Isn’t it funny how quickly expectations change?
The Dallas Stars missed the playoffs for five straight seasons and attendance was down in the dumps. The expectation was to get better. The Stars underwent a re-branding effort that also brought Jim Nill and Lindy Ruff into the fold. Nill proceeded to acquire Tyler Seguin. The Stars got better.
Not many expected them to make the playoffs in that first season (2013-14). They found a way in and took on the top-seeded Anaheim Ducks. The expectation changed to “put up a fight in the playoffs”.
Up two with a couple minutes to go in a do-or-die game six, the expectation changed to “let’s win this series”. Then, well, you know.
What has been the overwhelming expectation heard from fans since that moment? In 2014-15 it was “if the Stars would have gotten league-average goaltending, they wouldn’t have missed the playoffs”. In 2015-16, league-average goaltending may have vaulted the Stars past the Blues in the second round.
With a depleted forward group and a shallow blue-line, has that expectation changed? Is league-average netminding going to be good enough this year?
Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen: Steady So Far
According to corsica.hockey, 45 goalies in the NHL have played at least 100 5v5 minutes so far in the 2016-17 season. Lehtonen ranks 16th in 5v5 save-percentage (SV%) while Niemi ranks 22nd. Both of them find themselves in the top half of qualified goalies.
For those 45 goalies, the average 5v5 SV% is ~.925. Niemi sits just a shade under that mark with a .924 while Lehtonen is a bit above that with a .929. They’ve held their own through 10 games.
In terms of GSAA or Goals Saved Above Average, they both are hovering right around the zero mark, suggesting they aren’t really stealing any games for Dallas but they aren’t losing any for them either. If you take the last two years into consideration, that is exactly what was desired.
Will it be enough this year?
Unfortunately for Dallas, and their goalies, expectations have once again shifted. It probably isn’t fair, but what about sports ever is?
It’s going to be tough for the Stars to match the offensive output of the prior two seasons. The Stars have two of the top six 5v5 goal totals from the last two seasons. Through 10 games this season, they are scoring at a rate that puts them 18th during 5v5 play.
The offense isn’t there and the voids throughout the lineup are the likely cause. The problem is those voids aren’t going to be filled any time soon.
Cody Eakin put up 35 points in 82 games last season. Jason Spezza, who potted 33 goals and 63 points last season, is out for at least the next week. Those are the only two absences that are surely coming back any time in the near future. We can probably assume that Patrick Sharp will be back soon as well but concussions are so tricky that it is never a sure thing.
The offensive absences from last season are tremendous.
Ales Hemsky was 6th on the team in scoring last season with 39 points, he’s done for the year. Alex Goligoski was 7th with 37 points, he’s playing hockey in Arizona. Mattias Janmark was 9th with 29 points, he’s done for the year. You probably get the picture but I’m going to keep going anyway.
Val Nichushkin was 11th, he’s in Russia. Colton Sceviour and Jason Demers were tied for 12th, they’re both in Florida. Fiddler was 13th, he’s in New Jersey.
Obviously, some of the points will be replaced simply by newer players getting expanded roles. Most of the replacements simply don’t possess the offensive talent that went away, however. We can’t expect Dan Hamhuis or Esa Lindell to put up over 35 points like Goligoski did on a regular basis. Jamie Olekiak and Patrik Nemeth aren’t going to move the needle too much offensively, either.
Adam Cracknell and Brett Ritchie likely aren’t scoring close to 40 points. Shore looks promising offensively, but can he be expected to cover Hemsky’s 39 or is it more likely he will take care of Janmark’s 29? He is probably the best hope the Stars have in replacing the missing offense.
Sharp put up 55 points last season and even if he gets back into the lineup soon, that will be a tough number for him to reach. What the Stars will need is some career efforts from players who are normally not looked towards for major offensive output. Radek Faksa is a step-up candidate, especially with his current role in the top six. You would love to see Antoine Roussel rack up some more production this season as well.
A step up from bottom six players is going to be necessary if the Stars want to build on their success from last season. Unfortunately for them, the absences will likely be too hard to make up for offensively.
Expectations have changed. The defense and goaltending can’t just be average this season. We’ll see if they are up to the task.