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Dallas Stars' Negative Shot Differential A Symptom Of Special Teams Concerns

The Ribeiro line needs to put the Stars on the job more often.
The Ribeiro line needs to put the Stars on the job more often.

The Dallas Stars are turning heads in a good way again to start this season with their 6-2 record. They've received outstanding goaltending, they're seeing wonderful early returns on players like Sheldon Souray and Vernon Fiddler, and they've picked up points against teams sure to be fighting with them for the entire 82.

Things are seemingly going according to Joe Nieuwendyk's plan, but the one Baby Ruth floating in their pool of success in the early going is a disturbing shot differential that has some critics crying "smoke and mirrors" again.

Those numbers are, as of this morning, 25.1 shots per game and a pretty staggering 32.9 shots against on average. The 25.1 is good for just 28th in the league and the 32.9 represents 27th. Numbers that sub-par in both categories has of course created a shot differential average of -7.8 which is 28th in the NHL. Only the New York Rangers and Nashville Predators are worse.

Head Coach Glen Gulutzan has attributed those numbers to the disparity in special teams time (PP time versus PK time) and the benign nature of much of that rubber headed Kari Lehtonen's way. The Stars want to force shots from the outside and "bend but not break" where quality chances against are concerned. They've seen a great reduction in odd-man rushes against from Marc Crawford's tenure and second chance opportunities are also a focus. Still, the idea that the Stars cannot continue to be successful while being so badly outshot persists.

The best way for them to turn that around is on special teams. They've been shorthanded 39 times already this year, third most in the NHL. They're 46:04 of power play time is offset by 58:13 of penalty kill stress. The difference (-12:09) is the 6th worst differential on average in the league. Spending twelve minutes more on the penalty kill than the power play through eight games is no path to the playoffs in the long run, no matter how good the Stars PK has been.

The Stars are never going to be a team that forces others into taking penalties and then punishes them relentlessly with the power play (see Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose, Chicago, etc... over the course of the last few years) but they've got to find a way to spend at least as much time on the PP as their opponents do if they're to protect their goaltenders moving forward from seeing 40 shots a night, or needing to block 26 as was the case in Los Angeles Saturday.

Let's see who's drawing penalties, who's taking them, and where... You know, for fun...

The casual observer might look at the departure of Brad Richards and opine that the Stars aren't getting on the job as often as they did because of it, but as good as he was here, he drew very few penalties. (I detailed this here in a summary of who drew how many penalties last year...). Instead it appears the Stars are experiencing a team-wide reduction in penalties drawn (relative to the rest of the league) as a result of the coaching change and the style of play being implemented.

Marc Crawford's Dallas team went on the job an average of four times a night in 2009-2010 (2nd in the league) and 3.73 times a night in 2010-2011 (6th in the league). Glen Gulutzan's team has an extremely small sample size going for them here but are 25th in the league with an average of 3.5 power plays per night. (3.7 and 3.5 are not that far off, but the truth is that the league as a whole is experiencing MANY more power plays on average than usual so far this season, and the Stars have yet to take advantage. Thus the discrepancy in league rank.)

On the other side of the coin it's fairly obvious that Souray (8 minors), Ott (5 minors) and Grossman (5 minors) would like to slow their pace in that department, but who is drawing calls so far?

Among the leaders in drawing penalties:

Minors Drawn
Ott 6
Eriksson 3
Fiddler 3
Lehtonen 3
Benn 3
Dvorak 3
Morrow 2

Brenden Morrow makes the bottom of my leader board here. Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder have not been credited with drawing any minor penalties this season through eight games. The Benn like has drawn 12 in all, though they've taken more as a unit as well (11) giving them a collective +1 differential on penalties. The Ribeiro line is a -3 in that department (5 taken, 2 drawn).

Coach Gulutzan addressed the need to earn more power plays for themselves on Saturday via a quote you've probably seen already on ESPN Dallas and the DMN, but it's worth re-printing here.

"We've got to start generating," said Gulutzan. "We've still got to get pucks at net because when you put pucks at net you get traffic at net and then you get other teams taking penalties because they are reacting. I think if we keep playing this east-west style, which we are getting away from a little bit, then you don't draw a lot of penalties. Penalties are in the offensive zone, usually. We haven't had enough time there to generate penalties. We've got to get pucks on the net, make their D react, make their D defend from behind where they have to reach. We have to be more direct."

Dallas has been more direct, as he says, in second periods outscoring their opponents 7-2 in middle frames this season, but they've had to do it around some penalty trouble...

Period Minors Taken Minors Drawn
1 9 7
2 21 14
3 13 13
4 1 0

The second period is the biggest area of concern here and that seems about right given the numbers Josh has been putting together in the scoring chance project. The Stars have been short handed 17 times in the middle frame, the by far of any period in the early going this season. Even in their best game of the season, chance-wise, they were out-chanced by the Kings in the second at even strength. The more often that happens the more penalties a team will take, no matter how the goal differential looks for the season thus far.

For fun (do we know how to party or what?) we can break it down by zone as well...

Zone Minor Penalties
Off. Zone 11
Neutral Zone 7
Def. Zone 13
"NA" 13

What does "NA" mean? I have no idea. Ask the elderly gentlemen off-ice officials who presumably are a part of generating the official play by play. In most cases it appears to be penalties assessed after play had already been stopped, or too many men on the ice penalties, but in some cases it (the zone) is just missing.

Eleven penalties in the offensive zone sounds like too many (any at all sound like too many, you might say) through eight games but given that they took 88 minors in the other team's zone last year, they're not too far off that pace. Steve Ott has three of the eleven, Benn has two and Eriksson has one. That line is aggressive in all areas of the ice.

There is room for improvement here, but the help needs to come from the coaching staff in all likelihood. Gulutzan liked a more "north/south" game in Los Angeles. That's something for us to keep track of as the team heads to arena tonight.

Actually scoring on the power play once they get there? That's a whole other discussion...