For those who can't bother with reading, this is a "besides the defense" post. Obviously the defense is an area of concern. THE area of concern.
The Dallas Stars missed the playoffs by 7 points last season. 7 points, and maybe a tie breaker or two if you want to get real technical about it. We'll call it 8 points for the sake of this argument, as the Western Conference, if possible, could get even more competitive next season. (Unlike the East, where 88 points was good for a playoff spot. Didn't take me long to get off on that tangent, did it?)
8 points means four good nights. Better nights. Four nights where you get that timely save, or the lucky bounce. As excruciating as it was at times to watch this team that we love so much, they only needed to win four games more over the course of 82. It doesn't sound like much, does it?
As maddening as this can be, it can also be a cause for hope, if you haven't already buried your head too far down in the sand.
The line between the 12 seed and the 8 seed is a lot finer that it sounds when these hockey yearbooks are coming out and predicting the Stars finish anywhere from 10th to 14th in the West. It's just a couple of points here or there. One more point a month over the course of the season should do it. Just a little bit better.
Now since the Stars have these omnipresent budgetary restrictions, they'll be returning basically the same opening night roster as last season. (Minus a couple of franchise icons...big deal, right?) We kid, but the forward core is largely unchanged and the defense isn't changed at all. So how do you get those 6-8 more points? How can you be just a little bit better along the way without major personnel changes?
What went wrong last season?
Today, and today only, we're going to cast the obvious "they allowed too many goals/the defense was not good enough" argument to the side. You know that already. I know that. They know that. Most of the issues that follow stem from it. Fine.
Let's try to put it ("defense") aside and come up with their greatest opportunity for improvement.
#1: Road Play
Many of the following categories contributed to this one, but just roll with it for now. Only six teams in the league won fewer games on the road last season than Dallas did. This was due, in large part, to one significant chunk of the season.
From November 27, 2009 to February 9th, 2010, the Stars lost 14 of 16 games on the road. This included a 10 game road losing streak, that could only be ended by a trip to league worst Edmonton, and a crazy last second victory. This one lends itself to improvement because losing 14 of 16 on the road and 10 in a row sounds like a pretty difficult feat to repeat.
#2: Adjustment to the system
This was a favorite reason of ours and other media outlets alike as we attempted to explain what we were seeing on the ice. People I spoke to at the games in the press box and at practices hypothesized (and sometimes insisted) that the players, even late in the season, were still worried about what they were supposed to be doing as a matter of X's and O's. It was said they were still having to think things through on the ice rather just reacting naturally in a system they were comfortable with.
A season later, one hopes that (if it was true) this will not be an issue going forward. The players have had a whole year to get use to Crawford and vice-versa. Is this familiarity worth 6-8 points more in the standings next year, or does the personnel still not fit the system well enough to make a difference?
#3: Three in a row
They were the only team in the league last year that did not win three in a row. If you've read somewhere the last time a team failed to win three games in a row, please do let me know, but it seems a rare occurrence. Most of us grew up as Stars fans seeing multiple 4-6 game winning streaks a year and thinking nothing of it. This inability to string victories together consistently prevented the team from gaining any kind of momentum at all.
Would a little momentum help push the team 6-8 points further next season?
"Faceoffs?? Brad, you've lost me."
While it's true that you can look at faceoff percentages team by team and say there is no apparent corollary with making the playoffs, I would argue that for a team trying to play the way Marc Crawford wants them to it is of vital importance. The Stars were 26th in the league, winning only 48.1%. At times it felt like they rarely had the puck.
While I count this among their larger problems last season, I wouldn't vote for it. This area is, for me, the least likely to change for the better next season.
For a more detailed breakdown of the faceoffs last season, see this post from earlier this year.
A 2.98 goals against average was good for 23rd in the league last year, and Marty Turco, Kari Lehtonen and Alex Auld (with a Climie start in there somewhere) combined for a save percentage of .904. (2559 shots against, 244 goals allowed).
This one is the easiest to turn around, in theory, as it relies largely on one man. Marty Turco's departure concludes two seasons of loud protests by fans and "drive by" media alike (you know the ones I mean). Kari Lehtonen inherits the unfortunate job of playing behind a defense that is a little under-funded, but does so in what he says is the greatest shape of his life. Lehtonen's aggressive style (watch how far out he comes from the crease) and large frame reinvent the position as Stars fans have known it, and his lack of puck handling skills (in comparison to Turco) changes the way the defense starts the transition out of the zone.
Kari Lehtonen is the great wild card this season, as he could have a very large hand in turning the teams fortunes around if he remains healthy and is able to overcome the well documents defensive inadequacies in front of him.
Can 6-8 points be gained here? Definitely, but health is a big question mark.
The NHL spent a good portion of their research and development camp seeking ways to minimize the shootouts' impact on the standings, but for the sixth season, the skills competition is back and the Stars can't do much worse than they did last year.
- Brad Richards scored 4 times on 16 attempts
- Mike Ribeiro scored once on 12 attempts
- James Neal was 0 for 10.
That's a combined 5 for 38 (13.2%) and I would suggest to you that it is unrepeatable. Loui Eriksson (3 for 9) was their most successful shooter last season, and Jamie Benn will likely see more opportunity, but made only 1 of his 5 attempts last year.
The team shooting percentage in shootouts was 18.7%. Only Tampa (16.7%) was worse.
Debate the shootouts place in the game all you like, but the Stars lost 10 of them last year. 6 to 8 points is a lot to make up on shootouts alone, but they have to be better. Every little bit helps.
It seems obvious that goaltending is the way they can most easily makeup that ground, but it's hard to imagine several of these other things being quite as sub-par as they were last season.