2012 NHL Playoff Race: The Dallas Stars & Brenden Morrow

via www.myhockeyshots.com

The Dallas Stars have long been known as a tough, physical team that plays blue-collar, hard-nosed hockey. Since the early days when the team first came to Dallas it was that approach that made local fans fall in love with the sport and it was a gritty, physical approach that helped lead this franchise to the Stanley Cup in 1999. Over the years the Stars have attempted to move to a more skills-based team but inevitably it seems the franchise will always return to its roots.

Brenden Morrow has set the example of this brand of hockey, ever since the his days as a baby-faced young kid playing on the same line as his girlfriend's father. His ability to get to the front of the net and take a physical beating, while still able to score goals from anywhere near the crease, instantly led Morrow to becoming a fan favorite among the Dallas faithful.

Over the years, Morrow grew as a player and as a leader to become the face of this franchise and the eventual team captain. His method of lead-by-example resonated with teammates and fans and his willingness to do the dirty work, to stand up for his teammates and drop the gloves when needed -- along with his penchant for scoring big goals -- all led Morrow to becoming one of the more respected captains in the NHL.

It wasn't that long ago that Morrow was leading this team to the Western Conference Finals with one of the more remarkable postseason performances we've seen. His play helped create brand new hockey fans that summer and many fans became die-hard Stars fans because of his play against the San Jose Sharks.

Since that summer, however, things have not been nearly the same. As the Dallas Stars continue forward in a brutal race for a postseason berth, the team faces an uncertain future with its long-time captain.

Brenden Morrow has never been a finesse hockey player. He's never been known for deft stick-handling or pretty passes, and has never scored the prettiest of goals. What Brenden Morrow did so well for so long was something not many players were willing to do. Go into the tough areas on the ice, play incredibly physical hockey and dig the puck out. Take up residence in front of the net and take a pounding, in order to stay in prime scoring position.

His chemistry with Mike Ribeiro and his ability to finish in the tough spots around the goal helped the Stars build one of the more dynamic lines in hockey for a number of seasons. Unfortunately, Morrow's physical style of hockey has led to him taking an absolute beating over the years and that in turn has led to his body breaking down. Over the last few seasons, the physical nature of his game has taken a toll on his body and this year it finally started to seriously affect his play on the ice.

in 2010-11 Morrow set a career high with 33 goals and for most of the season seemed to be back to his "old self" after a few frustrating years following a serious knee injury. He and Ribeiro rekindled that old chemistry and while Brad Richards held down the top line, helped form a potent second line that nearly helped drive the Stars to the playoffs.

This season, almost immediately, it was clear that things just weren't the same. Morrow was slowed down physically and wasn't nearly as capable along the boards and in front of the net and the offensive struggles of that line only amplified the defensive shortcomings that Ribeiro and Morrow have always possessed. Their ability to score and create offense has always masked their issues defensively and while Morrow was historically a willing and able defensive forward, he struggled mightily as this season wore on.

This led to Morrow being shut down twice, the latter of which led to him heading to injured reserve for over a month. The plan was to allow Morrow time to see specialists and to have time to work on his neck and back issues and return at as close 100% as possible. Unfortunately, although Morrow scored twice in his first three games back, it was apparent that the team's captain was nowhere near as healthy as he and the team would have liked him to be.

Morrow admitted as much over the weekend.

"I'm definitely not 100 percent, but I feel like I can contribute and be effective,'' Morrow said. ``I do feel that I will be at another level next season when I can address some of these things on a long-term basis, but that's just not possible right now. We don't have the time. But honestly, I've played through things in the past and been effective, and I feel like I can do that now.''

The hope was that with Morrow back, the Stars would be able to build two dynamic lines as the Stars hoped to continue their push for the postseason. With Morrow playing with Jamie Benn, it was thought that he would provide a physical presence on that line while also providing with a good finishing presence that would help spark Benn' and Ott's offensive output.

