It’s no secret everyone expected more out of the Dallas Stars this season. Entering the season as defending Central Division champions and ending the 2015-16 campaign atop the Western Conference came with the belief that the Stars, another year older and wiser, would find a way to correct some of their defensive woes, give their struggling goaltending duo a bit more help and potentially take another shot at a deep post-season run.
Heck, we at The Hockey News picked them as potential Western Conference champions.
Things have gone awry in the worst way for the Stars, though. With 32 games remaining in their season, Dallas sits three points out the wild card and six points back of the final divisional playoff spot in the Central. Dallas’ 20 regulation or overtime wins is the fourth-worst mark in the entire Western Conference, and the Stars, who boasted a plus-37 goal differential in 2015-16, are sitting at an ugly minus-22 in the very same category. Jamie Benn is struggling, John Klingberg has had a rocky season and that goaltending, well, it’s still letting the Stars down from time to time.
The Stars’ difficulties have led to a lot of talk about how to fix the problem. Some believe the team should go out and pick up a goaltender — maybe Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury — with an eye on turning things around before this season ends, while others want to see more focus on repairing the defense. Colleague Matt Larkin suggested turning the focus to 2017-18, selling at the deadline and taking an honest run at topping the division and conference come next season. One of the newer ideas, however, is that the Stars move on from coach Lindy Ruff.
On Friday, there was a report from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Ruff’s job could be in trouble should the Stars miss the post-season. It should be noted that Ruff wouldn’t need to be fired should Dallas seek a coaching change following the season as this is the final campaign of his four-year contract with the Stars, according to CapFriendly. The franchise could simply say goodbye to the coach and set their sights on someone new. But the idea of firing Ruff after one down season seems misguided given what has befallen the Stars in 2016-17.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a team — or at least one with a legitimate shot at contention — that has been as saddled with injuries as the Stars, and the injury issues started almost from the get-go. It’s actually easier to list the skaters who’ve suited up for all 50 Stars games this season, because that list is two players long: Tyler Seguin and Devin Shore.
Before the season began, Benn, the Stars captain, was sidelined for six-plus weeks dealing with a core muscle injury. Then came Radek Faksa's concussion at the World Cup. That was followed by Mattias Janmark being placed on long-term injured reserve with a knee injury that was set to keep him out up to six months, a groin injury to Ales Hemsky and knee injury to Cody Eakin. The injury issues didn’t stop there. Since the start of the campaign, Dallas has played without Jamie Oleksiak, Patrick Sharp, Jiri Hudler, Jason Spezza, Patrick Eaves, Julius Honka, Johnny Oduya, Curtis McKenzie, Antoine Roussel and Stephen Johns. Benn also hit the shelf again, and the same goes for Sharp, Honka and Oduya.
All told, the Stars have lost 222 man games to injury, according to ManGamesLost. That’s the fifth-worst total of any team. No one could have seen that coming. The impact of the injuries has been felt, too. Dallas has been a positive possession team, and in the top half of the league, in each of Ruff’s season behind the bench. That’s not the case this season, as the Stars rank 18th with a 49.8 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5.
No one can say what could possibly be ailing Benn, who had missed only one game in the previous three seasons, but it’s clear he’s not playing at 100 percent. More than a point per game player over the past three seasons, Benn hasn’t been quite as prolific and is on pace for his worst full-season points per game total since 2011-12. Being without Sharp, a skilled, two-way, veteran winger, for more than half the season hasn’t helped in the least. And on the backend, Oduya’s loss has taken a veteran rearguard out of the system for a handful of games.
Oduya’s absences aren’t alone in hurting the Stars on defense, however. Dallas’ big off-season acquisition was Dan Hamhuis, and while he’s started to find his game and earn bigger minutes on the back end, he hasn’t been the impact player the Stars were hoping he would be. Not only that, but he certainly hasn’t been the answer to Dallas losing Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers in the off-season. Hamhuis isn’t a bust for the Stars yet, but it could take another year before he really finds his fit in the system.
Harder to explain is the downturn from Klingberg. Statistically, the young rearguard is still producing like a stud offensive blueliner, but defensive lapses have seen him on the sidelines twice as a healthy scratch. That’s an unexpected turn for a defenseman who looked primed to take yet another step forward this season.
In addition to the defensive woes, goaltenders Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have to shoulder some of the blame for the way things have gone in Dallas. However, unlike years prior, it has less to do with 5-on-5 play. Both have been serviceable when the Stars are playing five a side this season, but it’s the penalty kill where the supposed last lines of defense have been anything but.
Of the 40 goaltenders to play 100-plus minutes shorthanded, Niemi and Lehtonen rank 36th and 40th respectively in save percentage. It’s not because they’re getting absolutely shelled, either. Lehtonen ranks 16th of the 40 goaltenders in shots against per 60 minutes shorthanded and Niemi comes in at 29th. Overall, the Stars rank 18th in the league in terms of shot suppression while shorthanded, but the respective SPs of Lehtonen and Niemi go a long way in explaining why Dallas has the 30th-ranked penalty kill in the league.
When a team’s struggling like the Stars are, being able to kill of a penalty here or there can make all the difference. But a 74 percent clip on the PK is doing Dallas no favors, and even less so when they’re the ninth-most penalized team in the league.
So given everything that hasn’t broken the Stars’ way this season, it’s hard to see how one could point the finger at Ruff. He can’t control the injuries, he’s not the one who built his blueline and he’s playing the hand he was dealt in goal. He took the Stars and turned them into one of the most exciting run-and-gun offensive clubs in the league and a team that has improved its point total in each of the past three seasons. He coached the Seguin-less Stars to the second round of the post-season just one year ago, and he did so when Niemi and Lethonen were arguably at their worst since coming to Dallas.
One bad year — and it is a bad year, to be sure — shouldn’t be enough for Ruff to get the axe. He might not be the coach to carry Dallas back to Stanley Cup glory, but he’s also not the one who should be shouldering the blame for this season’s shortcomings.
(All advanced stats via Stats.HockeyAnalysis)
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