Of all the things that have been problematic for the Dallas Stars since the start of their recent skid, special teams may be the most frustrating.
In the eight games since the start of 2016, the Stars have a power play clicking at just 13.6 percent and a penalty kill that is extremely leaky at 72 percent, good for 23rd and 27th overall in the NHL, respectively.
But what is especially painful is the combination, which leaves them dead last in the Western Conference on special teams, as determined by adding the penalty kill percentage to the power play percentage. The combined percentage of 85.6 is just behind the Arizona Coyotes (86.9), and the only team behind the Stars overall is the New York Rangers (a measly 75.7 percent behind a 4.3 percent power play).
How bad is it? The Minnesota Wild, dead last in the NHL with a zero percent conversion rate on the power play in 2016, are ahead of the Stars in combined percentage on the strength of an 89 percent penalty kill. And the Stars have allowed nearly as many shorthanded goals (2) as they have scored power play goals (3).
That's a far cry from how things were in the first three months of the season. The Stars never blew any teams away with their penalty killing, but an 81 percent kill rate was not going to hurt them. And the power play was blowing people away at points with a 23.4 percent conversion rate - even this recent slump can't take them out of the top five teams on the power play in the league.
And that points to at least one of the problems when it comes to the power play, at least - the lack of opportunities. The Stars played 39 games this season in 2015 and drew an average of 3.2 opportunities per game. That number has dropped to 2.75 in the new year, or a half of an opportunity a game. It's hard to say whether or not that is related to their even-strength play, as opportunities around the league typically drop this time of year and are doing so once again.
(For reference, the team with the most opportunities in the league is the Coyotes, and they average 3.7 per game. And while the Maple Leafs have average 4 opportunities a game in 2016, most of the league is well under the 3.2 margin.)
But there are deeper issues as well that are more controllable by the Stars. Beyond some of the problems with the zone entries at times, the biggest change on the power play has been the very significant drop in the medium quality shots.
War on Ice divides shots into three increasingly narrow categories - Corsi events (all shot attempts for), scoring chances (the medium and high danger chances as designated by the area of the ice), and high-danger scoring chances. When you break down what the Stars did before January first and after, there is one stark difference, and it's in the scoring chances area.
In the first three months of the season, the Stars averaged 3.37 shot attempts for per two minute power play and 0.60 high-danger scoring chances. Those numbers are 3.69 and 0.57 for January, respectively. But in scoring chances, the Stars have dropped from 1.93 scoring chances for to 1.3, a very notable drop.
Given the definitions of scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances, it becomes clear that what the Stars are lacking right now is the medium-danger chances, those from the middle and high slot and the high interior of the face off circles. They are making up for the raw attempts in other ways - likely more point shots and those from bad angles - but the net effect is a power play that is significantly less dangerous.
The penalty kill, on the other hand, is just absolutely worse all the way around. The Stars are giving up 1.07 more shot attempts, 0.75 more scoring chances, and 0.57 more high-danger scoring chances per two-minute penalty kill in January than they were in the first three months of the season. The high-danger scoring chances against per kill have effectively doubled, from 0.63 to 1.20.
There's no sugar-coating that unit. It is bad, and it's not just one player (though a few stand out).
Of the defensemen, the most consistent is Jordie Benn, who went from one of the less effective penalty killers (3.49 CA per two minutes) to the most effective of the defensemen (3.92). Alex Goligoski is next on the list with a swing from 3.24 to 4.23. Both Jason Demers and Johnny Oduya have seen an increase of about 1.1 and Patrik Nemeth has the biggest swing from 2.89 to 8.2. That's such a swing I did the math three times, though it is notable that Nemeth's January numbers are probably in just two (extremely forgettable) PK shifts.
The trends hold true in scoring chances. Benn was the second-most effective defenseman at limiting HSCF in the first three months at 0.53 per PK, and he's been the best in January at 0.92. Nemeth is still got an outlandishly bad swing to the negative, and Goligoski has suffered the most of the regulars, going from 0.45 to 1.16. Demers and Oduya have also seen upswings, but they were the worst on the team in the first three months (which is to be expected with their first-unit assignments much of the time).
In essence, they've all been suddenly gone bad, and it's impossible to pick out any bright spot. The PK needs some sort of wholesale reset, though how the Stars go about that is why they pay the coaching staff the big bucks, as there is no real evident solution.
So there is some good news - there is a discrete thing the Stars are doing differently on the power play, and addressing it (along with a little dash of puck luck) will likely help address some of the conversion problems there. The bad is that the penalty kill is a total mess and needs a big red Easy button as much as any other individual fix.