The Fucking Horseshit Dallas Stars: A Hockey Franchise in Dangerous Denial

The_Atlantic

I’m pissed. Let’s do this.

It’s tough to know where to even start with this one. This may get long.

I’ve been a hardcore fan of the Dallas Stars ever since their arrival in Texas back in 1993, and I’ve covered the NHL and the Stars in some form or fashion for the better part of the last decade. In all those years I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like team CEO Jim Lites’ profanity-laced, on-the-record tirade directly pointedly at the team’s two superstar players. It was a bizarre moment not just in hockey but in all of sports, leaving many questioning not only the tone but the message itself.

What they hell were they thinking?

It’s clear that there is an incredible amount of frustration within the Dallas Stars organization, and perhaps tension between the hockey ops and the business side. One side feels it’s held up it’s end of the bargain while the other is failing to deliver on expensive promises.

Lites was the first person hired by Gaglardi, brought on to steer the franchise out of bankruptcy and to restore the revenue-generating enterprises that helped make the Stars so big in Dallas twenty years ago.

He definitely had an impact, as the season-ticket holder base increased, the Stars unveiled a very successful new logo and color scheme, and the Stars have worked once more to increase their business footprint in the market and expand on opportunities around the AAC. Yet what also made the Stars so successful as an organization back in the heyday of the late 90’s and early 2000’s has less to do with Lites’ business acumen and almost everything to do with one thing – the Dallas Stars were one of the most successful teams in the NHL from 1993 to 2005.

The Stars won – a lot – and they did so with star power in Modano, Nieuwendyk, Hull, Hatcher, Belfour, Turco, Morrow, etc, etc. For a while there, the perfect storm brewed to put hockey fever in Texas.

For a hockey team in Dallas – a hotbed of football where the rise of the baseball and basketball teams coincided with the Stars’ demise – the only way to rise out of the shadows was simple. Just win. Make the postseason on a regular basis, win a playoff series every now and then and at least flirt with making it to the Stanley Cup.

Gaglardi and Lites understood this. They hired Jim Nill and brought in an expensive veteran coach, and Gaglardi instantly showed the willingness to open up the checkbook and spend to the cap. And for a few years there it seemed to work. The Stars were one of the highest-scoring and most exciting teams in hockey. They made it to the playoffs in 2 of three seasons. Won a division title. It all seemed to be going rather well.

Until it wasn’t. Until the seams in how the team was built started to show, until years of bad drafting and poor prospect development caught up to them. Until the inability to find a reliable backup goaltending fried Kari Lehtonen. Until the Stars seemingly shied away from the style of hockey that earned them so many wins, so many new fans and so much attention from around the NHL.

Jim Nill was handed an organization light on top-end prospects and with only Jamie Benn and an unknown John Klingberg to really build around. He was aggressive early on – trading for Seguin and Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp and hitting early on a key veteran pickup like Patrick Eaves. His teams were built around veterans that complimented a young core but as those veterans left, or retired, or were too injured – more and more never quite lived up to the what the team so obviously needed and what the hype promised

So now we’re in the present, with the Stars on their third head coach in three seasons and once again fighting for a playoff position while battling through key injuries, underperforming (or absent) veterans and a team that’s devoid of offensive skill at forward outside of the top line.

The team is scratching and clawing and surviving, and while frustrating at times it’s clear that Jim Montgomery is coaching with all he’s got in his first NHL season, that the team is inconsistent but considering the injuries — the Stars have gone through 12 defensemen this season! — that, honestly, fighting for a wild card spot is actually a pretty good place to be in.

There’s room for improvement. Benn and Seguin aren’t exactly scoring like we’re used to, but it’s clear a key addition on the second line could really help balance the forwards and if the defense is actually healthy the Stars could maybe – perhaps – be a playoff team in April.

But, see, that’s not good enough. No sir. The time of excuses is over.

The Stars have one of the highest payrolls in the NHL, are right up against the cap and next season will be paying their two superstars a combined $26 million in salary. So for the owner to look up, see those two players not even in the top 50 in scoring and his team again fighting for a playoff spot, it’s understandable he’s going to be upset. He wants results for the investment he’s made.

Gaglardi is a passionate hockey fan. He’s a passionate owner with money to spend on his team. Those two have not coincided well the past few years as it’s become clear Gaglardi has started to get a bit too involved with a few questionable directives – with Lites becoming the apparent fall guy for this latest outburst.

Hire Hitchcock – get the defense fixed.

Get Benn and Seguin’s ass back in line, now.

