The Dallas Stars lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in a blaze of terrible glory 8-1 on March 16 this year -- possibly the worst loss I've ever witnessed on home ice. (I left after the second period it was so bad, and it's the only NHL game I've ever walked out on.)
After that game, then-head coach Glen Gulutzan took most of the blame for the loss on himself, saying, "I don't see it as a problems in the team. It's just our job as coaches to make sure our players, especially our young players, are prepared to play against a team like this."
What I find interesting about that remark is how it absolved all of the blame from the players and placed it solely on the coaching staff. While I can appreciate the sentiment Gulutzan was going for there -- that team certainly was not prepared for the Blackhawks that night -- it represents a lot of what the dressing room had been like for the past few seasons.
Whisperings of the culture the Stars had built were that it was one of a "country club." It wasn't often you saw coaches or players calling the play on the ice out specifically. The canned "we just need to work harder" type responses were normal for this club for a while.
Then things started changing.
Jamie Benn came out after that same game and had one of the more interesting quotes I've ever seen from him. "We (expletive) on our first goalie and we (expletive) on our second." It was one of the first real responses I recall seeing from one of the young guys that called their own play out in a harsh manner. It didn't try to side-step or polish it up -- it called a spade a spade.
This season, we're seeing a similar kind of blunt assessment of the on-ice play, and it's coming from the top down.
New general manager Jim Nill has been talking a lot since he started about working hard and being consummate professionals. He also expects the best players on the team to be the best, a very high standard to be held to for young guys like Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. He's also not happy with the status quo.
"You come to work every day and you are trying to get better," Nill said. "I think there are a lot of things we can still do better. We can still manage the puck better. Our power play, if it can get going."
Nill's coach is on the same page and is never afraid to point out after games what could have been better (even if the team won that night). After the opening game of the season, he emphasized the battle level of the team. There was a big hullabaloo about Lindy Ruff calling out Seguin's faceoff effort. Then we got this gold from him after the Stars took a 6-2 shellacking from the Chicago Blackhawks -- yes, the same ones that just nine months previously handed them another lopsided loss.
"That was a good old fashioned [expletive] is what that was. You can't hide that. Maybe a little luck they had early, but mentally I didn't like our preparation. Took the early penalties; some of those I thought were ones we could have avoided and they put us in a hole. And even to kill the 5-on-3 off and then let go of coverage and give Kane a breakaway - that's inexcusable. Just on a mental side, that falls on my shoulders. [....] This is a good character test. Bounce back from a game that we were collectively a bad team and a bad effort."
(For the record, I did stay through that Tuesday night loss for the whole game -- at least Antoine Roussel was making the night entertaining for me.)
The best part, though, is that the players are on the same page as the head coach and general manager -- something that is key for the success of this team. After the game, Roussel and Shawn Horcoff both pointed out specific areas of the game that the team did not do well in -- too many breakaways, too many turnovers, a poor start.
To me, the post-game quotes from Tuesday night's loss shows that this team has bought into what Nill and Ruff are preaching. They're assessing their play and are aware of when it isn't up to snuff. I'm not seeing a lot of the usual canned responses but rather seeing specific examples of the good and the bad. That, to me, is a sign of consistent communication that is coming from the top down to this team. A knowledge of the expectation that is set for them, and when it is being met (or not.) They've drank the Nill/Ruff kool-aid.
Confession: So have I.
As a manager in my real-world job (the one that pays my bills, allows me to be a season ticket holder, and gives me the greatest joy to go see this team play on the road) I know that when my employees fail to meet my expectations it's most likely because I haven't defined them clearly. That's when a team is disjointed and doesn't perform as well as it should, and it falls on the leadership to ensure that this is rectified quickly.
That's exactly what Nill and Ruff appear to be doing. They're laying out their expectations of these guys and assessing when things are not going well.
A lot of those things are being fixed as the season progresses. The battle level hasn't really been as big a question mark in my eyes as seasons past -- they're usually out there working hard (the Florida Panthers game and this recent Chicago games being outliers to that.) The team has worked on cleaning up their turnovers and passing. (Ok, so some things are still works in progress....and I don't even want to talk about that abysmal two minutes of what should be a power play but looks like a power-less play these days.)
But the best thing is that there are layers of improvement. They're all moving in the same direction to turn this playoff-less ship towards the Stanley Cup promise-land. It's a big ship, so the turn in direction will take time, but it's a thing of awe to watch a team working in the same direction -- and isn't afraid to say when they've regressed.
Coach Lindy Ruff said after last night's loss against the Nashville Predators "Every game is big, and now we've lost two in a row and we have to take pride in stopping it."
We. Not "me."
Accountability is a beautiful thing.