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With Season on the Brink, Stars’ Impatient Decisions at Every Level Loom Large over the Franchise

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Washington was just the latest calamity in this catastrophe of a season. How did we get here?

NHL: Dallas Stars at Washington Capitals Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

After the Stars’ last playoff game ended in an embarrassing 6-1 defeat to the Ken Hitchcock-coached St. Louis Blues, one thing seemed clear: the Stars would never again take this roster, with this collection of elite talent, back to the playoffs with only Kari Lehtonen driving the bus in goal.

Fast forward two years, and you have to give the Stars credit: they haven’t done that. Mainly because the Stars didn’t get back to the playoffs last year, and don’t look good to do so this year either after ending a marathon road trip with a sixth straight loss. But hey, credit where it’s due.

Still, after a long slog of a season in which the Stars mostly hovered around the first wild card spot or third in the Central, suddenly it was Kari Lehtonen playing game after game with the season on the line during this road trip. Suddenly the Stars were slipping back onto the playoff bubble, and suddenly (although, to be fair, hardly anything happens suddenly in this system) the Stars were staring another long summer in the face without a really good reason why.

This was never supposed to happen. Not with this talent, not with a veteran coach who came out of retirement to instill virtuous hockey discipline into a Stars team that had been getting dragged for years (and sometimes unfairly) for its iffy defense and goaltending, and recently pilloried (fairly) for its historically awful penalty kill.

Dallas won the draft lottery, grabbed all the big names in free agency, traded up to draft a first-round goalie for the future, and promised to move Tyler Seguin into the 1C spot as the Stars became a playoff fixture. The humiliation of seasons past would soon melt away in the wake of the beautiful stability that Ken Hitchcock promised he could bring to the team of his longtime advocate, Tom Gaglardi.

Why all of the sweeping changes to a team that improved its point totals in three straight seasons under Lindy Ruff? Well, see, that fourth year, coming on the heels of the Kari Lehtonen meltdown in that Game 7 against the Blues, really did a number on everyone mentally, and then all the physical trauma of 2016-17 just piled on. Injury to insult and all that, if you will.

Last year, the Stars were decimated from the outset by World Cup of Hockey injuries to names like Tyler Seguin (fractured heel), Radek Faksa (concussion), and Ales Hemsky (hip surgery). Cody Eakin’s knee got hurt in training camp, and he missed the first couple months of the season and never got going. Jamie Benn would hit the IR with a foot injury, and he never really looked right all season. Patrick Sharp struggled all season, and eventually had to be shut down before he could even be traded. Supposed bargain signing Jiri Hudler got nuclear mono or something and never really found a rhythm when he finally did make it back to the floundering team. Mattias Janmark (who also played 20 minutes Tuesday night) never played a game as his knee started disintegrating, and Jason Spezza went down with an injury later in the season. Dan Hamhuis was quickly supplanted on the top pairing by Esa Lindell, whose struggles there last year were primarily tolerated because of how few options Dallas really had at that point. (You may recall that Jordie Benn actually started the first game of that season on the top pairing beside John Klingberg, which was an omen that many of us foolishly ignored.)

So, you’ll pardon me if you want to give this team a medal for improving on last year’s infirmary squad. Yes, maybe everything broke right for Dallas in 2015-16 (aside from goaltending, which is another screed in itself that I’ll spare us all), but there just isn’t a good reason to fall so far in so short a time. Ben Bishop has been fine, not great, this season, but the Stars’ core from two years ago, healthy and seasoned, should have had a bigger cushion by now, especially with how easy their schedule was earlier on.

One other thing from last year: On 3-20-2017, the Stars beat the Sharks 1-0 behind a Curtis McKenzie goal, as Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak played 20 minutes apiece and Remi Elie soaked up 16:30 of ice time. If you spend to the cap, you should look miles better than that team blindfolded.

Well, fast forward one year, and the Stars just lost what felt like their sixth must-win game in a row. Here is how they did it:

This is basically all season, right? Gemel Smith and Julius Honka, two younger, speedier guys who have done plenty of good things all year, were given the dregs of ice time in a close game. The formal “shutdown” pairing that has been leaking shots and goals against for over 20 games now continued leaking goals against.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that Hitchcock refuses to make changes. Greg Pateryn is an interesting case study that I’ll save for the offseason, but you can see that Hitchcock leapt at the chance to lean on Pateryn after nine games in the press box to start the season. There are players the coaches want to give chances to.

