This isn't how the season was supposed to go.
The Dallas Stars were destined to pick up right where they were at the end of last season, riding the momentum of hype and speed and offense and another productive summer of brilliant Jim Nill acquisitions to take the league by storm and once again join the ranks of the NHL's elite. Now, a 4-3-4 start to the season and four straight losses has quickly given way to doubt and concern and what seems to be near-panic by Stars fans expecting, well, anything but this.
Where did it all go wrong? How to get it fixed?
Throughout the past few weeks, starting with the meltdown loss against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Stars coaches and players were all saying the right things. No one ever tried to sugarcoat either the victories or the losses; there was a lot of talk about -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- "we're lucky we're getting points but we have to play better." The win against the Vancouver Canucks, with the Stars scoring six goals and ultimately walking away with a three-goal victory, resulted in one of the quieter locker rooms after a win I've ever seen.
So, it's not like the team hasn't understood that things were concerning, that the trend of giving up leads and leaning too heavily on the top line's offense wasn't a recipe for long-term success. The Stars have openly acknowledged all of the issues that have become so glaringly apparent this season; the lack of transition, the turnovers at the blue line, the inability to attack with speed and the penchant for giving up big goals at the absolute worst time.
It's not like this is also an issue of "effort," which is always the default term to use when calculating any hint of continued catastrophic collapses for a team expected to have deep playoff aspirations. When things are going wrong it's easy to lay blame on how "hard" the players are skating or working, and while sometimes this might be the case the reality of the issue is generally much more severe and more difficult to correct than just telling someone to "play harder."
So if it's not effort (the Stars might actually be a victim of trying too hard at times, although the last few games have had a problem with energy level) and it's certainly not skill or talent -- at least overall -- then what? Coaching?
When a team is going through a stretch of hockey like the Stars have the first 13 games of the season, inevitably the pressure and blame will fall on the shoulders of the coaches on the team. Just like Lindy Ruff and company received credit for forging an identity for the Stars last season and getting them to the playoffs, Ruff and his coaches now are charged with figuring out how to turn around what is quickly becoming a tailspin before it gets too out of hand.
Lindy Ruff, all season long, has preached patience. He said he wants to be patient with players that might be struggling, or line combinations that might not be producing, or backup goaltenders who can't provide replacement-level performances when called upon, or a defense that is young and inexperienced and trying to find its way. He's also been rather forthright and honest about the struggles of his team and of some of his individual players; Ruff has not tried to put "lipstick on a pig," as it goes.
So what's happened here, or more important -- what hasn't happened? If Ruff is saying publicly what we all know to be the issues, then you'd have to believe he's following that up in practices and meetings with his players. So is this the players just not responding to the coaching? Or is it a case of the system put in place by the coaches simply hasn't good enough or nearly quick enough to adjust what the opponent is throwing out there?
Chemistry and confidence are very, very interesting animals in sports. Before last season we bemoaned the lack of an "identity" for the Stars and how that was affecting performances from game-to-game and week-to-week. The Stars from 2009 to 2013 would seem like a chameleon of a team at times, forced to adjust their playing style depending on the team they were facing and doing so to wildly varying degrees of success -- that's a team without an identity.
Last season, the Stars forged an identity. They were the epitome of "hard to play against" with the Pitbulls laying waste up and down the ice and the Benn and Seguin show dragging the Stars to the postseason. There was uncertainty at times, but the Stars became a team with an attitude, a swagger and a confidence that permeated every player and every line on the ice -- the Stars were fast, they were in your face and they were good.
Now, the Stars look like a team that is trying desperately to fit back into the mold forged last season but not seeming to fit quite as well. There are flashes of what we feel the Stars can and should be, such as the win over the Devils on the road, but overall the Stars have no rhythm or confidence in their game and now that pure, raw talent isn't carrying the offense the wheels have almost completely come off just 11 games into the season.
The lack of chemistry is ultimately the spine of everything that is ailing the Stars right now. Last season the Stars became a unit of five players on the ice that swarmed and overwhelmed teams and quickly countered in the other direction. This season, the Stars put up big numbers thanks to the sheer amount of talent being forced onto the top line but at no point -- other than perhaps a period or two -- have the Stars come close to resembling a true five-man unit that effectively uses team defense and speed.
The passes aren't connecting. There's no anticipation of what each player's next move on the ice will be; instead, it's all reactive and panicked responses. There's no "feel" to the game between players and when that happens, it snowballs into five individuals trying to make great individual plays and ultimately hurting their team in the process.
When the Stars are back on defense all five players are watching the puck instead of anticipating and paying attention to the other four players on the ice; this leads to back-door chances, to not being quick enough to get a stick into a passing lane or to deflect a shot and it leads to giving up goals at the absolute worst moments in games.
It's easy to blame one player or another individually, but this really is a case of a systemic issue throughout the entire team. A trade won't fix anything, either.
So, now we have struggles with chemistry on top of any real comfort in the system the Stars are attempting to play which has quickly given way to overflowing frustration. It's a narrative we've seen before from the Stars and it's alarming, especially when you consider how quickly things turned against Minnesota.
One again, the question: How to get it fixed?
The answer ultimately begins with change. Lindy Ruff initially assembled the "Super Line" to try and spark his team on the road in Pittsburgh. When that line put up a ridiculous amount of points in short order, there was no way he was breaking them up -- when your top line is scoring three goals per game, you don't suddenly take that away from your team.
Yet everyone knew this likely wasn't the best long-term solution and now things have gone gone sour as the top line has quickly cooled off. Tyler Seguin may be one of the league-leaders for points in the NHL, but he hasn't had nearly the same amount of fire and impact on the game as he had last season up and down the ice.
It's time to get Seguin back to center, and Jason Spezza back on his old line.
It's time to get Ales Hemsky back with players with the offensive skill to actually cash in on the chances he's been creating lately.
It's time to shake up the line combinations and use that change to once again get the Stars back to the very basics of what made this team so effective last season -- blue collar hard work, smart and efficient passing and a drive to get the puck to the net.
The Stars have games this coming week at home against the Kings, Predators and Sharks. These are three teams that will chew the Stars up and spit them right back out with another performance like we've seen the past two games from Dallas.
This could either be a hellacious and scary three-game stretch where it all goes completely wrong...or it could be three games we look back on later this season as when the Stars figured it out and started to get things pointed in the right direction once more.