Instead, Morrow slowed down exponentially with each game and it became obvious he was nowhere near healthy. Unfortunately, this resulted in Morrow effectively slowing down the second line and preventing the Stars offense from truly breaking out as it was hoped to do.

For many fans, the solution to this problem was to limit the role that Morrow had on the team. It's a brutal stance to take but when the Stars are in the middle of a fight for the playoffs, watching the captain of the team struggle and take bad penalties was extremely tough for those of us that love the team so dearly, especially Morrow. Yet there's also the season and the team to consider and when it became clear that Morrow still wasn't healthy, limiting his minutes seemed to be the only honest solution.

Last week, after the Vancouver loss, there was debate as to whether we should write an article that discussed what should be done in regards to this situation. It's a tough spot for the team, the coach and the players as anytime the captain is struggling so mightily how the situation is handled can have a significant impact on the locker room. There was some thought that the Stars wouldn't take the risk of moving Morrow down and upsetting the balance between the team and the captain.

Fortunately, coach Glen Gulutzan was smart enough to approach Brenden Morrow about a change.

"Brenden has to do a lot to get himself game ready, and probably the right thing to do is scale his minutes back,'' Gulutzan said. "I talked to our captain a couple of days ago, and he agreed, and that's why he's our captain. What a professional guy to deal with. I think 10-12 minutes while he's getting fully healthy is probably the right message.''

The change immediately had an impact on the team, with Jamie Benn scoring two goals and the Stars hanging on for a 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames. Morrow, playing just over ten minutes between the third and fourth lines, played just as hard as ever and it could be argued that he was much more effective in this new role -- something the Stars truly need on the lower lines if they have hopes of making it to the postseason.

To his credit, Morrow took the change with class. Too many times leaders on teams in every sport take exception to the notion that they deserve a reduced role with the team they've been with for so long, causing issues in the locker room and creating even more frustration among the fans. Instead, Morrow played just as hard as he ever had -- if not harder -- and was on the ice in the final minutes of a close game.

"We won, and that's the most important thing,'' Morrow said. "It's a little bit difficult, but I know what he's trying to do. I know he wants to get ice time for Bennie and still keep everyone involved and improve the scoring, and he has some tough choices to make. ''

The question now becomes what will happen this summer with the Stars captain. It's obvious that Morrow needs surgery to get healthy again, something that has been avoided for the past few years as this problem steadily grew worse. At his age and the amount of miles he has at the NHL level, it's tough to know if even a successful surgery is enough to get him back to where he used to be.

The Stars are entering a period where young players will be pushing for playing time and Morrow will eventually become a victim of this youth movement. What is encouraging, however, is the notion that if healthy he could help form a formidable third line along with Steve Ott and another veteran player. Morrow may not be the offensive player he once was but his ability and willingness to play hard, physical hockey is something that any team needs on a legitimate third line.

No matter what, it's important to remember that this is a player who has been willing to sacrifice his body and healthy for 13 years for the Dallas Stars -- something that is now having a profound impact on his well being. Even though he's not 100%, he's still fighting to stay on the ice and contribute in any way possible. Too many times fans are quick to turn on a player when their level of play starts to fall off from where it once was and in Morrow's case, the frustration and anger from fans has been louder than ever.

We must not forget the class such a player has always shown with this organization and what he's helped do for hockey in Dallas. His best years might be behind him but his dedication and willingness to do whatever it takes to win is something that sets the example for the rest of the team and is something the Stars desperately need during this playoff run.

Morrow is still man enough to know that he's not as good as he could be right now and took the "demotion" with class and style, highlighted by an empty-net goal in the game against the Flames. Fans may become frustrated at times but should never lose respect for a player like that -- no matter how much his production may drop off.

It takes a lot of guts for a team to ask their captain and longest-tenured player to take step back and accept a diminished role with the team. It takes even more class and guts for that player to accept it, to know that this is what is best for his team and to not allow his ego to get in the way of the goal his team is trying to reach. Too many times egos in sports get in the way of what is good for their team and in this case, Brenden Morrow showed just what sort of man and hockey player he really is.

As if we ever doubted it.

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