At this point it’s clear that Lites was not acting alone, launching into some rogue ranting at the nearest reporter with a microphone. Instead this was calculated, supported by the owner Tom Gaglardi himself, with the apparent intention of lighting a fire under the butts of their top paid players in the middle of another rather frustrating season. The language was brash, the tone was insanely harsh, and it was wholly unprofessional on so many levels it’s hard to even put into words.

There are invariably some out there (and I’ve definitely heard from them) that believe this rant was needed, that Benn and Seguin aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain and it was about time someone yelled at the Spoiled Millionaire Millennials who so obviously weren’t putting in the effort needed and were being content with playing through their newly minted contracts and not much more.

“THEY’RE JUST LAZY!” cries the older generation at the younger. It’s a tale as old as time – especially now that the cultural divide between those 55+ and those under 30 gets wider and wider.

Frankly, Lites comes across as nothing more than the front office personification of that most annoying commenter on any fan site, or that guy constantly yelling “shoot!” from the upper bowl every single time a player has the puck in the offensive zone. It screams of using a sledgehammer to put a thumbtack in a wall, and reeks of a nasty notion that has been building regarding this hockey franchise the past few years:

The Dallas Stars are lost in mediocrity, and are in denial of not just how they got there – but how to get out of the mess they created.

Story time.

Before Lindy Ruff and Tyler Seguin arrived to set the Dallas hockey world on fire, the Stars were in trouble. The team had just come out of a bankruptcy, they had a new owner but the team just wasn’t that good. Fan interest in Dallas had waned considerably, and the Stars roster was just a bit of a mess.

There also wasn’t much local coverage. There was Mike Heika at the DMN, one radio show that regularly acknowledged the team, some team writers, Mark Stepneski and us folks at Defending Big D. I won’t lie, we took advantage of the sparse coverage and did our best to fill a gaping hole in advanced coverage of the Stars. We were good friends with the regular beat writers, we earned press credentials and a permanent spot in the press box, and we built a very strong readership.

We were also brutally honest.

Twice I was pulled aside by players imploring us for some more positive coverage, that they were trying hard to build the fanbase again but it’s tough with so critical coverage.

Several times I was contacted directly by Jim Lites’ office regarding articles we’d written, critical of not just the on-ice coverage but also our coverage of other questionable aspects of the Stars organization (anyone remember the Ice Girls lake day video?)

It’s a tough spot to be in. We had earned credentials and valued our access as an independent blog, and were careful not to rock the boat too much at times. It was clear though that the team was a bit sensitive to overly critical coverage in a market where they were struggling to get recognized along with the big boys.

So that’s why Jim Lites’ comments just ring so hollow, and why they came across as so cheap and personal. Lites lambasted the local media (the bloggers!) for not being hard enough on Benn and Seguin, while coming down too much and writing too many negative articles about Shore or Ritchie or Nichushkin. Where was the outrage? This would never happen in a real hockey market like Montreal or Boston or New York, he claims. So if the media won’t destroy the two best players on the Dallas Stars who are actually one of the very few contributing positively to the team this season, then by damn Jim Lites is up to the task.

I’ve heard this a lot the past week:

“Look, I don’t agree with the language or the tone. But don’t you agree this was needed in a way, that something needed to be said about Benn and Seguin?”

This is where this whole debacle really and truly falls apart.

See, no one is denying that Benn and Seguin are having a down year compared to past seasons. There’s no one that hasn’t acknowledged that the rest of the big NHL scorers have picked up the pace, while they have regressed in point production.

The issue is with the underlying message that Lites apparently really needed to send: This would all be just fine if only those two were scoring more. It was right there in his comments. In what the owner had to say in his follow ups – that this is “the most talented” and the “deepest” team since Gaglardi purchased the Stars.

It’s laughable. And it shows that at least publicly, this is a front office and management that has no intention of truly owning their own mistakes and shortcomings that also led to this point – and instead has chosen to lay it all on the only two forwards actually dragging this thing along on a night to night basis.

Lites and management want absolutely brutal honesty when it comes it their two star players – players who are unable to even come close to firing back and responding with the same level of animosity and vitriol that was directed towards them. Players who are now put in an impossible position and must appear as absolute professionals, and who so far have handled this situation far, far better than the older gentlemen that sign their paychecks.

What they don’t want is brutal honesty when it comes to their own decisions, their own mismanagement of this team over years. Like I said, I’ve had a few interesting phone calls over opinion pieces I’ve written. Bob Sturm mentioned this week upper management with the Stars contacted him privately, upset about his reaction on Twitter and how he should be supporting the hockey team.

