As Dallas Stars Struggles Continue, Time to Start Asking the Hard Questions
The Stars are not a very good team right now.
Let's be honest here -- this season so far has taken the wind out of everyone's sails and last night's loss to the Chicago Blackhawks was the perfect microcosm of everything that has gone wrong over the last six weeks.
Everything is negative. The play on the ice when the game is on the line, the season so far, the atmosphere among Stars fans especially here on Defending Big D. It's what losing will do, especially after so much hype coming into the season, but it's how they are losing that really hurts the most.
The self-fulfilling prophecy of the third period meltdown played itself out to absolute perfection on Sunday night as the Stars allowed four goals on 23 shots, in one singular period, and basically imploded in the final 20 minutes. This has happened time and time again to the Dallas Stars and in nearly every loss this season the same story has played itself out; it's almost comical at this point.
The Stars are now facing a grim task ahead as the time to correct this path and "save" the season is growing drastically short. Every team will have bad periods of play and slumps throughout a season, but the problem with going through this now is if the Stars are able to get back on the right path then the margin of error throughout the rest of the year is much, much smaller.
As it stands now, obviously, playing like this isn't going to lead anywhere near the postseason. If the Stars can get this fixed and corrected, and that's a big if, the fight to make the playoffs will be extraordinarily tough -- if the Stars show they've pulled out of this tailspin, we'll start worrying about playoff scenarios at that time.
In the meantime, the Dallas Stars are in a full freefall and it's two steps forward and two steps back. And after a weekend of contemplation, I have some hard questions that need to be asked and discussed. Perhaps we'll expand on these points further moving forward, but in the short-term let's get these out in the open.
What has happened to Jamie Benn?
The Dallas Stars captain last season was the best player on the team, the perfect example of the power forward with a deadly shot who can take over games at any point. Benn was long thought of as underrated around the NHL but had a career year in 2013-14 that put him squarely on the hockey map -- he was widely revered as the best left wing in hockey over the summer, by both the media and those he plays with and against.
This season, that has not been the case. Not anywhere close.
Like the Stars, perhaps this is just a slump. Benn has been through similar goal-scoring slumps, even around this time last season, but this just feels different. The Stars captain is no longer exerting his will when the puck is on his stick and when it isn't, the physical side of his game has almost completely disappeared as the season has progressed and the Stars are greatly needing his contributions when the game is on the line -- and he hasn't been able to provide them.
This is all circular and it's all tied together; Benn has had some of the best chances for the Stars in the third periods in which they've lost. If even half of those chances go in, then the Stars likely have a few more wins at this point, the mental aspect of all this isn't nearly as bad as it's become and Benn himself would definitely not be in the funk he finds himself.
Perhaps Benn's confidence is a big factor here, the goals aren't going in and he's not as comfortable in the rest of his game as he normally would be when he's "on." The good news, if there is any, is that Benn is at least getting his chances and shots -- but mostly because of the playmaking of others around him.
When was the last time Jamie Benn dominated a shift all by himself?
Did Jim Nill's gamble on the Stars defense backfire?
This past summer, the Stars made a few very aggressive moves in order to shore up what was supposed to be a top-heavy forward group and add some scoring depth to the team. Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky were ideally going to form the foundation of a solid second line behind Benn and Tyler Seguin, and their acquisition was made along with the decision to keep the defense as it was.
It was interesting, because the consensus was that defense was the biggest issue with the Stars last season and this year was going to be no exception. Not enough experience on the blue line and not enough "proven" players known to be capable of sustaining high levels of play through a season.
Now, it's pretty clear that bad play on defense is costing this team games and the Stars are scrambling to fix the issue.
To be fair to Jim Nill, I don't think anyone predicted that Trevor Daley, Jordie Benn and Brenden Dillon would all violently regress as much as they have to start the season. Patrick Nemeth's injury took away the one player the Stars had who was capable of filling the true "defensive defenseman" role, and Jamie Oleksiak clearly isn't the players we should expect to fill it.
When John Klingberg steps in and instantly becomes the best defenseman on the team, we have a problem.
Is this really an issue with the coaching staff?
This is a big question and this is also the quickest conclusion for fans to make; if Lindy Ruff and company could just do their jobs right, then the the Stars would obviously be playing much better and winning -- right?
While coaching certainly is part of the issue, and it shouldn't be overlooked, at some point this simply becomes a personnel issue more than anything else -- the Stars have adjusted and adjusted over the past four weeks; the breakouts have changed, how the Stars have moved the puck up the ice has changed.
The coaches are trying to figure out how to correct the turnover mistakes that continue to hound the Stars, yet the same mistakes are being made again and again, and by the same players. And it's costing this team games.
So the Stars should just drastically change personnel, right? This ties into the issue above about Nill's decision regarding the defense. We can say "make this trade" or "so-and-so should go because they suck" but that doesn't mean the Stars can just go out and make any trade they want or need. So in the meantime, you try and coach the player up and get them back to where they need to be.
Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. How much is on the coach and how much is on the player? Chicken or the egg?
Finally...at what point is this no longer a "slump?"
We refer to this as a "slump" based on last season's outcome and the expectations heading into this season, but when 75% of the games played so far this season can be classified as crap then when do we start to acknowledge that perhaps this is the actual norm rather than the outlier?
This all ties together -- the coaches can only do so much with the players they have and while coaching hasn't been perfect, this is obviously a case where we see the Stars rebuild under Jim Nill is far, far from over. While the Stars do have some promising young defensemen in the AHL, they are far from the answer -- at least this season. So the team has to either look for outside help to fix the issue, or wait and hope that continued development of the young blueliners pays off.
The season is nearly 25% complete, and the Stars don't seem to have any answers as to how to get this fixed. Perhaps it all starts to turn around during this five-game homestand against easy competition, but so far nothing has shown evidence to imply that Stars fans should expect anything different than what we've seen so far this season -- and that is a very, very sobering thought.