When Brenden Morrow was placed on injured reserve late last week, the Stars decided to move Eric Nystrom to the second line with center Mike Ribeiro in order to try and replace Morrow with a somewhat similar player. Nystrom is a guy that can go get the puck, he'll go straight to the net and he has the finishing ability that Ribeiro needs in a winger.
At morning skate on Saturday, coach Glen Gulutzan had moved Nystrom up to the second line but had also shaken things up a bit further. Loui Eriksson was back with Jamie Benn and Michael Ryder was playing with Ribeiro. It was interesting to see and frankly a bit exciting. Eriksson had enjoyed his greatest offensive success this season with Benn and with the Stars struggling offensively it was going to be interesting to see how quickly they could regain that magic.
Instead, the Stars changed the lines back to how they had been before. For the game against the Wild, Eriksson was back with Ribeiro and it seems the same will hold true tonight against Phoenix. You can understand the reasoning, but after another pointless night for Eriksson the question becomes, "what's the best way use for Loui Eriksson right now?"
It's a conundrum that I'm glad I don't have to make a decision on and you can understand both sides of the argument. The Dallas Stars have had an issue with secondary scoring for most of the season outside of the Jamie Benn line and the Mike Ribeiro line has been victimized defensively for most of the season as well. The struggles of the second line have been well documented here and it's tough to say exactly what the fix is.
The Stars moved Loui Eriksson to the Ribeiro line back on January 5th against Nashville. Steve Ott moved up to play with Jamie Benn and at first it seemed as if the Stars had finally found the balance they had been lacking for much of the season.
In those first two games, Eriksson had five assists with Ribeiro scoring four goals. The Stars scored ten goals total in those two games against the Predators and Oilers and suddenly we were singing the praises of how Eriksson helped Morrow and Ribeiro with puck possession and defense while also providing some playmaking skills needed on that second line.
Since Ribeiro went down with a knee injury after the Oilers game, things haven't been nearly as rosy. The Stars played three games without Ribeiro before Jamie Benn was lost after an emergency appendectomy, and Eriksson never rejoined Benn on that first line. With Benn and Ribeiro both back, it seems the Stars are intent on keeping that scoring potential spread out and for now Eriksson is a staple on that second line.
In total, Eriksson has played six games with Ribeiro on the second line. He has six assists in those games, although five came in just two games. He is a combined minus-3 in the three games since the All-Star break and has just five shots in those games -- including none against Minnesota. Eriksson has scored just three goals in his past 13 games and it's obvious that right now his focus is everywhere but on offense.
Eriksson is perhaps the best player on this team, even better than Jamie Benn. He's about as well-rounded a hockey player as they come and he's easily the best two-way forward the Stars possess. It's understandable why the Stars would want to have him with Ribeiro, as his defensive ability would help the second line become more balanced while his puck possession skills would, in theory, help Ribeiro find his offense more consistently.
We also have to remember that it's not just about points production, it's about puck possession as well. The Ribeiro line has never been good defensively but it didn't matter much because of the time of possession they managed on each shift. This isn't happening this season and it's exposing that second line more than they should be. So putting Eriksson on that line seems to be the logical choice.
Yet Eriksson is also being stifled offensively and the second best scoring forward on the Dallas Stasr has just six points in his past 13 games. With the Stars struggling to score over the past month overall, and heading into the toughest month of the season, it's tough to justify having one of your biggest offensive weapons buried on a struggling second line because of his defense.
So, it's a question of what's more important to the Stars? Is Eriksson defense and puck possession with Ribeiro more important, or being able to team up with Jamie Benn to form a dynamic offensive duo that can score at will?
Jamie Benn has progressed to the level that he's making those around him instantly better. He's pushing the offense forward, he's playing great defense and Steve Ott and Michael Ryder are both getting several great chances each game because of it.
Yet Ott isn't having the sort of offensive output you'd expect from playing with Benn and he's become a bit snakebitten in the goal-scoring department. Would it be worth it to reunite the Eriksson-Benn-Ryder line to get the offense as a whole rolling again and move Ott back to the second line? Would Ott be able to provide the same defensive balance that Eriksson provides, or at least provide an adequate amount? We don't know if Ott or Nystrom would be comfortable on the right wing, so it's tough to determine too much.
There's likely no true "right answer", although it's tough not to lean towards putting Eriksson back with Benn. We've seen that right now, this season, that second line is going to struggle no matter who might be on the wings and it appears that Eriksson is being sucked into a vortex of offensive stagnation. Putting Eriksson back with Benn would give the Stars a very dangerous top line yet again and perhaps a bit of a scoring boost -- something this team desperately needs.
Of course, Eriksson and Ribeiro could combine for four points tonight and this entire argument is moot. It's all speculative and you don't envy those that have to make these decisions. Logic says that perhaps having Eriksson with Ribeiro is the right choice. The potential excitement that Eriksson and Benn could bring, however, says otherwise.