The Dallas Stars resume their 2015-2016 campaign tonight against the Winnipeg Jets. They do so at a crossroads.
After entering the season with relatively low expectations, the Stars exploded out of the gate. With the speed and surety of a Tyler Seguin one-timer, last year's inconsistent bunch appeared to be an unstoppable offensive juggernaut. Suddenly they weren't just pushing for a playoff spot, the Stars were sitting atop the Western Conference. Then came January. A recent, month-long malaise has left the Stars and their fans reeling.
The All-Star break could not have come at a better time for the Stars. For the past week they've been able to relax and re-rack for the frenetic 32-game sprint to the playoffs. Tonight, fans will be eager to see what sort of team takes the ice. Are they the world-devouring monsters of October and November, or the meek New Year's kittens of January?
Here are five areas I'll be watching the rest of the way:
1 - Goal Differential
If you want to understand how good the Stars have been this season, on the balance, check out goal differential. Heading into tonight's contest, the boys in Victory Green boast a robust +29 mark. That's best in the Western Conference, and bettered only by Washington's absurd +54 mark. It makes sense too. Through much of the year we've watched our squad batter opponents into submission.
So what's the problem?
Turn the calendar to January and the Stars have conceded 11 more goals than they've scored. That's on par with the Arizonas (-15), Anaheims (-10), and Winnipegs (-14) of the world. Those are interesting teams, sure, and teams with strong aspects, but nobody is going to confuse the Jets, ‘Yotes, or Ducks for Stanley Cup contenders. I think fans would much rather equate their Stars with teams like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington.
2 - Special Teams
Another tire fire since the calendar flipped. Did you know that, since the start of January, the Stars have conceded more goals (4 vs 3) and taken more penalties (5 vs 2) than their opponents while on the power play? Meanwhile, the penalty kill has dipped to 79.9% for the season. To put that in a more hyperbolic way, Versus the Dallas Stars would be the NHL's 9th best power play. That's tragic.
Lately the Stars have begun to shuffle (Ruffle?) personnel sets around to arrest the dual slides. That's a big step. In the short term, improvement on special teams could help the team regain some momentum in a crowded Western Conference. In the long term, the playoffs will afford Dallas' prospective opponent(s) an opportunity to draw up specific game plans. Getting multiple workable combinations is imperative.
3 - Vernon Fiddler
The beloved Stars stalwart is playing sparingly these days (11:52 ATOI). This is a problem as options in the bottom half of the lineup have been inconsistent at best. Is Vern still The Man to win a crucial late game faceoff? Is it supposed offensive specialist Jason Spezza, or perhaps Cody "The Ginger Yo-Yo" Eakin? The latter would depend on which line he's playing on at a given time.
With so much focus on the top six (justifiably so for a team as driven by its offense as Dallas), it's understandable for fans to lose sight of the role players. Not for coaches and management, however. Is management content to hope the likes of Moen, Eaves, Sceviour, and Roussel can get the job done? Will we finally see a defensive move that allows younger options (Faksa) to spend some time with the big team? It's time for the team to address some of the really boring stuff.
4 - Zone Exits
I don't have a stat for this one, but it sure feels like the rest of the league has been better at disrupting the Stars' breakouts lately. John Klingberg is basically wearing a forechecker (or two) at any given moment, and the Stars are struggling as a result. When physical teams manage to disrupt Dallas' finesse game, the Stars struggle to find alternative avenues of attack. This problem will only grow more acute now that games against the familiar foes of the Central Division begin to multiply.
It's not enough to sit back and wait (hope) for Klingberg to adjust. With goaltending unlikely to suddenly exceed league-average, the Stars cannot afford reversion towards the Keystone Cops defensive zone coverage of last season. That's not to say the unit needs to be perfect, nor is it solely the responsibility of the defense, but if ever there was a team that needed to make more of their mistakes up-ice it's this one.
5 - Valeri Nichushkin
I've had something of a blind spot for the talented Russian since the Stars nabbed him with the 10th overall pick in 2013. From day one he's just looked the part of a dynamic NHL player. On the ice, at least. On the scoresheet, he's virtually indistinguishable from legions of "pretty good" NHLers. This season Big Val has the same number of points (17) as Seth Jones, Jesper Fast, and Niklas Kronwall. At this point he is much closer to Ales Hemsky than Alex Ovechkin.
He's still just a 20-year old playing in the NHL (Mattias Janmark is 23) so this isn't a "running out of time" situation. Not for Val himself, at least. For the Stars, it's a question of whether or not they feel the first half of this season has meaningfully accelerated their path to contention. If the answer to that question is yes, that might change Val's status as a tradeable asset. Or Nuke will take the long-awaited step forward and we'll all have a big laugh at ever worrying.