Thursday, April 5, 2012
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Sayonara, Captain Morrow
Brenden Morrow: good player, bad captain.
Turns out the Dallas Stars? Not so good at hockey. And while they still have a mathematical chance of making it if everything aligns just perfectly, there is one crucial, inescapable hurdle that even the most hardcore Stars optimist cannot ignore: In order for any of these playoff scenarios to work, the Stars have to win two games.
If these two games were meaningless regular season games in the middle of January, I'd say they have a chance. But instead, these are two games in which everything is on the line, in which elimination is simply not an option.
Which means, of course, another pair of three-goal losses, likely at the hands of Nashville and St. Louis' disinterested "B" teams. Much like the win-or-die game Dallas had on the final day of the season last year.
Coming within an ant's genitals of the playoffs for two straight years is nothing to sneeze at. There are teams like the Isles, Blue Jackets, and Oilers which collect more first-round picks than I've had hot meals, and storm out of the gate in Game 1 with absolutely zero chance of making the postseason. Dallas is not one of those teams, despite their league-lowest payroll, and is realistically not even close.
But therein lies the frustration. Fans in Toronto or Montreal might wail and gnash their teeth when their teams blow yet another season, but realistically, anyone with access to nhl.com, capgeek.com and a set of working frontal lobes can tell you those are rosters built to underperform. Toronto may have the most expensive defense in the NHL, but that means little when money is getting thrown to blue-and-white traffic cones like Komisarek and Phaneuf.
No, the Stars are in a much different and ultimately more frustrating category: the team that overachieves until it actually matters. This is undeniably a talented roster, with four 60-point forwards, a host of underrated young talent on the back end and a #2 overall pick at goalie who is only now starting to play up to his pre-draft evaluation.
Additionally, this is a team that could reasonably offer a crapload of excuses: not having an owner for three seasons ... not being able to spend on their own top guys, much less anybody else's ... first-time NHL head coach ... the cheapest defensive core in the league (until recently) ... a 21 year-old first-line center who moved from the wing with about a month's notice to start this season ... a parade of injuries to top guys after an 11-3-0 start ... and so on and so forth.
All great excuses, all totally true and 100% legit. But hockey success isn't built on excuses, it's built on winning games. And not just any games, but the right games.
And therein lies the problem: Dallas had two long stretches of hockey in which they went 21-3-1, an absolutely ridiculous record that closely resembles Boston's record in the middle of this season. Dallas beat everybody in those stretches with a tight defensive game and an opportunistic counterattacking offense that scored goals at all the right times.
Unfortunately, those two stretches were followed immediately by two long stretches of 3-13-0 hockey which saw them routinely not just lose, but get absolutely blown out of the building. One or two loser points here and there instead of four- or five-goal losses would've been the difference now between needing a miracle to squeak into the postseason and sitting comfortably in third place. As it is, Dallas will lead the Pacific Division in wins and likely finish fourth thanks to the other three guys loading up on loser points.
The up-and-down, all-or-nothing trend is the sign of a young team, which Dallas is, but also a sign that the leadership group in the locker room is utterly failing at its job. And the fact that the last three blowout losses have occurred at precisely the wrong time only makes that point more obvious.
A lot of BS is thrown around in sportswriting about leadership, mostly from sportswriters who have absolutely no clue whatsoever about what leadership is because they have never experienced it and assume it has something to do with "Messier-like glares" or "Knute Rockne fire-'em-up speeches." Nothing could be further from the truth.
Effective leaders don't need idiotic speeches to motivate their team five minutes before the third period. Effective leaders are the guys who have been working for years getting every player in the room on the same page. Working closely with the most influential and charismatic people on the team, even if they can't stand the guy. Working out each individual's personal agenda and blending it as seamlessly as possible into the overall team goal. Moving the team through the constant little battles that erupt throughout the season/game/decade over ice time, perceived slights and personal differences. Getting 23 millionaires on the same page, and keeping them focused on the goal and how they're going to get there. Keeping the team motivated through both the good times and the bad. And then going through all this from square one each and every time even one player gets injured, called up or traded.
Leadership is a thankless, painful, draining job with little to no upside even when things go well. It is without question the loneliest position on the entire team, if it is being done right. It requires nerves of steel and the ability to push through even at the darkest personal moments, for both the leader and his troops. If a leader gives in to a moment of weakness and shows even a passing glimpse of "quit," his team will collapse around him.
A leader absolutely, without exception needs one thing above all others: followers. If he tries to lead by example and no one comes with him, he is a failure.
And so we (finally, for the two of you who've read this far) come to Stars captain Brenden Morrow.
