By Martin Iheke
For the fifth season in a row, the Dallas Stars will not participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It just seems like yesterday, the Stars played in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals at home to the Detroit Red Wings. Only that was in 2008 and here we are five years later and that was the last postseason game the Stars have played in. Only the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers) have a longer postseason drought. That is company no team wants to be in especially in a league like the NHL were almost every team makes the playoffs.
For the second straight season, the Stars lost their last five games to end the season after being in contention to make the playoffs. One of their losses came in heartbreaking fashion last Tuesday at the San Jose Sharks when they had a 2-1 lead with about five minutes to go in the game. They needed to win the game to keep their playoff hopes alive, but within a span of 30 seconds, the Sharks scored two unanswered goals to go on and win, 3-2. The Stars could not even get a point out of that game as they no longer controlled their own destiny. They followed that performance up with two more losses at home to the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Detroit Red Wings to end their season at a record of 22-22-4. After the game against the Red Wings, Defensemen Stephane Robidas said he was proud of how the team did not quit after the trade deadline. “At the deadline, everybody thought we were out and it would be a tough month for the Dallas Stars but that didn’t happen,” Robidas said. “We stayed in the race and we have to give credit to the guys in this locker room for the way we handled things. The easiest thing for us would have been to pack it in and say forget about this year, but that didn’t happen. We battled, we came close together and I think we really have good character in this locker room,” as he continued.
Everything Robidas said is true and that really speaks volumes about this team in how far they have grown since the deadline, but the bottom line is results and at the end of the day when you do not win it is time to make changes. Owner Tom Gaglardi went ahead and fired general manager Joe Nieuwendyk on Sunday because the team was not winning. “Statistically, I just think we have too many issues that reflect a lot of problems,” Gaglardi said according to dallasnews.com. “We didn’t improve significantly in any area, other than our power play, where we went from 30th to 17th. We have to work to become a good team in every area, and then the playoffs and everything else will take care of itself. Right now, we’re not good enough,” as he continued. Gaglardi will replace him with former Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill who has a tremendous track record of netting good results. Since Nill joined the Red Wings in 1994, the franchise has won four Stanley Cups thanks to good drafting, making good trades and signing the right free agents. Nill has overseen a lot of this and Gaglardi is hoping Nill will bring that good fortune to the Stars.
“I had a list of candidates and when it became clear that Jim Nill would be interested in leaving Detroit and coming here, I threw the list away,” Gaglardi said according to dallasnews.com. “I think he is without a doubt the best candidate to take this job,” as he continued. With Nill here, it will be interesting to see the decisions he will have to make concerning the roster and coaching staff. “I haven’t even gotten that far. I need to sit down with all our staff and run through the season,” Nill said. “I need to sit down with the coaches and run through their season so I can get a feel for things. Everything is going to happen over the next two or three weeks,” as he continued. When Nill is done with this process, I would not be surprised if he decides to trade some of the marquee players on the roster or change coaches. Remember, this is his toy now and he can shape it up however he chooses. My best guess is he would like to bring here what worked so well in Detroit for so long here. That is a strong puck possession team that can skate and has a lot of skill. The personnel on the Stars right now and their farm team down in Cedar Park, Texas are shaping up to be the type of philosophy Nill envisions. If that is the case, you probably will not see a whole lot of changes but you never know.
Gaglardi also talks about changing the culture by bringing in someone like Nill who understands what it takes to win. He goes into detail by what he means. “Learning how to win. Being accountable to yourself and to your teammates,” Nill said. “The big thing we talk about needs to become a lifestyle. When you come to the rink, there are certain expectations. When you leave the rink, those same expectations still exist and it’s an everyday thing. When the season is over, that doesn’t mean things change. You still have to live your life the same way and that has to happen in the dressing room with the players. Your profession has to become your lifestyle. Young players all need to learn it. Stevie Yzerman, Datsyuk and Zetterberg all had to learn it and once you create that, now you have the winning culture you need,” as he continued. That is certainly needed for the Stars, right now, because too many times in the past few years when the team needed to win a game, they have failed to do that and mentally, it sort of has become accepted in the locker room. Some of the younger stars on this team like Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson need to learn to take more of a leadership role and perform at a higher level on a consistent basis.
The offseason will be a very interesting one for the Stars. They will have a top 10 pick in this year’s draft, which according to some experts, is supposed to be a very deep draft. They could have another first round pick if the Boston Bruins make it to the Eastern Conference Finals in this year’s playoffs so if you want to have a rooting interest in the playoffs, the Bruins would be your team. The free agency class for this summer does not appear to be very strong so whoever Nill signs will hopefully make an instant impact. If anything, this team needs another center to solidify their top four lines. Cody Eakin made some great strides during the season, but I do not think he is ready to anchor the second line. Benn looks like he will be kept as a first line center but if Nill decides that he is a better fit as a winger then he will have to bring in another center to fill the void.
All in all, the Stars are heading in the right direction especially now with this move to bring in Nill. Their farm team is stacked with a lot of good prospects and some of them could be playing for the Stars, next season, which is why I do not think much will be done in free agency. There will be better days, I believe, because the Stars have an owner who is committed to winning and bringing respectability back this franchise. He will not accept mediocrity and that is good news if you are a Dallas Stars fan.