After all, Radek Faksa finally got some power play time tonight (not to mention 20[!] minutes altogether), and all it took was the absence of Jason Spezza and Brett Ritchie. Julius Honka got to play third-pairing minutes, and all it took was Jamie Oleksiak being traded earlier this year and Marc Methot getting injured. We all adapt when survival is at stake.

But overall, the big guys get the big minutes, and the Stars were rewarded for it tonight, to an extent. Klingberg, Radulov, Seguin and Benn all stepped up Tuesday, and three goals should have been enough to force overtime against a Capitals team that has noticeably dropped off from recent seasons.

Would it have mattered, though? The Stars, after failing to force overtime far too often early in the season when the schedule was lighter, are 1-4 in their last five games that went past 60 minutes. Loser points are great when you pile them up all season, but they’re poor consolation when you aren’t getting winner points as well. And as gassed as the Stars’ top guys have gotten playing huge minutes on this crazy road trip, it’s hard to say that overtime would have held an extra point for Dallas.

But let’s be clear: this isn’t some vitriolic diatribe against Ken Hitchcock. You can look all over the league and find seasons where a less talented coach than Hitch ends up with more wins. A team as talented as the Stars has no business being in the bottom half of their conference this year, full stop. As much as fans want to find a scapegoat in the goalie or the captain or the star players, it’s been the depth players who have failed the Stars this season. And that failure stems from those who trusted these depth players instead of finding better ones.

***

Tampa Bay is an interesting sort of parallel to the Stars since the lockout. A team in a nontraditional hockey market coming off a Cup championship in 2004, the Bolts then got bounced in the first round a couple of times, missed the playoffs a few more times, and had one good run to the Conference Final mixed in there in 2010-11 à la Dallas’s 2007-08 foray. They missed the playoff cut a couple times, then returned in 2013-14 for another first-round exit while the Stars were getting their hearts broken by the Anaheim Ducks.

2014-15 is a bit divergent, as that was the Cup run, when the Bolts lost to the Blackhawks. At this point, it’s best not to wonder what that season could have been with half-decent goaltending in Dallas.

In the last three years, however, the comparison is even more apt. As the Stars led the Western Conference during the 2015-16 season before losing Seguin for the playoffs, the Lightning likewise finished near the top of the Atlantic Division again only to lose Steven Stamkos for most of the playoffs as well. Both teams would fall short of making it to the Cup Final again, with the Bolts losing in seven games to Pittsburgh in the ECF.

And of course, last season, Tampa Bay failed to qualify for the playoffs altogether, with some drama about a highly regarded prospect (Drouin) that they would ultimate trade, while Dallas saw Valeri Nichushkin head over to the KHL. Last season was a big thud for Tampa after two years of national conversation.

So, what did Tampa Bay do last season, while the Stars were hastily shedding their fastpaced system in favor of a check-for-chances coach and Martin Hanzal and Marc Methot? While the Stars held onto Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth for yet another summer? While the Stars preached the value of the NHL-ready Julius Honka while failing to clear a path for him?

Tampa Bay traded Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev, and gave him 15+ minutes a night, living with some mistakes in the process. Sergachev’s 34 points would be second on the Stars’ blueline by a mile, while Julius Honka is still lucky to hit 14 minutes even when the Stars are chasing the entire game.

Tampa Bay hit on their first-round goalie from the 2012 draft and handed him the reins for good this year, while the Stars are still blaming the Jack Campbell pick in 2010 for their goalie troubles.

The Stars tried to replace the production of Patrick Eaves with the great-value signing of Tyler Pitlick, which has largely been a success (though Pitlick has primarily been a third-liner until his cameo Tuesday with Benn and Seguin, which warrants a longer look). Pitlick is not the pure sniper and speedster Eaves was, but if his health holds up, that looks like a great move for any franchise.

However, where Tampa pivoted from Drouin to make a good trade and kept rolling seven defensemen when needed, the Stars were hell-bent on running plug-and-play to make the team into what seemed necessary for its new (old) coach and system.

