Dallas Stars Mid-term Analysis: Team Under Construction

There was an air of uncertainty surrounding the Dallas Stars as we headed into the 2009-10 season and nothing since then has done much to change that feeling. 41 games in, and the Stars are still a team that is struggling with consistency and fighting to carve out their own identity under a new coach and new offensive system. So far it's been a season of extreme ups and downs, as the Stars have played exceptionally well in big games both at home and on the road only to fall flat and serve up demoralizing losses in games in which they had the chance to make a move in the standings.

The Stars have now played enough games for us to get a feel for what this team is; the problem here is that you could go a number of directions in your classification of what this Dallas Stars team actually is. Are the Stars merely a mediocre team that is in a 'rebuilding' year, as new general manager Joe Nieuwendyk figures out which pieces to move to build his team? Are the Stars a talented yet underachieving team that has the potential to do some great things if only they could work in some consistency from game to game?

After the jump, we'll look at the statistics from the first half of the season and see if we can provide some answers to these questions and more.

The Dallas Stars At The Midway Point
Power Play 20.40% 9th
Penalty Kill 77.90% 25th
PP per Game 4.3 1st
PK per Game 3.2 2nd fewest
Goals per Game 2.93 7th
Goals Against per Game 2.93 22nd
Shots per Game 32.3 4th
Shots Allowed per Game 30.5 20th
Faceoffs: 47.30% 27th
Save Percentage: 0.904 25th

When you look at the statistics for the Dallas Stars through the first half of the season, it's almost immediately clear where this team's issue lies. The Stars are near the bottom of the NHL in nearly every defensive category, and are close to allowing more goals per game than they score. What's most alarming about this trend is that the Stars actually started out the season near the top of the league in goaltending and defense, with Marty Turco having a great start to the season. The issue at that time, of course, is that the Stars were wholly unable to score any goals when they most needed them, therefore erasing any great performances by Turco or Auld. 

Now the issue has been reversed. Aside from some frustration against Vanouver, the Stars have rekindled their scoring machine and are now in the top ten in the NHL in both goals scored and shots per game. You'd hope that for a team that is putting nearly 40 shots per game on net the past few weeks the Stars would be scoring more goals, but perhaps that stat is a good indication of one of the fundamental issues the Dallas Stars have had all season long.

Marc Crawford's offensive system is predicated on relentless pressure, as both the forward and the defense join in the attack. After some false starts at the beginning of the season, the Stars have finally embraced this philosophy and have become a team known for peppering the net with shots. Unfortunately, these shots have not exactly yielded prime scoring opportunities as a lot of them have come from a distance, with the goaltender having a clear view of the shot. There have been a number of goaltenders this season that have noted that while the Stars might have put 35 shots on net, it wasn't a particularly difficult attack to defend.

The majority of the Stars goals (like most of the NHL, but it's more pronounced with the Stars) come from within five feet of the net. Whether it's a tip in, a bang-bang play from boards to crease or a gritty rebound goal, the Stars have not shown the ability to 'snipe' from anywhere outside the crease area. That's a perfectly fine approach, except the issue this season has been that the Stars have routinely been unable to cash in on the close quarters chances that are looking to create. Rebounds bounce off sticks, shooters whiff on wide open nets. The Stars have flat out been a frustrating offense team to watch, especially when you routinely see the potential firepower the entire team possesses.

So while the offense can be maddening at times it's the defense and goaltending that will make or break this team this season, and so far it hasn't looked good. Marty Turco has been brilliant at times but his penchant for allowing easy or 'soft' goals in the midst of a stellar performance has cost this team points in the standings. Alex Auld has been solid but unspectacular, but has not shown that he can carry this team for five to six games if needed. The Stars are stuck with Marty Turco for now, and he hasn't been the rock  in net that bails out his defense on a routine basis.

In this scheme, with the attack that Crawford hopes to bring, the defensemen are left on an island have more responsibility that the Stars blueliners have had in the past. Crawford wants his defensemen to join in on the offensive attack and only one player, Stephane Robidas, has truly succeeded with that philosophy this season. Trevor Daley and Matt Niskanen were two players expected to thrive in this new system, and both have fallen flat in offensive production while becoming liabilities on defense. 