It’s absolutely ridiculous that the Stars get to drag Seguin and Benn through the mud yet lash out at any criticism directed toward the decision makers.

Well – I can tell you this. Their actions have probably had the exact opposite effect of what was intended.

Almost immediately every hockey analyst around the web jumped to check the actual numbers behind what was going on with this team this season. Surprise – it turns out the Stars aren’t nearly as deep as they think they are and in fact, Benn and Seguin are not only the two best forwards on the team but they’re the best by a mile in almost every category.

If anyone with the Stars wants to send the message of “if only Benn and Seguin were scoring more then we’d be fine” then they are nothing but delusional about the reality of the current roster and the issues leading to its construction.

Let’s break it down. You want to hear some critical, no punches pulled analysis? Let’s do it.

Benn isn’t scoring as his usual pace.

Well, sort of.

It’s true that Benn isn’t shooting as much and he’s shooting from much closer to the net than he used to. It’s also true that it’s clear he isn’t as capable of extended dominant play like he used to.

Perhaps he’s just not trying as hard as he used to, now that he’s getting paid.

It’s one of the oldest cliches in pro sports: athlete does their best in a contract year, scores a huge payday and then doesn’t put up the same numbers that won him that contract, leading everyone to believe they’re just cashing a paycheck without the will to compete like they once had.

Nevermind that those huge contracts are won based on past performances, and generally are earned near the end of a player’s prime (or at least right in the midst of) meaning a natural dropoff in production due to age coincides with the years they just so happen to be getting paid the most.

Which is exactly what has happened with Jamie Benn.

Benn has missed just 13 games the past seven season combined, and has played in every single game four of the past five seasons. He’s one of the last few true power forwards, combining a punishing physicality with deft puck skills and brute force. That takes a toll over time, and Benn has dealt with several injuries over the years and is now approaching 30.

I don’t know what the Stars expected, but there’s going to be a bit of a dropoff over time. I know there’s concern that perhaps the raw emotion isn’t there as much as it used to be – but let’s not begin to pretend that we can just lay it all at his feet.

Yes, we wonder where Beast Mode has gone. Perhaps making Benn angry is what they wanted, to get him pissed off and taking it out on the opposition. Perhaps this was intended to get the team to galvanize around him.

By all accounts Benn is as much of an upstanding citizen as you could want from your young superstar. There’s never been any hint of an off-ice issue, and he’s the face of the franchise. He’s given everything he has to the team the past ten seasons, when he was pretty much the only reason to even watch the team at times and why there were even competitive – and the moment things start to regress even a little bit we just rake him over the coals in a public flogging?

“Well, the rest of the team follows his lead! As captain it’s his job to motivate his teammates to play better around him!”

Actually….no. That’s the coach’s job. The captain in hockey is way overblown by fans and by media to some extent, but you can’t put an entire hockey team’s performance – especially when he’s only on the ice for 1/3 of the game – on the shoulders of one singular player.

Which brings us to…

The Stars have a massive issue with scoring depth on the NHL roster and in the system.

This has been building for a while, and this is why this whole narrative of “if only they were playing better” sounds so damn idiotic.

The Stars had good depth for a while there. Then players got older, and left. Nill tried and failed to find cheaper veterans to plug those holes or overpaid the wrong veterans to fill others. Cody Eakin was replaced with Martin Hanzal; we know how that’s turning out.

In the middle of last season, with the Stars all the way up to the 3rd in the conference, it was clear that the Stars needed help with scoring depth. Instead the team started to struggle and Jim Nill chose to do nothing at the trade deadline, and the Stars suffered one of the worst regular season collapses in Dallas sports history.

Then Nill shot for the moon with Tavares and Karlsson over the summer, but apparently had not much of a backup plan or intention at truly chasing other names that could really help the team. It was frustrating as hell to keep hearing about these insane attempts at getting the very best in the NHL, yet hear almost nothing about adding anything else of substance.

Well, the Stars added Blake Comeau. That was something. It was like all of their energy was in making these huge splash moves, but no energy for anything else.

Perhaps those ventures were also being pushed by ownership.

After all, knowing what we know now, having one of those two names on board sure would make selling the Winter Classic in Dallas that much easier. Right?

But why such an issue with depth, aside from some questionable free agency signings?

Jim Nill has become too conservative.

First off – kudos for not trading Miro Heiskanen.

Yet suddenly Nill has grown afraid to part with prospects or draft picks, holding on to these assets as if they were absolutely vital to the future of the franchise. Since 2016, Nill’s only significant trades are for Marc Methot and maybe the trade for Reece Scarlett. The Stars GM will mention how valuable draft pick assets are and how important it is that teams build from within.

