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Afterwords: On Superstars, Scorched Earth, and Secondary Scoring

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The Stars answered their CEO’s tirade with a 5-1 win, but there are bigger questions to be asked

Toronto Maple Leafs v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The time is coming, and is now fast approaching, when we’ll see whether these Stars have anything left in common with their more successful incarnations.

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“If the general cannot control his temper and sends troops to swarm the walls, one third of them will be killed, and the city will still not be taken. This is the kind of calamity when laying siege to a walled city.”
-Sun Tzu

That Nashville win was such an odd catalyst for the Jim Lites tirade, the more you think about it. There are so many ways to take that win and build off it. For instance, the Stars really did keep Nashville largely to the outside, which was a huge accomplishment. The depth chipped in, Anton Khudobin continued to acquit himself as the team’s best backup since Mike Smith, and the Stars were set up for a nice homestand before a long break later in January. No, it wasn’t exactly a massively encouraging sign, but we’re kind of used to this team being dominated on the shot clock by now, right? We all know the drill: the Stars get great goaltending and enough goals to win, and I blather on about how points are points but underlying issues aren’t going away, and we all hope the team falls off the boat and hits playoff water come April. They don’t, and we die a little more each year and come to terms with it. Rinse and repeat. It’s comfortable, after all, which it should be since it’s been the routine four of the five years I’ve been writing for this site.

But the time for comfort has ended. Instead here was the first person Tom Gaglardi hired in 2011 asking for permission to publicly run the team bus over the cornerstones of the franchise, and getting enthusiastic approval for it—and all this just a few weeks after the annual dinner at the Gaglardi house in Vancouver.

Yes, I know; this has been ‘brewing for a long time.’ Scott Burnside, whom you fondly remember from his time with the organization last year, suggested that management (whomever else that may entail if anyone other than Lites and Gaglardi) has been disenchanted with Jamie Benn’s general approach for 2.5 seasons now, which is a heck of a way to support the only consistent playoff performer on the entire roster.

Yeah, so that’s something that’s probably worth mentioning, if you’re looking to defend the captain. Jamie Benn has been over a point per game player in the Stars’ three (three!) playoff series since his debut almost a decade ago, and he’s consistently racked up top-tier point totals on inconsistent teams. But that’s not good enough anymore, and Lites and Gaglardi, after two seasons without any playoff revenue, decided that there is a cyborg named Playoff Jamie or Art Ross Benn locked in a bunker under one of Tyler Seguin’s backyard gazebos, and there were going to smoke it out even it meant lighting every hair salon within 50 miles of University Park on fire.

Not the way I’d choose to go around CEOing, but of course I am not wealthy and assured of my own omniscience. At the end of the day, this is Lites’s (really, Gaglardi’s) prerogative, and if the Powers That Be think that sending a bunch of vulgar Snapchat screeds in the media is the best idea they’ve got, then who are we to argue? Sure was fun to read so much Stars coverage on the Friday after Christmas, at least.

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As far as Benn goes, look: we’ve all had the “where did Beast Mode go” lament annually during each regular season as the captain has inched closer to 30. There’s no question that Benn has made some sloppy plays and had some forgettable games since the Stars’ last playoff run, or that Benn’s leadership and play hasn’t quite dragged this team into the playoffs singlehanded, although his Art Ross campaign seems to remind us that even scoring literally more than every other player in hockey sometimes isn’t enough for this team, but hey, that year was probably his fault too, right? (Aside: I seem to recall Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane failing to work playoff magic for Chicago last year and likely this, but I guess the son of Dollar Bill Wirtz is less capricious than you’d think. If you win some Cups, apparently you get to sit back and take your lumps, boot out the legendary coach who disagreed with you, and assure the GM that you hired that his decisions couldn’t possibly be the main issue here, no siree.)

