Over the past ten games the Dallas Stars have seen their playoff hopes dwindle, going from a realistic chance at the division crown to needing a lot of help and good luck just to make the postseason. This past ten game stretch was also their most difficult of the season, including four games against Vancouver and San Jose and two games against a desperate Calgary team.
The Stars won just three of those games, with the losses to San Jose the most devastating. It's seemed that, at least over the past few weeks, the Stars were close to having everything in control before completely unraveling in the second period. In three of those losses the Stars were tied or leading in the second period before allowing an obscene amount of goals to let the games get completely out of hand. In these ten games the Stars have scored just 22 goals while the defense has regressed horrendously from what we had seen during the 10-0-1 stretch that put them into this position in the first place.
What has really affected the Stars has been the lack of secondary scoring and a reliance on the top line of Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson and Michael Ryder to provide much of the offense. The Stars have done their best to force feed the top line into easy minutes with the most offensive zone starts on the team. This has created issues for the rest of the team when the top line struggles to score and especially when they struggle defensively, which has been the case for most of these past ten games.
Jamie Benn, at one point, was leading the offensive charge for the Stars on a new top line. As the season has progressed, however, his role has changed from an offensive powerhouse to one more akin to a checking line center. The reason for this is clear; use Benn against the top lines of the opponents and free up the Ribeiro line on offense. Benn is a good two-way forward that can generate his own offense despite hardcore defensive minutes yet the Stars are suffering without his consistent contribution.
Let's take a closer look at Benn's role over the past ten games after the jump.
|Winnipeg||Glass, Fehr||46.1%||2||-1||Morrow, Ott|
|Chicago||Sharp, Kruger||46.1%||1||+1||Morrow, Ott|
|Phoenix||Hanzal, Morris||14.3%||5||+3||Morrow, Ott|
|Vancouver||Burrows, Kessler||66.7%||4||+6||Morrow, Ott|
|Calgary||Jokinen, Glencross||71%||4||-2||Ott, Burish|
|Calgary||Jokinen, Glencross||35.7%||6||+8||Ott, Burish|
|Edmonton||Eberle, Whitney||33.3%||4||+4||Ott, Burish|
|Vancouver||Burrows, Kesler||50.0%||5||+1||Ott, Burish|
|San Jose||Clowe, Havlat||64.29||3||-3||Ott, Burish|
|San Jose||Thornton, Pavelski||55.56||3||+1||Ott, Burish|
The first thing that stands out about these numbers is that the games the Stars have won (Phoenix, Calgary, Edmonton) aren't the games in which the Stars suddenly decided to give Benn more offensive zone starts. In fact, one of Benn's best games of the season game against Calgary in which he went straight up against Olli Jokinen for most of the game, saw mostly defensive zone starts and his line completely dominated.
The next item that strikes me is the competition that Benn and his line if facing; most nights, it's the top defensive line of the opposition or a very good two-way line like that of Alex Burrows and Ryan Kessler. Jamie Benn and his linemates, for the most part, are still able to generate positive Corsi and positive scoring chances throughout the game and it's this fact that keeps the Stars trying this system. What is frustrating is that during this time, that second line hasn't been producing as much as has been needed where it counts the most: on the scoreboard.
In the four games where Brenden Morrow was playing with Benn and Ott, that line combined for just two points total between the three players. After the switch to put Morrow on the fourth line, Benn has four goals and six points yet Ott and Burish still have just six points between them -- with five coming in the two games against Calgary.
The Stars are attempting to play Jamie Benn in tough minutes, with defensively-minded teammates, to take the defensive strain off the top line. With so many games coming against puck-possession teams in this span and most of them on the road, they've lost the matchup battle that they need to much to succeed and the top line has been exposed defensively -- especially against San Jose.
In San Jose on Saturday night the Stars lost the matchup battles they were looking for and the Sharks were able to put Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski out against the Ribeiro line for most of the night. This led to a quick 2-0 deficit and the Stars were unable to generate much offensively against a team that was content to play keep away for the rest of the game.
At home, the Stars were able to get Benn back against the Thornton line yet as good as Jamie Benn may be as a two-way forward, he's far from a defensive specialist at center. The Stars were once again exposed in the second period defensively and a game they were winning 2-1 suddenly unraveled as their playoff hopes dwindled.
Using Jamie Benn in this role has had the goal of freeing up the top line yet in essence has completely handicapped the team's best offensive force when the Stars should really be riding his goal-scoring to the playoffs. It's a situation that highlights just how little depth the Stars really do have at center and how as much as everyone loves the Nystrom, Fiddler and Dvorak line they are from the defensively-capable team that many think they might be.
So, what is to be done about this situation?
In an ideal world, the Stars would be able to put a true "checking line" on the ice as the third line. Steve Ott, Adam Burish and perhaps Vernon Fiddler on the third line would be able to be used in massive defensive minutes and be matched up against the top lines of the opposition as much as possible.
At the same time, the Stars would have better depth on the wing and be able to match Jamie Benn with more true offensive players on his wing -- players that compliment the offensive that Benn is able to produce. Ott and Burish are decent defensively yet are far from the type of offensive talent you'd ideally have on your second line.
The next option, at least for the rest of this season, is to completely change tactics and lean on Benn once again to create offense. To do this, he needs more offensively-minded players on his wing -- players the Stars are a bit short on while waiting for the young prospects to develop.
There's always the option of putting Loui Eriksson back with Benn on the second line, a pairing that worked magically at the start of the season. That then runs the risk of further diminishing the defensive ability of the Ribeiro line, a risk the Stars are unlikely going to be willing to take. Reilly Smith won't likely play again this season after a rough game in Vancouver so the other options for the second line become limited. The Stars attempted to play Vincour with Benn for a few games yet the young winger struggled at times, so it's doubtful the Stars go back to that plan.
Putting Michael Ryder with Jamie Benn is something that is certainly intriguing, and one the Stars might pursue if they're looking to change it up. Ryder and Benn are both hard charging players on offense and the Stars need to regain that aggression if they have any hopes whatsoever of making it to the postseason.
If nothing else, the past ten games have shown us just how far the Stars still need to go before this team is truly a contender. They have one of the best goal-scoring talents to step on the ice since Mike Modano yet have chosen to use him in a defensive-capability out of absolute necessity and lack of overall scoring depth. The Stars might be able to survive by shaking things up but one thing is clear; the Stars need to find a way to unleash Jamie Benn.