The mere idea of a team “needing” to replace a player like Cody Eakin is very problematic, even before Eakin’s knee injury and scoring issues popped up in 2016-17. While taking Lites’s quotes with a huge block of salt, it’s fair to say that those making the decisions in Dallas place (and placed) a high value on players who can do those old-school-hockey canards: Win Faceoffs, Shut Down the Other Team’s Best Players, and Hold Onto Leads. Martin Hanzal, despite his history of injuries and lack of real scoring, seemed to fit that bill. And while his play was certainly historically solid, the signing smacks of a team that didn’t understand its biggest weaknesses.

Where Tampa Bay moved on from Drouin and found gold in Yanni Gourde, Dallas saw Eakin’s rash and overpriced contract get scooped up by Vegas after a career-worst performance, and Dallas, in their impatience, promptly blew that newfound cap space on an older, less productive, more injury-prone player in Martin Hanzal. Different moves for different reasons, of course; but everything has a ripple effect on a hockey team.

Yes, the Stars’ scoring depth is a serious issue, and has been. Ruff’s system, which used fast players and solid transition defense to create great scoring chances, could give lower-line players more scoring opportunities than they’d expect to see elsewhere. But the Hanzal signing was less a bad fit than it a blatant misunderstanding of existing resources. Radek Faksa had proven himself more than capable of stepping up in big moments with his playoff performance two years ago, and yet the Stars pushed him (not to mention Jason Spezza) down the depth chart in favor of an expensive three-year contract.

How a front office can sign both Tyler Pitlick and Martin Hanzal to low- and high-ceiling deals in the same week is a question for someone better-versed in schizophrenia than I am. But either way, from that Hanzal signing onward, it was clear that Dallas was looking to make a statement about the sort of hockey it was going to play now, not try to outfox its competitors with high-risk, high-reward hockey.

Sometimes those big statements work out, though. Alexander Radulov has been fantastic, and while it’s nice to give Jim Nill and the front office a rousing ovation for the move, we know that there’s guesswork involved in any new acquisition. Great front offices might not hit on every signing they make, but they usually avoid the bad, foreseeable mistakes. Say what you will about Ales Hemsky and Jason Spezza, but the Stars got some good year(s) out of both of those signings, and they haven’t hurt their flexibility at all. How good are the next four years of that Radulov deal going to look? Time will tell.

***

And so, as the Stars’ management patience seemed to run out after last season, it was a real, honest-to-goodness shame. Ken Hitchcock more or less abandoned his efforts at adapting the system to the Stars’ fast-paced potential, and a grinding, third-man-high, deliberate-entry dump-and-chase system took over before the season was 20 games old. Jason Spezza discovered that the man he stood next to on a podium in April would be healthy-scratching him by January.

This isn’t revisionist history, to be clear. Dan Hamhuis also ate a healthy scratch last year under Ruff, just as John Klingberg, Alex Goligoski and Ales Hemsky were benched as well. Lindy Ruff had his “naughty naughty, mustn’t do” list, just as Hitchock and every other coach has theirs. Mike Babcock loves him some Roman Polak, and Jon Cooper and Steven Stamkos butted heads more than a few times down in Tampa about moving Stamkos to wing. The nature of coaching a hockey team is to embrace conflict of your own and others’ making; locker rooms and practices are unique spaces that fans can never totally understand, anymore than someone else can understand what it’s like to come home each night to your specific home after working at your specific job. People get protective about things near and dear to their hearts, and coaches sometimes need to make players unhappy in order to do what they think is best for the team.

After all, it’s easy to blame the newest element when assigning blame for a failed season, but Ken Hitchcock has generally made teams better after his arrival. Is Dallas just a special case, a collection of players who can’t do what Hitch preaches enough to be successful? Or have there just been some severe underperformances in the middle of the lineup? Both have been the case, at times.

In fact, the players’ impatience on the ice has hurt them, too. Penalties are way up this season, and the Stars’ penalty kill has fallen off along with their scoring at evens. Most of the depth players haven’t been able to create offense consistently, which has brought severe regression from Shore, Ritchie and Spezza. Those three players were all counted on to pitch in, but the Stars’ offense has been far too top-heavy all year long. It’s easy to blame the system, or the linemates, or the expectations, but ultimately, you have to ask why the Stars don’t have any better options in the prospect pool.

