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Don't Tank: Why The Dallas Stars Should Try To Make The Playoffs

Graham Jenkins |
April 9, 2013 | 12:09 a.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Since the Dallas Stars currently sit in 10th place with 10 games to go, they are faced with quite a dilemma: Should they be more concerned with getting a higher draft pick, or should they make a push for the playoffs? (Editor's Note: This story was written before Dallas' Tuesday night victory over the Kings.)

The Stars haven't made the playoffs since 2008, when they defeated the Anaheim Ducks, 4-2, in the first round and the San Jose Sharks, 4-2, in the second round, only to lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, 4-2, in the Western Conference finals. Their current four-year playoff appearance drought is the fifth-longest drought in the league behind the Toronto Maple Leafs (last appeared in 2004), Edmonton Oilers (last appeared in 2006), New York Islanders (last appeared in 2007) and the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets (last appeared in 2007 as the Thrashers). However, instead of badly missing the playoffs enough to get a lottery pick, the Stars have hovered around no man's land in the standings, finishing 12th in 2009, 12th in 2010, ninth in 2011 and 10th in 2012.

The ninth-place finish in 2011 was particularly heartbreaking for Stars fans, since all the team had to do to get into the playoffs was win its last game against the Minnesota Wild, a team it had beaten three times before. The Stars were in position to make the playoffs after going on a late surge, as they won four consecutive games prior to the Wild game. This gave fans hope. The Detroit Red Wings even helped the Stars out by beating the Chicago Blackhawks earlier in the day, and the Stars held the tiebreaker over the Blackhawks, because they won the head-to-head matchup, 3-1. The Red Wings' win gave the Stars complete control of their own destiny, and the NHL's last regular-season game of the 2010-11 campaign featuring the Stars and Wild had everybody in North America watching because the last playoff spot in the Western Conference was still up for grabs. They lost that last game, 5-3. Even when they were given a prayer's chance, the Stars couldn't get it done.

With that failed 2011 push in mind, would it make sense for the Stars to try to make a push for the playoffs this season, even though it would take a Herculean effort?

I say it would make perfect sense.

Sure, the Stars were huge sellers at this year's trade deadline, trading away captain Brenden Morrow to the Penguins on March 24, Derek Roy to the Vancouver Canucks, Jaromir Jagr to the Boston Bruins and minor-leaguer Tomas Vincour to the Colorado Avalanche with Roy, Jagr and Vincour on April 2. Before the trade deadline, the Stars also shipped Michael Ryder to the Montreal Canadiens. Without regulars Ryder, Morrow, Roy and Jagr, all of whom will be unrestricted free agents after this season, the Stars were short-handed offensively, and had to call up prospects from the Texas Stars, their AHL affiliate, to fill out the roster. The Stars called up Alex Chiasson, Colton Sceviour, Matt Fraser and Tom Wandell, although Sceviour was sent back to the Texas Stars on April 3. With 13 games left in the season dating back to April 3, heavily hyped Stars prospects like Chiasson and Fraser can now get valuable NHL experience before getting sent back down to help the Texas Stars in the Calder Cup playoffs.

With the numerous trades Dallas made at the deadline, highly touted prospect Alex Chiasson will now get a solid chance to play top-6 minutes for the team. (Wallyg/Creative Commons)
With the numerous trades Dallas made at the deadline, highly touted prospect Alex Chiasson will now get a solid chance to play top-6 minutes for the team. (Wallyg/Creative Commons)

The best thing for this team to do right now, as unlikely as it may be, is to go on a playoff push and teach these young prospects like Chiasson and Fraser to learn good habits early in their careers. If the Stars decided they weren't going to give it their all the rest of the season, that would be disastrous. These are young players who have dreamed their whole lives of playing in the National Hockey League, and if they were called up to play for a team that actively wasn't trying, the team risks allowing the young prospects to form bad habits that they won't easily unlearn.

