Last season, the Dallas Stars finished 26th in the league in goals against average with 3.13 and finished 19th in the league in shots against per game with 29.9. By any stretch of the imagination, the defense and goaltending were not in a place you would want to see them.
Through 28 games played so far this season, the Stars are ranked 17th in goals against average with 2.64, nearly a half goal less than last season. They are ranked 12th in shots against per game with 28.9, one full shot better than last season. Both of these are respectable improvements on a defensive corps that is heavily reliant on a relatively inexperienced group of blueliners.
Has the defense improved? Based on some statistics, they have so far this season. (It's also helped that the Stars are getting closer-to-league average goaltending in Kari Lehtonen (.911 SV%) and Antti Niemi (.909 SV%) - league average is .915 SV% for reference.) So why are Stars fans so exasperated with the team's defense?
When they're bad, they're bad
Florida, Colorado, Ottawa, Carolina - those are opponents that have hung five or more goals on the Stars in ugly fashion so far this year. When the Stars aren't locked into the game, they have a tendency to allow goals in seemingly rapid-fire succession. It allows the other teams to get momentum and confidence that they can score at will as long as they beat the first man, and it's worked for those teams so far this season.
Passing and puck protection woes
It's been a plague all season in maybe all but one game (opening night versus the Pittsburgh Penguins was a fairly nice holistic game the Stars put together). When things aren't going well, the Stars pass blindly from behind their net into the center of the ice -- right to an opposing player. They don't make the smart short pass instead of the hail-mary lead pass. The puck seems to slip off their sticks like the blades have WD40 on them. There's no one game or one play that illustrates this, as it seems to crop up in nearly every game at some point.
Both the forwards and the blueline have been guilty of terrible passing decisions or not protecting the puck well enough to make a play throughout the season, and if they weren't the high octane team they are, their record would be awfully different today. To some extent, it is the risk of their puck-movement oriented, fast-paced offense, but there are also many preventable errors.
Inability to protect a lead
What doesn't show up on many stats sheets is the number of multi-goal leads squandered by the leading team, and if that was an actual stat that could be tracked, I'm pretty certain the Stars might be at the top of the league in that category.
If they get up big early, the Stars see, to lapse into a mentality where they want to sit back and protect a lead. In my opinion, this is a terrible strategy for the way this team is built. In concert with points number one and two above, the lackluster puck possession and passing that seems to come out when they're trying to protect a lead become magnified and have this tendency to find the back of the Stars net.
Dallas is best when they're on the offensive and putting the pressure on the other team by making them work for the puck, versus just giving it over to them.
So now what?
There isn't a quick fix to these problems. Defense is a 60-minute, team-wide commitment. All players on the ice need to buy in to playing defense and not let their potent offense become their default win mechanism. Yes, the Stars might outscore a majority of other teams, but they shouldn't have to play "last one that goes in, wins" hockey night in and night out.
Some of the issues detailed previously are mental lapses or mental mistakes the team makes. Those are fixable. It is easy to forget amid this historic start to a season for Dallas that half of the defensemen they have on the NHL roster have played less than 100 games at the highest level. Jyrki Jokipakka has 71, John Klingberg has 93, Patrik Nemeth has 36, and Jamie Oleksiak has 68. These are all guys that are still developing their NHL games, and are being asked to be better than last season so that this team can get to the playoffs and make some noise.
And they have been better. The goals against average is down and they're limiting shots on goal relative to the league as a whole. The Stars need to be ready to win 2-1 or 1-0 type hockey games when they come around. They're at the top of the league today, and that puts a Bullwinkle-the-Moose-sized target on their backs every game. While they've been able to collect points on the back of their offense to cover for these defensive mistakes recently, the Stars need to continue to improve their defense so that when their offense meets a red-hot goaltender or scorers hit slumps, they won't be dead in the water.