Despite the recent bad taste left by a few penalty-filled games, the Dallas Stars have basically solved the penalty problems that plagued them at the beginning of the season.
Yes, there have been a few games marred by issues, most notably the 5-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers that featured a Jamie Benn major along with eight other unmatched minors, but those have been the outliers. For the most part since that abysmal loss 2-0 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes where the team took seven unmatched minors and drew only one, the Stars have been right at league average in terms of times shorthanded, and they are taking nearly the same amount of calls as their opponents in any given game.
Here are the totals comparing the first nine games, a stretch that stops at the 2-0 loss to the Yotes, versus the next 13, which takes them through their most-recent win over the St. Louis Blues.
I'll get into the averages and details below, but I want to point out the significant drop in safety calls (boarding, charging, slashing, high sticking and the like).
The team's average just in that area dropped from 2.11 per game to 1.08, more than a call a game. And when you eliminate an outlier game (in this case, the most recent game against the Oilers), the numbers drop to 10 total and .833 per game on average. That's right at league average and, obviously, a huge improvement from the start of the year.
And here's that same chart in terms of penalties drawn, just for comparison.
In terms of overall averages, the Stars have dropped from an average of 5.44 minors per game (4.89 unmatched) to an average of 4.76 (4.08 unmatched). One call a game might not seem like a lot, but it puts them right in line with their opponents. And considering a good chunk of those penalties are from what should be rare calls (delay of game, too many men and unsportsmanlike), it is a definitely positive.
When you eliminate the two "outlier" games against San Jose and Edmonton, the numbers look even better. The Stars then average 4.09 minors per game, 3.45 unmatched over a stretch of 11 games. Their opponents are allowing an average of 4.53 minors a game, 3.84 unmatched. When you eliminate the two outlier games mentioned above, that drops to an even 4, 3.36 unmatched, or almost the same as the Stars averages.
Clearly, things are trending in the right direction.
So where has the difference in calls come from? A significant drop in the number of safety minors taken by Dallas.
|Call||Games 1-9||Games 10-22|
|Illegal check to the head||0||0|
|Checking from behind||0||0|
|Holding the stick||0||1|
|Too many men||0||3|
|Delay of game||0||4|
|Closing hand on puck||3||0|
The obstruction-type calls remain fairly significant, which is due both an area of emphasis from the referees, particularly on interference, and a general tendency to reach when behind the play. They could definitely stand to cut down on the hooking - they've averaged one per game over the more recent stretch - but they're floating right about league average or slightly below in the other obstruction-type calls.
On the safety-call end, the number of high sticks is by far the biggest improvement. The Stars have been in much better control of their own sticks after the issues to start the season and have taken only four high sticks during the stretch from games 10-22. Over that same time frame, the Stars also drew three high sticks, indicating to me that they've come back to league average in that area. They are still taking too many boarding calls (and have yet to draw one), but it's not nearly the issue that high sticking was early this year.
You could make the argument that the most painful uptick has been in the "other" call area, which includes too many men and unsportsmanlike conduct. One one hand, the Stars have stopped battling the "closing the hand on the puck" calls that got them several times in the season's opening weeks. But they've more than replaced that with problems with too many men, delay of game and unsportsmanlike conduct.
To be fair to the Stars, two of the unsportsmanlikes came when tempers boiled over against the Nashville Predators, and delay of game (puck over glass) calls are rarely intentional or a product of an undisciplined attitude. The biggest area of concern in that area, at least for me, is the too many men on the ice calls. The Stars have been called twice in recent games for what I like to call a "cheat change," where they try to slip a player off one end of the bench while the player he's replacing goes to the other door. This is technically illegal (players are supposed to go on close to the guy they replace) and will occasionally be called when it gives a team a distinct advantage.
Many times, the linesmen and referees will let you get away with this for a while if you're not getting a huge gain from it. In the game against the Predators, my impression (and Razor's, for what it's worth) was that the team had been warned about cheating the change prior to the call. It wasn't that the particular example was so egregious - it's that it had been building all game. More recently, against the Oilers, Trevor Daley tried to gain a distinct advantage by jumping on from the offensive end of the bench to create an odd-man rush while Jamie Oleksiak went to the defensive end. It's a risk-reward play because if a linesman is distracted or the ref is caught up watching the play develop, they might let you get away with it. Unfortunately for Daley, he got called.
The good news is that's not a problem with bench organization and should be easily addressed. It's just a matter of finding where that line is and sticking on the right side of it.
If you're looking for numbers on all the individual players, check back early next week as I wrap up the first half of the season in penalties. But here are the biggest individual offenders to this point - Stephane Robidas, Vernon Fiddler and Jaromir Jagr lead the team with eight unmatched minors each (Jagr's caused by a staggering four hooking calls to go along with a pair of slashes). Right behind them are Brenden Dillon (he of the four interference calls), Cody Eakin and Philip Larsen with seven.
As he's missed nearly half the season with scratches or injury, Larsen has by far the highest minors-per-game ratio at .58. Fiddler and Robidas, who have not missed a game, are at .36 while Jagr is at .38 with his one game missed.
So what conclusions can we draw from this? The obvious one is that despite the mess against the Oilers, the Stars really have come back to the pack in a good way when it comes to penalties. Yes, they are still 28th in the league in raw minors committed, but much of that is due to their early-season struggles (and significant number of matching minors that did not affect the manpower). And you have to give credit where credit is due - they took a problem that was keeping them from winning games and have put the kibosh on it, at least for the moment.
Will that continue to be the case with five games remaining against the Los Angeles Kings, who always frustrate the Stars, and three more against the San Jose Sharks, who are third in terms of power play opportunities drawn? It's hard to say at this point. The Stars have shown they can slip back into old habits when frustrated. But without having to kill off an extra minor or to a game, on average, they are certainly putting themselves in better positions to win from their team discipline alone.