Dallas is a team that is actively planning for the future, and if the prospects begin their careers with a team that simply goes through the motions every game, then why should they care? If the Stars establish a winning mentality now, even if it ultimately fails and the team doesn't make the playoffs, continuing to make the push even when it seems like the odds are stacked against them sends the right message to their players: "Don't quit."

It's not just the prospects that need to adopt this never-say-die mentality, but also core players like Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, Alex Goligoski and Kari Lehtonen. That's not to suggest they weren't before, but since the team is being built around those players, now is their time to step up and truly take control of their team. With Morrow gone, there's no team captain anymore, so veterans like Benn will be called upon to lead by example and dictate how they want their team to play.

When it comes to approaching how to play the rest of the season, the Stars not only have to think about their young players, but also their fans. If the Stars put no effort into their games, the fans won't feel they need to either. It will be really difficult for the organization to sell season tickets to fans if the team now decides it doesn't want to play the rest of the season. The fans want to see them play, and they don't want to see their money go to waste on a team that mails it in. It's much easier for an organization to sell the fans on a promising future than it is to try to do damage control after the team intentionally tanks.

Granted this is a small sample size, but if the last two games are a small taste of how the team will look and play next year, Stars fans might have a lot to look forward to. On April 5, the Stars scored three goals in the first period against the Ducks and took a 3-1 lead into the first intermission. While the Stars didn't play the cleanest defensive game against the Ducks, they managed not to surrender any more goals in the game, and held on to win, 3-1, over the second-place team in the Western Conference.

The win against the San Jose Sharks on April 7 was even more impressive. The Stars trailed, 1-0, after one period, and were down, 2-0, 3:06 into the second period after Brent Burns scored. The Stars quickly erased that lead, scoring 35 seconds after Burns' goal, and then again 26 seconds later. In a hectic 1:01 of play, the game went from 1-0 to 2-2. The Sharks scored two more goals (one of them on a lengthy review in which the officials determined the puck crossed the line) and went into the third period leading, 4-2. The Stars erased that 4-2 lead with goals three minutes apart, held on to send the game to overtime, dominated possession in the Sharks' zone in overtime and eventually won in the shootout. The Stars could have easily rolled over and took the loss to the Sharks, but they fought back and stole two points from them. 

Some of this new success can be attributed to Alex Chiasson's emergence as a future premier power forward for the Stars. After looking a little jittery in his NHL debut on April 3, Chiasson (drafted 38th overall by Dallas in 2009) has looked a lot more comfortable on the ice in his last two games. Now that he's on a line with Jamie Benn and Ray Whitney, he has also started to produce on the scoresheet. He scored his first NHL goal against the Anaheim Ducks on April 5 by beating Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler to the net and tipping in a great pass by Vernon Fiddler. Chiasson almost scored another goal later that game, but his deflection hit the post.

In his next game on April 7 against the San Jose Sharks, he scored two goals and was named the game's first star in just his third career NHL game. For his first goal that game, he shot in a loose puck that deflected off a Sharks defenseman in the slot off the post and in, which tied the score at 2-2 and came 26 seconds after Eric Nystrom put the Stars on the board. He scored his second goal that game by driving to the net and tipping in Whitney's pass; that proved to be a critical goal since it cut the Sharks lead to 4-3. After seeing 13:38 of ice time in his NHL debut on April 3, he played 13:58 on April 5, and 17:57 on April 7, suggesting that head coach Glen Gulutzan is trusting Chiasson with progressively more ice time. Matt Fraser also set up a goal by Loui Eriksson that tied the game 4-4 with a hard snap shot that led to a juicy rebound that Eriksson buried. Chiasson, however, had the more impressive game. It's unlikely that Chiasson will score at a goal-per-game pace, but he has made an excellent first impression scoring three goals in three games.

