This was the toughest article I've ever had to write.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. This wasn't supposed to be how this season went, not with the team healthy and with a new coach and an enthusiastic and smart general manager taking over. Great things weren't expected, but improvement and progress were. I don't think any of us expected a Stanley Cup Finals team to suddenly appear, and we were prepared to back a team that would have it's ups and downs as it struggled under a new system and with a limited payroll.
Yet what we now have in front of us is a Dallas Stars team that has lost its heart and its will to fight. They don't believe in one another and it's painfully evident as each game progresses, and that is what has made being a fan of the Dallas Stars right now so tough. Many fans can deal with losses, with a down period as the team transitions from one era to the next. But to continue to watch a team that is having the life sucked out of it in front of our very eyes is demoralizing in ways Stars fans never thought imaginable.
It's easy to stick with a team when they're losing, especially if there are signs of hope for a better future. It makes dealing with the down times bearable, and it makes you as a fan feel even better when they come out on the other side and things are looking up again. It's nothing new to be a fan of a failing team that frustrates its fanbase to no end; this is just something that is completely new to fans of the Dallas Stars.
There are 18 games left between now and the Olympic break. The Stars then play one game before the March 3rd trade deadline. In those 19 games, if the Stars continue this path of building mediocrity and fall even further behind in the Western Conference standings, then expect for major changes to take place. There is a good chance that things start to happen even before the break.
After the break, I get into the fundamental issues facing the Dallas Stars and the paths the team might take on their road to recovery. There are many teams in the NHL that have lived with being mediocre for a long; the Dallas Stars and their fans should not be as content to just live without success and should demand more. That process starts now.
What is the reality of the situation?
This was not the best year for the Stars to struggle, and to struggle even worse than they did last season. At 47 points, the Stars sit in 10th place in the Western Conference, most of which is locked in a brutal battle for positioning from 1st all the way to 8th. For most of the year there hasn't been much difference between the 8th place team and the 10th, but over the past two weeks we've seen the pack start to pull away. The Stars are just six points behind Nashville, but if the Stars don't find a way to immediately solve the woes that plague them that number will continue to grow. In less than two weeks, the Stars could be facing a near insurmountable deficit between themselves and the playoff teams.
Yet it's not as if the Stars have completely imploded and at this point the team has not had more than three losses in a row. Yet the league-high eleven shootout and overtime losses both hurt them and help them at the same time, and are incredibly misleading about the true nature of this team. It's easy to play the 'what if' game, but let's say the Stars had won half of those shootouts and had not allowed several last-second game-tying goals. Then the Stars a this point would be around the 6th spot in the West and this would be nothing but a minor hiccup in a long season.
Yet those losses are part of the fabric of this team and speak to some of the underlying and concerning issues facing the Dallas Stars moving forward. We can talk about statistics and records and points until we're blue in the face, but the true nature of this team is more than apparent on the ice and how they play the game.
The lack of leadership is appalling. And that falls on Brenden Morrow.
On the post-game show after the loss to the New Jersey Devils, I became quite emotional when discussing Brenden Morrow and his leadership of the Stars. For the longest time, he was the heart and soul of this team and was the driving force behind propelling incredible comeback victories and an insanely magical run in the playoffs. Morrow is a quiet, unassuming type of guy off the ice and is a very down to earth guy. I've met him before and he was a very well spoken and gracious guy who took the time to talk to some adoring fans. He's not the sort of guy who is going to go into the locker room and kick some trash cans and yell at his teammates or give a big victory speech before a big game.
He leads through his actions on the ice. The way he would do the dirty work in the corners, would be the first to come to the aid of a teammate, how he made a living causing havoc in front of the net and would score goals with defensemen draped all over him. His grit, determination and never-give-up mentality is what made him the natural leader of the team and it's exactly why he's wearing the "C" on his chest right now.
Except that leadership is gone. Whether it's because he's still not fully recovered from his knee injury, whether it's a natural decline in abilities or whether he's just undergone a complete philosophy shift in how he plays the game, Brenden Morrow is no longer the player he used to be. During today's interview with Bob and Dan on The Ticket, Morrow stated that he contemplated really getting into it with Sean Avery and even dropping the gloves. Yet he said that "the prospect of getting injured or hurting my hand and missing the Olympics" outweighed his desire to teach that knucklehead a lesson.
