When I originally put this column on the schedule, I had planned for it to be another “Why the Dallas Stars should be sellers” piece. But then they blew a 3-0 lead to the Nashville Predators.
The writing is on the wall for the Stars this year. They’re not playing effective hockey, they can’t win close games, and it would take a water-to-wine style miracle for them to make the playoffs. Of course they’re going to be sellers at the trade deadline.
So, let’s not focus on the buyer-seller question, or even the “who stays, who goes” question.
Is it time for a coaching change?
With this season’s hopes well and truly dashed, the Lindy-Ruff-On-The-Hot-Seat articles have already started clogging timelines and RSS feeds. Fans are clamoring for him to be run out-of-town even though his contract expires this offseason anyway.
But the Bruins recently let go of a talented coach on the basis of flimsy evidence, so I’m loath to recommend the Stars do the same.
Is Ruff really responsible for the disappointment that is 2016-17?
First, and very much foremost, the Stars’ roster has been decimated by injury. For the early part of the season, Ruff was mixing and matching a top-six group that wasn’t really a top six group. There have been some bright spots because of this – Antoine Roussel is having a career year, Radek Faska has been dominant, and rookie Devin Shore’s game continues to improve – but it does mean they were unable to get off to a hot start like in 2015-16.
And to Ruff’s credit, it’s not like he was given more to work with than he had last year. The Stars lost two blue line mainstays in Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers. And it’s not like he received an upgrade in net; something fans had been begging for since summer.
But that doesn’t absolve him of the choices he has made. For instance, even after getting as healthy as possible (since key forwards Ales Hemsky and Mattias Janmark may not see the ice this year), the Stars offense has stuttered. Cody Eakin, a defensively-minded forward in the vein of Marcus Kruger, is centering Jamie Benn. Tyler Seguin has spent much of the year playing wing. Patrick Sharp is seeing third-line minutes.
And probably most damning of all, John Klingberg’s new defensive partner, Esa Lindell, has some of the worst shot attempt numbers on the team. Yet he is playing upwards of 20 minutes a night.
It’s not just Lindell, either. The entire team is being tasked with focusing more on defensive play by the coaching staff. What that has served to do is handicap the Stars’ biggest strength – flying down the ice and generating offense.
Several people have tried to chalk it up to loss of footspeed, and yes, Janmark and Hemsky are fast, but the bigger issue is the loss of the transition game in the neutral zone due to the “defense first” mentality.
And that’s all without speaking a word about the league-worst penalty kill. Which, yanno, is kind of an issue.
But Ruff has one major thing going for him in the case to re-sign him this summer.
No one else available seems to be any better.
There’s Ken Hitchcock, defense-first coach. There’s Gerard Gallant, defense-first coach. There’s Michel Therrien, the guy who disliked P.K. Subban’s game. There’s Jack Capuano, who may blend his lines even more often than Ruff. There’s Patrick Roy, who hates shot attempts and likes goalies (but only when they’re good).
None of those options sound like they’d be a good fit for a fast, young roster who excels at offense and has middling respect for defense.
Unless they can bring back World Cup of Hockey Coach Ralph Krueger, I’m not sure Jim Nill has a suitable replacement for Ruff. In his shoes, I would probably extend Ruff for a single season – the put up or shut up year.
But I would also insist on bringing in a power play and penalty killing coaching specialist, much like Tampa Bay did this season to fix their man advantage. If this means having to clean house of some current assistant coaches, then so be it.
Is management to blame?
Jim Nill is already making the radio rounds in preparation for his trade deadline sell-off. In them, he’s trying to deflect the questions around coaching and shouldering some of the blame himself.
As he probably should.
While Nill also can’t be held responsible for the rash of injuries besetting the team, his trademark cautiousness has backfired this season. For the second year in a row, he’s elected to carry eight defensemen. It wasn’t great for their development last year, and this season, it looks like it has been even worse.
It’s indefensible to keep Julius Honka, the most effective defender when he drew into the lineup, in the AHL while Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth are still barely getting playing time.
Dylan McIlrath, a player similar in stature and results to Oleksiak, passed through waivers for assignment to the AHL without incident. Nemeth has even less name recognition (in large part due to the lack of teenage Olympians in his family). Neither one are likely to be snatched up by another team. And even if they were, well, Honka is clearly able to succeed in Dallas.
If you count the NHL-ready Honka, Nill has given Ruff the job of juggling ice time for nine different defensemen. No coach is going to handle that well. Not even three-time Stanley Cup winning head coach Joel Quenneville.
And of course, there is the $10.4 million in goalie salary sitting on the books. I’ll be the first to tell you the Stars goalies aren’t to blame for Dallas’ lost season, as easy of a narrative it may be to sell.
Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have turned in a surprisingly good performance this year, at least at even strength. The problem, however, is that it is a surprisingly good performance. And with so much money tied up in the position, you would expect it to be consistently strong.
Nill needed to bite the bullet this summer and look for an upgrade in net. No, the Stars were never going to get the kind of Devan Dubnyk, season-saving goaltending Minnesota landed, but someone who could at least get them back to average across the board would have gone a long way.
And with the expansion draft coming up this summer, the goaltending market is about to be flooded. This does make it cheaper for Nill to find a replacement, but it also means that he’ll have a harder time moving one of those two contracts.
Then there is the issue of injury replacement forwards. While Adam Cracknell, originally signed to a two-way deal with the idea he’d spend much of the year in the minors, has turned out to be a great bargain, Nill’s next best top-six replacement is former Oiler, Lauri Korpikoski. He has 19 points in 56, about what you can expect from a fourth-liner, but has the lowest 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage of all Stars forwards.
Add on top of that another year of below-career shooting from Patrick Sharp (7.4 vs 11), Jiri Hudler’s worst season since he was a rookie and a Jamie Benn who didn’t look healthy until recently, and well… something needed to be done.
But Nill decided to wait it out instead.
So should it be Nill’s dismissal fans need to see?
No, I don’t think that’s necessary either. Nill has proven he can be a man of action – he’s turned over nearly the entire Stars roster since coming to Dallas. But fixing what ails them is going to take more than just one blockbuster trade this time. It means giving up on some players he likes (See: Eakin, Cody) and admitting he isn’t getting enough from his goaltending.
So where do they go from here?
Fans, be prepared to say goodbye to some of your favorite players. Patrick Eaves is one of the hottest commodities in the NHL trade market, so he should fetch a good return. Sharp is also in rumors, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a few other free agents like Hudler or Oduya heading out as well.
The Stars need to focus on next year. With an NHL Draft pool that’s more shallow than it has been in years, their scouting needs to be sharper-eyed and more discerning than ever. It’s not the year to be blinded by size or hockey pedigree.
Then there’s the issue of the salary cap, which will likely stay a flat $73 million. Nill has seven restricted free agents currently on the NHL roster to re-sign, and seven more unrestricted free agents to re-sign or replace.
Oh, and there’s the expansion draft to navigate, too. Fortunately, the Stars seem well set to use the seven forwards, three defenders plan and aren’t likely to lose anyone too key to future success.
This season was lost because management was too patient and the coaches too much the opposite.
Success requires balance from all parties. It was what made 2015-16 such a good year, and if they want to get back to winning, they will need to find that balance again.