Challenges for Stars include toughness and accountability

The worst thing you can do in sports (or life) is to assume that you can achieve different results by doing things the same way.  Sometimes, you have to get creative and take a chance.  Sometimes, you have to risk angering those around you by doing just this.  And the Stars have spent the last few weeks allowing many important pieces to leave for the unknown waters of change.

Before we get to the new, let’s spend a bit of time on who is gone from the Stars organization. A few weeks ago, I spent plenty of time writing about traded center Mike Ribeiro, a guy who certainly placed his imprint on the squad with years strong, but hardly flawless play.

Since then, the Stars have also said farewell to Adam Burish and Sheldon Souray by either not bidding for their services or not bidding enough.  Burish will go to San Jose and bring grit to a team that never has enough.  Somehow, that attribute was worth 4 years on his new contract, and for that, we must tip our hat to Burish and his new side and thank him for his service.  There was just no way the Stars were thinking 4 years ($7.2 million total) would be required for a guy who spills his guts on the ice when he plays, but because of his style, his body cannot seem to hold up over the long season.  He is a useful piece, but in the Stars position, you just cannot overpay for 3rd and 4th liners.  Young pieces like 1st rounder Scott Glennie cannot be blocked if you want to grow this franchise properly – from within.

Also, early in free agency, another divisional rival snagged a piece off the Stars pile.  Anaheim put a 3-year deal on Sheldon Souray for $11 million. Here is a player that I really thought the Stars should have tried to extended before we got to free agency, and if I what I am hearing is correct, the Stars could have likely had him for 2 years.  But, they were dug in on the idea of a 1-year deal was what his health and age dictated at this point and their strategy was going to be to let him test the market and if he ended up back here for 1-year, so be it.  But, if another team was willing to go to two years, then they can have him.  Well, the Ducks went to 3 years, and also have the advantage of being in Southern California, a place Souray calls home in the offseason and his daughters call home all year round. He must feel he won the lottery on this deal.

But, from the Stars standpoint, they must have an idea how this is going to work out personnel wise on the blue-line. I thought that Souray was just what the doctor ordered for this blue-line.  Strong, abrasive, and intimidating play from their defense.  Souray brings that when most of the players at the top of their defense-corps is under-sized or not that style of player.  Souray was.  And although he was not 28 anymore, this is maybe the biggest current void on the team.  A top tier defensemen who can play all night and set the tone that the team will not be pushed around.

Then, the biggest loss of them all, and a guy who could easily be described as the heart and soul of the Dallas Stars during this 4 years swing through the hockey desert, Steve Ott was traded away last Monday in a big, risky deal for Buffalo center Derek Roy.  The risks range from the fact that Ott was your most valuable trade chip to the fact that Roy is on the final year of his deal and requires shoulder surgery.  This deal could be a stroke of genius or it could blow up in the face of Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk.  But, we will have plenty of time to talk about Roy and his potential to replace Ribeiro and really assist this franchise moving forward.

What bothers me a bit about the exit of Ribeiro and Ott is that in both cases, there seemed to be components of each player’s game that did not sit right with the Stars management team that ultimately helped facilitate their exits or, at least, justify them.  In the case of Ribs, we had the long shifts and the indifferent demeanor at times.  With Ott, it seemed to bother the suits that he would take very poor penalties at times and at other times would play as if he fancied himself a goal scorer and not the abrasive piece of sandpaper that put him where he was in the league.  In both cases, it seemed to me to be part reality and part the natural review of any player that you see every night.  In sports, and especially in hockey, the warts of our own players drive us crazy to a point that we trade them away to players that also have warts, but those are warts that have yet to be discovered locally.