Here is the part where I commend to you Adam Gretz’s piece from Friday. Taylor mentioned it in her op-ed Saturday, but read it again. I don’t think Nill needs to be fired this second or anything (I’m also not exactly endorsing him, if you get my meaning), but any discussion about why this team is where it is should start from the ground up, not by tearing down the best players in public.

It’s fine for a bunch of fans to moan about how the highest-paid players on the roster should always score the most goals, and sure, that’s the best way to spend your cap dollars. Which is why Benn and Seguin have scored the most for this team in the last six years, and it’s not even close.

This is why stats exist, you know. Because they remind us that, for all of Benn’s inconsistencies as the captain (and there have been more than a couple, for sure), the Stars really are absurdly fortunate to have found him in the fifth round. They absolutely cannot afford to lose him, even as he declines with standard aging curves. And you know why? Of course you do; we all do. The Stars need him around because they have managed to draft literally nobody outside of possibly Jason Dickinson (whom Hitch refused to help develop) or Jason Robertson who could ever hope to fill even 80% of his shoes in the top six. Get angry at Benn when he fails, if you want. But it’s not his fault you have no one to replace him with.

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That brings us to this chestnut:

“I am sick and tired and listening to bloggers and others talking about Brett Ritchie, Julius Honka, or Gavin Bayreuther, or Taylor Fedun, pick a guy,” Lites said. “We’re just too good. The fans deserve more and the owner deserves more. And I share that opinion with the owner, the fans deserve better and Benn and Seguin aren’t getting it done. Until they do we aren’t going to be good enough.”

It’s insane to me that the team’s top brass would resort to essentially issuing a press release disguised as your unhinged uncle’s Facebook post. Here is a guy who can fire Jim Nill, and this guy is expressing his (and, it seems, Gaglardi’s) fury at how Benn and Seguin have not been lambasted enough in the media. Assuming this was a concerted effort by Lites and Gaglardi, it seems they decided to take matters into their own hands because they believe there is another level of production their top players can just magically achieve at will.

You really can’t find words for how otherworldly this approach by Lites and Gaglardi is. (Have we driven this point home yet?) The team’s depth has been an obvious (and growing) problem for a while now, and instead of reconciling themselves to the fact that Martin Hanzal, Brett Ritchie, Val Nichushkin, Blake Comeau, Radek Faksa and Mattias Janmark are not providing the middle-six scoring impact the team desperately needs, they have decided to see if Benn and Seguin can handle the team’s failures being tossed at their feet. Maybe if they both share the Art Ross Trophy this year, it’ll be good enough.

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If you’re Jim Lites, you probably sent some kind of satisfied e-mail to Gaglardi after the 5-1 effort in Detroit:

That sure got ‘em going, eh?”

Maybe it got them angry, and maybe you think angry players play better. Maybe this whole thing was a ploy to fire up the players who have really been falling short this season by hitting the two guys who can take it. Get them angry so they’ll lead the other guys into battle and all that.

If that’s your plan, then all I can say is, let’s hope they stay angry for 43 more games. You certainly burned enough bridges with them, let alone in the eyes of any future business partners. The NHLPA is apparently going to look into Lites’s comments, too. Maybe they’ll start by pointing out the utter hypocrisy of blaming Benn for scoring all his goals from within five feet while blasting Seguin for not going to the “dirty areas” anymore.

As for Seguin, you’d expect him to weather this sort of thing with some kind of equanimity after what he went through in Boston. He’s a goal-scorer, and he’s getting his shots, and if he gets back into a rhythm with John Klingberg back on the power play, you’d expect to see that shooting percentage inch right back up to where it should be. His contract is a fine one, as far as we can say right now, and it’s pretty easy to brush aside Lites’s criticisms with a, “I’m sorry he’s not Jamie Benn-ing it up and fighting fourth-liners” or what-have-you. If he’s not forechecking as hard, that’s a coaching issue, but maybe this public shaming will make his ears burn the next time he’s racing into a corner. If that’s worth it, I guess congratulations are in order.

