Sharp, frustrated Stars may be in for trade deadline shakeup

Dallas Stars GM joins HC at Noon to try and put his finger on his club's issues this season, says on top of the injuries, our top guys have struggled.

TORONTO – It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The Dallas Stars — high-powered team on the rise, No. 1 seed of the Western Conference in 2016 — were to clamp down defensively and take another step toward partying like it’s 1999.

But sports have a way of spoiling plans, shattering illusions, pressing us to switch strategies and, perhaps, make drastic changes.

Forget a second franchise Stanley Cup or even a divisional title repeat.

Heading into Tuesday’s game in Toronto, hoping to catch the Maple Leafs wheezing on the weary half of a back-to-back, Dallas’s playoff chances are a miniscule 8.6 per cent, according to SportsClubStats.com.

We’re saying there’s a chance, but at last check, the Stars don’t dress Tom Brady, and head coach Lindy Ruff is relating more to Claude Julien than Bill Belichick these days.

"I think about my job every day," Ruff told Sports Day at the all-star break. "I’m not happy with the job I’ve done."

Like the bulk of the Stars’ roster, Ruff does not have a job in place for next season. (Sportsnet colleague Mark Spector has already made an intriguing case for Ken Hitchcock as his successor).

He recently placed dynamic duo Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin on separate lines to balance an offence that has receded closer to middle of the pack in hopes for the opposition’s shutdown pair to pick their poison.

"Since the separation, Jamie’s been over a point a game and things have gone good," Ruff said Tuesday in Toronto.

Ruff has owned responsibility for an 18th-place power play (17.8 per cent) and the NHL’s worst penalty kill (73.1 per cent).

Blame for Dallas’s 29th-ranked team defence, which gives up more than three goals a night, should be shared. It’s simple: Clubs with a minus-22 goal differential don’t get invited to the dance.

"We’re not playing good enough defence this year," Captain Benn said.

"Last year we could get away with it with our scoring, but we seem to not be scoring as many goals. When you do that, you’ve got to play better defence."

“You’d rather win 1-0 or 2-1 than 6-5…. There’s nothing more satisfying than playing good team defence.”

The 28th-ranked team save percentage, however, hangs on Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, and general manager Jim Nill, who has stuck by his overpaid tandem while no doubt eyeing other options.

Trouble is, Niemi and Lehtonen are two of just 12 Dallas roster players under contract for 2017-18. The Vegas Golden Knights may be the only team with more holes to fill this spring.

A rash of injuries to key players began with Benn’s off-season surgery and has touched Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp, Jiri Hudler (who draws back into the lineup Tuesday night), and Jamie Oleksiak.

"It’s been frustrating all season long," Sharp says. "Poor play, bad bounces, injuries, you name it. We’ve had some good stretches of hockey here and there. We still feel our best hockey is yet to come, and we’d like to get on that roll here quickly. Look at the standings. Every day matters."

Ales Hemsky, a $4-million winger, played a grand total of one game before succumbing to a bad groin. We don’t know when he’s coming back. Same goes for top-four defenceman Johnny Oduya, who’s been out since Nov. 20 with a lower-body ailment.

That’s how the league’s most dangerous offence in 2015-16 (3.23 goals per game) tumbles all the way to 12th in that category (2.77).

"We’re kinda sick of these injuries. It’s been right from Day 1 of training camp. Hopefully we can get back on the mend and make a good push for the playoffs," says Benn, refusing to pin the defensive woes on their patchwork personnel.

"That’s just a good excuse. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t play good team defence. That’s what’s going to win you games in this league. You’ve seen that with the Stanley Cup champs in the last six or seven years."

Regardless if Nill pins up a "For Sale" sign by March 1, Dallas appears on track for a major overhaul.

"We all know what can happen at the trade deadline," Benn said. "We can’t be focusing on that. Our job is to come here and focus on the game."

Core pieces Benn, Spezza, Seguin, Cody Eakin, John Klingberg and Dan Hamhuis are locked up. Ruff speaks glowingly of RFA defenceman Esa Lindell. Versatile centre Radek Faksa, also RFA, should expect a nice raise.

After that, individual futures get murky.

Hemsky and Oduya could be rented if they recover in time, but interest in Hudler, 33, may be minimal. He sat on the UFA market until inking a one-year, $2-million deal in late August. He’s scored just twice in 22 games but was all smiles after the morning skate.

"Tough year for him. He missed a good couple months being sick, and recently he took a personal leave for a few days. Now we feel we’ve got him back up and running," Ruff said.

"He’s one guy who can be creative. He can give us that extra punch on one of our power-play units. Always been good offensively. He can maybe create that extra chance for you."

Patricks Sharp and Eaves are the most compelling rental candidates here, and should be heavily scouted at Air Canada Centre.

"I’m not too worried about it either way," said the veteran Sharp, a three-time Cup champion with Chicago and an Olympic gold medallist with Canada in 2014.

"It would be something new for me at this time of year to switch teams, but I’m trying to play the best I can so that doesn’t happen."

Sharp, 35, has played just 27 games this year due to a concussion but assures us he’s 100 per cent healthy. An eight-time 20-goal winger with 142 games of post-season experience? There will be interest, and don’t rule out a Chicago return.

Eaves could be a sneaky-good (and cheap) addition for a contender. The Calgary native plays both wings, carries a modest $1-million cap hit, and has already amassed a career-best 33 points—with 30 games to go. Get him while he’s hot.

"He’s having a great year and finding ways to find the back of the net. It’s great to see," Benn says. "He’s a guy that goes to the dirty areas to get those goals. They’re not a fluke. He puts himself in the right spot."

Bad luck, bad defence and bad goaltending have put the 2017 Stars in the wrong spot.

They have 10 games between now and the trade deadline to catch fire. Otherwise, Nill will have plenty of pieces he should use to restock the cupboard.

"We look at the standings every day," Sharp says. "We’re within striking distance of a playoff spot. I still feel we can put together a couple good weeks here and put ourselves in a real good spot. I look around the room, and I think other guys feel the same way."

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