Dallas Stars’ Playoff Chances in Real Jeopardy

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Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites threw his team’s best players under the bus in late December. In reality, his tirade should have targeted management for its inactivity and the depth forwards for their nonexistent contributions. Everyone knew it. Honestly, Lites probably did as well. He was just trying to ignite a spark, though, and blame always falls at the leaders’ feet.

At any rate, he succeeded…only the turnaround occurred on the defensive side of the ice.

From the date of his rant through early February, Dallas climbed back into the playoff picture with a 9-5-1 run. Despite scoring a mere 2.47 times per game over that span, the club buckled down in its zone and conceded 2.13 goals per contest. This hot streak was followed by a 2-5-1 dip that featured a woeful 1.87 GPG and threatened Dallas’ postseason chances. However, it could have also represented a blessing in disguise because it compelled GM Jim Nill to do something.

He traded a pair of conditional draft picks to the New York Rangers over the weekend in exchange for winger Mats Zuccarello (39 points in 47 games), and the newcomer looked great in his debut (2 points, 67.7 CF%, 70.6 SCF%) against the Chicago Blackhawks. It seemed as though the Stars had finally addressed their greatest weakness.

Then disaster struck: Zuccarello broke his arm blocking a Connor Murphy shot. He had surgery and will be sidelined for roughly four weeks, which coincides with the home stretch in a tight Western Conference race. He’s also a pending unrestricted free agent, so Dallas may ultimately get 13 total minutes of play from its big acquisition. That’s about as unlucky as it gets.

To make matters worse, captain Jamie Benn (upper body) and Andrew Cogliano (upper body) were both recently injured as well. Though neither player has been effective of late — especially Benn, who is far more deserving of criticism now than he was earlier in the year — there wasn’t much scoring depth on the roster to begin with.

This offensive ineptitude hit a new low against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday. Tied 1-1 entering the third period, with Ben Bishop playing out of his mind in between the pipes (44 saves on 46 shots), Dallas unraveled and could only watch as its opponents ran away with the eventual 4-1 victory. In the final frame, the Stars were outshot 21-1. The game was up for grabs and they tested Marc-Andre Fleury once over 20 minutes. They simply had no answers on the attack.

In light of their injury situation and an already poor supporting cast, how can the team hold down a playoff spot? Colorado and Arizona are trending up and breathing down its neck. Who can it turn to outside of Tyler Seguin (58 points in 63 games) and Alexander Radulov (50 points in 52 games)? The trade deadline has come and gone, so reinforcements can only arrive in the form of call-ups.

That hasn’t proven beneficial so far.

Roope Hintz (10 points in 39 games) and Denis Gurianov (4 points in 20 games) are promising young forwards who have fared quite well in the AHL, but they aren’t skilled or polished enough yet to provide a boost at this level. The latter can’t even stay afloat during his 5-on-5 shifts (42.0 CF%, 44.8 SCF%, 42.9 GF%). This isn’t a matter of team effects either. He performs significantly worse than the club average in shot, scoring chance and goal shares. Gurianov isn’t ready, and that’s OK. He’s 21 years old and has 21 games of NHL experience. His full potential won’t reveal itself for a few years. For the 2018-19 Stars, however, his impact is negligible.

Dallas announced on Wednesday that it is giving Texas Stars scoring leader Joel L’Esperance (44 points in 50 games) a shot, but there’s no telling whether his AHL production will translate to the NHL. In all likelihood, the solution wasn’t sitting in the minors the whole time.

Regardless, head coach Jim Montgomery must make do with what he has. During the team’s best stretches of the season, the Stars relied on their defense, outstanding goaltending (3rd in OISV%) and a swift counterattack. But when your personnel doesn’t possess the talent to convert on its quick-strike opportunities over the long haul, the foundation collapses.

35-year-old Jason Spezza (26 points in 61 games) hasn’t been a legitimate threat in a couple of years. Valeri Nichushkin (7 points in 44 games) has completely bombed in his NHL return. Radek Faksa (23 points in 63 games), Mattias Janmark (20 points in 63 games), Jason Dickinson (16 points in 48 games) and Tyler Pitlick (10 points in 43 games) are solid defensive forwards, but if you’re relying on them for secondary scoring, well…this is what you get.

While the coaching staff could ask the blueliners to activate and bolster the attack — John Klingberg (30 points in 45 games), Esa Lindell (29 points in 63 games) and rookie Miro Heiskanen (27 points in 63 games) are indeed confident with the puck — they already carry an incredible burden in their zone. The club controls just 47.6% of the shot attempts (26th) and constantly has to dig its heels in to prevent the opposition from blowing it away. In Dallas’ system, tacking additional responsibility onto the defensemen is downright unreasonable.

But the Stars may not have any other choice.

Zuccarello is out. Benn is banged up. The remaining forwards clearly aren’t capable of keeping their end of the bargain, and waiting for them to flip the switch would constitute an exercise in futility. It isn’t necessarily fair, but Klingberg, Lindell and Heiskanen may need to both shut opponents down and carve them up alongside Seguin and Radulov.

Dallas ranks 29th on offense. In the current run-and-gun landscape of the NHL, that shortcoming is too much to overcome — even for the fifth-best defense and a Vezina Trophy candidate in Bishop (2.29 GAA, 92.5 SV%).

It’s caught up to the team over the past three weeks. Dallas has allowed 3.27 goals per game and posted a 4-6-1 record in that span.

The Stars have grown too comfortable with leaning back against the ropes, constantly parrying and slipping their opponents’ charges until an opportunity to bite back presents itself. Without the skill required to land counterpunches, though, their sterling defensive efforts may just go to waste.