Because I know it's coming, let's start with what this article isn't about.
It's not about saying the Dallas Stars have been playing good hockey and are only hampered by their current opponents. It's not about claiming the turnover problems and special teams issues and third period meltdowns will go away as soon as the schedule takes a turn.
There are problems in Stars-land that go well beyond the schedule. No one is denying that.
That said, strength of schedule, particularly when it's very unbalanced like it is early in the season, is an important consideration, especially when a team goes through a string of losses where each would be understandable as a single data point from an entire season.
Even the most optimistic predictions for the Stars this season had them finishing around sixth in the conference - most thought they would be from sixth to eighth. Other than perhaps the overtime loss to the Flyers, they aren't losing games they are "supposed" to win just yet.
2-1 in overtime to Anaheim. 4-3 in overtime to St. Louis. 3-2 to Nashville. 2-1 to Minnesota. 3-1 to Los Angeles. If those games happened in the middle of a 5-3-2 stretch, no one would blink an eye. They're relatively close losses to good teams. But because they're all strung in a row, it gets the panic level up.
Anecdotally, it certainly feels like the Stars haven't had a reprieve in the schedule for several weeks, save the game against the Arizona Coyotes. The data backs that up as well.
The strength of schedule metric on hockey-reference.com is certainly interesting, but it takes into account only goals above and below average. I wanted to dig into things a little bit more, since goals scored can jump above average if you've got a very soft schedule so far (see: the Calgary Flames), when then affects the strength of schedule of all the teams you play.
There are lots of other ways you can do this - look at the possession numbers each team has put up this year, looks at playoff position now, etc. But I wanted to pull from numbers where each team had as similar a full schedule as they will ever get.
So I wanted to see how the Stars schedule in terms of opponents compared through games played as of Monday afternoon to the other Western Conference teams.
That obviously doesn't account for some of the turnaround that looks fairly legitimate this season (for instance, the Avalanche look pretty mediocre while the Predators look great), so I noted where that might swing things a little bit, particularly for the Central Division teams.
Here's what I came up with:
Red were outliers in a way that would make the schedule harder while green were outliers in a way that would make the schedule easier.
The first thing that jumps out at you is the nine games Dallas has played against the Western Conference playoff teams from last season, none of those games against the Colorado Avalanche. The Ducks, who have also played nine playoff teams, have one game against the Avs in that stretch.
Yes, the Stars record in those nine games is cringe-inducing. You'd like to see a couple of those overtime losses turned into two full points, and then it would look more average. But it's been a very tough road.
On the flip side, Edmonton and Calgary have had one of the easiest roads by far in the Western Conference. Edmonton should probably just move to the East.
The Stars aren't the outlier in terms of Western Conference non-playoff teams - three teams share that title with varying success, but they have also played two of those games against by far the best non-playoff team from last year - Nashville.
For their part, the Predators have done a nice job against playoff teams but really feasted upon non-playoff teams so far. The ratio of 7:10 ratio of playoff to non-playoff teams is about as easy as they come on this list for teams not from Alberta or Arizona. It's the easiest split in the Central Division thus far, though it should be noted they have not faced the Avalanche among the playoff teams from last year yet.
The distribution among facing the Eastern Conference playoff teams is a little more even. Four teams have played five games against EC playoff teams while Nashville has once again had a bit of an easy go of it (though Nashville has barely played the east at all). What's really amusing, at least to me, is that Edmonton is the only team with real notable success against Eastern Conference playoff teams so far. Go east, young Oilers.
As for feeding on the East bottom feeders, the real winners there are the Avalanche and San Jose, though only the latter has really taken advantage of it so far. The Predators, as mentioned above, have barely played out East, and the Stars haven't seen many of the less-talented Eastern teams.
So if we're taking away long-term conclusions from this interpretation of strength of schedule, it's that the Ducks and Wild are pretty legitimate, the Stars have been roasted by the toughest schedule in the conference, and teams like the Flames and Predators have taken advantage of a fairly easy road so far.
It's been brought up repeatedly that the Stars were a playoff team last year and want to be able to compete with them this year, and that's true. The 1-5-3 record is much less than you'd hope. But I'd counter that when you play a string of very good teams in a row, it's much easier to get on a bad streak because you don't have the mental reset of being able to make mistakes against a Buffalo or Oilers or Maple Leafs and have those mistakes stay out of your net.
Plus it's very difficult to compare, say, how the Stars are playing to the Predators or Flames or even Wild because the overall quality of competition has been wildly different for each team. It will even out more and more the further the season moves along, but it's nowhere near even yet.
If there's good news for the Stars, it's that the schedule starts taking a decidedly more easy turn as of today. There are six games left in the month, three against playoff teams from last year (but one of those is the Avalanche, finally). Eight of the 12 December games are against non-playoff teams.
There's no arguing the Stars have been dealt the roughest hand so far in terms of schedule, at least in the Central Division. It provides a plausible explanation as to why what was a slick patch turned into a long skid.
But that excuse goes away as of today. If the Stars are who we, and they, thought they were at the beginning of the season, the next few weeks are their time to really show it.