Lindy Ruff and the Dallas Stars are in an awfully peculiar situation this year.
For several seasons now, Jim Nill has used the offseason to load up on talent and address needs throughout the roster. When he first arrived, the Stars were lacking any sort of depth at the center position. He went out and traded for Tyler Seguin and Shawn Horcoff to fill that void. After Seguin’s emergence in that first season with the Stars, it became necessary that Dallas add some second-line scoring to take some of the pressure off of Seguin. Nill signed Ales Hemsky and traded for Jason Spezza to address that.
Then came the most recent offseason. The Stars had struggled defensively and in the crease, the season before, missing the playoffs despite having one of the best offenses in the NHL. Nill added veterans Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi to help defensively and in net. He also snagged Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns with Chicago being in a difficult situation salary-cap-wise. Sharp has been one of the best defensive forwards on the team and Johns recently made his NHL debut and has impressed many during his short time in Dallas.
Summer after summer, Nill has addressed problems that the Stars were facing.
When they made the playoffs two seasons ago, there were not many expectations. After all, they were a young team who came together as part of an accelerated rebuild. They reached the first round and gave the top-seeded Anaheim Ducks a run for their money. Time has flown, as they are now in a position where they aren’t a young team who isn’t expected to do much in the postseason. They have a great mix of young and old talent. Windows to win the Stanley Cup are rarely open for long and with the Stars current roster, the time to win is now.
If they don’t find a way to make a good playoff run, is Ruff’s job in jeopardy? Should it be? Let’s examine the possibility.
Will This System Lead to Playoff Success?
The Stars may play the most “high-risk, high-reward” style of game in the entire NHL. They are going to give up a lot of high-quality scoring chances with the knowledge that they will, at least, match their opponents in that category. The Stars essentially gamble that their own goaltenders are going to stop more of the high-quality chances than their opponents. It is a risky game but it has paid off a ton in the regular season.
The problem with that playstyle is it lends itself to some streaky performances. Goaltending can easily lose a seven-game series for the Stars, one way or the other. Dallas could either give up far too many goals due to the risky style or they could run into a hot goaltender that shuts the offense down.
One thing that feels troubling for the Stars is their even-strength play has been about the same as it was last season, a season in which they failed to qualify for the postseason. The power play has stepped up big time this year but power play opportunities tend to take a nose-dive when the postseason rolls around. Dallas can’t rely on the power play to get them four wins in a playoff series.
They create about half of a high-danger-chance more than they give up per game. That ratio makes for some thrilling hockey but the risk that the other goaltender is going to stand on his head or that your own goaltender is going to slip up is always there.
Their overall game becomes so risky because of the defense. In the current system, the defensemen are given lots of opportunities to join the rush offensively and take chances to create offense. This can lead to some odd-man chances going the other way if the puck is turned over. They carry that aggression at times back into their own zone. When the Stars are giving up chances, you can see them puck-chasing in their own zone. It often leads them out of position and allows the opponent to create quality chances.
The system has its faults but it has its advantages too. The Stars are not an overly big team on defense and rely more on speed and smarts than physicality. This system may just be the best option for how this team is built.
Is Ruff’s Job on the Line?
Nobody is really talking about it because the Stars are having such a fantastic regular season, but is Ruff completely safe? The talent that the Stars have at the forward position is unrivaled throughout the league, both goaltenders would be average-at-worst on most other NHL teams and most of the defensemen they’ve dressed this season would crack the NHL lineup on almost all other teams.
I’m certainly not calling for Ruff to be fired if the Stars don’t win in the first round. It is something that could be brought up, however. A team with this much talent should not be exiting in the first round or missing the playoffs like they did last season. When you play a boom-or-bust style, you lend yourself to a little extra luck and risk. Nobody who has watched the Stars this season would be surprised if they were swept in the first round. They also wouldn’t be surprised to see them win the Stanley Cup.
The window is open for Dallas to win right now. There is no questioning the talent that Nill has gathered on this team. In the salary cap world, windows to win are small. The Stars will lose some veterans at the end of this season and likely lose at least one of their top-four defensemen. Players like Spezza and Sharp are still ultra-talented but they are well into the downswing of their careers. Benn and Seguin are entering their prime.
Most of the highly talented players will still be here next season, even factoring in some losses on defense. If the Stars fail to go deep this season, will Nill stay patient knowing how small the window is?