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Matching Minors: The Fate of the Furious Stars, Goaltending Triage, Coaching Inevitabilities, and the Trade Deadline

Robert and David break down everything you need to know about the season’s struggles thus far for Dallas, and everything you don’t about the cultural importance of Norm MacDonald.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for another edition of Matching Minors, everyone’s* favorite back-and-forth about the Stars issues you want to hear discussed. With Dallas effectively eliminated only 60 games in, this hasn’t been the easiest of years, so let’s have ourselves a little chat and figure out just what in the skee ball went so wrong, and when it will be fixed. Please join us for this respectful example of debate and dialogue.

*big thanks to mom for the nice words.

Lindy Ruff is on the hot seat: fans want him gone right now, preferably before his next coffee. Are they right? Wrong? Off their rockers? Or are we?

David: I feel like we’re all on the same page in some vague sense. Yes, Lindy Ruff has been part of the problem and should not be back next season. But this is turning into some sort of Stephen Jay Gould versus Richard Dawkins feud among fans. Missing out on Claude Julien was huge, unless you believe Dallas might have been one of the teams whispering sweet nothings into his ear.

But look at the current candidates. Hitchcock? Do fans not realize he severely underplayed Tarasenko in the playoffs, healthy scratched Robbi Fabbri, and is more or less the same species as Ruff? Gallant? Same dude that wanted to sell out on Erik Gudbranson as some type of top four defender, and who stuck Shawn Thornton on Florida’s power play? Capuano, who Justin Bourne outed as an inspirational speech generator back when The Score actually wrote analysis that went beyond Connor McDavid’s latest booger pick?

Maybe there’s a psychological argument to be had, allowing the team to move on or keep from feeling like no one’s helping them away from the ice, but it’s not like Patrick and Fraser have coached their way into starring stopgap roles.

Robert: Even the beat reporters seem resigned to the fact that the coaches won’t be back, and it’s hard to blame them. Coaches are supposed to respond to losses with adjustments, which usually means line shuffling (it feels insensitive to use “Ruffling”) or scratches. But when the coach can’t turn the team around, that responsibility for adjustments gets kicked up the ladder to the GM, and guess what the biggest GM adjustment usually is?

You have exceptions, like Dave Tippett in Arizona, but for the most part, the coach gets maybe one bad season’s worth of grace after some success. Even then, however, the GM will usually make a trade or signing of some kind to give the coach another bullet. And that’s the weirdest thing of all, to me. Nill hasn’t really done a thing this season other than buy a veteran Justin Peters to at least contain the convoluted conflagration that is this organization’s goalie development. I’ve been certain that Oleksiak would be traded for well over a year, and that hasn’t happened. Even Julius Honka, while brought up a couple of times, never saw anything like significant stretches of ice time unless absolutely necessary. Overall, Jim Nill has seemed content to let Ruff do what he thought best (and, for all we know, what Nill also thought best) as players got healthy, and we’ve seen the results of that: special teams units that found legendary levels of goals to allow whether up or down a man, and a team that has failed to drive play for consistent stretches even after getting fairly healthy.

On a more visceral level, Ruff has managed to find something that would tick off the fanbase as much as possible and stick to it: breaking up Seguin and Benn. While the two have been reunited at times lately, Ruff’s mystifying adherence to Eakin at 1C is the straw that has broken this 28th-in-the-NHL camel’s back. No matter how much Nill and Ruff might enjoy reminiscing about their Western Canadian heritage, at some point you just need to make the change, and the prolonged Eakin-as-top-center play seems to me the greatest evidence of Ruff’s resignation that this is his last year. As agents Johnson and Johnson imposed their tired counterterrorism strategies upon Hans Gruber, so also will step one in the GM playbook go exactly as you’d expect when a formerly good team underperforms drastically and consistently: the [coach in] power gets cut.

