During last night's podcast with Mark Stepneski, we spent a long time talking about the defensive issues the Stars have had this season and whether it's a result of the players or the system. While we all wanted Matt Niskanen and Trevor Daley to play up to their potential under Marc Crawford and Charlie Huddy's offensive-friendly system, the reality is that neither have produced anywhere near the amount of offense this team needs. The fact that both have been shaky on defense hasn't helped either.
Yet now the Stars are facing a serious issue with scoring balance among the forwards, and it could trigger a temporary philosophy change for Marc Crawford and his offensive schemes.
How the loss of Mike Ribeiro for a minimum of 19 games will ultimately affect the Dallas Stars remains to be seen. While you certainly don't want to bring up "luck" when discussing such a serious injury, there's no doubt that the Stars benefited from the timing of the injury; over half of Ribeiro's supposed recovery time will come during the Olympic break.
There's a chance that Ribeiro misses more than the 4-6 week window that is planned, yet right now it looks as if Ribeiro will return to the ice right after the Olympic Break, including an extra week to recover during the break.
The issue is that by the time the Stars get their #2 center back, the season could well be over.
Currently the Stars sit 4 points behind Los Angeles for the 8th position in the West. It is far from an impossible task for the Stars to not only keep pace with the playoff field while Ribeiro is out but to also gain ground, but is anyone convinced that this team can rely on goaltending and defense can carry them until Ribeiro returns?
On Sunday night, Marc Crawford put James Neal back on the top line with Brad Richards and suddenly the Stars became a one-line team. Neal, Eriksson and Richards represent the top three scorers on the Stars and it's not even contest when you take Ribeiro out of the equation.
Brenden Morrow is fourth among the forwards (excluding Ribeiro) with 27 points and after him there is a steep, steep dropoff for production from the Stars forwards. Jamie Benn has 21 points, Mike Modano has 15 and Steve Ott has 13, all in over 30 games played.
Yet it's the 12 points from Tom Wandell that is most concerning. With Marc Crawford returning Neal to the top line, Wandell is being asked to not only be the team's second center but to also be the catalyst for secondary scoring. While we are all impressed with Wandell's play lately, he does not have the experience nor the track record to show that he has the ability to produce at the level of a top-six center.
With the top line loaded up with the best offensive players, it's obvious that Crawford is hoping that a line that frequently dominates can continue to provide the majority of the team's offense while relying on the rest of the team to not fall apart defensively. If the game against Columbus was any indication, that plan is severely flawed.
The Stars were not only shutout, but were grossly outshot in the game. The Stars allowed 41 shots while barely mustering 25 themselves, and a good number of those came in a late-minute flurry.
With the Stars playing on the road, opposing coaches have the advantage of being able to get the last change, ensuring they get favorable matchups. Ken Hitchcock exploited this all game long. While James Neal was certainly electrifying at times, the top line produced no points and the rest of the Stars lineup was scrambling for a good part of the game.
So with Ribeiro out and the Stars struggling to find some way to get scoring from secondary sources, the questions becomes whether the Stars should continue to front load their lines or try and spread it out. There are certainly pros and cons to this (James Neal has yet to show he can consistently produce when not playing with Richards). If the Stars are unable to get goals from the top line, and the second and third lines are allowing a high number shots, then obviously something needs to change.
If Tom Wandell and even Mike Modano were able to spark any sort of production, then the question becomes moot. But as
What would you have the Stars do?
Should Crawford stick with the Brad Richards line that has been so succesful all season, hoping he can overwhelm the opposition?
Or should he spread the offense out, and rely on Tom Wandell and Mike Modano to try and spark the offense as well?