Still, how do you think players perceive this unheard-of burying? Seguin, in a few months, went from a model of Dallas adoption to the subject of a rant that could have come right out of a high school locker room. Even if the players brush this aside for the moment, as Seguin and Benn more or less did at practice yesterday, how does this really help the team, other than offering a temporary catharsis for the owner at the expense of long-term relationship with his players?

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In another job a while back, I supervised about ten people. To prepare me for the promotion to leadership, my company sent me to a management seminar that was, surprisingly, really good. I expected a lot of drivel about motivating through teamwork and such, but one nugget from the facilitator focused on fear-based management, and it’s been really helpful in every job I’ve had since.

Simply put: if you manage through intimidation and fear, you can ensure certain things, but you will limit yourself to a low ceiling of productivity. Ken Hitchcock’s approach with Jason Spezza, I think, was instructive. Hitch got enough of the guys to do what his system needed to ensure a certain floor of productivity. No, it didn’t end up working over 82 games, but the system did what it was supposed to do conceptually, and it limped along with sometimes good results before ultimately failing.

(It’s fitting that Hitch was also brought in by people above Jim Nill, I suppose.)

But what could have happened if, for instance, Jason Spezza had been given a defined role—something he’s praised Jim Montgomery for—and been motivated to produce just a bit more? If Hitchcock had found a way to get more buy-in from Spezza (and others) instead of alienating some for the sake of the system, perhaps the Stars grab just a couple more points, and they limp into the playoffs. That’s the whole goal here, right?

Montgomery is a rookie coach, and he’s going to make mistakes. But even on a team struggling to score, you can’t ignore that Spezza is producing in his role, and that’s a big success. From his nadir of 0.33 points per game last year, Spezza has now found himself contributing over the 0.50 mark. Considering how bad that four-year extension had the potential to look back in 2015, this really should be a nice bit of reliable production for the Stars, if one they overpaid for. Instead, Spezza is, improbably in his fifth year in Dallas, still the Stars’ fourth-best scorer, and it seems like it’s not enough. It might not be.

***

It’s almost poetic, the parallels between 2014-15 and 2017-18 for this franchise.

Under Lindy Ruff in his second season implementing a fast-paced system, the Stars were fun to watch. Their offense was 2nd in the NHL, but they also allowed the 5th-most goals against. John Klingberg and Jason Demers arrived to largely answer the questions on the blue line, but the goaltending simply never found its legs behind a newly below-average Kari Lehtonen and a cavalcade of forgettable backups. A frustrated Jim Nill would spend a 3rd-round pick at the deadline to acquire Jhonas Enroth, but it was too little, too late. The Stars would finish with 92 points, missing the playoffs.

Three years later, during the cameo of a season we got from Ken Hitchcock, the Stars were boring but staunch. Offense died for both teams, and the newly acquired Ben Bishop provided adequate goaltending. Dallas came in at 19th in goals for, but 7th in goals against. After a slow start, Dallas gradually inched up the standings, and they at one time looked like a lock to at least return to the playoffs after a one-year absence in the injury-riddled season before. Instead, the offense dried up as the top line wilted under constant pressure to provide enough goals for everyone, and the Stars’ once-cozy spot hovering around 3rd in the division evaporated. They stood pat at the deadline, Martin Hanzal was shut down, and they finished with...92 points, just as they had three years prior.

So, at least we know they can come up just short while being great at either scoring goals or preventing them.

Dallas had years to avoid letting Kari Lehtonen determine their fortunes, and they only found a really sustainable alternative in his final season. Likewise, the Stars had years to avoid depending solely on Jason Spezza to carry the second line, and Martin Hanzal was the best answer they could find. The Stars are on pace for 90 points this season. That might not be enough, either.

That slapshot by Spezza against Detroit was a thing of beauty. That’s the hockey that makes you smile, you know? Spezza is five points shy of his total last season, and we’re 39 games into the season. Rejoice and be glad.

