The Dallas Stars have made sweeping changes this offseason, following an aggressive plan by new general manager Jim Nill to basically change the course of this franchise in one summer. It was a risky endeavor and while there are no guarantees of success, there's no doubting that for the first time in a long while the Dallas Stars are not being content with hoping the same formula with slight changes will result in a different outcome than before.
The transformation of the roster really began last summer, when former-GM Joe Nieuwendyk traded Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott in a bid to re-make the center depth at the NHL level as well as changing the complexion of the team. For various reasons the Stars went with a "quick fix" approach for the 2013 season, with mixed results that eventually ended in another disappointing finish and the sacking of Nieuwendyk and coach Glen Gulutzan.
Under Jim Nill's guidance, paired with Tom Gaglardi's apparently very eager wallet, the Stars have perhaps been the most aggressive team this offseason in changing the roster moving forward. Where these moves differ from what we've seen from other "quick fix" teams in the past is that many changes are made with the long-term in mind, rather than an all-in maneuver to try and jump back into the playoff race.
That doesn't mean the Dallas Stars don't hope to be playoff contenders this coming season, but there's debate over whether the Stars have truly improved overall this coming season over the last. Centered around this debate is that while the Stars did indeed make some sweeping changes up front, the Stars defense remains almost completely intact from last season.
That the Stars defense overall was bad last year is an obvious statement. The Stars finished No. 24 in the league in goals-against average and were once again in the bottom third of the NHL in shots allowed per game; what should be seen as a positive is that in spite of the struggles seen for most of the season the Stars were far the worst defensive team in the NHL -- thanks in large part to the play of Kari Lehtonen, even if that was uneven as well throughout the year.
The contributors to the struggles of the Stars on defense was clear, when you look at how the team consistently iced a blue line that featured Brenden Dillon, Jordie Benn, Philip Larsen and Jamie Oleksiak throughout the year. This was a fairly inexperienced defense overall last season with several players likely thrown into situations for which they were not prepared. Injuries and a lack of overall system depth at the position necessitated putting players in this position, and the results were as to be expected.
This wasn't all due to defensive inexperience, however. The Dallas Stars coaching staff seemed unable to really maximize the talents on the defense and to provide the structure necessary for the team to truly overcome some of the obstacles it faced on the blue line. The Stars were supposed to have a more amiable defensive system for the players compared to that experienced under Marc Crawford, one that was easier for players to adjust to and move the puck up the ice, but too many times it seemed as if there was no true structure for these defensemen to fall back on.
The coaching issue has certainly been addressed. Lindy Ruff is now behind the bench in Dallas and has brought James Patrick with him, an accomplished former NHL defenseman who has been with Ruff as an assistant since 2006. Whether this coaching is truly an upgrade remains to be seen but one thing is clear -- this is now a much more experienced coaching staff than we've seen the past two years in Dallas, that's for certain.
It's clear that this is what Nill and the Stars are banking on for change more than anything, that a change in coaching and defensive system and structure can be enough to help improve a struggling defense from the past few seasons. Making the same sweeping changes on the blueline proved to be much more difficult than that of the forward position, and there's no real indication that this was the goal of Jim Nill in the first place.
The Stars now have a glut of defensive prospects in the NHL, one that allowed Joe Morrow to be included in the Tyler Seguin trade, and this seems to be a case of "let's not sell the farm to make a fix now while we wait and see how these young guys work out." The addition of Sergei Gonchar to the defense will, in theory, add some balance to the defensive game overall and allow other to better play to their strengths, but it's clear that the Stars are also playing the long game when it comes to defensive turnover at the NHL level.
Which is where the changes in coaching will come into play. Is a new coach and a new system enough to enact the change and improvement necessary on the blue line? There are those that look at the struggles of the Sabres the past few years as signs that the players are just as important as the coaching. Perhaps a more seasoned Brenden Dillon, along with the injection of Kevin Connauton, can help bring about more improvement over what we witnessed last year.
Lost in this conversation is how the improved depth up the middle will conceivably help out the beleaguered defense. Last season the Stars struggled just as much with team defense from the forwards as they did with the defense itself, a testament once again to the coaching as well as the changes that were needed at center. The additions of Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff add a level of puck possession and defensive ability that perhaps has not existed with the Dallas forwards the past few years, at least overall -- even if Loui Eriksson is now up in Beantown.
Of all of the issues facing the Dallas Stars this coming season, the improvement of the defense will be the biggest question that needs answering. Logic says that true improvement can only change with personnel changes but the Stars are banking on coaching and team improvement overall being the factor that evokes positive change the most moving forward.
This is a brand new Stars team moving forward but with largely the same defense. This will be the ultimate test of just how much coaching can affect a team, especially when it comes to defense, and just how much of a positive impact an experienced Dillon and confident Alex Goligoski can have moving forward. This is the biggest question mark for the Stars this coming season and a situation that was only addressed in ancillary fashion, yet with the hope that overall improvement has been made. Only time will tell.