Despite Injuries At Forward, Organizational Depth Gives Stars A Fighting Chance At Playoffs
The losses of Seguin, Hemsky and Eaves are debilitating, but AHL call-ups Ritchie, McKenzie and Morin are up to the task
In hockey, much like most aspects of life, it's usually a good idea to have a Plan B.
And, in some cases, Plans C, D and E as well.
Seldom in the history of the Dallas Stars franchise has this way of thinking been more relevant than it is right now.
In true Friday The 13th fashion, tragedy struck the Dallas Stars in Friday night's match-up against the Florida Panthers, with forwards Tyler Seguin, Ales Hemsky and Patrick Eaves all leaving the game due to injury.
With three of the team's top six forwards out injured, suddenly Dallas' 2nd-ranked offense, the catalyst for the overwhelming majority of the team's success through the season, seemed dangerously vulnerable. Losing a point-per-game player of Seguin's caliber can be a death sentence for a team's playoff hopes, especially one that currently finds themselves five points back as Dallas does.
Luckily for the Stars, however, the organization has those Plans C, D and E in place at forward.
Brett Ritchie, Curtis McKenzie and Travis Morin have all played in Dallas at various times so far this season, and even though each has spent the majority of their years down in the AHL, all three have shown themselves to be quite capable at the NHL level.
The argument can, and has been, made that each player would have been good enough to play the entire season up in Dallas, but Stars general manager Jim Nill has quipped on many occasions about the importance of depth within your organization. Right now we're seeing a clear example as to why.
The trio all held their own on Saturday night against the Colorado Avalanche, despite the Stars' 4-1 loss. Ritchie played on the team's top line and was a physical presence, McKenzie had a fight and a shot that went off the post, and Morin provided some veteran stability on the bottom lines for a team that's short on bodies.
It's badly going to need to be a trend that continues for Dallas, with Seguin out approximately 3-6 weeks with his knee injury and Eaves out indefinitely with a concussion. Hemsky is expected back sooner, maybe as soon as this week, but considering his injury history over the course of his career it makes sense to throw at least a little caution to the wind.
Now, obviously it's nearly impossible to replace a player that's at Seguin's level, and Eaves had turned out to be an incredible fit on the team's top line. As good as the three call-ups are, there's no replacing that.
On the other hand, though, as tough of a situation as the Stars are in right now there are actually some positives that can be taken out of it, strange as that may sound.
Ritchie and McKenzie have very good chances of being regulars in Dallas next season, but with the former being 21 years old and the latter 23, there is still some uncertainty about the readiness of both. With Seguin and Eaves out for a long time, and Hemsky still at least a little ways away, Stars brass will now have an excellent chance to test out the two youngsters and get a much clearer picture of where they are in their developments and what roles they can fill on this team.
Is Ritchie ready yet for a regular Top 6 role? Is McKenzie? With Erik Cole and Patrick Eaves set to become free agents at the end of this season those are the kinds of questions that Nill and the Stars need to know the answers to.
For Morin it's a more interesting scenario. The 31 year-old center played in only his 13th career NHL game on Saturday, but has been one of the AHL's best players over the past few years, winning the honors of AHL MVP last season. He's also under contract for the next two years, signing an extension on January 23rd. It's no sure thing, but there's a good chance that Morin, given the right opportunity, could still be a productive forward in the NHL.
That opportunity for him, as well as similar ones for Ritchie and McKenzie, is right now.
Stars head coach Lindy Ruff had some excellent words about the situation immediately after Friday night's game against the Florida Panthers, as reported by Mike Heika:
"It’s somebody else’s opportunity," Ruff said. "In my career coaching, I’ve seen where sometimes this can make a team stronger. It can give another guy an opportunity and you don’t use it as an excuse, you use it as an opportunity. There’s injuries on every team."
There's no doubt that the Stars still have a long, arduous, uphill climb ahead of them to make the playoffs. The outlook is bleak, but thanks to the depth within the organization, it's not impossible.