When you’re trapped out at sea and trying to weather a nasty storm, sometimes it can be hard to have hope about reaching the shoreline.
That’s precisely the spot that the Dallas Stars find themselves in right now following a disastrous start to 2014. After extending a season-high point-scoring streak to 5-0-2 with a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings on New Year’s Eve, the Stars’ fortunes completely flipped as the team ran ice cold to start January, falling into a season-worst slump of 2-8-1.
After battling their way into serious playoff contention by the end of 2013 that slump has proven costly for the Stars, who now find themselves seven points back of the Minnesota Wild for the final Wild Card spot in the airtight Western Conference, with the Phoenix Coyotes sitting between them and the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets not far behind.
It’s been a rough ride for Dallas, to say the least. With playoff visions for this year slowly fading, frustrated fans have begun to question not just the makeup of the current team, but also it’s long-term future.
But, much like sailors stuck out on rocky waters, sometimes the best course of action is to batten down the hatches, stay the course and just keep looking forward.
The Fine Details
As disheartening as the Stars’ recent struggles have been, there is still much cause for hope when you start to examine the situation a little more closely.
On Tuesday night the Stars played, from top to bottom, one of their best games of the season, with a dominant 4-0 victory over the Wild. The Stars jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first period and didn’t let their foot of the gas, while also simultaneously stifling any counter-attacks that Minnesota attempted. Dallas doubled the Wild in shots at 36-18, and finished with a 62% edge in Corsi percentage. The win was an overall team effort, with four different players scoring the goals and all 18 skaters finishing with over 10 minutes of ice time.
It was a win that the Stars deserved to have, and not just for their play that evening. They had played their prior two games almost identically, out-shooting and out-chancing their opposition by wide margins, only to painstakingly end up on the wrong side of a 3-2 overtime loss in a separate game against the Wild and a 4-1 loss to the Nashville Predators. Other games during the slump played out the same way.
Although the loss against the Predators, which had been Dallas’ ninth in their past ten games, could have resulted in panic and a dramatic shakeup, new Stars coach Lindy Ruff and new Stars general manager Jim Nill took a different approach: stay the course. The two held a 15-minute closed-door meeting with the team prior to the game against the Wild to help the team keep the proper perspective on the situation.
“I called the meeting. It was good,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff in this article from the Stars’ official website. “I’ve been through stretches like this and it’s believing in your system, trusting in your system, it’s being able to trust the guy next to you. The two words I look for and I want the players to dig down and grab are energy and emotion. I want to see energy and emotion tonight. And when the game’s over, I want them to be proud of the effort they put in and we’ll take the result after that.”
The meeting appears to have done the trick. Considering they won the game 4-0, it was probably a proud effort all around.
“I thought really on all levels we finally got rewarded,” said Ruff after the game. “I thought we started the game well. We had good opportunity to go off the goal post. Started the game with shots and play, and we stuck with it and got a key goal from (Vern) Fiddler. And the power play kicked in a couple, which was good.”
“It’s been frustrating because we’ve had a lot of good opportunities inside a game that haven’t gone for us. We’ve started some games really well and all of a sudden a goal can go in and it’s a little bit of a letdown. But you know we really gave a key effort and got the saves when we needed them, and the power play was good and the killing was good.”
The Big Picture
That attitude, of believing in the system and trusting your teammates, is a sentiment that is shared by GM Nill.
While Nill has openly stated that he remains in regular contact with the other general managers in the league and always has keeps his eyes peeled for possible trades that could help his team, he also knows the importance of patience when it comes to building a successful team. Trades could, and probably will, factor into the equation, but they will likely be more of the fine-tuning variety as opposed to major overhauls. Nill remains steadfast in his faith about the personnel that he is working with now.
“We were going in such a straight line up. I walked into every game, no matter who the opponent was, thinking ‘We really have a chance to win tonight,’” Nill said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika. “So when you hit this patch, you don’t want to overreact. We’ve struggled, there’s no doubt about that, and we have to find answers. But I still want to look at the big picture to see if we can find the team we were just a couple of weeks ago.”
For Nill and the Stars, the big picture shows a lot of promise.
In Dallas right now there is a lot of talk about systems, mainly the new system of speed and aggression that Ruff has implemented for the Stars. Even though the results in the standings still leave much to be desired, the Stars have come a very long way towards adopting that system considering Ruff has only been with the team for 50 games.
According to Extraskater.com, the Stars currently sit 7th in the league in terms of 5-on-5 CF% at 52.2%, meaning that the team regularly generates more shot attempts than it allows. While advanced stats such as Corsi are a very new and very controversial topic in the NHL, there seems to be correlation that having a high Corsi rating is a strong indicator of success. The thinking is that even if you’re a struggling team, if you keep your Corsi high you’ll regularly out-chance and out-score opposing teams, and the results in the win-loss column over an 82-game season will eventually even themselves out. Out of the top 10 teams in the NHL for CF% right now, only the Stars sit outside the playoff picture.
If Ruff’s system proves itself to be a winner, the Stars are already in the process of developing the right talent to carry it out. Dallas’ current roster is young yet skilled, led by top-notch under-25 players such as Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Valeri Nichushkin, and backed up by a strong supporting cast with names like Alex Chiasson, Cody Eakin, Brenden Dillon and others. Behind them the Stars have one of the top ranked prospect pools in the NHL, meaning that other promising youngsters will eventually be brought into the fold. The key is to not look entirely at what these players can do now, but also what they will be capable of doing in the future.
Championship teams are not built over the span of weeks or months, but rather years. Slumps for rebuilding teams, even ones as dreadful as 2-8-1, are growing pains that, although distressing, can be a small part of the process and not indicative of the whole. While the Dallas Stars are still, by all accounts, a few years away from possibly becoming one of the NHL’s top teams, the systems on the ice and the organization foundation off of it that are essential to get the team to that point are now both firmly in place.
All the Stars need to do is batten down the hatches, stay the course and keep looking forward.
Derek Neumeier primarily covers the Dallas Stars, but also other various topics related to the sport of hockey. A Journalism graduate of Mount Royal University, Derek also writes for Defending Big D, and has done previous work with the Edmonton Oilers as a communications intern and Hockey Canada as a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @Derek_N_NHL