Maybe it has to do with now these are his prospects that he’s drafted, and he’s not playing with inherited assets. Perhaps it’s a few too acquisitions not quite working out as intended, and perhaps it’s suddenly being too concerned with taking a big risk despite the high reward.

And he’s right – the teams that have the most depth in the NHL and are consistently successful are those that find players to stack their roster with through the draft. So he wants to be sure to hold on to those assets, to not part with those 1st or 2nd round picks because by darn – they are valuable to the future of a franchise.

Except…

The Stars are way too conservative with prospects and are paying the price for some really poor drafting the past ten years.

Remember that aversion to high risk? That apparently applies to the NHL draft.

The Stars for the most seem to have been following the same script for drafting for the past 15 years, with some rare exceptions sprinkled throughout. Go for high-character players, that can play good two-way hockey that may not have the highest ceiling but definitely have very safe floors.

And if that prospect is really, really big – even better. Get a lot of really, really big and raw hockey players as the risk to take because if they do get some skill – hot dang if they won’t be big and tall as hell.

Imagine how different this whole conversation would be if the Stars had just grabbed Barzal instead of Gurianov. If they had grabbed Tolvanen instead of Oettinger. Veleno or Farabee instead of Dellandrea. Or if they took any sort of chance on raw offensive talent on a player that might not fit their ideal size, but puts up a lot of numbers.

In fact, outside of Jason Robertson the Stars really have not picked any prospects the past ten years that absolutely blew anyone away with stats.

The Stars aren’t adapting to a changing NHL.

The Stars seem to be stuck drafting players for 1997, when the rest of the NHL – at least many teams that seem to want to be really exciting and successful – is embracing the speed and increased skill and scoring of the young players taking the league by storm.

Instead the Stars decide the destroy their two best players for not keeping up. “Why are you so low in scoring!?!?!?”

Well, yes – they’ve regressed a bit. A bit.

The rest of the NHL is just scoring that much more. Is that Seguin and Benn’s fault? Is it their fault the rest of the team can’t score consistently?

The Stars have grown stale in management and front office.

I’m so happy the Stars have Jim Montgomery and a new young coaching staff.

I’m so sad the Stars have basically not changed anything else about hockey operations during all this time.

…and I don’t have the energy for this exercise any longer.

************************

Here’s the reality – none of these involve easy fixes. The rest of the NHL is moving on to faster, younger, more skilled – the Stars are so lucky they won the draft lottery and were basically forced to draft Miro Heiskanen. Otherwise the prospect pool outside Jason Robertson isn’t really offering much in the way of a light at the end of the tunnel.

Maybe Nill has some trading tricks up his sleeve. Perhaps the Stars do use this as a jumping off point to come together as a team and start to improve and get into the playoffs and maybe shock a team in the first round.

Perhaps they would have done that anyway without the public shaming – what with Klingberg returning and a rookie head coach adjusting and adapting as the season moves on.

Whatever the case – the long term prognosis of this franchise is starting to look rather worrisome. We’ve been saying that for a while now, the alarms slowly getting louder and louder but see – the Stars don’t want to hear that sort of criticism.

This is exhausting.

Here’s the cold hard truth that all of this rambling boils down to: the long and short term issues with the Dallas Stars have to do with so much more than Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin that’s it’s absolute insanity to even try and suggest otherwise.

That it was the owner and the team’s CEO, who — without even talking to the players personally – decided to adorn the Dallas Stars franchise with the “fucking horseshit” moniker from now until the internet dies, makes it just infuriating.

It’s bizarre. It shows a franchise with a very real issue with self-assessment and an organization that is abhorrent to any criticism but apparently wants the media to burn their two best players at the stake daily until morale improves on and off the ice.

It’s infuriating. It’s embarrassing.

I hate that this is why the Stars are being talked about, and I hate how this was apparently consciously timed with the announcement of the Winter Classic. I don’t know what they were thinking with that timing – or if they were even thinking at all in that regard – but it only adds to the bafflement over what this was all supposed to accomplish.

The Stars were already on the upswing when this happened. Seguin will start scoring more. Benn is who he is at this point.

Take a look at the collective mirror and admit your own mistakes first. Address those – do all you absolutely can, without question, to build a winning hockey team. Then perhaps you have the capital to go after your most-loved players.

“Fucking horseshit.”

It’s sad. It’s shameful.

I hope I never have to write anything even close to resembling this again.

Why not donate to the cause at our Patreon?

Follow us on Twitter.