In an attempt to decipher exactly what has gone wrong with the Dallas Stars in the month of February, with the team plummeting from the top of the division to the basement of the playoff race, it's immediately clear that a multitude of problems exist and nailing down just one specific problem would be near impossible. We try to place blame on one aspect of the struggles and say that if that one part were fixed, then this nightmare would cease and we could all just go back to enjoying Dallas Stars hockey again.
We say that the goaltending is not as good as it had been and that the true nature of the defense is now being exposed.
We say that the Stars are just going through a slump and that they should pull out of it any day now.
We say that the special teams are the problem and if the Stars could just find a way to score on some timely power plays, the complexion of many of these losses would have been changed.
We say that the injuries that have wreaked this team the past three weeks have destroyed chemistry and continuity and with the Stars relying on players like Tomas Vincour and Jason Williams instead of Jamie Benn and Brad Richards, it's no wonder the team is struggling.
All of these reasons would be correct, of course. There are also many other reasons we could highlight as factors in the team's struggles and while we'd like to think that fixing one would fix the problem it's become very clear that there are so many issues it's going to take more than one simple fix to rectify the situation the Stars are now in.
Of course, you could look at other teams around the NHL and see that despite key injuries those teams are still flourishing. Every year in the NHL teams overcome devastating injury and fight and claw their way into the playoffs -- and at times right to the Stanley Cup Finals. What is it about these teams that allows them to work past these injuries and the struggles and not use an excuse for the losses; what is it about these teams that they have that the Stars currently do not?
Leadership. This is something the Stars are currently lacking and it's something I never thought we'd have to discuss.
It's an interesting discussion, the role of leadership on sports teams and it's effect on the overall success of the team. Part of the problem is that leadership itself is not easily defined or measured and different people have different ways of expressing their own form of leadership. It's not a stat that can be measured or analyzed and leadership is almost impossible to compare from one player to the next; every person has different ways of expressing themselves as a leader.
The one thing that cannot be questioned, however, is that on a hockey team that is struggling mightily through their worst slump in years the supposed leaders on this team have failed to step up when their teammates needed it the most.
Consider this. During the last nine games -- starting with the home loss to Vancouver -- here is the production of the team's healthy top players:
Brenden Morrow: 4 goals, one assist, minus-7.
Mike Ribeiro: one goal, one assist, minus-7.
Steve Ott: One goal, two assists, minus-1.
Stephane Robidas: One goal, one assist, minus-12.
This is only taking into account the regular plus-minus stat the NHL tracks. If I use the overall plus-minus for the players -- that includes power play and penalty kill -- then the numbers get much worse.
The rest of the team doesn't look much better. Going down the stat line, it's very easy to see exactly where the problem lies for the Stars at this moment: the team cannot score when it needs to the most and more importantly the team's top players are falling well short of providing the production the Stars so desperately need.
You can talk about vocal leadership in the locker room and you can talk about the professional example these players might set off the ice but none of that matters if they are failing to perform where it matters the most. The simple truth is that with Jamie Benn and Adam Burish injured for all of these games and with Brad Richards injured for about half of them, the rest of the team's supposed leaders have failed to do what is needed the most: put the team on their collective backs and carry them to victory.
Hockey isn't about one player being able to lead a team to victory all on his own. The sport does not work that way. Ask Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Rick Nash what it is like to be one of the best players in the league yet still unable to win on a consistent basis. It takes a team full of players that contribute from game to game in order to win in the NHL and right now we're seeing the "team aspect" of the Dallas Stars fall to pieces during the most critical stretch of the season.
Perhaps the individual fortitude of each these players has been vastly overrated. Perhaps these players are only as good as they can be when they are part of a whole, when the team is in tact and the individual pressure to succeed is not as great as it is now. It's not inconceivable to think that when the team needs them the most, with two of the top players injured, the pressure is just too great and they are simply trying too hard.
That certainly seems to be the case with Mike Ribeiro, who after looking so comfortable earlier this season now appears to be overthinking every single time he has the puck. He looks far from comfortable on offense and is trying to do way too much. It's frustrating to see, especially after what we thought had been the start of a sort of "comeback" for a player that had struggled so mightily last season.
The problem is that we've seen players like Steve Ott step it up in the past in a similar situation. In 2009, when Brenden Morrow was out for the season with a torn ACL, Ott almost singlehandedly carried the team on his back when he was asked to step up and take on a bigger role with the team. It was a side of him we had never seen before and since then he had developed into perhaps the most well-rounded forward on the team.
Now, during this recent stretch, Ott has all but disappeared and the game changing aggression and offensive punch we've grown accustomed to over the past few seasons is nowhere to be found.
We can talk all we want about the need for a players-only meeting, or "bag skate" practices, or how Marc Crawford needs to finally flip out on his team. None of that matters unless the leaders on this team are willing and able to step up and produce on the ice where it actually counts. Sure, the Stars are dealing with some tough injuries right now but for the most part the team is intact.
There are still at least four players that should be capable of picking up the slack until they return and we haven't even talked about Loui Eriksson, James Neal or Tom Wandell.
The point is that these veteran players with plenty of experience are failing their team when the Stars need them most. Advanced statistics, power play and defensive analysis, goaltending breakdowns -- none of that matters when faced with the issue that is the backbone of the problem. All of these peripheral problems would be solved if the players the Stars counted on the most would step up and carry this team forward. Right now, that's not happening and that's what has led to the continued collapse of this season.