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It’s Okay to Have Low Expectations For The Dallas Stars Right Now

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There was always going to be a learning curve on defense, but the absence of half the forward corps is a fun little surprise.

Los Angeles Kings v Dallas Stars
Sometimes you just have to accept a hug for what it’s worth.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Last season, the Dallas Stars were a great possession team. They allowed a lot of activity, yes, but they created even more chances than they allowed. When the dust settled, the Stars were in the top in shot-attempt differential, scoring chances created, and expected goals-for percentage (xGF%). Everything they did suggested that they were a team that had a better-than-even chance to win from night to night, and that is exactly what they did, to the tune of 50 victories.

This season—only six games in, but still—the Stars have not been a good possession team. They are 26th in shot-attempt differential, 20th in xGF%, and 18th in scoring chances created. The Stars are 3-2-1, which isn’t bad at all! The Stars have been outshot and out-chanced consistently, which is bad. If you are confident that the goaltending can continue its above-average play as it has done so far, then maybe you aren’t too worried. If you are not convinced that Kari time-traveled back to 2012, then you might be concerned.

Now is the time to insert all the “it’s early” caveats, and they are, of course, warranted. You know it’s early because the Oilers are 6-1 and Vancouver isn’t statistically eliminated yet, so why bother putting any stock in team metrics up to this point, you might ask? That is a good question! My answer, I guess, is that while six games of data does not give one an adequate basis for writing off a team, it does at least show what the team has done so far. And the Stars, so far, have won in spite of their play rather than because of it.

Yes, they got hosed against Columbus for one goal off a referee’s skate and maybe Los Angeles for a more crucial one that shouldn’t have counted. But those two grievances, if you choose to stake your claim upon them, don’t change the fact that the Stars played badly enough for two such events to sink them. They were, in other words, not putting themselves in a position to win.

So, what’s to be done? Who’s at fault? Why are we acting all upset when the Stars actually have a decent record through six games? Thanks for asking! Please follow me as we proceed into the infirmary wing of this hockey hospital that we’ve been standing in the whole time. (Turn off your cell phone unless you want to hear all the EKGs beeping out the melody of “Eye of the Tiger.” It’s a bug, not a feature.)

Last year’s Dallas Stars got off to a record start of 9-2. That is a great record! Here are what all those players did for Dallas’s possession last season:

You’ll notice a lot of positive names there. Sharp, Hemsky, Spezza, Goligoski, Demers, Janmark and so forth. Those names are also notable in that they have been either partially or fully absent this season for one reason or another. Spezza is battling an injury, as is Jamie Benn, apparently. Hemsky, Sharp and Janmark are currently losing that battle to various degrees.

Add to that the turnover on defense, and it’s sort of understandable that Dallas isn’t quite controlling and transitioning the puck as well as they did last year, isn’t it? I mean, systems are all well and good, but when you have a dynamic one to the degree Dallas does, it’s tough to lose swaths of top-six forwards while rolling your defense pairings around like AMPM Breakfast Dogs®‎ and keep things steady. As we’ve seen, things have been very much not steady:

Again, let me emphasize: this is a tiny sample! This is a Polly Pocket chunk of data, and you do not make judgments on players from six games of events (let alone one, as some people are inclined to do). Possession stats show what effect a player tends to have, and since hockey involves more than one player on the ice (ideally), you need as much data as possible to really start to isolate a player’s performance. Is Adam Cracknell the most fun player on the team? I do not think this is true. I also don’t think Esa Lindell and Devin Shore are the worst players. This is not saying “corsi doesn’t matter”; of course it matters, because it shows events that have happened, to date. But when you’re dealing with a team stricken by injuries to this sort of a degree, there is every reason in the world to expect weird things.

And so, I dunno, I guess I’m just saying it’s okay to want Dallas to be better, because they sure were last year. But it’s also okay to be happy with how well Dallas has done, because basically it is Tyler Seguin’s recovering heel bone, Jamie Benn’s lingering injury, and John Klingberg’s speed-dating partnership surrounded by a bunch of other guys right now, and the Stars are not in trouble yet.

Oh, they certainly could be if they can’t weather the injury storm. They don’t have the luxury of playing a ton of games against the East to start this season, and we know that teams who get consistently out-attempted will generally lose more often, all things being relatively equal (AKA “not having an amazing goalie and not getting incredibly lucky”). More shots=more goals, and the Stars have not been producing more shots, so far.

Lindy Ruff is having to juggle things like crazy right now, and you might not be a fan of everything he’s done. Certainly I can’t quite wrap my brain around the Stephen Johns scratch (unless those toe-drags from behind his own net were really a deal-breaker) or the Jordie Benn, #1 defenseman plan. But pretty much every single team in hockey has a coach who makes decisions fans don’t agree with, and that’s life. I’ll be happy to start going full chalkboard on the Stars when they have some semblance of stability in personnel, but right now, I’m going to offer a simple frown and a “well, huh. Would you look at that?” in the confusing times.

This team has functionally replaced Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp, Cody Eakin, Val Nichushkin, Ales Hemsky and Mattias Janmark with Devin Shore, Adam Cracknell, Lauri Korpikoski, Justin Dowling, Gemel Smith and Curtis McKenzie. That was not the plan, because teams can’t plan for that sort of journey to the center of a system’s depth. It’s not an excuse for the Stars’ systemic issues at times, but when you combine the personnel shortages with Benn and Seguin’s lingering injuries, I just can’t muster too much angst over six games of troubling statistics.

Ugly wins are still wins, and goodness knows Dallas has handed out its fare share of those to random Eastern Conference teams over the years. It’s high time they found a way to collect a couple when the chips were down. If those wins come against teams like Nashville and Winnipeg, well, so much the better. Division points are huge.

Still, you might not be convinced that things aren’t dire. You might still think that Dallas isn’t going to magically become good again when bodies start to heal. For you, I have saved one little nugget of hope. I offer no incisive commentary on it given the aforementioned issues of injury and sample size, but I will say this: if you’re going to get outshot, keeping some of those shots further away from the HD (High-Danger) area right in front of the net is a pretty decent mitigation plan:

All stats are 5v5 and from Corsica.Hockey and HockeyViz.com unless otherwise noted.