Fixing the Dallas Stars: On Mental Fragility, Bad Defense & Goaltending Struggles
This is just a mess.
On Tuesday night, the Carolina Hurricanes scored a goal in the second period.
With the Dallas Stars leading 2-0 just over two minutes into the second period, Jeff Skinner retrieved a long pass through the neutral zone and skated uncontested into the offensive zone. Both Jamie Benn and Trevor Daley were in position to challenge Skinner, but gave him plenty of space while trying to -- what seemed -- keep him on the outside for what should have been a harmless shot.
Yet Skinner unleashed a rip of a shot from a bad angle that found it's way over Kari Lehtonen's shoulder, and suddenly the Stars had allowed another soft goal against and the beginning of another meltdown loss.
The play was a perfect example of nearly every issue that has plagued the Stars during this horrible run of hockey they've had to start the season, and why it's been so hard for the team to just "figure it out and start winning again."
The Stars defense, which should also include the forwards in the discussion, have started to allow too much space between themselves and oncoming opponents through the neutral zone and into their own zone. They haven't made the right read or play in open ice time and time again, and it's resulted in a number of bad odd-man rushes and breakaways that lead to soul-crushing goals against.
From the moment that Skinner scored his goal, the Dallas Stars capitulated. The momentum instantly swung in the other direction and the Hurricanes -- the worst road team in the NHL -- dominated the Stars with four goals in the second period and another embarrassing loss on home ice was suffered.
The mental fragility of this team is now the running throughline of the season, and it ties directly into the individual struggles with spacing, gap-control, puck movement and structured play that have hurt the Stars so much this season.
On Tuesday night the Stars received sub-par goaltending as Kari Lehtonen allowed three rather dubious goals in the second period, but just because the goals were "soft" doesn't take away from the fact that Carolina was dominating the Stars in possession throughout the game. Instead of rallying around a goaltender that bailed them out in Los Angeles, the Stars capitulated again and again until Lehtonen was pulled and they were down two goals.
The breakway goal nine seconds into the third, the fault of the center, defense and goaltending, was just another bit of icing on the proverbial cake.
Blame for this season so far should not on any one individual or issue; it's a systemic problem that has affected every level of the team from the goal all the way to the top forwards on the Stars. There are individuals that have certainly contributed more than others to the losses this team is accumulating, but the simple truth is that there is not going to be anything near a "recovery" until the mental toughness of the Stars is fixed.
So...how to fix that?
Lindy Ruff was asked after the game what he can do to help correct this mental fragility when adversity strikes, and he called directly upon the team leaders as the ones that have to correct this issue internally. The coach can only do so much at this point (aside from blending the lines every game, apparently) and when a team continues to fall apart the way the Stars have, it's clearly become an issue where it's all between the ears -- and that's the hardest part of the game to fix.
"It just seems like when we give up one [goal], we give up two and it snowballs," said Jason Spezza after the loss to Carolina. "It's up to us as leaders to make sure we are trying to get better. We have to stick together. I have to be better and the group has to be better. We have dug ourselves a hole, no doubt about that. But it's our job to work our way out of this now."
What is most frustrating is how the mistakes that are being made change from game to game. With the addition of John Klingberg the Stars transition game had actually started to improve again, until it regressed substantially on home ice on Tuesday. Against the Hurricanes, it was complacency with gap control and misplaying of the puck through the neutral zone that cost after a couple of games (before that third period in Chicago) where those issues had ostensibly been fixed.
The Stars obviously have some very real personnel issues that need to be addressed. Jordie Benn continues to be a liability on the blue line and his fumble with the puck, along with his bad offensive zone penalty, are just more examples of how his head is clearly not where it needs to be right now.
Trevor Daley, the best defenseman for the Stars last season down the stretch, has regressed so drastically this season that he's pulling down anyone he's paired with. His decisions with the puck are mystifying at times, and it was his complacent spacing that allowed Skinner the time to get off the shot on the first goal.
Kari Lehtonen may not be the most elite goaltender in the NHL, but he's certainly much better than what he's showing this season. The soft goals allowed do nothing to help correct the struggles of the Stars when the crap hits the fan, and the team continues to not get that one big save they need the most to help pull out of this tailspin.
So you say, "how can this be fixed?" If it's not just one thing and it's an issue of mental fragility when things start to get tough, the answer is actually quite simple.
It's all tied together. If Kari Lehtonen can just make one big save early in that third period against Chicago, or not allow a couple of horrendously soft goals against Carolina, then perhaps the confidence of the Stars gets a bit of a boost.
Perhaps the defenseman have a bit more confidence when the puck is on their stick, rather than the panicked passes that occur after holding on to the puck for too long in their own zone.
Once the defense can start moving the puck without giving it up again and again in transition, then the speed of the team can actually be utilized and the forwards start to feel more comfortable up and down the ice.
Get that big win at home, get just two wins together again, and perhaps all of this starts to fall into place again. While individuals will always struggle at different times in a season, or even overall, the Stars need to regain their team confidence and the only way that's happening right now is if this losing stops.
Which is why this tailspin is going to be so hard to pull out of the longer is progresses.
This is a case where it's not just about the team and the coaches figuring this out as a group, but where the players themselves need to understand that individually they just aren't getting it down. The mistakes, the turnovers, the soft goals against, the disjointed team play -- it all starts with individual mistakes that are being made again and again, and it's taken away completely from the "team attack" the Stars are hoping to find once more.
"It's obviously frustrating," said Spezza. "We are all really frustrated with the way things have gone. Nobody could have predicted this. It's gut-check time. This is the time to look yourself in the mirror and become a better player."