There has been a theme building over the past few weeks, as the Dallas Stars have made some tough decisions to move on from the core of players that have missed the playoffs the past four seasons -- whether it was completely their fault or not. The Stars have allowed Adam Burish and Sheldon Souray to depart via free agency and have traded Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott, in a concerted effort to drastically change the culture and approach of this hockey team.
To go along with this movement of players out of town, as the Stars attempt to find build more skill on the team and transition to a promising group of young players, is the worry that the Stars are suddenly going to be "easy to play against" and despite their focus on talent -- the lack of physical tenacity and attitude is going to be an issue for the Stars this next season.
Tim Cowlishaw, at the tail end of an actually pretty decent article on the situation, makes this statement:
I don't know where this team's energy and grit and toughness come from next season. Those are important elements in this game, but, for a franchise that has fallen to the bottom of the local interest meter, I'd rather be searching for those than saying I don't have a clue who the heck is going to score.
With the Stars currently having a significantly undersized top four defensive unit, and after the loss of players like Ott, Jake Dowell and Burish, then the question is certainly valid. Where is this team's attitude and physicality going to come from? The bigger issue should be, however, whether this aspect of a hockey team is as important as it once was, especially to the Dallas Stars.
There's no doubting that, as currently constructed, the Dallas Stars are a more offensively talented team than they were last season. Last season the Stars scored just 2.49 goals per game, down from 2.71 in 10-11 and 2.80 in 09-10, a low number that was also a victim of the Stars lack of success on the power play.
For about 45 days, the Dallas Stars had the most dynamic and successful line in hockey, with Mike Ribeiro, Loui Eriksson and Michael Ryder outperforming every other trio in the NHL over that time span. Yet outside of that period of time, that also coincided with the Stars big run between February and March, the Stars struggled massively to find the right balance on offense and eventually had to use Jamie Benn in a shutdown role with Steve Ott and Adam Burish just to have a chance to stay even between defense and offense.
So, the Stars have addressed that offensive imbalance with a series of moves that has, as the Stars have said, been able to move players back to their right "slot" on the lineup. Vernon Fiddler will likely take on a fourth line role, Jamie Benn will be able to focus on offense with Jaromir Jagr at his side and the newly acquired Ray Whitney and Derek Roy provide bettter two-way ability than the Stars enjoyed on the second line last season.
By almost all accounts, the Stars are a deeper and more talented team that last season, even if it is just for one year. The Stars also have more flexibility in regards to being able to bring along the young prospects in the system, with players on the roster who seem more willing and able to be mentors for the young players currently on the roster.
Yet it's tough to deny that the loss of certain players will make the team not as "tough" as they might have been in the past. Ott and Burish were the guys who brought the physical tenacity, Ott especially, and Souray showed last season just how important it is to have a defenseman willing and able to be physical in front of the net. In fact, for the past few years, the Stars have attempted to become "harder to play against," an effort to be physically imposing and to draw on the strengths of players like Ott and Brenden Morrow as they built a competitive team without the ability to freely spend in free agency to do so.
Once could argue, however, that the need for such an approach for the Stars was made out of necessity and not due to the absolute need to embrace such a style of play.
Last season, the rallying cry for the team was to be "pesky," an apparent attempt to overcome this lack of overall talent by embracing a tenacious spirit and style of play on the ice. In the end, the Stars just weren't good enough to overcome other teams fighting for a playoff spot and the Stars ended the season as one of the most penalized teams in the NHL while also receiving some of the fewest power play opportunities in the league.
For four years now the Stars have attempted to become more "tenacious" and to better stick up for each other on the ice. This was a big issue in 2009-10, when the Stars would fail to come to each other's aid at times and created a feeling that the team was soft and lacked the physical acumen to keep from being pushed around on the ice. Over the next few years, the Stars attempted to change this yet it has become increasingly clear that for a hockey team to be successful in the NHL -- the team needs to be more than "pesky" to be successful.
Finding physical players willing to show attitude on the ice is not a tough thing to do. Building a team based upon talent and offensive acumen is something that is much harder to do and lately it has seemed that the most successful teams worry about the talent and depth first, then look to add that "tenacity" once the team is closer to contention.
This is why players like Shane Doan and even Brenden Morrow are being sought after the final complimentary piece to potentially contending teams. You don't read about teams that are currently in rebuilds going after such players; it's the teams that have already completed the building of talent that are looking for such players to compliment what they already have in place.
The Dallas Stars have been a "gritty" and "tenacious" team the past two years, at least, and they have yet to do enough to be able to make the playoffs. Perhaps such a roster could have gotten over the hump if the team could have afforded to add to it during that time, but it's now clear that the Stars are looking to make a transition and from that effort have apparently changed the culture and approach of the hockey team.
Grit is well and good, but if the team can't score goals then the team won't be successful.
It's a valid question to ask where the on-ice physical leadership will come from, although the Stars could always turn to Jamie Benn and others for that role in the short term. While it's unlikely that Benn will be fighting that much, he's become one of the most consistent power forwards in the NHL - a combination of size, hitting ability and goal scoring that is very rare in today's NHL.
There's no guarantee that this new approach will work and the Stars might turn to young players like Francis Wathier and Luke Gazdic if it becomes necessary to add some physicality to the roster. But when teams like the Nashville Predators, Detroit Red Wings and Phoenix Coyotes are being successful despite low penalty totals - it's clear that being a physical and tenacious team isn't the outright determination of success that it might have once been.
For once, I agree with Cowlishaw. It's better to be looking for the "gritty" players to add to a roster, than wonder just who on that roster is going to score. There's a good reason why goal-scoring forwards are more valuable than physical ones.