This is where I think back to the Stars organization over the last several years, and maybe this entire last decade.  A decade ago, we saw the end of the Ken Hitchcock/Bob Gainey regime.  And with the possible exception of Doug Armstrong, that was the last time that the organization had men at GM or coach who were thought of as confrontational personality types that would take on any and all veteran personalities to get them to conform to the style of hockey that they demanded.  Since then, they have hired very capable men at both spots, but it seems that almost all of them have fallen into the “Player’s coach” bin.  Guys who understand what the modern athlete goes through and how they must be dealt with.  Guys who “treat their players like men” and give them the benefit of the doubt.  I submit that this sometimes doesn’t work.  Remember, Hitchcock dealt with Brett Hull and Mike Modano.  Two very strong personalities that loved to do things their own way because of their immense talent.  And yet, when playing for Hitchcock, they would eventually get in line and do what was needed after the occasional confrontation.

When I hear that Ribs takes longer shifts than he should, then the next logical question to me is, “who is going to yank his tail off the ice until he conforms?”  So, I guess the question moving forward when it comes to the Stars is whether or not they have the pieces in place in the management team – coaching staff and personnel department – to make veteran millionaires accountable and to shape them with paint-peeling yelling sessions if necessary to play the style of hockey that is demanded to find success.

This isn’t about Ott and Ribeiro.  This is about Marty Turco and Mike Modano and Pierre Turgeon and Jason Arnott and Bill Guerin and on and on we go.  The Stars are doing a great job of developing their youth, but are they doing a great job of controlling their most expensive assets at the very top of their roster?  And when a millionaire doesn’t play right, trading him should not be the answer.  Getting him to conform to how you need him to play is.

The NBA doesn’t work this way. Coaches aren’t allowed to go all “Bill Parcells” and drive a team over the finish line by going to the whip with bag skates, healthy scratches, and rants and raves.  But the NHL does.  This is a league where the players dig as hard as they can dig night after night, but sometimes you need a head coach or a general manager that scares the players back into line.

I am not saying Nieuwendyk and Glen Gulutzan cannot be that duo. I think quite highly of both men and their hockey acumen.  But, what I am saying is that all last season, whether they were yelling and screaming behind closed doors or not, Ribs never seemed to change his ways.  Now, they have cut off their nose to spite their face and we will see in a few months if it works.  I am just saying that moving forward, I hope they can change this cycle that has been here long before either arrived of generally shipping out a group of veterans for a team failure, moving the rest of the organization up the conveyor belt, and repeating the cycle.  At some point, they have to be willing to create an environment that Hitch used to create, where players were afraid to fail lest they catch his wrath at the next practice. I need Jamie Benn and all of the other kids developed in a way that includes tough love when it is called for.

One more item about the group we have talked about today; Burish, Ott, and Souray in particular.  I don’t think enough is being made with regards of how the NHL works these days and how the Stars have lost almost all of their intimidation and edge.  The “tough to play against” trait of the roster has been replaced by skill guys who have hardly any bully to their game.  In fact, Derek Roy and Ray Whitney are very small players who need protection.  Jaromir Jagr is certainly not going to push anyone around.  And they weren’t brought here to do so.  But, when their was a scrum after a whistle last season, Ott and Souray were always there.  Burish wasn’t far behind.  The question then becomes, who is going to make this team tough?  Aaron Rome will bring some of that.  Vernon Fiddler will do his part.  So will Mark Fistric and Eric Nystrom.  But, overall, especially in a division that contains the champions who are quite large and physical, the Stars are a rather small team that teams may attempt to throw the body at all night long.  Who keeps Jamie Benn from being targeted?  Who helps Roy and Whitney have space to work their puck skills?  This is a very important topic that we will learn about as the year goes on.  You can believe that Stars’ opponents right now think that they will steamroll over the Stars with checks and hits.  Dallas needs to prove that won’t happen.

I hate to see Steve Ott leave. He was a great pro and a guy who would battle for the team whenever called upon.  He now goes to a Buffalo organization that had a promising season until they were bullied into submission by Boston.  He will fit right in and be a fan favorite as he was here.  In exchange, the Stars have the skill they lacked last year by acquiring players who can put the puck in the net.  The special teams should be better and a power play goal should be within reason.  But, did they get the balance right?

This is a summer of transition for the Stars and they have certainly made some key adjustments. I look forward to seeing how it all fits together. Next time, we will spend more time on all of the new faces and combinations.