Wednesday, February 15, 2012

That Familiar Sinking Feeling

It happened so quickly, really.

35 days ago, the Dallas Stars pulled a tough game in Los Angeles out of the fire deep in the night and won their 24th game of the season. Their record at the time, 24-17-1, was not knocking the leg's socks off, but it put them right at the cusp of the Western Conference playoff picture. In the opinion of most, the Stars were exceeding expectations and were doing many of it under the proud banner of "Pesky".

Sadly, since that night in Los Angeles, the Stars are 4-8-2, compiling just 10 points in a crucial 14-game stretch, and falling to a position in the standings (12th in the West) that the tail-lights of those in the playoff mix are becoming dimmer on the horizon.

Yes, there have been injuries to consider. But, everyone deals with injuries. There have been bad bounces and bad calls and tough breaks and difficult schedule challenges.

On the other hand, they have played two teams at home in the last week who they battle for playoff positioning. Both teams had played the night before as the Stars were resting. And both teams left with 2 points and the Stars were left wondering where the "pesky" and the "battle" was for 60 minutes inside their team.

Tough to play against. Battle for every inch. Will beats skill. Pesky to the end.

These are statements that teams use when they have no other alternative in house. They champion the ability to be pesky and tough to play against because they know if this comes down to simple skill-based execution, then, they are going to be in a heap of trouble.

The problem is, of course, that over the marathon of the 82-game schedule in the National Hockey League, very few teams can "out-work" the competition often enough to rise above the talent that is put together on the roster. The energy it would take for a team to "out-pesky" its opponents often doesn't exist for 82 game stretches.

A pesky month? Sure. A pesky 6 weeks? Why not? But, I don't see a team riding the "pesky" mantra all the way to the playoffs and beyond.

Now, I don't blame the Stars for attempting to find an identity this past off-season. With no budget to work with - except for the mandate from the collective bargaining agreement that they must comply with the salary cap floor when assembling their roster - The Stars had to spend what they had (peanuts) and come up with the same philosophy that every team in the league talks about.

We will be tough to play against! We will out work our opponents! We will dig for the puck in the corners! And we will fight for our ice in the premium scoring areas!

All 30 teams say this. Heck every youth team on the continent is claiming the same thing for their kids every time they play a game.

Work is not a substitute for cash. Rather, it is a wonderful compliment to cash. The standings do not reflect the payrolls in the NHL, and a team with a large payroll can stink. Columbus shows us that. Further, teams can out perform their expenditures, like Phoenix. but I might submit that their coach, Dave Tippett, has put together an identity that has 20 foot soldiers buying in every night.

But, the Stars, for the 4th straight year, appear to be on the outside looking in when the post-season begins. Sure, it is too early to call it a season with 26 games to play, but when they haven't made the playoffs since 2008, the benefit of the doubt is no longer a wise option for observers.

If you are General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk, you have an important decision to make in the next 12 days. February 27th is the NHL trade deadline and there are buyers and sellers in the market-place. Teams are looking for that last piece of the puzzle, while teams out of the mix must play for their future.

And while fans may keep the optimism alive in their hearts until the bitter end, he needs to move swiftly to plan for 2012-13. As much regard as any of us have for the core that has been assembled for the last several years in Dallas, it seems that a roster with this much age must look to unload veterans and find players well south of 30 years old to move the franchise forward.

With the exception of Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, Alex Goligoski, and Kari Lehtonen, I would listen to offers on the rest. There are some that I would resist the urge to move unless I was blown away with an offer (Steve Ott, Trevor Daley) and there are others that I would be happy to flip for any reasonable offer.

The Stars have a new owner who says all of the right things, but we are well past the time of just believing the words of owners around here. Tom Gaglardi is certainly a hockey fan who can talk the game, but is he really willing to infuse the amount of cash into this roster so that we aren't sitting here in 12 months still wondering why the Stars cannot "out-pesky" teams and out perform their payroll ranking of 29th? Once upon a time, Tom Hicks wanted to compete with the New York Yankees dollar for dollar, but by the end, the hot dog vendors were hardly seeing paychecks.

Talk is cheap. And so is this roster. If the Stars want a team that can last 7-9 months in the meat grinder of the NHL season and compete with the big boys like they did in the good old days, they are going to have get bold and aggressive. If they want to slow build of developing from within with 18 year-olds through the draft, then I fear in 2015 when those guys are ready to contribute that the season ticket base will be down to double-digits.

The organization has been categorized as "Not good enough" for about 300 games now. Being out-classed in Detroit last night is not a rare feat in the NHL, but those failures on home ice since the All-Star break are damaging and difficult to recover from. Especially difficult when you see a steady diet of difficult match-ups in Vancouver, Chicago, and San Jose ahead, and 7 games north of the border at the most important time of the season in March. But, if this team cannot deal with tired teams on home ice, what does it matter who they play down the stretch?

I am normally thought of as a Stars optimist, but it comes down to this: This team is not particularly good at anything as a team. Goals per game? 20th. Goals against? Tied for 18th. Power Play? 27th. Penalty Kill? 23rd. Shot differential? 26th.

16 teams make the playoffs, and they can't crack the top 16 in any of these vital team statistics.

The evidence is not completely in, but I think Nieuwendyk has enough collected to know what to do. He must navigate around a fair number of no trade clauses, and nobody really knows what his budget is to work with.

But, fans don't care about those things. Fans want a team that is ready to win. Soon.

I would hope the message is crystal clear to those making the decisions for the Stars. It is time to open the window for the sale. Not everything must go, but all offers will be considered.

There is no question whether the Stars should be buyers or sellers this year.

Sell! Sell! Sell!

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