Top Shelf: Ruff, Stars searching for answers

Philadelphia, PA ( – Lindy Ruff is trying just about
everything to get his Dallas Stars out of their early season struggles.

The head coach has mixed up his line combinations and defensive
pairings. He’s even attempted to stir his slumbering team with insults,
calling the Stars “mentally weak” after a recent collapse against San Jose.

The oddest strategy came Monday in practice when Ruff broke up his skaters
into three groups and had them sit on the ice for a leadership drill. While
linked together, each group had to work together to move backwards down the

Although it’s a silly exercise to watch, Ruff certainly wasn’t laughing at the

“It’s a drill for teamwork,” Ruff said after the practice. “Some players on
those teams needed to take some leadership and they didn’t. I found it
interesting, because the only way you succeed is if someone becomes the leader
of that group and dictates.”

One group made up of the club’s grinders excelled at the drill, while the team
consisting of Dallas’ star forwards, including captain Jamie Benn, Tyler
Seguin and Jason Spezza, failed miserably.

“We’re going to give them another crack down the road, but that one group
totally failed the test,” said Ruff.

Ruff isn’t putting the blame for his club’s rough start squarely on the
shoulders of Benn, Seguin and Spezza, but he did send the trio a message that
he’s looking for more than scoring from his top players.

Dallas enters Tuesday’s game in Arizona mired in an 0-5-2 slump, and at the
moment it’s difficult to remember the Stars entered the 2014-15 season with
lofty expectations.

The Stars first season with Ruff behind the bench went better than expected,
as Seguin’s breakout season helped the club get to the playoffs for the first
time since 2008. Although Dallas was knocked out in the first round by
Anaheim, the future seemed bright and things looked even more promising for
2014-15 when the Stars acquired Spezza from Ottawa during the offseason.

Instead, Dallas currently finds itself at the bottom of both the Central
Division and Western Conference standings with only 12 points through 14

Production wise, Spezza has done what the Stars have expected. With 13 points
in 14 games, the centerman is still the point-per-game player he’s always
been. But if Dallas doesn’t get better in terms of wins and losses then
Spezza, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer, could
be shipped out of town before the season is over.

Seguin also is showing no signs of slowing down during his second season in
Dallas after getting dealt from Boston in the summer of 2013. The 22-year-old
has 10 goals and 19 points so far and is on pace to eclipse his career-best
84-point campaign.

But, as Ruff’s drill illustrated, the Stars’ top players could do a better job
of leading the club, especially when its struggling like Dallas is right now.

The good news is Dallas can see its way out of this downturn if it can find a
way to hold onto leads. The Stars’ biggest problem has been closing out games,
as the club is being outscored 20-9 in the third period.

While the Stars certainly need a more concerted effort from their skaters,
Ruff didn’t let the guys manning the crease off the hook either. Dallas is
29th in the league with 3.50 goals allowed per game and have yielded 28 goals
during their current seven-game slide.

No. 1 netminder Kari Lehtonen and Anders Lindback both have floundered between
the pipes this season. Lehtonen is sporting a 2.94 goals against average and
.904 save percentage to go with a 4-3-4 record and Lindback is winless (0-3-0)
with a 4.41 GAA and .852 save percentage.

“We’ve had a tough time, and I don’t think I can hide from that. I don’t think
our goalies can hide from it,” Ruff said. “We’ve needed that big save.”

There is plenty of time for Dallas to turn things around and make a run at
another playoff spot, but the fallout from the club’s poor start has already
begun. The Stars dealt veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar to Montreal in
exchange for forward Travis Moen.

It’s not a game-changing trade for Dallas, but it adds some experience to the
club’s bottom six forwards while also shedding a considerable amount of salary
from the cap. If the Stars keep falling short of expectations, that extra cap
space could be used to make even bigger changes down the line.