The year of the excuse. That's what the 2011-12 Dallas Stars season feels like so far.
The loss of Brad Richards created an offensive hole on a team already struggling with offensive consistency. The new coach needed time so his new system could gel with the team. Scheduling quirks gave the Stars too many problems and the travel took a toll on the team for too many games.
Mostly, though, many of the excuses this season have revolved around the various injuries the Stars have been forced to deal with over the course of the season. On a team that looked on paper to be deeper than in years past, the reality quickly hit that the Stars were just a few key injuries from going from slightly-above-average to obviously mediocre at best.
With Jamie Benn and Mike Ribeiro out at the same time, the Stars endured their most dire stretch of hockey to date -- a five-game losing streak right in the midst of a very important stretch of the season. The offense withered away to nothing, with the Stars attempting several line combinations to try and spark goal production without their two most important players on the ice.
The time for excuses is now over, however, as the Stars head out of the All-Star break as healthy as any team can reasonably expect at this point in the season. The Stars are sitting on the outside looking in at the playoff picture but still control their destiny in their quest for a postseason berth; this is the time for actions to speak louder than words, a time when this team in the past has wilted when it needed to stand up and fight the most.
The Dallas Stars have dealt with injury this season, to several crucial players, and for the most part have struggled without their best on the ice. For a team flirting with the salary cap floor for most of the season, it's no surprise that if you take away two or three of the top players on the team the Stars would struggle. Jamie Benn has been the catalyst for this team's offense all season long and as soon as he was lost for a few weeks, the team nearly completely fell apart offensively.
What has been encouraging to see, however, is how the team rallied around their misfortune and played some hard-fought, mostly-disciplined hockey. After some tough losses in which the Stars, for the most part, outworked their opponents, you could see the resolve on the team start to unravel as they continued to lose despite their hard work. This culminated in a disastrous loss to Minnesota on the road, a night after losing to a struggling Tampa Bay team.
Most of these struggles were chalked up to the absence of Benn and Ribeiro. Earlier this season, we pointed to the defensive struggles of the team to the absence of Sheldon Souray and Alex Goligoski, as well as Trevor Daley for a time. It seems every time the Stars have struggled, we could point to a specific reason it was so and then say "when so-and-so returns they'll be fine."
Now, with the Stars playing 16 games in 29 days, all of those excuses are now gone. Jamie Benn will be back. Mike Ribeiro is back. While Souray and Stephane Robidas are dealing with nagging foot injuries, the Stars have yet to deal with any long-term injuries that seriously set this team back. Brenden Morrow will be dealing with some injuries of his own for most of the season, but that's just the reality of the situation now.
The Stars enter the second half of the season almost as healthy as they started, perhaps a bit more so. With Tomas Vincour and Philip Larsen possibly sticking with the team the Stars are arguably deeper than when they began.
But for the first time, perhaps since the first month, the Stars will have their full compliment of offensive and defensive weapons. The Stars have had a week off to let nagging injuries heal and to take a break from the grind, hopefully coming back healthy and fresh for a brutal stretch of the schedule.
The Stars, historically, have not dealt with this part of the schedule well. Most of their breakdowns the past few seasons have come after the midseason break and that is where the season fell apart. In each of the past three years, the Stars have come off the break in good position to fight for a playoff spot. Each season, the Stars struggled while other teams stepped up their game.
This is the month that will define this season for the Dallas Stars. If this team fails to step up and play at the same level of those in the Western Conference, then we'll be talking about yet another missed postseason for the Stars. While the payroll and overall talent level of this team speaks to a top ten pick in the draft. the Stars are in desperate need of a team that can rise above and play over their heads, surprising all and finally making that push to the postseason that the fans and ownership desperately need.
The Stars need Jamie Benn to lead this team, more so than ever before. He needs to be better than he's been this season and he needs to do it with as much leadership as he can muster.
Mike Ribeiro needs to find a way to continue the offensive resurgence he enjoyed before his knee injury, as this team will go nowhere relying on Benn alone.
Kari Lehtonen will have to be better than he has been since coming back from his groin injury, somehow finding a way to be October and November Lehtonen once more.
Glen Gulutzan is going to have to pull himself away from his stubborn ways and be willing to put players in position to succeed, regardless of name or veteran status. This team can't afford to play to the egos of the players on the ice and he must show he is more about winning than pleasing the players in the locker room.
Most of all, the Stars need to find consistency from game to game fro the first time since the first three weeks of the season.
It's not an impossible task, but it sure will be tough to accomplish. No more excuses, however, and all they need to do is show us how much they want it.