Five years ago he was given the captaincy, taken from a clearly unworthy and listless Mike Modano, and the move immediately paid dividends with a long and unexpected playoff run. It was the only time in Dave Tippett's entire career that he got out of the second round, and the only time he got out of the first round against a team other than the Oilers. The difference-maker was Morrow, who took an underwhelming, passive, perimeter-only team and turned them into a snarling hard-charging group of bloodthirsty barbarian berserkers. They sliced through the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks like butter and came close to sweeping a heavily-favored Sharks team, before ultimately returning to their passive play in a disappointing series against the eventual Cup champion Red Wings.
Still, it was a good sign of what a Morrow-led team could achieve after a half-decade of crushing playoff disappointments. The problem? Dallas has never been back to the postseason since.
In my personal experience, I've worked with cashless start-ups that broke every industry record, as well as with massive telecommunications giants that were so despised by their customers that they had to change their own name, twice. The difference was the leaders, plain and simple. Everything rises and falls on leadership. The difference in talent between the Islanders and the Penguins is razor-thin. The difference in team culture is light-years apart.
I've watched countless games where the team just flat-out quit. Absolutely, undeniably, the team just stops skating, passing, and shooting. It's not unique to the Stars, and actually happens to every single NHL team all the time. But what sets these awful games apart for a Stars fan is that in each of these games, the only two guys trying were invariably Brenden Morrow and Steve Ott. Crashing into goalies, finishing their checks with authority, getting into fights ... and inexplicably, the team rarely responds.
These isolated episodes seem to imply that Morrow has no followers. (Except Ott, obviously.)
A lot of leadership is about timing. Well-run companies seize important moments, ideas and products while poorly-run companies see what the well-run companies do and often try to copy them long after doing so would result in anything remotely profitable. Hockey teams are no different: A good leader doesn't wait for the pre-game talk to get his team amped up for Game 78 against the Vancouver Canucks. He doesn't work on his inspirational speech the night before, or even on the flight to Calgary three days prior. He's working on getting the team to the right place from the first day of training camp. Athletes talk about "one game at a time," but that's horsesh*t. Good leaders get their teams ready for any game at any time, win or lose, injuries or no injuries, bad roster or good.
Morrow hasn't done that. Dallas is a putrid 0-10-0 when giving up the first goal within the first five minutes of a game. Ten times, the Stars have been caught out of position, missed defensive coverages or just plain been unlucky with a bad bounce or bad penalty. All ten times the Stars have responded with ... Titanic-level losses. They panic. They take shortcuts. They make more mistakes. Players lose trust in their linemates and get themselves out of position to cover for the other guy. And the opposing team scores again. And again. And again.
A first-year rookie head coach can only do so much during a game to stop the bleeding. It's much more up to the veteran leaders, the guys who allegedly have the ears of everyone else on the team, to keep emotions in check and heads in the game. That hasn't been the case even once this entire season when things start poorly for the Stars. And that's Morrow's failure, pure and simple.
I can't say exactly why it is that things haven't worked out as well as they should have for Brenden. I've met him once, and he certainly seemed like a great captain. He had an undeniable larger-than-life presence in a very crowded room, a guy who oozed respect from those around him, a guy who I wouldn't dare talk back to, even if I was right and he was wrong. He carried himself like a Messier or Scott Stevens.
But the results speak for themselves. Four years now, just missing the playoffs by a few points. Chances to seize a guaranteed playoff berth that end up in lopsided disasters, regardless of the opponent. And at the center of all the failure is Morrow, the captain who was absent when the Stars were on a 8-0-1 streak to cruise back into third overall in the West, returned and saw the team squeak out two unimpressive wins before crapping the bed the rest of the way. And I don't even want to mention who left Antti Miettinen completely uncovered at the side of the net in the third period of last season's do-or-die Game 82 against the Wild.
For whatever reason, Morrow has proven beyond question that he simply can't get it done at this level. This is a good team with a very young and talented core (Benn, Eriksson, Lehtonen, Daley, Fistric) and a host of talent coming up through the minors (Oleksiak, Campbell, Nemeth, Fraser, the Smiths) that keep the future of this franchise brighter than it has been in decades.
But with ineffective leadership, none of that will matter. Here's hoping Morrow can "turn it around" these last two games, but since we all know he won't, here's hoping Benn or Eriksson is wearing the "C" at the start of training camp next year.
See more stories in:
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Fare Thee Well, GM Joe, We Hardly Knew Ye
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Exploding the Myth of Talent
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - The Great Dallas Stars Sell-Off of 2013
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - An Open Letter to the Pittsburgh Penguins
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - 10 Worst Losses in Dallas Stars History