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Afterwords: Soul-Searching and Jack Campbell

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It’s been a hard eight years to be a Stars fan, let alone a Stars first-round draft pick

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2012 NHLPA Rookie Showcase Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

You’re calling to me

I can’t hear what you said

You say

Go slow

I fall behind

(Also, this is the very best version/cover/whatever of this song)

***

If you think you’re angry about the Stars’ season so far, imagine how the players must feel.

Tyler Seguin referred to Jack Campbell as “Soupy” (his nickname) in the postgame scrum, and that may help you remember that Campbell did, in fact, play an NHL game with Seguin. After Kari Lehtonen went down in which the Stars took a 3-1 lead after goals from Ryan Garbutt, Brenden Dillon and Shawn Horcoff. Unfortunately for Campbell, the 6-1 Ducks would continue rolling early in the season, and Campbell would face 47(!) shots on goal and stop 41 of them.

It was and is quite the metaphor for Campbell’s time in Dallas. Put in a position he never should have been thanks to an injury to Kari Lehtonen, Campbell was called up and forced into a starting role after Dan Ellis got shelled in Los Angeles the night before. This was three years after he was drafted, but there was still no real sense around the organization that Campbell was “ready,” with this game being more of a “well, let’s see if something clicks” sort of thing.

I was at that game in Anaheim with my brother, and while Campbell had some shaky moments on a few saves, he really never had a chance in this game. Anaheim was simply the better team that night (as they would be the following April), and there was no way even a Stars team playing hard to get their goalie his first win was going to withstand that assault:

(There was also a ton of nonsense in the game, with Jamie Benn fighting Francois Beauchemin late after some roughing and Antoine Rousselling throughout the night. It was fun and aggravating and wild, but ultimately sobering.)

This year’s Dallas Stars have now suffered a fourth straight loss, to another Worst in the League team, manned by the org’s former AHL coach and a former #1 draft pick that Dallas just flat-out admitted they couldn’t develop. Jack Campbell is leading the NHL in save percentage.

Claiming Campbell is a success story now for LA is a bit disingenuous, of course. Any goalie can be hot in low-pressure situations for a while, and the point isn’t to say that the Kings got a world-class goalie that Dallas discarded (not yet, at the very least). It’s simply ours to note that this game must have tasted bitter to the core for the Dallas organization as whole.

Congratulations to Jack Campbell on his NHL career, by the way. This game must have felt amazing for him.

***

You’re not here for that, though. You are here to ask us, and yourself, one question: Why aren’t the Stars good? Well, okay, I’ll bite: it’s been as simple as “they don’t score goals” for two or three seasons now. Sure, great. But why don’t they score goals?

Okay, take a deep breath....

Because their system and personnel moves since the summer of 2016 have largely prioritized defensive responsibility (aside from Alex Radulov). Why does the team prioritize defense? Because the Stars organization was embarrassed after an historically bad penalty kill and a 2nd-worst goals against in 2016-17, so they decided to hire Ken Hitchcock, whom the team’s owner had always liked. Why did the team give up so many goals in 16-17? Because they suffered a rash of injuries to top players after the World Cup and their goaltending tandem was seriously flawed. Why wasn’t the goaltending fixed or at least bought out? Because the team had invested too heavily in Niemi one summer earlier after refusing to trade Julius Honka to acquire Cam Talbot, and because Joe Nieuwendyk had signed Kari Lehtonen to a massive extension before the partial lockout in 2012 that would have been really costly to buy out. Why weren’t the injuries insured against or Niemi avoided? Because the Stars haven’t had quality organizational depth due to woeful drafting for a decade, so they’ve either held onto prospects for too long because they don’t trust their system to develop good ones in the near-term, or else they’ve overpaid for stopgaps to fill lower-line roles you’d usually want young players taking. (Or in Niemi’s case, both.)

Here’s a fun thought: the Stars probably would have made the playoffs in 2014-15 if Jack Campbell had been anywhere near the player he is now. And if Jack Campbell had been this good in either 2014-15 or 15-16? I think the Stars could easily have won...the Campbell Bowl.

***

David made a good point last night in his tirade against the incredibly impotent Dallas offense when he pointed to how the Stars’ zone entries always tend to be along the walls, and I don’t disagree with that. But I believe zone entries—which Josh also took a deep dive into this week—are also related to the way the Stars are defending in their own zone, and how Jim Montgomery has all five guys often going below the dots in order to protect against the highest quality shots against. There’s a price to pay wherever you go or don’t go on the ice, just as the players who tend to lead the league in giveaways are usually the players who make great plays, too. If you’re always pointed south, you’re going to be slower transitioning north. And when you’re slower to the draw, the other team is going to be in great position to force you wide.

Think about a penalty kill. It should be easy to enter through the middle of the zone, right? But penalty kills are designed to push the puck to the walls and force a dump-in, and they can often do that against less-effective power plays (Carolina is one) even without five players defending.

So, it’s bad that the Stars are usually forced to enter the zone along the walls, as it gives the defense less to worry about. But it’s also indicative of what the team prioritizes. They’re getting great goaltending that is partially helped by their shelter-in-place system in their own zone, but it’s killed their offense so much that it’s making the personnel issues look even worse. I simply refuse to believe that every forward except Radulov is just magically regressing on offense this season because of issues with individual effort and commitment. The personnel isn’t ideal, certainly; but this team is 10% less defensively stifling than Hitch’s Stars were last season, and the offense is still somehow even worse.

