The Dallas Stars have always had a bit of a logjam at defense on their NHL roster. Last season, they carried 8 blueliners and head coach Lindy Ruff was loathe to change the pairings up — almost stubbornly sticking with pairings that didn’t always feel they were working.
It garnered him a ton of complaints and grief from a vocal minority of the fan base who would rather have seen some younger guys in the lineup or veterans benched due to poor play.
Fast forward to this season. Dallas again carries 8 defenseman on their NHL roster, and Ruff has shown a propensity to change the pairings fluidly. Earlier in the season, Ruff was quoted as stating that he wanted to ensure that all guys got game action more consistently.
He changed his philosophy and strategy, and — yet again — fans are complaining because one or another player isn’t consistently in the lineup.
Nevermind that he is tinkering with the pairings to find the best fits on a blueline that has seen a nearly wholesale change in players in the top 6 compared to the start of last season. He’s not only held young players accountable for their play by pulling them from the lineup after bad games, but has done the same for veterans as well, including Jordie Benn and Dan Hamhuis (who hasn’t been a healthy scratch in probably years) for games so far this season.
Those are two things critics of his last season commented on - how young players and veterans seemed to be held to different standards and how he was too stubborn to change the pairings to find what worked best.
Ruff is trying to change his strategy and philosophy this season. The injuries to the forward corps that this team has endured surely muddles the picture of how effective those changes by Ruff have been.
But I’d also like to posit that, while the sample size is small, I have yet to observe any one of Stephen Johns, Jamie Oleksiak, Esa Lindell, and Patrik Nemeth separate themselves from the pack in a consistent manner to challenge Ruff to change his deployment strategy on the blueline, either.
Each has shown flashes of brilliance. Johns played fantastic the first game of the season and then faltered a bit. Lindell seemed to struggle out of the gate, but may have played his most complete game to date as a Dallas Star last night in Columbus, doing everything seemingly well with the exception of burying a juicy-looking scoring chance.
Nemeth seemed to look comfortable next to John Klingberg on the top pairing a few games ago, but then had several plays where I was left scratching my head and wondering what he was thinking. Oleksiak seemed to play well in the game versus Winnipeg but then at other times has faded back into the noise of a crowded blueline by making mistakes with the puck.
We can all debate about what we would do instead or how we would align these eight blueliners on any given night. I am willing to acknowledge and give credit to Ruff for at least attempting to change his philosophy this season in terms of how the blueline logjam is handled. I just don’t think anyone has enough to go on to see whether it is effective this season (yet).
However, none of these young guys have done enough this season, in my view, to warrant a permanent spot in the lineup on a consistent basis. Only they can force the coach’s hand in that regard.
“Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” One thing’s for sure — I do not feel any envy for Lindy Ruff this season.