Dallas Stars Searching for Offense
A long term injury to Valeri Nichushkin leaves Dallas' offense a jumble of pieces. The Stars' big challenge is forging those pieces into two coherent offensive units.
Dallas' brief bursts of competence this season were built on the backs of the Three Amigos. Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin, and Jamie Benn represent three of the Stars' most potent offensive weapons, and as early season injuries (Val Nichushkin) and poor form (Ales Hemsky) struck, they also represented Dallas' best shot at staying competitive. It was an inelegant solution – the overload always is – and one destined to be short-lived. The trio would be, we all assumed, broken up just as soon as Big Val's troublesome hip ailment calmed down. Only it didn't. Now surgery is the word, and Dallas' young Russian faces four months on the sidelines.
With points precious, four months is far too long to fix this thing with duct tape. Coach Lindy Ruff is going to have to find real solutions to Dallas' ongoing offensive woes. It started last night. Against the Hurricanes Ruff shuffled his deck, and honestly, it worked. Benn broke his scoreless streak, Eakin had a couple of points, and Spezza's line looked dangerous for much of the night. Remember, we're not talking about timely goaltending or defensive solidity at the moment.
Ultimately, only a part of the answer is piecemeal contributions from the bottom of the lineup. Given their persistent defensive issues, the Dallas Stars desperately need to cobble together a legitimate second scoring line. To do that, they’ll need at least one of the groups below to step up.
The old hands, both big on pedigree, Erik Cole and Ales Hemsky have been long on promise, but so far short on results. To say they need to get it going is nothing new, and most likely, Hemsky was going to get his chance no matter what. Nichushkin's injury makes certain of that, and is likely to ensure Cole remains in the top six conversation as well. Furthermore, there’s some reason to believe the move will work.
Just watch Hemsky a little bit. He's clearly creative, motivated, and highly skilled. He also likely leads the Stars in Close-Not-Quite with 32 shots, many of which are of the high quality variety. His cranium crasher against Cam Ward last night was textbook scuffling. Keep getting chances like that, they’ll start to go in. For those of you that prefer harder metrics, the Stars are shooting just 4.7% with Hemsky on the ice, and his personal PDO is just 92.7%. That’s bad luck, and even a little regression could lead quickly into a hot streak.
Speaking of streaks, what about Erik Cole? He checks the hustle box, and did have a torrid stretch last season (8 goals in 14 games). He’s still beating defenders wide and battling his way to the net. Could a prolonged look alongside a skilled center kick the veteran into gear? Oh what the Stars wouldn't give for another run right about now.
We asked (or at least I did) earlier this season if Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Roussel might struggle to settle into life as Dallas’ dedicated grind line. Not because they lacked the skill, but because each has demonstrated at least some ability to put the puck into the back of the net. Could Roussel and Garbutt, the question went, prioritize nullifying the other team’s top line?
To date, Roussel and Garbutt have contributed eight goals and ten assists. The pair get pucks to the net (63 SOG), and both hit double digit goals last season. Is it completely insane to think of how the pair might look to either side of a playmaking center like Jason Spezza, or how much space they could clear for Seguin? Maybe the answer to Dallas’ scoring woes is taking the leash off, so to speak.
The reigning AHL Rookie of the Year got himself going against the Chicago Blackhawks (for all the good it did), but has otherwise been an offensive non-factor so far this season. All jam and net-drive, conventional thinking has him as a very good compliment to a playmaker like Spezza or Hemsky. Just get to the net, you'd say, and keep your twig on the ice. He's also a physical player (23 hits) which might make him a candidate if Cole can't find his form.
If that particular kid can't cut it, there's another prospect on Stars fan's minds: Brett Ritchie. The burly young winger was a big part of Texas' Calder Cup run last season. Yes, he’s started slowly this year (3 goals and 7 points), but Ritchie has the pedigree of a serious offensive threat (76 points in 53 games his final season in the OHL). He's going to be in Dallas at some point, the only question is when.
The Ginga Ninja
Eakin is hurting right now, but made it back in the lineup last week. Originally expected to anchor an aggressive checking unit, it looks like young Cody is going to get a shot between Benn and Seguin. That's a big-time role change, and one night in, it seemed like a good fit. Seguin scored twice, Benn broke his 11 game goal drought, and Eakin himself chipped in a goal and an assist. As his upper body gets right, this move could have the further benefit of throwing a strong faceoff specialist onto Dallas’ first unit.
There are a few other options. Colton Sceviour could get healthy, Vernon Fiddler could go on a run, or Shawn Horcoff, but none seem as likely in the long term as those above. The good news is that there’s still talent on the roster, and in the AHL. It seems like the challenge is finding the right fits, rather than swapping out pieces. The only bad news? None of the above play defense.