I’m not sure what the final, over-arching narrative for the 2017-18 Dallas Stars should be.
Here is a team that improved in many ways on the fatal flaws that kept them out of the postseason last year, yet will come up short of the playoffs yet again in a more spectacular fashion. That quality robs us fans of an easy scapegoat, an obvious flaw to point to and focus on fixing this offseason.
I’ve heard many complaints leveled by Stars fans this season and observed the scatterplot of blame forming over time. And I tend to agree with many points, some of which I will address as we go on here. But the range of problems highlighted by critics is almost more worrisome than the problems themselves. The idea that this Stars team was close to contending for a Stanley Cup seems shattered, and I feel a little foolish for ever believing it.
The thrill and anticipation that we felt when we saw the playoff window open has worn off; the franchise and its fanbase hasn’t gotten close enough to feel ready to dive through, yet we could’ve sworn we just saw the frame nudge a little lower and our momentum doesn’t seem to be accelerating at the same pace as our rising anxiety.
I’ll continue this train of thought in a second, but first: a few caveats.
I’ve been swamped the last three weeks, and given the choice between a free evening of relaxation or watching a hockey team circling the drain … well …
So my postmortems on this team focus on the macro level based on what I have watched and worried about this year, not the micro of how the team has been coached, utilized or otherwise as the season died on the vine. This is all stream-of-consciousness and quite long, so go get some popcorn, I guess?
I visited a site over the weekend for the first time in ages: Tankathon.
If you’re visiting Tankathon, you might be a sad sports fan. So you visit Tankathon in search of some hope this season of pain could be worth it.
And on the third spin, the Stars jumped from 13th overall to 2nd overall.
I remembered that was possible! Holy cow. Dallas and Philadelphia jumped into the top three out of nowhere last year.
And whereas the three best players last year were ordered: forward (Hischier), forward (Patrick) and defenseman (Heiskanen), the top three this year should be defenseman (Dahlin) and forwards from there. If the Stars get lucky and jump into the top five, they’ll have a shot at, Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina, Brady Tkachuk or Oliver Wahlstrom.
Outside of Wahlstrom, it’s not a stretch to imagine the first three making an impact at the NHL level next season.
What a gift! The Stars lack dynamic depth scoring and could find some difference-makers as soon as June. I got excited.
And then I remembered the two men running this team and nihilism set in again.
It seems to me, in retrospect, that Jim Nill inherited a moribund franchise with a vacant prospect pool and never really altered his management philosophy when it came to development.
That philosophy being: we are going to play the most NHL-ready guys every single night, without fail.
That’s great as long as you’re a team on the cusp of Cup contention and can’t afford to have a young guy or two falling behind every night. But when, exactly, have the Stars been that sort of contender under Nill, chock-full of proven players? I’d argue never.
It’s why guys like Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, and Stephen Johns had to duke it out for two seasons over one measly roster spot. Loser #1 gets banished to the press box for days or weeks at a time. Who knows. We’ll let you know. Loser #2 gets banished to Cedar Park for a month, maybe, until Winner and Loser #2 get injured and you get your one-game tryout to prove you’re NHL-ready.
Noted Norris Trophy Winners Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski were anchoring the Stars’ top d-pair. For years. In 2015-16, Johnny Oduya played every game and the Stars added Kris Russell while Oleksiak and Johns played less than 20 apiece. Apparently, the two youngsters hadn’t grown enough playing ~8 minutes a night. Shocking
Kris Russell will save us.
Dallas made the playoffs that year, which might’ve reinforced this approach for Nill as the logjam at defenseman continued to grow.
Let me say, though, that I don’t think any of the Stars’ prospects battling for time are or were especially ground-breaking. Most of the last decade of draft picks in Dallas have ended up as low-ceiling players at best, and I think there’s a deeper issue with the Stars’ scouting in general.
But Nill’s “NHL-ready or over-ripe” philosophy needed to bend a little considering the fringes of contention the Stars have continued to occupy since his tenure began. I had hoped that would change after Val Nichushkin got a long run and Devin Shore got an extended look last season.
But then he made a coaching hire that doubled-down on his philosophy. Hard.
I don’t hold much reverence for Ken Hitchcock. (I became a hockey fan in 2008, well after his time here.) I was not overly impressed with the contention arc of his St. Louis teams, or the poisonous way his run ended there. But I knew he could coach defense, and I knew that was the biggest issue plaguing the Stars the last few seasons.
The issue of tactics and systems can be left to fans who watched games closer than I did this year. I’ll stick with developmental philosophy for the moment. And I think Nill’s inability to bend his philosophy to his team’s actual standing among playoff contenders was reflected in hiring Hitch.
