Uncertainty abounds as the Dallas Stars croak to the finish line. Lindy Ruff pays the price, but the problems go beyond coaching.
Despite accomplishing very little in the last decade, the Dallas Stars found new ways to disappoint this year. As a matter of fact, it’s very difficult to remember such a downer from a season-to-season perspective. This organization was one win away from the Western Conference Finals last May. Today, they’re light years from the playoff picture. Worse yet, they never really threatened.
Now we can all point to this or that in regard to why they tanked so spectacularly. Injuries had a lot to do with it, at least at the beginning. Relying on an inexperienced corps of defensemen didn’t help, either. In fact, let’s stop right there for a minute. Maybe we should have seen this coming. Hindsight makes us all geniuses, right?
In retrospect, the notion of handing the keys to the back end kids was a horrendous miscalculation. It left the Dallas Stars with very little, in terms of the seasoning a polished NHL defender rquires. If we take anything away from this year, it’s the notion that you can’t lose players like Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, and Kris Russell and not feel it down the line.
Granted, these players were allowed to walk. More importantly, so were their asking prices on new deals. It was seen at the time as a prudent financial move. But there is always the law of unintended consequences that, for whatever reason, fails to garner consideration when a major decision is made. That bit the Stars hard this year. There were several times during the course of this campaign where the team simply couldn’t get out of their own way. They hemorrhaged goals as a result.
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Moreover, their formidable offensive firepower wasn’t able to outscore their problems like it did last year. Last season was the outlier. This season is more or less the status quo with this organization. And while bushels full of goals are most certainly sexy, it doesn’t mean anything if you’re giving up bushels in return. There was a lot of high-risk, high-reward in the Stars’ game when Lindy Ruff took over. It looks amazing on TV when it’s working, but defense can’t be an afterthought. Too many times under Ruff, it was.
Was it unrealistic to lean on the likes of John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak, and Stephen Johns? Again, in hindsight, sure it was. In the case of Klingberg it was (hopefully) simply an off-year. To be sure, he did look more like himself in the latter half of the season, and even finished the season with a plus rating. But with the other two, it’s fair to wonder if they’ll be ready for prime time any time soon. We’ve been told they will, but we’ve also been told this franchise is headed in the right direction. Two playoff appearances in the last nine years suggests otherwise.
So where do we go from here? Well, with Ruff out, that’s step one. He wasn’t fired. His contract just ran out. The writing has been on the wall for a while now, though. No sense in renewing a contract if the guy at the helm isn’t getting the job done. It’s unfortunate, but his tenure here had just run its course.
Next, the natural order of things dictates that the Dallas Stars will skew toward defense. This is no surprise, and if we’re all being honest with each other, it’s long overdue. So if the rumor mill is something that floats your boat, how about trying Ken Hitchcock on for size? It’s out there, and at this point, I’m willing to give it a shot. He is a taskmaster of the highest order, and it will grate on players. But he was able to pull the best out of Mike Modano and make him a formidable two-way center. I know Joe Nieuwendyk won the Conn Smythe in 1999, but it should have gone to Modano. Hitchcock was responsible for Modano’s transition from great to transcendent. Maybe he could do the same with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
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At the very least, it is a move that makes sense to those of us who remember those late 90’s glory days where championship contention was a given. At this point, Hitchcock has to be on a pretty short list of successors. As bad as this season was, the Dallas Stars are probably not this bad. The cupboard isn’t bare by any stretch. The passionate hockey cult in this burg will be on high alert for any new developments. We’re still starving for measurable success.