And perhaps therein lies the problem. Perhaps one of the reasons we haven't seen Morrow be himself on the ice, to be the physical presence and the sparkplug for the team is that he's playing not to get injured. He's had two serious injuries in the past three years (knee and wrist), and it seems as if now he's wary of another injury robbing him of a one in a lifetime chance to represent his country in the Olympics. Debating the merits of NHL players appearing in the Olympics is for another time but if Morrow, the team captain, is playing timid and is not giving it his all then how can we expect the rest of the team to as well. Now, it's tough to say that Morrow is specifically holding back but these comments today combined with how he disappears on the ice when the team needs him most speaks volumes about the Stars as a whole.
Heart. Will. Fight. None of these words describe the Dallas Stars.
Anyone watching the past two games will come to the exact same conclusion: this is a team that is not playing as a team. They do not stand up for one another, there is no cohesiveness among the players and there is a certain closeness that is lacking when compared to the successful teams of the past.
It wasn't just last night against the Rangers either, and we started to see signs of this last season as well. Whenever a player on the ice is taken out with a dirty hit, is ganged up on in a scrum, is bowled over in the crease, is literally taken out after a goal is scored...the emotional response by the rest of the team is minimal at best. There have been times when the Stars have actually stood up for a teammate (Krys Barch fighting Hordichuk comes to mind) but for the most part it's appalling how this team just stands idly by while a teammate is abused.
Against the Rangers, the Stars were in a battle against a team that was easily beatable and then the Stars started to get manhandled. The Rangers realized they could walk all over this team without so much as anything close to retaliation, and that speaks to the current mindset of this team. They play with no heart, with no resolve or resiliency and seem incapable of overcoming adversity, let alone even being able to step up and play hard in a must-win game with the season slipping away.
This is why these Dallas Stars are so frustrating to watch. It's apparent they have the talent and ability as a group of individuals to really be a great and dynamic team and we've seen flashes of that at times throughout this season. Yet these players just don't believe in themselves or each other right now, and that's leading to the myriad of issues we're seeing up and down the ice.
No defense for the defense.
Bob Sturm, friend of Defending Big D and radio host for 1310 The Ticket, has a lengthy blog post up today giving his thoughts on why the Stars are struggling. He builds on a theme he's stated several times in the past and gives a great argument here: that the Stars are simply seeing the effects of spending minimal payroll for a young defense. I'm not going to rehash everything he writes about because I want you to read it yourself, but I did want to repost some statistics he has on the defense and where the Stars are in relation to the rest of the Western Conference:
That is staggering. Over this past summer the one thing most of us were in consensus about was that the Stars needed to add an experienced, big, dominant defenseman that could lead this team in Zubov's wake. Stephane Robidas is having a career season and is one of the few players on this team playing his heart out each night, but he alone cannot carry the Stars. We watched as the Stars stood idly by while quality defensemen were signed elsewhere for affordable prices at market value, and Joe Nieuwendyk had his hands tied by the team's budget. Imagine if the Stars had been able to sign Mattias Ohlund and Karlis Skrastins; even Jay Bouwmeester was signed for an affordable price.
Yet you can't put this team's woes squarely on Tom Hicks' shoulders. Sure, the extra monies would be nice to have, especially when the Stars are struggling and are in desperate need of a big trade. But it's not impossible to be successful with a young and cheap blueline; Detroit is proving that spending a ton of money isn't the exact answer either.
Who could have known that Matt Niskanen would regress to this point? He was supposed to be a future star and showed the potential to be a special player. Yet he's become the whipping boy for the Stars' defense and continues to struggle on a nightly basis. Trevor Daley has woefully underachieved in a system he was supposed to thrive in; for a player that was touted as an offensive threat his entire career, Daley has become nothing more than a joke at this point, and that's just pitifully sad.
If the young defense played at the same level and intensity as Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric, then perhaps the Stars wouldn't be having the problems they are now. You don't need a team full of superstar defensemen to be successful, but at the very least a team requires their defensemen to not be horrendously unreliable on a nightly basis.
Where do the Stars go from here?
