Can Tippett orchestrate a turnaround?

Losing Derian Hatcher hurt, but that's not the only reason Stars coach Dave Tippett is on the hot seat.

Originally Published: December 16, 2003
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

There's little doubt that Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett feels Paul Maurice's pain.

Mike Modano
Mike Modano has just six goals in 31 games.
The National Hockey League's coaching fraternity is a small but genuinely caring one. When a coach gets the whack like Maurice did Monday by Carolina or Bruce Cassidy did last week by Washington, the still standing members of the survivors club feel it.

And those whose teams are performing poorly can't help but wonder if they are next.

That's why the media spotlight has suddenly shifted to Tippett. His Stars are last in the Pacific Division (12-15-4-0) through Sunday's 1-1 tie with the Chicago Blackhawks, which came on the heels of a 1-0 victory against Chicago. But prior to that home-and-home series, they had strung together five straight losses. They've scored two goals or less in their past seven games.

They struggle to score at even strength and on the power play. They don't limit shots or stop goals like they used to either, and as a result they don't win. It's a vexing problem for a proud franchise. As recently as last week, team owner Tom Hicks said the team is playing "like garbage."

One need only harken back to Capitals owner Ted Leonsis' "we stink" speech, a preamble to Cassidy's firing, to surmise that Tippett is walking down the same plank. Anything is possible during what is annually the holiday firing season in the NHL, but in Tippett's case there might be extenuating circumstances.

For starters, goalie Marty Turco has shown some improvement from the beginning of the season, when he struggled every bit as much as star forward Mike Modano and offensive-minded defenseman Sergei Zubov.

Limiting the Chicago Blackhawks, perhaps the NHL's worst team, to one goal per game over two games isn't the most difficult accomplishment, but Turco also has allowed two goals or fewer in nine of his past 11 starts. He had a 1.62 goals-against average over that run, closer to his form of last season when he led the league in that category and a far cry from his early-season struggles when his GAA was close to 3.00.

Injuries, especially on the blue line, also have been a problem. Defensemen Richard Matvichuk (knee) and Teppo Numminen (broken bone in foot) are only now returning from long-term injuries. Defenseman Phillipe Boucher (broken orbital bone), a key part of the offensive attack when the Stars are on the power play, will be out longer. However, Boucher is said to be healing well and might be able to resume skating, perhaps even practice, sometime next week.

Having three quality defensemen back, especially defensemen who can move the puck like Numminen and Boucher, will be a plus. So is the improved play of Turco. But that only solves part of Dallas' problems.

Selecting Mike Modano as captain to replace Derian Hatcher (lost to Detroit as a free agent) simply hasn't worked. Hatcher was a dominating presence on the Stars, and the team moved easily in his shadow. Even if Modano does eventually prove himself to be a leader (and the jury is still out on that), it's arguable that the rest of the Stars have yet to prepare themselves to follow.

Stars GM Doug Armstrong appears to have compounded the loss of Hatcher by trading Daryl Sydor during the offseason. Armstrong's plan of having Numminen fill the role of a puck-handling defenseman seemed like a good idea, but Numminen, who has had injury problems, hasn't meshed with Zubov and that's created problems in Zubov's game.

As a result, Zubov has struggled as much as Modano, who is struggling mightily.

Some argue that Modano is affected by the weight of being captain. Others maintain he hasn't been the same since some financial losses became public. Still others say he has no one to finish his plays. Whatever the reason, Modano isn't performing. He isn't passing well, he isn't scoring and he's making defensive mistakes. When your best player isn't playing his best, the whole team suffers.

Viewed in a bigger picture, the Stars also appear somewhat on the smallish side (at least they certainly play that way). Not having Hatcher around accounts for some of that, but Armstrong has his stamp on this team (the bulk of the players are his, not former GM Bob Gainey's) and it's not measuring up. The Stars have loads of skill in Modano, Bill Guerin, Jason Arnott, Scott Young, Pierre Turgeon and players of that ilk up front. Those players all play well with the puck. However, the Stars appear to lack enough of the "grit" players whose job it would be to get the puck to them and clear room to operate.

The good ones they do have -- Jere Lehtinen, Brendan Morrow, Stu Barnes -- are largely undersized, a factor that limits Dallas' ability to play a strong game along the boards or in front of the net.

Critics blame Armstrong for that, but to be fair, he's not alone. A great many GMs bought into the notion that the league was going to make good on its oft-stated promise to enforce the crackdown on obstruction fouls. Several reacted by populating their lineups with skilled (and sometimes smallish) players. That lack of enforcement has been a distinct advantage to bigger teams like Philadelphia, Toronto, and, to some degree at least, Boston, New Jersey and Colorado. It's been a decided disadvantage to smaller, speedier teams like Ottawa, Buffalo, Chicago, Minnesota, the Mighty Ducks and the like.

Not having a big, strong defense to fend off opposing forwards is another part of Dallas' problem. Combined with the failed crackdown, it allows opponents almost free rein to run goalies in the crease.

Tippet is aware of all of this and, like any other coach in the NHL, he doesn't deflect blame or accept excuses. "You accept when you take this job that those type of things are going to be said," he said told the Dallas Morning News last week, regarding rumors of an impending firing. "You have to have thick skin."

Tippett does, but he knows he's under scrutiny. Losing Hatcher was expected to be difficult, but the Stars were still thought to be talented enough to win, maybe even contend for the Stanley Cup. Tippett, an offensive-minded coach who was brought in (and had much success) after the defensive-minded Ken Hitchcock was let go, was supposed to have a system in place to compensate for the loss of Hatcher and the overall lack of size. The team was expected to adapt, find success in front of Turco and move forward from there. That hasn't happened.

Armstrong knows that should Tippett fail, the blame falls to him. The two have had several days worth of private meetings in an attempt to both identify and address the problems. The coach and GM even canceled a scheduled day off recently so the team could continue to work through its problems. The result of that was some improved play, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Tippett will get the time he needs to get his injured players back, and Armstrong might help him out by acquiring a player or two. But in the end, if the coach is to keep his job, his team has to play better and soon.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.