Hitch is not here to foster a young team like Mike Babcock did in Toronto. He has admitted his time in the NHL is running short and he was brought in here to win. Now. And his player selections are going to reflect that urgency, especially if he feels like his job is on the line. (Like after the longest losing streak in franchise history kills their playoff hopes, for instance.)
I don’t think Hitchcock is risk-adverse. I just think he’s mistake-adverse. And that’s why he was a natural fit for Nill, who loathes to bring prospects to the NHL level until he’s sure they’re not going to make mistakes very often. Maybe that worked in Detroit. I don’t know. It’s certainly not working here.
I read Mike Heika’s chat the other day, and one Q&A moment made me want to scream. Not at Mike, mind you. He is a lovely human being.
Q: What does and doesn’t work in Hitchcock’s scheme in your opinion?
Heika: He has his players and he trusts them. The ones he doesn’t trust have to earn his trust, but they have to do it while playing a smaller role. Basically, he’s trying to win every single game, so the opportunity for development isn’t there. Otherwise, I like his approach of defense leading to offense. I think that approach can win in the playoffs.
Impossible. And oh-so-familiar. Could Jamie Oleksiak have grown into a trust-worthy defenseman if given enough leash to work through his mistakes? Maybe. The flashes were there. Just like they were with Val Nichushkin, who fell into Lindy Ruff’s doghouse and departed to Russia where he could actually … well, play hockey and grow.
Nichushkin is coming back and could be NHL-ready to Nill and Hitchcock’s tastes. But outsourcing your developmental process does you no good in the interim.
I’ll be honest: I don’t see anything special about Jason Dickinson. He can skate! Sure. But nothing I’ve seen from him tells me he can be an offensive answer for this team. Same goes for Devin Shore. Same goes for Denis Gurianov (so far). And Riley Tufte, to some extent.
The only two forwards in the organization I have strong faith will actually become valuable offensive contributors are Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson.
I used to have that faith about Julius Honka, but now I’m not so sure. He doesn’t play a lot under Hitch, but when he does … I ask where that flashiness and dynamic ability is that I heard so much about.
Then I wonder if I’m just not seeing him play enough to see it. Then I wonder if the crumbs of ice time Hitch gives him and the fear of a quick deportation to Cedar Park has coached the substance out of his game.
Then I wonder if the Stars’ brass has asked these same questions and worried at all about the long-term health of the franchise. If you can’t evaluate a player’s true potential because you just won’t let him play at the highest level enough, then what do you do?
I think the answer is laid out already thanks to the Oleksiak and Nemeth departures: He’s gone. He needs a change of scenery.
It sounds like Jason Spezza is good as gone this offseason because he and Hitchcock didn’t get along well (not my sources, just the vibes I get from people who talk about the team) (spoiler: I have no sources). That’s a scary precedent set for a veteran, much less still-developing prospects. We already know young players will get benched inside of Hitch’s doghouse. Could they be exiled as well?
I think that’s the danger of hiring a coach who wants out of the game within two or so years. You set your window to win that narrow and his decisions will always be in the short-term interest of the franchise. Because that’s in his best interests. Humans are a remarkable species, but we haven’t been able to tame that whole self-preservation instinct yet.
Here’s a GM of a team that I think is about on par with the Stars in terms of being a contender talking to Elliotte Friedman this week:
15. Panthers GM Dale Tallon said his team, still battling for the playoffs, won’t be creeping up in average age any time soon.
“We’re gonna go younger again next year, we’re gonna add a couple more pieces to it,” he said on the 31 Thoughts Podcast. “I love young players. We did it in Chicago and we’re doing it here in Florida. We’re just gonna let them learn on the job.”
There’s a nice blueprint I wish the Stars would follow. In both cases, Tallon hired a coach in the middle or beginning of his career (Joel Quenneville in Chicago, Bob Boughner in Florida) to grow and guide his still-developing team. I’m not saying Dallas’ talent pool is anywhere near those two franchises, but then again how do we really know? We won’t until they become NHL-ready playing in the minor leagues.
The difference to me is that Nill seems to keep misreading how close the Stars actually are and how much riding with youth longer could help them reach that point.
Instead, we have stagnation at every level. We don’t know what the true talent is of many of these players so we can’t honestly point at scouting and development as a problem to be fixed. The young players don’t have enough ice-time to make a difference so we can’t blame the coach for not getting enough out of them. And the lack of homegrown talent forces Nill to spend tons of money signing free agents, so we can’t accuse ownership or management of not trying.
And I spend thousands of words over the span of two weeks trying to come up with a coherent, logical train of explanations and solutions to the problems plaguing the Dallas Stars. And in conclusion,