If the current trend continues, the Stars will be grossly out of contention in the Western Conference within two weeks. As it stands, they have 19 games and nearly two months before the trade deadline on March 3rd. No one knows what Joe Nieuwendyk's ultimate plan is and I doubt even he knows at this point. Yet it's a certainty that at this point he's starting to form a very good opinion about each and every player on this team and how they fit into his longterm goals for the Dallas Stars.
Let's remember that 95% of this team was inherited by Joe Nieuwendyk, and he took over as General Manager with a very specific idea for the type of team he wished to build. Tom Hicks didn't hire him to just bring in a coach and this sit idly by and hope for the best. A G.M. change is done to do exactly that: make change. Whether Marc Crawford is or isn't the right coach for this team isn't the question; the question is how does Nieuwendyk build a team that fits perfectly with the coach he has selected.
So does he do commit an act of extreme firesale and blow this team up at the trade deadline, getting maximum value for the players he doesn't need? Here is who is scheduled to become either a UFA or an RFA at the end of the season:
Fabian Brunnstrom (RFA)
James Neal (RFA)
Tom Wandell (RFA
Nicklas Grossman (RFA)
Matt Niskanen (RFA)
I think it's fairly safe to say that James Neal is staying. The Stars would also be wise to stick with Tom Wandell, who is one of the few players giving it his all and seemingly fits perfectly into the type of team Joe Nieuwendyk would build. Nicklas Grossman is also a player the Stars should keep. As far as the rest of the free agents, who should stay? Who has shown that they deserve to be a part of the future of the Dallas Stars?
Four months ago I would have fought tooth and nail for Steve Ott, but now I'm not as certain in my conviction. The offensive prowess he showed last season has disappeared and he hasn't been as effective as an agitator either. Toby Petersen perhaps should stay, but we've yet to see him become more than a fourth line option and while that not necessarily a bad thing, the Stars have pressing needs elsewhere, especially with some of the younger talent in the system.
Which brings us to the Dallas Stars prospects. I know we all want to see a big trade, but this team is proving right in front of our eyes that a team is not built through free agency and trades alone. Loui Eriksson, James Neal and Jamie Benn are all proof that you don't need a big-name free agent to make an impact on a hockey team. Hell, at this point a big free agent acquisition is the last thing the Stars need.
What the Dallas Stars need to do is build upon the nucleus of talented forwards they have in the system and in the juniors and NCAA, and augment that with some key defenseman additions. And if the Stars want to get max value this season for some of the players on the team, then they're going to have to part with someone who not only has future value for other teams but frees up salary as well.
The big name here is Brad Richards, but he's proven this season that he still has the ability to carry and elevate the play of those around him. He's been tremendous, and he's a player I'd love to see the Stars keep for a long time. Yet his salary is exorbitant and his value will never be higher than it is now. Yet others, such as Mike Ribeiro and Trevor Daley are distinct possibilities.
We're all waiting for the big trade to come down that sends Marty Turco packing, and while I have been doubtful this would happen it's starting to look like a possibility. Yet the question is whether teams would be willing to not only pick up his big contract (a little under $2.5 million for the rest of the season) and an aging goaltender who has become a liability in net recently.
Nieuwendyk could opt for a big firesale or a calculated restructuring of the team from the inside out that starts with a few trades and is carried out further over the summer. Yet if the Stars continue playing like they have the past month, the former will likely happen much quicker than the latter.
The clock is ticking; the Dallas Stars cannot survive a lengthy rebuilding process.
I wrote about this last month, how the Dallas Stars fans are treading in territory they have yet to see. Already this team is at an all time low when it comes to popularity in the metroplex, with declining attendance and even worse television ratings. The revenue is slipping and the Stars must start winning again to raise the bar back to where it was before.
Ever since coming to Dallas the Stars have been known as a winning franchise. Never before has this team had more than two losing seasons in row, nor have they missed the playoffs two years in a row. If the Stars do go into full rebuilding mode, then the track back to success must be much faster than that which is tolerated in other cities.
This is a delicate time for the Dallas Stars and it's fans, and the past week has been perhaps the worst for fans in a long time. It's one thing for the Stars to lose, it's something else entirely for them to just give up and expect the fans to be right there with them along the way. The Dallas Stars are a proud franchise; it's about time for them to act like it again.