Nathan MacKinnon will likely be a top-2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. (MR_53/Creative Commons)
Nathan MacKinnon will likely be a top-2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. (MR_53/Creative Commons)
Of course, if a team doesn't make the playoffs, it's better to be near the bottom of the standings than near ninth place, because the more often a team loses, the higher the chance at the No. 1 overall pick. Starting this season, every team that doesn't make the playoffs enters the draft lottery. In other words, all teams who miss the playoffs have a chance at the No. 1 overall pick no matter where they finish. In this system, in the most extreme circumstances, the ninth place team could get the first overall pick. This year's No. 1 pick is likely to be either Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones or Halifax Mooseheads center Nathan MacKinnon. For fans last year, it was "Fail for Nail" with hopes their team's failures would result in picking Nail Yakupov first overall; this year, it's either "Death for Seth" or "Stop Winnin' for MacKinnon."

A player like Nathan MacKinnon or Seth Jones would be a tremendous addition for the Stars, but in order to even come close to having a chance at either of those two players, they would have to lose every game they play from here on out, and even then might not finish lower in the standings than the Colorado Avalanche or Florida Panthers. However, because of the lottery system, being the worst team in the NHL doesn't guarantee the first overall pick. The Columbus Blue Jackets were hands-down the worst team in the NHL last year at 29-46-7, but the Edmonton Oilers, who finished 32-40-10, won the draft lottery and picked Nail Yakupov first overall. If the Stars were to lose the remainder of their games by actively trying to fail, or "tank" to find a way to be in contention for the top two picks in the draft, it would insult their fans who pay to see them play. Now, if the Stars legitimately try in all 10 of their remaining games and lose all of them, then it can be argued that the Stars played their hearts out, but need a top-end talent to take them to the next level. Tanking, however, is not in the spirit of the game.

Even if teams get a chance to pick first overall, that pick isn't 100 percent guaranteed to pan out. Sure, players like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Joe Thornton, Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane have all been selected first overall and have lived up to their first overall pick status. However, teams have missed badly on players like Alexandre Daigle and Patrik Stefan with their first overall picks, neither of whom had solid careers. More often than not, the first overall pick works out for teams, but that pick can fail on occasion.

While franchise players are more than likely found in the first round of the draft, if a team scouts well enough, they can find late-round or undrafted gems who can make an enormous impact. Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, who currently has 253 goals and 503 assists in 770 career games, was picked in the sixth round, 171st overall in the 1998 NHL Draft. Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates was a dominant center primarily for the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins, who scored 341 goals and assisted on 1,079 others in 1,337 career games. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012, despite being signed by the Red Wings in 1985 as an undrafted free agent.

Sure, the Stars haven't found a Hall-of-Fame gem like Oates, but they have picked pretty successfully in the later rounds. Marty Turco, the all-time leader in wins as a Stars goaltender, was drafted in the fifth round, 124th overall, in the 1994 NHL draft. Jamie Benn was drafted in the 5th round, 129th overall in 2007. Brett Ritchie, another top prospect for the Stars, was drafted 44th overall in the second round in 2011, and absolutely tore it up in the OHL with the Niagara IceDogs this season, scoring 41 goals and assisting on 35 others in 53 games. Ritchie is now with the Texas Stars, and in three games with the Stars already has a goal and an assist. While the second round can't be considered a "late-round" pick, his second-round selection shows the Stars scouted well in that round and made a good selection. Matej Stranksy, however, was a late-round pick, as he was selected by the Stars 165th overall in the sixth round in 2011, and scored 40 goals and 45 assists in 72 games for the WHL's Saskatoon Blades this season, one year after he scored 39 goals and 42 assists in 70 games with the Blades. He and Ritchie will look to make a huge impact on the Texas Stars next season, and the Stars found these two players after the first round of the draft.

For a team that's planning for the future, the Stars will have nine picks in this year's draft and could potentially have Boston's first-round pick if the Bruins make it to the Eastern Conference finals this year. The best plan of action is to make a push for the playoffs when most people could have already conceivably written them off. That shows the fans that the team won't quit, and allows the young, impressionable players to learn how to play the right way, an important precedent to set as they begin their careers.

Reach Staff Writer Graham Jenkins here, or follow him on Twitter.



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