A month and a half ago, it seemed like the Dallas Stars were poised to be players in the Western Conference playoff picture, with a team that was finally rounding into form after a gritty 2-1 win against the St. Louis Blues at the American Airlines Center. How times have changed – the Stars suddenly collapsed into an eight-game losing streak, which started with a 0-4-2 road trip through the East Coast and Canada. The disastrous stretch of play left the Stars watching the Stanley Cup playoffs from their living rooms for the eighth time in the last ten years, the worst stretch of futility at any point in the franchises fifty-one year history.
The first casualty of the Stars collapse occurred on Apr. 12, when Ken Hitchcock announced his retirement after 22 NHL seasons with the Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets, and St. Louis Blues. The announcement signals the search for the third Stars head coach in as many seasons, and casts a cloud of uncertainty around the franchise entering the offseason. Quite frankly, this is shaping up to be the most crucial offseason in recent history for the Stars, and in finding their new coach, the team cannot afford to miss the mark.
Stars Struggled with Offense as the Defense Improved
Ideally, the Dallas Stars need a mix of Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock at the helm of the team going forward. Who and where that coach will come from is still up in the air, as Jim Nill stated that the club isn’t holding NHL experience as a job requirement. Last season saw the Stars radically improve defensively under Hitchcock, which most observers and fans expected as the club faltered to a league-worst penalty kill and near-bottom defense in 2016-17.
However, where the team regressed was in the offensive portion of their game. The club slid from first in goals for in 2015-16 to 18th in 2018, a surprising slip from the top when the backslide in offense in 2017 was largely attributed to injuries throughout the Stars lineup. It seems as if the Stars focused too much on one problem and in turn created another trouble area in their overall game.
When the Stars brought in Hitchcock back in April 2017, the veteran coach spoke of his admiration of the Stars offensive capability. Gushing over their reckless energy, their team speed, and going even as far as admitting that with Tyler Seguin in the lineup, the Stars probably defeat the Blues in their second-round playoff series.
However, as the season went on, the reckless energy seemed all but gone from the club. The Stars employed a very conservative offensive game plan, consisting of chip and chase zone entries, and a hard cycle on the boards. The problem with the system – once teams started outcompeting the Stars on the boards and the puck, the system fell apart, and the team seemed to lose confidence as March wore on.
Stars Need a Coach with Fresh Outlook
The franchise has a wealth of talent on the roster for the new coach to step in and win immediately. Seguin and captain Jamie Benn scored 40 and 35 goals, respectively, and winger Alexander Radulov wasn’t far behind with 27 tallies. The trick for the new coach will be the implementation of the right system to generate offense for the depth players in the lineup. That is where the ideal candidate for this job truly emerges – Sheldon Keefe.
The coach of the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League, Keefe has shown his mettle during his tenure as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top minor league affiliate. The 37-year-old bench boss and veteran of 125 NHL games, has amassed an impressive 150-63-15 record in 228 games – a truly incredible mark for a young coach who only has five full seasons of head coaching experience and three at the professional level. The young coach has a proven track record of being a coach capable of winning quickly and raising the bar on the performance level of his players, as was described in depth in a past THW article written by Anthony Fusco.
Sheldon Keefe Can Build Off Strong Foundation
For all the problems in the Stars’ game, the franchise does have a strong foundation to build from. First-round pick Miro Heiskanen should be NHL-ready and the bottom six of the lineup is littered with players who have offensive potential. This all to ignore the fact that there is a past Vezina candidate in goal in Ben Bishop, a future Norris trophy candidate in John Klingberg, and a top line that terrorizes opponents on a nightly basis. All the Dallas Stars need is the right man and system behind the bench – the franchise would be wise to look towards the future with Keefe.