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Dallas Stars Early Season Expectations Not Quite Matching Reality...Yet

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We all expected some things to be better (offense) and some to be worse (goaltending) than they are. Where will it settle by season end? Somewhere in between?

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Dallas Stars
One thing where reality meets expectation: Tyler Seguin showing off his abs every chance he gets.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Two wins, one loss, and one overtime loss. That feels about right for the start of the Stars’ season, doesn’t it? On Wednesday, I looked at a couple of individuals. Specifically, the defense. Today I wanted to get a bit more general. The Stars entered the year with a great offense, suspect goaltending, and a boatload of questions about the defense. I wanted to look at each of those units, along with the special teams, and see how they’ve performed so far relative to expectations.

The Offense

Expectation

Really freaking good. Yeah? The Stars led the league in goals last season and added pieces. They play a system built around speed and attack, and given issues elsewhere in the lineup, any success scenario for this group revolves around putting the biscuit in the basket. Nobody on this roster remembers the 90s, in other words.

Reality

Adam “Goals” Cracknell! Technically, the Stars sit 11th in total goals for after the first week with 14. Relax. Early season clutter means that 11th is just two goals removed from 2nd, six goals behind the first place Edmonton Oilers (a phrase I never thought I’d write in any context). They nudge up to 7th if we adjust by game (3.50 G/GP), half a goal behind Chicago, Ottawa, Edmonton, Montreal, Minnesota, and the Rangers.

Outlook

Before last night I would have said very good. Jamie Benn (2 G 4 A) and Tyler Seguin (2 G 3 A) have points, but the eye test suggests they’re still recovering from non-hockey offseasons. As in the team’s two leading scorers should improve. Patrick Sharp (0 G 1 A) and John Klingberg (0 G 2 A), two big pieces, are also scuffling just a little bit. These struggles are manifesting in a drop in chances (Dallas is 24th with 26.3 Shots per game). It feels like a hiccup, an early season condition that cannot last as talent begins to assert itself. In the meantime, they’re finding less-likely contributors throughout the lineup.

Put differently, whatever spikes the Stars are seeing from unexpected producers will be more than offset as the regulars return to form. That’s what teams with excellent depth do (Radek Faksa!). Then Sharp got his bell run, Jiri Hudler came down with the yuks, and Patrick Eaves took a puck to the ankle. Those three join Cody Eakin and Mattias Janmark on the sidelines. That’s not a good situation for the Stars.

By the end of the season, they’ll be a top-3 unit, but October might be a little messy unless the big guns get going.

The Defense

Expectation

Klingberg and a bunch of guys rotating, drop-in style, through the remaining five lineup spots. The Stars entered 2016/2017 with two known quantities (Klingberg and Johnny Oduya), a relatively safe free agent (Dan Hamhuis), and a fist full of lottery tickets (Stephen Johns, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, Esa Lindell, and literally the population of Cedar Park, TX).

Reality

Eight individual defenders have dressed for the Stars so far this season. The team has surrendered 2, 6, 1, and 4 goals. Suddenly Johns is HAM, Hamhuis is a special teams specialist, and Klingberg has had so many partners it feels like an episode of Bachelor in Paradise. Classic Stars, amirite?

Outlook

The Stars need Johns to not be a mirage, Oduya to hold off Father Time, and some level of consistency from the bottom two. Klingberg isn’t going to be fine, he already is fine. Check the toe-drag-turned-shot he unleashed last night against LA. The Stars’ top hombre is just going through a weird statistical stretch. Beneath them it gets tricky. Grabbing steady Dan Hamhuis looks really smart right about now.

Early injuries up top are going to put a lot of pressure on the defense. For the next month or so the Stars might not be as able to outscore the occasional coverage mistake or bad pinch. We might also start seeing Klingberg’s TOI climb from the 22/23 minute range into the 25/27 minute range. So far Lindy Ruff has talked a big game about rotating everyone into the lineup, but if Sharp and Eaves are out for an extended time you have to wonder if his strategy will change.

This space says someone from the Lindell, Nemeth, Oleksiak group seizes a full time spot before the end of November.

The Goaltending

Expectation

A tire fire, right? It’s almost a waste of time to type it. Fans spent all summer stuck in a Game 7 feedback loop. Could GM Jim Nill swing a deal for Ben Bishop? Oh, no, Brian Elliott is off the board, is Anaheim selling?

Reality

Be honest, things haven’t been bad. The 6 GAA catastrophe in Colorado was far more the product of defensive miscues than troublesome goaltending. There have been some rebound issues, for example, but there have also been bad penalties, breakaways, and high-quality chances. Antti Niemi (4.83 GAA / .873 SV%) got shelled by the Avs, but only after stealing their season opener against the Ducks. Kari Lehtonen (2.35 GAA / .925 SV%) stood tall in Nashville, and while he took the loss against the Kings it’s hard to look at the individual goals against and call him the problem.

Outlook

This is what the Stars are, in net. It’s very likely what they will continue to be. That’s not a bad thing. This team is going to win on the strength of its offense, by and large. Continued stability between the pipes also allows the Stars to focus on their other issues. Does Jim Nill need short term help on offense? Is a trade necessary to resolve the defensive log jam?

The trade talk isn’t going away, but it should be quieter as fans focus more on injuries and the D.

Special Teams

Expectation

Special teams were an area of strength for the Stars last season, on the whole. They matched a top-5 power play (4th / 21.1%) with a top-10 penalty kill (10th / 82.3%). In particular, the penalty kill flourished after Radek Faksa joined the big squad full time. The off-season saw a few pieces shuffled around, but by and large, neither unit took any visible steps back.

Reality

We’re going to have to break this out by unit. The power play has so far lived up to expectations. Though technically outside the top 5 (9th), the power play is essentially what it was last season (21.4%). The only blemish I can find is more a problem with the overall offense. Dallas is currently 20th in total power play opportunities (14). They can do the job, but can they get the job?

The penalty kill, on the other hand, has not gone as well. The Dallas Stars have killed 76.5% of their penalties so far this season, good for 25th in the NHL. After blanking the Ducks, Dallas conceded two PPGs against the Avs (ost by one), one PPG against the Preds (their only goal), and one PPG against the Kings (lost by one). Yes, there have been moments of excellence like last night’s double minor, but so far the Stars are effectively spotting the other team a goal each night.

Outlook

This is another area where injuries have hurt the Stars. Janmark, Eakin, and Sharp are all factors on the PK. Sharp, Hudler, and Janmark should all see time on the PP. Defensive consistency is also a contributing factor. The coaching staff has some work to do, in particular on the PK. As games go by, lines should settle in, and special teams should improve.