I still don’t quite get why Nill didn’t “do something” (as the kids say), but then again, the expansion draft seems to have paralyzed GMs even with an Eastern Conference playoff frenzy doing its best impression of a carnival barker. So maybe there truly wasn’t a good move to be made, but would any of us have really been opposed to a low draft pick, or even less of a return for Nemeth or Oleksiak if it meant making room for what should ultimately be a better defensive unit? I know the answer, but I don’t know what question Jim Nill would ask in response to that. I expect it is a knowledgeable one, but then again, I never played NHL hockey.

As far as Claude Julien, I don’t think there was a chance he ever would have chosen Dallas over Montreal, so it’s a moot point. Montreal appears to have moved near-instantly to get him back in the garage (to use my limited French), and I am hard-pressed to think Dallas could have swayed his mind to the Southwest with anything less than an absurd amount of money.

Patrick O’Sullivan: Unless you can tell me what F3 does on a kick out play, both of you should shut up.

Are there free agents Dallas should actually keep? Or are we ready to let Mr. Blonde pour gasoline on everything?

David: Ales Hemsky, and not just because his raw presence gives you opportunities to wax poetic in ways that make me jealous. For me it’s as logical as a horror movie boogeyman overstaying his welcome. One, a cheap one year deal could be viable, making him cost effective. Two, the Fak’Em line gets to make its return. And three, “veteran presence” as our dear friend Spruce LaTrine might tweet.

May I just make a brief case for Jiri Hudler? Roussel could be a boon to the 4th line. I believe Dallas has the depth to make their 3rd and 4th lines almost interchangeable, so that they can have two checking lines depending on the matchup. Hemsky didn’t get going until Dallas found another Czech he could fistbump. Hudler on their left wing is something I believe would be magical, and not just for the cultural puns. Especially now that Hudler no longer has Dragon Pox.

Robert: Hudler’s assist numbers are actually great for his ice time, as much as many folks don’t want to hear that. It’s odd that such a bargain signing like Hudler turned into a weird fan example of Nill’s mismanagement. In a way, Hudler has been to the forward corps what so many fans want Jordie Benn to be on defense. A veteran option that can be plugged in the bottom half of the lineup, but who can also occasionally be scratched in favor of well-performing kids, and all the while only very rarely being directly responsible for putting a goal in his own net. More than anything, I think Hudler’s season has just been vastly unlucky, and I wouldn’t have a problem giving him another try. I wonder if the relationship is a bit too sour at this point, though.

Ales Hemsky should receive a lifetime contract and transition into a mysterious management role a la the Men of the High Castle of Mystery (I don’t watch much TV) after he retires at age 51. He is both able and willing to try and do things with the puck that most every other NHLer eschews, wisely or not. He is to the NHL what Norm MacDonald was to the Bob Saget Comedy Central Roast, which is to say a lone glimmer of charming individuality with endless staying power, so long as you understand what is happening.

David: Are you telling me that Ales Hemsky is on board the punch a Nazi movement?

Robert: I’m not sure that counts as nonviolent communication, and I certainly don’t need another suggested “voluntary leave of absence” from writing on the internet.

Will next season finally be the season Jim Nill extricates himself from this eight defensemen Jigsaw trap? Or are Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth playing their way into bridge contracts?

David: How much longer will Dallas fans cling to the folklore of the team’s League of Extraordinary Journeymen? Nemeth is genetically engineered to be a depth defensemen. Oleksiak has found a confidence and swagger to playing to his strengths, but he needs to find his defensive game before he wants to co-patent the Trevor Daley pinch. For me at least, part of my issue with Nill’s current plan is that he has better options in Cedar Park. Mattias Backman and Ludwig Bystrom play smooth skating, three zone dynamic hockey. It’s crazy to me how many AHL defensemen could easily carve out roles for themselves if general managers didn’t treat veteran contracts like nicotine. That’s just me though. Lindell, Klingberg, Johns, Hamhuis, Benn, and Honka are guarantees next season (unless Hamhuis is taken in expansion). Can we move on already?

Robert: It’s clear that Jim Nill doesn’t want defense prospects “rushed,” but I’m not sure Mattias Backman will even be around next season to be rushed, at this point. If he can make more money in Europe, it wouldn’t shock me to see him leave for his own good. The Stars showed little interest in making room for anyone this season, including their most dynamic defenseman (and best prospect). If you were Mattias Backman (let alone Bystrom), would you count on two years of eight defensemen being an aberration or a trend?

