These are challenging times for the Dallas Stars, who have fallen back to Earth with a thud after leading the NHL’s Western Conference for most of the season.
How bad have they been?
Well, going into Thursday night’s home date with the Edmonton Oilers, they’ve managed to turn a 13-point lead atop the Central Division into a five-point deficit, all in a matter of 22 days. That’s partly because the now-first-place Chicago Blackhawks are on a record roll – 12 straight wins and counting – but also because the Stars are in the sort of midseason funk that every team encounters somewhere along the way.
Stanley Cup championships are not won or lost in January, which is why general manager Jim Nill and coach Lindy Ruff are preaching patience.
But, clearly, Ruff wants to see more production from his so-called “big guys” – Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They remain second and third in NHL scoring, respectively, despite the fact that Benn was held without a point in four of his past seven games, and Seguin was blanked in five of those games.
For NHL mortals, those aren’t terrible stats, but for Benn and Seguin, who’ve had remarkable chemistry ever since Seguin arrived from the Boston Bruins, it marks a deep, bleak slump. Making matters worse, their dynamic second-year defenceman John Klingberg has now gone five games without a point and is losing some of his primary power-play time to Jason Demers.
To get things back on track, Ruff has shifted Jason Spezza up on the line with Seguin and Benn, and in Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the trio generated a scoring chance pretty much every time they were on the ice in the third period. But they weren’t very good in the first two periods, and so there will likely be more tinkering.
“Lindy likes to mix it up quite a bit,” Spezza said. “It’s never a permanent thing. Every once in a while he puts us together and it’s our responsibility to play well.”
Seguin and Benn have been together like cake and ice cream since Ruff got there, but the third spot on that line is always up for grabs. Sometimes Patrick Sharp plays there, sometimes Cody Eakin, sometimes even Valeri Nichushkin.
But with Spezza on the line, it is potentially the most dynamic unit in the NHL – Spezza finding seams in the zone to get his shot off, Benn going hard to the net, Seguin threading the needle with his passes.
Spezza is now in his second full season with the Stars, after coming over in a 2014 deal with Ottawa, and has settled right in.
“Second year is obviously much easier,” Spezza explained. “First year, there’s a lot of change, and just kind of getting used to a new space, new teammates, a new system. After Christmas, I felt pretty comfortable and, going into this year, I felt like part of the team. My comfort level’s been much better and I think my play has kind of showed it – because if you don’t have to think too much, it makes you a better player.”
Nill, who became the Stars’ GM in April, 2013, inheriting a team that finished 11th in the conference, put his stamp indelibly on the organization that summer when he acquired Seguin in a startling deal with the Boston Bruins. Then, Spezza came over from the Senators, and last summer, the Stars added Sharp and defenceman Johnny Oduya from Chicago.
The hope was to expedite the Stars’ turnaround by supplementing their rising young stars with veteran awareness. Earlier this season, it appeared to be working.
Now? It’s difficult to assess how serious a Stanley Cup contender the Stars are because of all their recent travails, even though they still had the third-most points in the league after the loss to L.A. Are they as good as their start indicated, or as ordinary as they’ve been the past three weeks?
That Dallas hung in with the big-bodied (and playoff-tested) Kings at the end of their road trip was a promising sign.
Postgame, it felt as if they were turning the corner on their midseason slump.
“We feel like we have a good opportunity and we feel like we are a good team,” assessed Spezza, who at 32, in his 13th season, remains optimistic.
“We’ve hit a bit of a rough stretch here in the last three weeks, and it’s going to be a big test for us, to see what we have as a group to get out of it.
“But with our structure and our foundation, the pieces are in place for us to have a good, strong team.
“We believe in our group and we believe in what Lindy wants us to do – and that’s why we’ve had success.”Report Typo/Error