It’s funny to think about how Lindy Ruff changed his system in 16-17 after all of the injuries to be more defensively sound. It didn’t end up mattering much, but goaltending really was a huge issue for Dallas in those days, so they had an awful season anyway (until it netted them Miro Heiskanen). We don’t often hear of a bad or middling team making drastic changes to be more uptempo, is what I’m saying. Part of that is because it’s more difficult, and part of that is because it feels more risky. It’s not, though; it just requires more trust.

Now comes the tricky part: will Dallas trust that they can right the ship, or will they overpay for Wayne Simmonds or someone equally overvalued in hopes or recapturing the glory of a setting sun?

***

Sundries

  • The Stars hit the post three times in the third. Two of those shots were by Radek Faksa: first during some sustained pressure early in the third, and then on a deflection midway through the same period.
  • If you think about it, one Dallas first-round pick failing to score while another Dallas first-round pick fails to stop the puck is a pretty good representation of why Dallas is where they are these days.
  • Bitterness was rampant in this one, off the ice, too. Alex Radulov was benched for the second half of the opening period after he “talked back” to Jim Montgomery for undisclosed reasons (though Sean and Owen made the point on the CarCast that Radulov had just been shifted with the fourth line, so who knows if that was a punishment of its own, or if Radulov’s actions or reactions after that are what drew Monty’s ire. Either way, I’m not biting on this drama for now; Radulov says it’s good, so it’s probably fine for now. No one’s happy when you’re losing.
  • Hey, how’s this for poetic justice: After the Stars went 0-for-6 against Tampa Bay, the Kings only needed three seconds to score a power play goal. After a turnover in the neutral zone, Klingberg lost position on his man, and he was forced to probe Tyler Toffoli with his stick to prevent a clean chance against Ben Bishop. The resulting power play was a simply point shot that bounced of Dustin Brown’s glove, and he transitioned beautifully from yelling for a penalty on Esa Lindell to celebrating the goal. Good old Dusty, being the sort of player he is. Gotta love Dusty.
  • Oh, and you know how we’ve talked about the Stars having issues getting out of their zone with possession? The game-winning goal, such as it was, also came after a series of defensive zone faceoffs, Ben Bishop whiffed on a knuckleball after Tyler Seguin got more or less walked, and the Tanner Pearson tap-in on a puck Bishop should have held onto put Dallas in a sobering 2-0 hole.
  • That second Kings goal turned the game’s pace up a notch, thank goodness, but the Stars are not a goal-scoring team, and it showed. Pace is great, and I think it’ll benefit the Stars long-term to continue pushing play, but you do also need to score the goals.
  • Jason Spezza won a battle behind the net to set up a glorious chance for Roope Hintz on a low-high pass to the slot, but Hintz put it wide because Dallas Stars.
  • Jamie Benn was every bit Jamie Benn! in this one as things escalated, except for the whole Trophy For Scoring Points part of his identity. He drew a penalty with an extra move, though of course, the Stars continued to look stationary and lost with the man advantage. He would also hit the crossbar after turning Drew Doughty inside out, but again without result beyond that. I mean, seriously, Benn was on his game tonight, and I really am starting to wonder if we’re in for some real Jamie Benn again this year as the team gets more desperate. Goodness knows they need Lead By Example everywhere they can find it these days.
  • Mattias Janmark did get a chance on a 2-on-1 with Faksa late in the second, but Janmark’s shot is not his best tool, and it ended up being an easy save for the Stars’ former first-round draft pick. Janmark and Tyler Seguin then both had great rebound chances with the net partially open about four minutes into the third, but per usual, a random stickblade or an unfortunate bounce kept the Stars off the scoresheet. Janmark would later have another great chance on Cambell on the backhand, but This Jack Campbell wasn’t going to be beaten by that shot in this game, no sir.
  • Tyler Pitlick was hit violently by Dustin Brown against the boards, and he missed the rest of the game (though he finished his shift). Upper body injury is the word, but he supposedly could have returned. Dusty was not kind to the Stars in this game.
  • The crowd started booing a few times in this game. Probably not great to hear if you are Chief Team Salesman Jim Lites.
  • Esa Lindell tipping a Radulov point shot perfectly was the entire Stars offense, which totally makes sense, yes definitely.
  • Then, at the last, hope: a faceoff win set up a perfect Seguin one-timer...that Jack Campbell’s glove denied. Where is Trevor Daley when you need him?
  • There are three players on the entire Stars roster who have been drafted by Dallas after the second round: Jamie Benn and John Klingberg (fifth round), and Esa Lindell (third). Dylan Ferguson (seventh), of course, now plays for the Vegas franchise as a result of the Marc Methot trade. It hurts when you stop finding guys in the latter part of the draft in addition to continually missing out in the first round, too. On the plus side, if Campbell keeps this up for another year or so, the Stars will be able to brag about having drafted yet another franchise goaltender, so long as no one asks which franchise. (And oh, by the way, that Jon Quick contract is going to be fun for LA to deal with until they buy it out during the next lockout.)
  • Winnipeg needs to be Everything for this team. We’ll see how Montgomery prepares them, and how they show up, on Saturday. Should be a fun one to watch, regardless.