Each game Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff has to play roulette.
From a pool of eight defensemen, he has to pick two scratches each game. Sometimes he makes the right choice, other times, something is left to be desired. Several times it has led to a bit of an outcry from Dallas fans.
It’s not Ruff’s fault he has to deal with an overcrowded blue line. He didn’t ask to have eight defensemen on the roster, and has admitted it’s not the most ideal system, but it’s the hand he’s been dealt by Stars general manager Jim Nill.
But, when Ruff has to make difficult choices, including scratching John Klingberg in a 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday, he’s the one that has to answer the questions for it.
Dallas entered the season with an eight defensemen problem that it should have learned from after last year. During the 2015-16 season Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth turned into practice players and watched the majority of games from the press box. This season, the Stars looked like they were opening up space for younger players, but still elected to carry eight defensemen after signing veteran Dan Hamhuis as a free agent.
And the eight defensemen problem has only gotten murkier. With Johnny Oduya injured, it has turned into a nine defensemen problem. The Stars’ top prospect, Julius Honka, was given a small opening and has seized NHL minutes, even playing on the top power play unit.
It’s a system that’s brought the best — and the worst — out of the Stars young defensemen. Internal competition is a good thing, most of the time, but the Stars have a system in place where one bad game can lead to a handful of scratches.
For example, Stephen Johns returned to the lineup against Detroit and had a difficult night playing his first NHL game since Nov. 19. He was decent enough in his own end, but he didn’t help Dallas drive possession — a factor that Ruff has highly considered when making his decisions.
The Stars travel to Pittsburgh to play the Penguins on Thursday, and based on Johns’ performance and recent defensive trends, he’ll likely come out of the lineup before he ever had a chance to prove himself. This kind of rotation could be harpooning the 24-year-old righty’s confidence.
On the flip side, the system has only ignited Julius Honka’s competitive fire and confidence. Before this season Honka wasn’t ready for the NHL, he was close, but still made too many mistakes in the AHL to be a reliable NHL option.
As we head into December and close in on his 21st birthday, Honka is playing with swagger, keeps the game in front of himself defensively, and looks like he should be in an NHL lineup every night.
Esa Lindell and Jamie Oleksiak have seen both sides of the overloaded system. At times, like right now, both are playing their best hockey and are brimming with confidence. When both have struggled and dropped out of the lineup, the games when they finally return to the lineup haven’t been stellar.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward system and it’s not working.
The losses are outweighing the wins, the Stars are struggling to find a middle ground where young defensemen can grow without feeling like they’ll be doomed to the press box for one mistake.
And this all falls back on management, not coaching. While you can argue for or against different scratches Ruff has made, Nill needs to make a move to fix the defense — an addition by subtraction model. He did that in 2014 when he traded away Sergei Gonchar to open up space for young defensemen, and a similar move wouldn’t hurt right now.
Yes, Ruff takes the most of the pressure for how he handles scratches. But at some point he needs his general manager’s help to smooth out the situation.