Yet it's not all doom and gloom. The Stars are as young a team as they've been in a long time, with talented forwards coming up through the ranks that should excite every fan for this team's future. James Neal, Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, Tom Wandell and Mark Fistric are already with the team, but you also have Colton Sceviour, Sergei Korostin, Travis Morin, and Ivan Vishnevskiy on the horizon in the AHL. The Stars also have a number of speedy and skilled wingers playing junior hockey and in the NCAA, all who should make an impact in the next two to three years.

As far as this season goes, this team still has potential. Marty Turco has the skill and ability to turn it on and carry this team on his back, and Brad Richards is playing some of the best hockey of his career. We've been saying it all season long, but if this team could just find some way to build some consistency from game to game, then they could actually make some noise in the Western Conference. This is a talented team with some great potential, they just have to find a way to harness it.

Points Proj. Points Point %
Chicago Blackhawks 61 118 0.726
San Jose Sharks 61 118 0.726
Calgary Flames 53 106 0.646
Colorado Avalanche 54 103 0.627
Phoenix Coyotes 54 103 0.627
Nashville Predators 53 102 0.623
Vancouver Canucks 51 98 0.607
Los Angeles Kings 51 98 0.607
Detroit Red Wings 48 96 0.585
Dallas Stars 47 94 0.573
Minnesota Wild 43 86 0.511
St. Louis Blues 40 80 0.487
Anaheim Ducks 39 78 0.464
Columbus Blue Jackets 39 78 0.453
Edmonton Oilers 36 72 0.429

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Here's another look at the first half of the season by the rest of our Defending Big D staff:

Brad G: Before the season started, new head coach or not, my feeling was this: The Dallas Stars have a core of forwards (Ribeiro, Morrow, Richards) that are approaching their peak. They have aging pieces set to ride off into the sunset (Modano, Lehtinen). They have a bevy of players in need of new contracts that they cannot afford to keep (Neal, Ott, Grossman, etc. Eriksson and Robidas have since been extended). And they have a goaltender who could well be playing his last season here. I saw this season as a "last hurrah" of sorts, because I am quite certain that things will be different next year; And if Tom Hicks still owns the team, different will probably not mean better.

41 games in, I find myself making an attitude adjustment. This is a young(ish) team, learning a new system, with a coach and a general manager that are a mere 0.5 seasons into their "regime." I am constantly reminding myself that Joe Nieuwendyk is looking at this thing in terms of seasons and drafts, plural. The 35,000 foot view, if you will. Not as I see it, for example, as 5 of the next 6 on the road.

The team itself remains a bit of a mystery. Currently 10th in the West, they have earned nothing, nor have they lost anything yet. They are floundering about, as their captain says, looking for an identity. I think 41 games is enough to know what a team is, and this team is mediocre. Nieuwendyk and Crawford are cooking with another chefs ingredients. They need more time before we can judge. In the mean time, the Stars are on pace to amass 94 points, which in past years would be enough. This year, they'll have to do better. I have no expectations, but I would consider just making the playoffs and the revenue generated from two home playoff games to be a successful season at this point.

Brandon Bibb: At the beginning of the season, I thought this team had the capability to finish anywhere from 6th and 10th. Now that we're at the halfway point, my stance has not changed. As Bob Sturm said during the roundtable a few weeks ago, this team is neither fish nor fowl.

And with the internal budget in place, you might as well give up hope that Niewuendyk will be able to swing any deal before the trade deadline to bring in a White Night to save the day. Instead, you'll see Nieuwy and Crawford collectively use this season to judge which current Stars are keepers moving forward and which one's will be cast away.

That having been said, there are some encouraging signs to indicate the Stars are adapting to a Marc Crawford style of play. They're playing disciplined hockey and the power play seems to be improving. I'd still like to see them get a true QB on the point. But again, you'll have to wait until the offseason for that to happen, I'm afraid.

I agree with Brad that a successful season at this point would constitute a playoff appearance.

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