***

Curtis McKenzie’s appearance in Washington reminded me of the fact that McKenzie has the second-longest tenure of all Stars draft picks, after Jamie Benn two years prior in 2007. McKenzie was drafted in the sixth round in 2009, after names like Scott Glennie, Alex Chiasson, Reilly Smith and Tomas Vincour. The Stars did well to package Chiasson and Smith in trades for big fish, but they otherwise got nothing else from that draft by way of forward help. Smith would be a great player for Dallas right now (albeit more expensive), but you make the Tyler Seguin trade every danged day, no question.

2010 saw the Stars draft only one forward, Alex Guptill, who you may recognize if you follow the Allen Americans in the ECHL.

2011 brought three forward picks, but Brett Ritchie (44th overall) is the only one of note, as Matej Stransky and Emil Molin never quite made the leap to the NHL, though Stransky was close before leaving for Europe after last year.

So, Lites’s claim that these draft years torched the Stars a bit? Well, he’s not wrong, certainly. But If your 2012-2015 drafts aren’t really giving you help either at this point, I’m not sure finger-pointing at the past administration is an effective strategy. The 2012 draft was a productive one for Dallas, with Shore, Lindell, Smith and Faksa all sticking in the NHL, more or less. But to refute Lites a bit: if your free-agent signing knocks one of those guys (Faksa) down the depth chart from game one, and if your coach of choice refuses to play another one of them (Smith) despite his outproducing Ritchie and Shore at even-strength all year, then there’s probably some blame to go around.

And by the way, your administration’s abysmal 2014 draft? You took only one forward among nine picks, and you traded that prospect (Brett Pollock) for an ineffective rental defenseman just to prove a point to Vancouver. And the only reason that trade isn’t a bad one is because the 45th-overall prospect himself doesn’t look like a player anyhow.

(And again, don’t get me started about how your top pick from that draft is also getting his minutes docked by your new coach.)

All that to say, Dallas drafting is a sore subject, but the past is past, and a good season from Nichushkin next year and possibly a solid Guryanov appearance could go a long way towards washing the taste of the last decade’s failure to draft solid forward depth out of our collective mouths. At least until the next Kyle Connor and Matthew Barzal goals happen.

***

Ultimately, this season smacks of hypocrisy, given the Stars’ preaching of patience for the last chunk of years. Heck, even Lindy Ruff’s system was built around the idea of “Was there a better play?” If anything requires more patience that dealing with 2014-15 on the way to 2015-16, I’m not sure what it is. But as the players found a way to find the better play, we saw what a team could look like after a couple of years of shrewd trading, cash infusion from ownership, and systemic revamping. 2015-16 was and always will be a gift for fans (through 82 games, at least), but the Stars’ course adjustment last summer reflects the play on the ice this year to an alarming degree.

Dallas’s system this year embraces slow hockey that strangles quality scoring chances, eschewing fast-breaks and passes into the offensive slot unless the cycle is going and the defense is ready for a counterattack. The Stars’ moves this summer were every bit targeted towards a similar higher-floor, lower-ceiling return. The team would never overwhelm teams with offense anymore, but at least the talking heads on NHL Network wouldn’t be able to chuckle at the Stars’ GAA anymore. The Stars had lost their patience for a fast system the likes of which Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay had curated, and so they moved on, looking for something more stable, more predictable. Mission accomplished.

Dallas’s moves at the draft this summer also smacked of impatience, as the Marc Methot acquisition cost them Dylan Ferguson and a second-round pick in 2020. For a team bereft of goaltending stability for so long, it was a striking reminder of just how little faith Dallas had in its system to find more value in a long-term goalie project than two years of a player in his thirties who had recently had a finger hacked halfway off his hand. This, of course, after Dallas had just drafted Miro Heiskanen third overall. This, of course, as Dallas already had Jamie Oleksiak, Esa Lindell, Dan Hamhuis and Patrik Nemeth still on the NHL roster. Dallas wanted a better name on the roster now, and Marc Methot looked like one. Jamie Oleksiak apparently looked like one to Ken Hitchock too, for far too long. The Stars were 9-11-1 with Jamie Oleksiak in the lineup this year. I guess patience is still a virtue, sometimes.