If Dallas were a more stable team, I would love to see them use their third pairing as a means of introducing kids to the league, sheltering them enough to let them enjoy the team’s success while not getting burned too badly by the white-hot expectations most NHLers live with every day. Unfortunately, Dallas is about to lose Johnny Oduya in the offseason and maybe Hamhuis (as you’ve said) to an expansion draft, so I’m not sure how much more room for kids Jim Nill will clear. (Side question: If we traded Cody Eakin and Nichushkin’s rights for Matt Niskanen or something, would that close some kind of interdimensional loop? Just positing.)

Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are good, and they might get a little better. I am not convinced that either of them is going to suddenly make a huge leap that will make any trade regrettable. Julius Honka deserves NHL time, and the team clearly needs him.

My main question to you, however, is this: do you really think a different player than Esa Lindell in the Dallas system would look better on John Klingberg’s top pairing than he does? I’m fully in agreement that Lindell has been exposed in a lot of ways, but assuming the Stars don’t play with two righties on one pairing while Nill is still in charge, who’s a better option? Do you really think a Backman or Bystrom could handle those minutes better than Lindell?

David: Hot take - does a bear dump in the woods? Having watched the AHL closely for three to four seasons, I’ve begun to have what alcoholics refer to as a “moment of clarity”. Without getting overtly political, AHL players are kind of like refugees: their process toward legitimacy is much more thorough than people either assume, or have ever even bothered to conceive of. As such, I absolutely believe Backman and Bystrom could drag Klingberg down like Lindell has. Oh I’m just joshing. Lindell is a stranger in a strange land, and he’ll only get better. I like qualities to his game. But the pair is not getting it done. For as many minutes as they play, this is crucial moving forward. All I’m saying is that I’d like to know that Dallas is willing to be open minded about their futures in separate roles rather than married to the idea that they’ll “get there” with more playing time.

Goalies are not a Dallas Stars bragging point. Will Jim Nill finally give the organization’s net the steady inhabitant it’s been looking for since 2013?

Robert: Part of me has really started wondering if Jim Nill signed Niemi two years ago knowing he was going to keep both Finns until this summer’s expansion draft, when some teams would have to get rid of younger goalies lest they risk losing them for nothing. If, as has been rumored, the Niemi acquisition was to the Cam Talbot negotiations what the Kris Russell trade was to the Hamhuis deal with Vancouver--a big “I don’t need to trade with you anyway” to unreasonable demands from the team in question--then Jim Nill essentially chose to ride out two years of average (he hoped) netminding before the big franchise goaltending denouement.

It’s hard to remember, but Niemi actually put up two decent first-halves with the Stars before utterly losing his game around the midway point of the season. Do you see one or both of Kari and Niemi going and Darling or Grubauer coming in? Are you skeptical that this organization even believes goalies exist anymore?

David: Have we stumbled upon the conclusion that hockey GM’s are like video game bosses? Effective in many ways, but you can find the glitch in the matrix somewhere. Like The Fear from Metal Gear Solid, who can’t defend the proverbial torch up butt. If (tragically) so, goaltending is definitely the torch up Dallas’ butt. And I’m pretty sure there’s no actual cure for roasted tush.

I see Dallas going after Darling and Grubauer though. They’re high profile young goalies, which makes them just close enough to “veteran” status for Dallas to take a flyer on. God forbid somebody in the scouting department find their own Darling. What I can’t see is Nill getting rid of both. He doesn’t strike me as married to the idea of a buyout, and it makes a lot of sense to keep at least one overpriced, aging backup (inasmuch as Dallas’ goaltending situation makes sense). Niemi would probably be the fall guy in this scenario, even though Dallas’ PK hurts him more than it hurts Kari (who sees far more shots than Kari). Kari has “been with the team”, which I assume is code for “still has clout”. Plus no one’s gonna take his contract, saved from claiming the title of “Worst Current NHL Contract” by Dave Bolland’s $5.5M through 2020.