Kari Lehtonen had some amazing saves last season, even some really great games. Neither he nor Spezza should have been put in a position where the Stars need them to be five years younger just to get the team into the playoffs. Don’t get upset if you get soaked on a camping trip if you didn’t bother to bring waterproof gear, y’all.

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Ultimately, Jim Lites told us more about Jim Lites (and Tom Gaglardi, who endorsed his rant) than anyone else. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin should bear the weight of scrutiny for their failures, when they fail. Benn played fewer minutes last night than usual, and his scoring is down this year as a whole. Likewise, though with less concern, Tyler Seguin is struggling to match his lofty expectations this year. These things can be true without warranting the sort of Edmontonian press assassination that Lites seems to think they need. Motivation has failed, he claims. The team’s leaders won’t get better unless they feel the sting of shame.

It might work, if you think these players were holding back out of apathy or whatever. But for my money, the one who really needs to be ashamed of himself this season is the one who buried his leaders in the first place.

***

Dallas beat Detroit, as they should. It’s a bad team over there, and maybe Nashville was the perfect amuse-bouche for such a match. After a stalwart game of shot-blocking (if not puck possession in any sense), Dallas found Detroit far less complex a problem to be solved. Players who hadn’t scored much (and Alex Radulov) found holes they don’t usually find. Maybe it’s indicative of something, or maybe it’s just what Detroit is now when they’re on the road. You don’t build statues in honor of wins like that, is what I’m saying.

This whole thing is just cartoonish in its absurdity, and it’ll continue to be so. That the Stars as an organization have gone almost overnight from Classy But Underachieving to Temperamental Old Boys Club is the stuff of children’s books. Benn and Seguin have to be somewhat dignified, as public figures, and they have been so far. Jim Lites only has to be effective. And when you pull a stunt like this, you get to claim credit either way: if the team wins, it’s because you motivated them, and if they lose, you were right to blame them.

A team flush with the good fortune (and previous drafts) that brought Klingberg, Benn, Miro Heiskanen, and Tyler Seguin into the fold can easily forget that such hands are not dealt indiscriminately. Dallas has been in an enviable position for five years now, and they’ve responded to their last few years of failure with the KFC Double Down of Old Hockey Canards. There have been good moves in with the bad—Tyler Pitlick and Alex Radulov are great for what they are—but this whole calling-out debacle seems destined to define this team’s 2018-19 fortunes not because of what it might inspire, but because of the indiscretion and indirection that it already embodies. The Stars are mediocre. Getting angry at the best parts of a mediocre team doesn’t fix a thing.

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Finally, just because apparently we’re not supposed to be writing about Brett Ritchie or Julius Honka while Benn and Seguin are out there Not Scoring Hat Tricks, here are some very special blogger hot takes:

  • Brett Ritchie took yet another needless penalty in this game. Ritchie is by far the team’s most damaging player in terms of penalty ratios, and he should never start in favor of Nichushkin if the Stars are trying to ice their best lineup. I wonder how Ben Bishop felt about losing a shutout after the power play goal Detroit scored with Ritchie in the box.
  • Julius Honka had a largely tidy game with efficient transition play, but apparently he’s destined to be scratched again when Connor Carrick gets back. It’s crazy how this organization tacitly gives up on their inexpensive first-round draft picks like two years in but will sit on dead cap space all year just to get Martin Hanzal into every fourth game or whatever. Didn’t the team let Demers go because Honka was going to take his spot? Make up your minds, my good Hockey Men.
  • Taylor Fedun and Julius Honka were a nice pairing. I’d continue to explore that if I were a hockey coach, but thankfully, I am not.
  • Gavin Bayreuther is probably best suited for the AHL this season. He was looking a bit overmatched in his last couple of games, which is fine for where he’s at, for now. It was always crazy to expect him to play essentially last year’s Dan Hamhuis minutes with Roman Polák or Taylor Fedun or whoever, though.
  • Happy New Year, everyone. I promise 2019 will bring a whole new year of Dallas Stars hope and disappointment, but not necessarily in that order.