Maybe hypocrisy is the wrong word, and impatience is just all it really is. Maybe Jim Nill was impatient with coaches who couldn’t make up their minds on Nemeth and Oleksiak, and so he wanted some veteran insurance. Maybe Nill wasn’t even the one making that call this summer, and it was a concerted effort throughout the organization to get another penalty-killing defender to clear the Dallas PK’s name from the news. Either way, Methot’s reputation as the Karlsson Catalyst was specious at best, but Esa Lindell’s maturation (prospect: developed!) rendered that trade less foolhardy than redundant, and at least the term is manageable. As for whether Methot and his Veteran Presence will step up for Dallas in the playoffs, it looks like we’ll have to exercise a whole lot more patience to find out than we thought.

***

So, this is how a team determined not to let its fate rest on Kari Lehtonen ever again sees its fate sealed in front of Kari Lehtonen, again. No, this game (and most of the last few) was not lost because of Kari any more than many of those earlier games were won because of Lehtonen. This team has simply been hastily, impatiently re-formed to fit a mold that only seems to work when everyone is healthy and performing at peak expectations, whatever those are for each specific player.

Put it this way: if your team misses the playoffs because Martin Hanzal only plays 38 games and Ben Bishop “only” plays 53 games, then you’ve built one heck of a paper tiger. And indeed, as the Stars performed the latest iteration of “See, We’re Not a One-Line Team” in Washington, the results belied their talk. Seguin, Benn, Radulov and Klingberg have been fantastic all year, with some good support from Faksa, Janmark and Pitlick. And on Tuesday, those were the only players who had anything to give. It wasn’t enough.

Sports franchises are far too messy to just walk in and “solve” unless you’re both iron-fisted and eminently wise. Tom Gaglardi has given his management team more or less a blank checkbook and a few years, and the results haven’t been there consistently. Little wonder, really. If you combine bad drafting with some bad luck, bad injuries with bad depth, and bad acquisitions with misplaced trust—Devin Shore keeps getting 15+ minutes a night despite a far and away team-worst -29 that somehow never gets brought up alongside talk of Julius Honka’s defensive liabilities—well, you’re just asking for a season like this.

Bad luck isn’t an excuse, but it is a reality. The fact that Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg and Alex Radulov are having the best years of their careers in a season that looks to end before the real work begins is a travesty. The Central is a war zone, and this year is especially tough, as Patrik Nemeth and the Charging Colorado Avalanche have somehow figured hockey out after trading Matt Duchene. Ben Bishop might have stolen another couple games for Dallas if Dan Hamhuis hadn’t crazily fallen onto his knee (and if Bishop and the Stars had shown more patience in bringing him back). Jamie Oleksiak might have had the decency not to score the game-winner against Dallas. But no; this season is the most tantalizingly painful in a long time, but it’s hard to be surprised anymore. The Stars are something like 10-21-5 against other playoff teams this season. They have not been on the same level as the best NHL teams all season. They have not even been average. They’ve beaten bad teams, and feasted at home. That is a flawed team.

Mike Heika mentioned in his chat yesterday that if the Stars miss the playoffs, there will be a long, hard look at every aspect of this organization. And there should be. But to think that there are any easy answers, from a coaching change to a GM change or a scouting department housecleaning would be to ignore the complexity of the pain that’s haunted this franchise for years. Last year’s heartbreak was largely a result of injuries and asking some younger players to step up a bit early; this year’s pain is found in seeing regression from unexpected places like Spezza and Ritchie, and seeing the coaches and management seemingly working against their own longterm goals—then trying to place blame and having too many places to choose from.

No one wants to rebuild, and the Stars are still too good to even think about that right now. It’s always preferable to find a couple of perfect tweaks that set a crooked house aright, especially when the house has such a solid foundation. But the ghosts of the past are not easily evicted, and the new tenants seem to have brought some new ones in with them as well. At some point, you gotta ask: Who you gonna call?

Last summer, the Stars dialed up an icon of the past and a lot of free agent help. With a Seguin extension nearing, the Stars likely won’t have that option available this time around. If by some miracle the Stars pull out of this tailspin and limp into the postseason, it’ll take a bit to believe this all really happened. But time is running short on the Stars and their best players; if Dallas wants to be the next Chicago, they’d better start figuring out how to get to the playoffs more than twice a decade. These days, patience is wearing thin all around this team.