FRISCO, Texas — For all the changes the Dallas Stars made this offseason, whether it would be hiring a new general manager, head coach, acquiring a number of new players or unveiling a new logo and color scheme, one area where there weren’t many changes was at the blue line.
In fact, the Stars made just one change to the back, acquiring veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar from the Ottawa Senators not long after Jim Nill took over as general manager and then quickly inked him to a two-year deal. However, Gonchar, who is a minus-6 player through his first eight games with Dallas, has struggled early on.
And if there was a concern about this club heading into the start of the regular season on Oct. 1 against the Florida Panthers at American Airlines Center besides the question of how quickly new captain Jamie Benn and newcomer Tyler Seguin, acquired in a July 4 trade with the Boston Bruins, would jell, it was how would this group of d-men hold up?
That wasn’t meant as a slight to the likes of longtime Stars Trevor Daley (-4) and Stephane Robidas (+4) along with Alex Goligoski (-10) plus relative newcomers in Jordie Benn (even), Brenden Dillon (+4) and Aaron Rome, who would miss the start of the season after having hip surgery in the off-season.
No, it was being realistic about the types of players Dallas had on their rearguard and at least early on, the Stars’ D hung tough. However, that group has had its problems recently, whether it’s being unable to clear the puck out of their own zone, failing to clear away rebounds or the like, a number of issues have surfaced at the Dallas blue line, concerns which former Stars standout Craig Ludwig, now a member of the Stars Live postgame crew, brought up so well during the club’s two-game trip out west over the weekend.
“Luddy,” a guy who definitely tells it like it is, went on to add that these issues in the back for Lindy Ruff’s club are definitely all fixable. And with the Stars having two days of practice time after having Monday off following Sunday’s loss in Anaheim that has been a big focus for this club in Frisco.
And in talking to several of the Stars’ defensive core, they’re well aware of what the problem has been and more importantly, how to go about fixing these issues.
“Yeah, everything’s fixable. Obviously we’ve had a tough couple games there but we need to clean up our d-zone. Us D, we need to play a little harder. Offensive teams are getting out of the corner way too easily. We need to get stick on puck, lots of talk, get it to our forwards early, make the simple plays,” Jordie Benn said.
Benn added: “We’ve been tossing a couple pucks to the middle that has caused pretty good turnovers and pretty good chances for the other team. Just get it up the wall, if the middle’s open give it to [Seguin] or whoever’s there, get up the ice, get out of our zone. The more we play in their zone, the better.”
In practice on Tuesday, Ruff even shuffled his defensive pairings a bit. He plugged in Rome alongside Goligoski while Gonchar was with Kevin Connauton, who the Stars acquired in the pre-deadline deal that sent Derek Roy to the Vancouver Canucks in April. Connauton has been a healthy scratch in each of Dallas’ first eight games this season.
Ruff had said earlier in the year that he was going to remain patient with his defensemen but after this latest road trip, one where the Stars fell both to the Los Angeles Kings at Staple Center and then one night later to the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center, he knew he had to change things up a bit, which he did.
“Well, I think we’ve got to tighten up defensively,” Ruff said. “LA was a hard-fought game where we were right there, 2-2 game halfway through the third, let that one slip away. And obviously with the last 40 minutes of Anaheim weren’t what we wanted.”
Of course, Rome who recently returned from a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League could be the wildcard here. And of course it’s unclear whether or not Rome, who was signed prior to last season, will play on Thursday against Calgary but his new head coach definitely likes what the veteran d-man brings to his club.
“Well, he’s a solid defender. He’s got two games under his belt in the American League obviously. It’s an opportunity for us to take a look, get him a lot of work in practice here and see where we’re at,” Ruff said.
But once Rome does get back in there, which if it doesn’t happen against the Flames, could occur against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday night, he’s not going to try to do too much. Instead, he’s going to stay the course and play with the simple approach and mentality he’s always had, one he feels has served him well in the earlier stages of his NHL career.
“I’m going to try to be good defensively, try to make a good first pass and try to get the puck out of our end as quick as I can to get on the forwards’ sticks so they can move it up the ice. I’m just going to try to come in and do what I do well and try not to focus on other things and hopefully that can help the team,” Rome said.
However, one other issue with the Dallas D that continues to be the giant elephant in the room is the high number of shots the Stars continue to allow the opposition to register. Through eight games, Dallas is allowing on average 35.9 shots per game, which ranks second worst in the League. Only Ottawa, who is allowing 39.4 shots per contest, is worse than the Stars.
And it is good to hear one of the younger members of this group in Dillon, who is in the early stages of his second NHL season, discuss this issue and how it can be resolved so it doesn’t continue to snowball into an even bigger problem as the season progresses.
“Well, we’re 3-5 so obviously something has to be changed. I think myself to be a defenseman and this being the d core, everybody on the team, we all got to get better and I think it starts as a team mentality. We’ve given up 30-plus shots too many times this year and you look at some of the teams that have been successful, they’re not giving up 30 shots against and they’re playing a good team defensive game,” Dillon said. “We can improve on areas. We know we can do better coverage in our own zone. We can be better at clearing pucks, clearing out rebounds, blocking shots and getting in lanes like that. We’ve got a couple days here where we can focus on that stuff and gear towards these two home games.”