If Kari Lehtonen doesn't start this season off strong, coach Lindy Ruff could be on the hot seat fast. Photo Courtesy: Dominic Ceraldi
If Kari Lehtonen doesn’t start this season off strong, Stars head coach Lindy Ruff could end up on the hot seat really fast. Photo Courtesy: Dominic Ceraldi

By Stephen Elliott

For the Dallas Stars, it’s a different season with the same expectations.

Building a playoff contending team takes time, and for the Stars, time is nearly up. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin now are playing at the best time in their careers so far, contracts are running out on several players and impactful acquisitions each year by general manager Jim Nill and company play in part for the Stars to win this upcoming season.

Now with three-championship caliber Chicago Blackhawks on the roster, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi, the excuses for not making the playoffs run thin. In the offseason the Stars addressed issues that prevented the team from making the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. However was it enough and is the pressure for players and coaches more extensive than it has been in years past?

Lindy Ruff’s Seat is Warming Up
Lindy Ruff is not on the hot seat, but he could be soon. The Stars have a recent history of starting the season sluggish and lacking early wins including last season where the team won only nine times in the first 26 games. Ruff cannot afford for this to happen again. Starting that slow was a substantial reason the Stars failed to make the playoffs.

Ruff struggled in his final seasons at Buffalo with a team lacking the talent the Stars have now. The moves for more talent and playoff experience Nill made increases the pressure for Ruff and the Stars to win.

“Our ownership has made a strong statement that we want to win now,” Nill said after acquiring Sharp in the Trevor Daley trade.

It always seems unfair to attack and blame the coach if the team does not perform up to expectations, but the National Hockey League keeps the leash tight on their coaches. Nill has not said Ruff’s job is in jeopardy, but Nill and the Stars believe they are playoff contenders. If the Stars are not winning early and often, expect Ruff’s leash to get tighter and tighter while his seat gets warmer and warmer.

Here’s why it’s unfair to attack coaches for subpar team performance, the players still have to play and the Stars pressure to “win now” doesn’t stop at the coaches.

Goalie Struggles Fixed?
The trade for Niemi set up several elements. The most important one is reducing Kari Lehtonen’s workload. In the past two seasons, Lehtonen has played the most games at goaltender and Nill can attest to the need for Lehtonen’s rest.

“There been times during their (Lehtonen and Niemi) seasons when they probably need to be spelled at times, either because of injuries or being a little bit tired,” Nill said on about the luxury of  having two starting goalies gives the Stars. The two proven starting goaltenders will keep each other fresh.

The NHL goaltender position reminds me of the Major League Baseball pitcher, there needs to be a rhythm. Playing each goalie every other day just to caution their rest will disrupt this rhythm. The Stars need to stick with the “hot hand.” Whoever is playing the best will start, and when the course load begins to weigh down on the goalie causing fatigue, well that’s why you have the other goalie.

This becomes very important for when and if the Stars make the playoffs. Again and again every Stanley Cup Playoff each team’s best goalie carries the team through the postseason. Jonathon Quick, Henrik Lundqvist, Corey Crawford and yes Niemi force their games into another level to win for their teams in the postseason.

Don’t worry all the pressure will not be just on the goaltender. The Stars know they need a strong core defense and they also addressed that issue this offseason.

That Old Defense Cliché
The goalie gets you there, but the defense wins it. John Klingberg, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley were top 10 in scoring on the team, but their plus/minus was a combined minus eight (Daley’s had minus 13). To put that number into significance, the Blackhawks top three defensemen had a plus 54 without any defensemen finishing worse than minus 3.

That minus was shed off when the Stars traded Daley to the Blackhawks and Oduya was signed to fill in the gap. Patrik Nemeth’s rebound after an arm laceration provided stability on the back line and barring any injury will continue in the 2015-16 season. However will this be enough? It seems the time to add another significant key for better defense has past. The Stars were 26th out of 30 teams in goals against and the additions of Sharp and Jason Spezza in the past two off-seasons inherit more offensive roles. Do the Stars plan to out-shoot their opponents hoping that results in more scoring? Last season proved that finishing top 10 in goals per game does not equal a playoff formula.

It feels like the same questions and issues were ignored at the beginning of last season as the expectations for that team proved to be flawed. This season’s expectations are just as high, if not higher. Goligoski, Jason Demers and Valeri Nichushkin, among others, have expiring contracts after this season creating more pressure on them and the team to make the playoffs and win. Nill believes the time to be a top contender is here and if the team underachieves, he will be forced to answer questions.