Mac Engel

Dallas Stars owner on state of franchise: ‘Am I frustrated? Yes. Am I pissed off? No.’

The owner of the Dallas Stars anticipates that his team will be active in the NHL’s trade market in search of a scorer, but he does not agree with his head coach that his franchise exists in a culture of mediocrity.

A lot of attention was paid to Stars’ president Jim Lites’ four-letter description of two of the team’s top players, but it was the head coach’s comments that should have generated more news; Stars coach Jim Montgomery said three weeks ago he was frustrated that he was not able to change the team’s “culture of mediocrity.”

That is a high stick of truth.

“It’s not a word we deal with,” owner Tom Gaglardi said in a recent phone interview. “It does not exist in our DNA, mediocrity.”

Maybe not in their DNA, but the stats say mediocrity has a place at the Stars’ table. Since Gaglardi bought the team in the fall of 2011, the team is 295-232-62 with two playoff appearances, and four head coaches.

According to my good friends at the Elias Sports Bureau, the Stars’ record ranks 16th in the NHL in that period. If you don’t like the word mediocre, here are some synonyms: Average, middling, ordinary, common, tolerable, or ... the Dallas Cowboys.

The NHL All-Star break is over, and the Stars have the remainder of the season to prove Gaglardi right, and their head coach wrong. By the narrowest of margins, they are currently in the playoffs, and exactly one loss from falling out.

The proof is irrefutable: The Stars are mediocre, and Lites can call out forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin all he wants, but he may want to look at himself, and at the GM he personally escorted from Detroit to Texas, Jim Nill, to rebuild this team.

It’s not as if management has been killing it with the Stars in this magical run of adequacy (a synonym for mediocre).

“Jim has done a super job in a lot of facets. In others, there is an opportunity to do better,” Gaglardi said. “I don’t know if you can answer it beyond the results. A lot of this is out of Jim’s hands. We have had players who have not played. Last year, we had a goalie who had a fluke knee injury and then we collapsed. And sometimes our best players have not been our best players.”

When Gaglardi bought the team, he envisioned his young roster was good enough to morph into a Chicago lite, and go on multiple deep playoff runs. The theory was plausible, and not a delusion of a neophyte NHL owner.

The presence of Benn and Seguin were akin to the Blackhawks’ young forwards, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. There were no comparisons, however, between the two rosters after those duos.

“And when I said that it was the end of the era of teams being able to assemble a lot of great players and you could expect to make the playoffs several years in a row,” Gaglardi said. “The salary cap has changed that.”

Even if you buy that, every time the Stars have a strength, their weakness undermines them. When they have scoring, they don’t have defense. Their goalie would let them down. They collapse in a prolonged stretch. There is always something.

Now, for the first time since Gaglardi bought the team, they have competent and skilled defensemen. That means, of course, the team can’t score.

The Stars currently rank a putrid 29th in the NHL in goals per game.

The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 25, and Gaglardi expects the Stars to do something. They are too close not to try.

“If we can improve the team we are going to do that,” he said. “If we are going to change the mix, we are going to score some goals.”

The Stars have three players who score, and the rest have not provided.

It would be nice if forward Val Nichushkin did ... anything. The former highly regarded first round pick returned this season from a “sabbatical” in Russia and has seven points, and zero goals. Center Jason Spezza simply looks like an older player who has lost it.

The scariest part for the Stars isn’t a specific lack of scoring, it is that both the players and the fan base are accustomed to all of this.

That is the culture.

“It’s consistency,” Seguin said. “It’s very hard. The trick is when you have those flashes, to build on them. That’s myself. That’s the team. That’s the organization. We have had a lot of flashes over the years. We have been in this pretty-good-season spot before. And we have seen it go sideways. We know how to get here and be in the race, but we have not consistently been third to first.

“I’m hoping experience does it.”

As a man who loves hockey, and owned a junior team before buying the Stars, Gaglardi has invested deeply into this franchise. He has spent the money, and approved bold moves.

He has been patient with Nill, and Lites, and everyone involved in realizing the desired results are difficult.

“Every owner says, ‘We’re going to win.’ Yeah-yeah. It is super hard to win,” Gaglardi said. “Am I frustrated? Yes. Am I pissed off? No. I’ve gained a real respect for how hard it is to win. And lucky too, I don’t think we’ve have had that yet. One of these days it’s going to come together and we’re going to go on a run. That’s the sport.”

The Stars’ entire culture depends on it.

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Mac Engel is an award-winning columnist who has extensive experience covering Fort Worth-Dallas area sports for 20 years. He has covered high schools, colleges, all four major sports teams as well as Olympic games and the world of entertainment, too. He combines dry wit with first-person reporting to complement a head of hair that is almost unfair.
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