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It’s Much More Than Goaltending Hurting Dallas This Year

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Antti has been okay. Kari has been, well, Kari. Neither has been this team’s biggest problem this year.

Colorado Avalanche v Dallas Stars Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Note: the numbers cited below are current as of Monday morning, 11/28.

***

Dallas Stars goaltending has been an easy focal point for critics over the past couple of years, and for good reason. Ever since Kari Lehtonen lost his fastball in the 2014 Anaheim series, Dallas has gotten only one great stretch of goaltending, that being Antti Niemi’s first half from last year. That chunk of netminding combined with the stellar team play to catapult Dallas to the top of the conference and blah blah you know all this. I’ve written it so many times. Niemi was good for a little while, and that helped the Stars be great enough to withstand the second half, etc.

The three-year Niemi deal was a bit of a reach last year, and despite that great first half, it’s continued to feel like a bit in the proverbial horse’s mouth, restraining the thoroughbred from the high-speed potential that a pickup like [insert goalie of choice here] could give Dallas.

So far this season, however, the goaltending really isn’t the biggest problem. Or at least, it’s not the only one. Here’s where things stand right now:

While Niemi’s numbers have improved to above-average after a rough start, the Stars in general, as you might suspect, do not have really great numbers anywhere. Their 5v5 Sv% is 91.9—good for 23rd in the NHL—but that is actually an improvement over their 91.7 mark over last season, which put them at 27th in the league. You may recall that the Stars finished 2nd overall in the standings of that same league last year.

No, we are not saying that this is good news, but only that this is not the worst news. There is always worse news.

In this case, that worse news is that the Stars at even-strength have essentially turned every team they’ve played against this year into the team the Dallas Stars were last year:

Look, it’s not great, okay

Quickly: CF/CA=shot attempts for and against. xGF=expected share of goals scored in the game, SCF/SCA=scoring chances for and against, and Sh%=shooting percentage. You know all this, but typing it makes me feel superior, like a professor or something.

Like, seriously. The scoring chance percentages from last year and this one add up to exactly 100. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy or a dictum of fate or anything, but mostly I am saying exactly both of those things.

Anyway, yes, the save percentages may not have gotten worse, but the funny thing about percentages is that they are related to volume. And when your volume of shots allowed goes up, so also will your goals-against totals balloon. That, along with an odorous PK and your Dallas dollop of shorthanded goals allowed, is why the Stars have allowed so very many blinking red lights behind their goalies this year.

We could talk about defense pairings and chemistry and kids and Hamhuis and Gologiski and all that, but there’s more going on here, and it’s not as simple as one decision. It is, rather, the result of many little decisions and the conglomerate ability of the players on the ice from night to night. Good players have been missing, and only some of those absences have occurred off the ice.

But check out those numbers up there, and you don’t just see a team that’s suddenly having to defend against the 2015-16 Dallas Stars every night; you see a team that has actually allowed 0.72 fewer scoring chances per 60 minutes (SCA60). That doesn’t mesh with the prevailing wisdom that the defense has been unequivocally worse. It actually suggests—and again, this is a tiny sample size, and scoring chance numbers are subjective (although consistent within the same model)—that this team just has the puck less, overall.

Yes, they’re allowing far more shots against (CF), but the defense does seem to be “tightened up” in the sense that they are allowing fewer scoring chances. But as good as that sounds, this game goes both directions, and it’s the other direction where the biggest problems are to be found, as you surely know by now.

Psychologically, it makes sense to look at goaltending and defense when your team is losing. To lose, you have to allow goals, and goals are mistakes. When people are emotionally harmed, their instinct is not to become louder and more trusting, but more defensive and withdrawn. Likewise, it’s far easier to say “stop making mistakes” than it is to say “start creating more chances and finishing them at a slightly better rate than you are currently doing!” When you lose, you think of moments of failure, and a blinking red light embeds itself in your memory a whole lot more than a failed breakout, a blocked shot, or an accidental offside.

But that’s what the Stars need to do, unless they have designs on finding a Dubnyk, Price, Crawford or Murray sort of goaltender who could cover up the enormous possession disparity this team has been battling all season. Dallas’s biggest and most damaging change from last season is not a far-worse defense in the dangerous areas, at least numerically; their offense has seen the biggest drop-off, and that’s what’s so puzzling.

This team had been fantastic offensively since Jason Spezza arrived two seasons ago. This season, injuries to Spezza (and others) have slowed the Goals-O-Matic machine that the Stars have had humming along for them. Sure, the power play is mid-pack and the PK is bad, but this team is getting vastly outplayed at evens, and that’s the real problem. Dallas isn’t creating many chances, and when they have created them, they’ve shot at a below-average 6.7%. That’s partly a result of the lower-level talent that had been getting some of those chances while better players were injured, but it’s also a bit of bad luck. If bad luck mandated that good luck follow in its wake, this might be some sort of consolation. It is not that.

As David and others have vociferously noted, the offense being far worse doesn’t mean it’s just the forwards to blame. Offense—and especially the Stars’ offense—requires a transition game, and the defenders are the first link in that chain. They haven’t been great at all, and that’s compelled/persuaded Lindy Ruff to mix and match like a three-card Monte dealer. That has drawn a lot of attention, and rightly so. But that inconsistency from the back end can’t be a total scapegoat for players like Benn and Spezza anymore than the goaltending. You need your best players to be good, and only Tyler Seguin and Patrick Eaves (and, often enough to be noteworthy, Antoine Roussel) have really been able to keep their heads above water for most of the time. Their performances, and Niemi’s all-right goaltending, are why Dallas is on the fringe of the playoff picture instead of at the bottom of it, as their woeful goal differential would otherwise dictate. Also, loser points. So many loser points.

Is there hope? Well, sure, because there is always hope. We can envision a reality other than this one, and that’s because we’ve seen it so often over the past couple of years. Radek Faksa can’t solely have been a product of Hemsky’s magnificence; he should be expected to start tilting play the right way again. Cody Eakin hasn’t been that numerically “good” since his return, but we do know that he is a much better player than the Stars had been forced to ice in his absence, and he will help.

Mattias Janmark and Hemsky are big losses to this club, but Benn, Klingberg and Spezza’s too-frequent absence-on-ice routine has been the bigger one. Personally, I’m betting that a couple of the very-good players on the Stars will stop looking like not-very-good players soon enough. (And if I know anything about the Stars, Benn, Spezza, Klingberg and even Faksa will get going right about the time Antti Niemi starts struggling. At least we’ll be able to have a more familiar conversation at that point.)

Hope, though. Yes, we were looking for hope in this season. An, in the smallest of sample sizes, I have found it.

shots

That hope is named Julius Honka. And he’s going to be here for a long time.

All numbers from corsica.hockey unless otherwise noted.