free agency in order to build this team.

It's obvious that the Stars are also hesitant in moving core pieces of this team, especially the young forwards. There's also the fact that in the next few years, the Stars could have several young prospects making the move to the NHL. Reilly Smith is likely just one year away and has developed into an incredible two-way forward with tremendous scoring ability. The Stars have several other forwards on the way, but that's not going to help this team in the short term either.

While Gaglardi obviously has an idea about how he wants to accomplish building this team, the exact plan and path the Stars wish to take is unclear. The Stars haven't been able to really have a plan the past three years under their financial restrictions and now that those restrictions are seemingly lifted, it's now a matter of "too much to do, don't know where to start."

The Stars are struggling this season in large part due to the ineffectiveness of the second line -- specifically Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow. The Stars have tried to spark that duo lately with the addition of Loui Eriksson to the line, but the continued defensive issues of that line is creating major issues for the Stars as each game passes. The fact that Morrow is having a poor year offensively and Ribeiro has yet to really find a groove, over halfway through the season, only exacerbates the issue that more more.

Nieuwendyk and coach Gulutzan have the unenviable task of determining not just what the long-term future of certain veterans on this team will be but also how they'll be handled progressing through this season. While the Stars will certainly be in the market to make some trades this spring that will hopefully help improve the team, the reality is that this roster is close to what it will be for the rest of this season. That means that Gulutzan must find a way to make the playoffs and it's likely going to mean making some tough decisions with certain players, likely involving the captain of the team.

So, there's multiple levels to the decisions that must be made here, all tied to one another with no clear answer on how to get this accomplished. Gaglardi is certainly saying all the right things and it's obvious that he knows much more about hockey than the previous owner.

The difficulty here is backing those statements up and the Stars will have to grow bold at some point in order to make a move to significantly alter the direction this franchise is heading. Right now the Stars are stuck on average and they're struggling to compete with teams above that level. The good news is that making the postseason is not an exact impossibility, although any success once there -- especially if matched up against Detroit or San Jose -- will likely mean a quick exit.

The general thought is that even a first round berth and nothing else is better than missing the playoffs at all. The hope is that the Stars plan this right and keep the focus on building around a solid core of players for the future and making those hard decisions that come along with such a path. Gaglardi has talked the right game, now it's time to back it up with the right actions.

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