Wednesday October 31st, 2007

When Atlanta dropped the axe on head coach Bob Hartley two weeks ago, it stirred up the inevitable speculation regarding who would be next to walk the plank.

Paul Maurice in Toronto is a clear favorite, his odds of survival dropping with each home blowout. He certainly can't survive too many more efforts like the one his Leafs delivered in Monday's 7-1 loss to Washington. Tom Renney's promising tenure with the Rangers could be cut short by the sulking of Jaromir Jagr and the ineffectiveness of high-dollar hires Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. In San Jose, the early stumbling of the Cup-dreaming Sharks may bring about the demise of Ron Wilson.

All three bear watching, but here's another name to watch: Dave Tippett.

As with the other three, his failures are not entirely of his own making. But that hasn't stopped the buzzards from circling a team that is struggling to find consistency on the ice and failing to fill seats in a very competitive market.

It's to the eternal credit of Dallas GM Doug Armstrong that he stayed with Tippett to start this season. When many in the local media called for the coach's job after yet another first-round loss last spring, he stuck by his man, rewarding him for artfully guiding an injury-riddled roster to a miraculous 107-point campaign that should have earned Jack Adams consideration.

But armed with a full complement of players, this year's team appears to be no better off, lurching to a 5-4-2 start that suggests reaching the postseason will be a challenge.

And, if anything, the offensive shortcomings that sank the Stars' playoff hopes last season are even more glaring now.While the quality of the personnel assembled by Armstrong is an issue, so too is Tippett's defense-first style that dictates his charges rarely attack when they have the lead. Rather than display the courage needed to intensify their assault and salt away a victory, these Stars seem afraid to make a mistake that will cost them what they've achieved to that point. That tendency was painfully evident in Monday's 4-2 loss to the Sharks, a game in which the Stars held a 2-1 lead before coughing it up with three stunning defensive blunders in the final eight minutes.

That kind of hardline approach to the game has a limited shelf life (just ask Tippett's Cup-winning predecessor, Ken Hitchcock). And going by body language alone, it appears that dancing along a razor thin margin for error night after night is weighing on several players.

While the Stars continue to struggle to create offense, Tippett's biggest problem may be his decision to add a new fourth liner to an already crowded mix: erstwhile superstar Mike Modano.

The smartest-looking coaches are the ones with the best goaltending. But the really smart ones are those who dish out ice time to players who deserve it most. They demand accountability from top performers, and give the lesser lights something to work toward.

Tippett's bold gambit to demote the veteran is pretty easy to justify. At the moment, Modano simply doesn't deserve the ice. The team's nominal offensive star, he's been largely ineffective this season, racking up just two goals and five points through 11 games. Most nights, Modano seems content to skate around the action in wide circles, reserving his legendary speed and crafty stick work for the increasingly rare direct assault.

So, really, Tippett's hand was forced. The problem, as it so often is in life, is the timing.

Entering Wednesday night's home game against Chicago, Modano stood one shy of tying Phil Housley's career record for points scored by an American-born player. The process has taken considerably longer than expected, and the pressure is clearly weighing on a player who's always been at his best when he's not thinking too much.

The Stars have invested considerable capital in promoting the record locally, and with their top draw skating mostly on the fourth line with the likes of Brad Winchester and Todd Fedoruk, it's doing nothing to expedite the hunt or increase his confidence, which has been something of an issue ever since the Stars stripped Modano of the captaincy prior to last season.

The record will fall, perhaps against the Blackhawks or on Friday against Phoenix. When it does, the future of this season may hang in the balance. At that point, there'll be no more excuses. With six of their next seven games against divisional opponents -- a group against which Dallas made considerable hay last season -- these Stars need to show what kind of team they can be under Tippett.

Finding a worthy replacement wouldn't be easy (see: Atlanta), so if the Stars falter, Armstrong likely will choose to shake up the mix before handing out a pink slip. Fedoruk, who was effective in a showcase performance against the Sharks, seems like a lock to be moved, perhaps as soon as this week. The Panthers, who had scout Duane Sutter in attendance Monday night, are a likely dance partner. And with rookie Matt Niskanen quickly proving to be a reliable presence on the blueline, Armstrong could cash in some of his defensive depth for a reliable veteran scoring presence. Philippe Boucher, off to a slow start, is a puck-moving veteran who could interest a number of teams.

Whatever the route, the Stars have to find a way to pick up their game. Even as they continue to tread water on the ice, they're hemorrhaging fans. Although the announced crowds continue to sound impressive (17,546 for Monday's nationally-televised game), the number of fannies in the seats was probably closer to 13,000. And that was hardly the exception to the rule at the formerly loud and proud AAC.

Tippett is an excellent coach and a good guy, but like all coaches, he has a Best-by date. The next two weeks should determine how close he is to reaching it.

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