The Dallas Stars power play was a complex beast in the 2015-16 NHL Season. There were highs and lows, feasts and famine, but the end result was a unit that ranked fourth in the NHL in efficiency at a 22.1 percent conversion rate. If you were to Google "NHL Power Play Rankings", the Stars would be rated as the fourth best power play in hockey. That's the bottom line, right?
Dallas enjoyed the 10th most power play opportunities in hockey during the season (262 attempts), and scored the second most goals (58). Just to pile on a little bit, the Stars had the 18th highest (read: bottom half of the league) time spent on the power play. This is something you would expect to see from a good power play: when they are on the job, they aren't on it long.
Assistant coach and the guy in charge of Dallas' special teams, Curt Fraser, employed two distinct units on the power play this season. The first unit was typically packed full of superstars like Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza. This crew generally had four forwards and one defensemen with John Klingberg playing quarterback as the lone defenseman. The second unit was a more traditional three forwards and two defensemen setup, and Fraser used this group to rotate in "anyone who was hot". Name a random Dallas Star, and he probably spent time on the second power play.
There are obviously pros and cons to loading up one of your power play units and then making the unwashed masses skate the final 30-45 seconds of your time with the man advantage. That wasn't the issue, but you could make a pretty good argument that the second unit was an afterthought to the team's detriment late in the season. Overall though, it is hard to argue with the success and efficiency of the groups as a whole throughout the season.
At the best of times, the Dallas Stars were unstoppable on the power play. Dallas had the ability to spread teams uncomfortably wide and deep. Seguin's looming presence on the left faceoff circle gave room to Spezza at the half wall, and Jamie Benn was free to peak out from behind the net as he pleased. It was a beautiful song when it was singing, perfectly mixing passes and shot attempts.
Spezza's ability to carry the zone from a drop pass was probably the most underrated reason behind the Stars' success. When Spezza was missing, or when the second unit tried to use the same strategy, it was clear how difficult Spezza's job was. Benn even struggled to enter the zone off of the drop pass. It is not an easy thing to do, but Spezza seemed to do it with ease.
From a high level, the Stars were really good on the power play this year. It is when you start to dig beneath the surface that you find some interesting anomalies. For instance, Dallas spent exactly 3:44 seconds with a 5-on-3 advantage this season, good for 26th in the league. The Stars scored 4 goals in those ~4 minutes, far and away the highest GF/60 with a 5-on-3 edge in manpower.
It is no secret that the Stars ended up surrendering the most short handed goals in the NHL this year. On a game to game basis it can be crippling. The damage done by the shorthanded goals given up really jumps off the page.
Goal differential on the power play is not a stat that is looked at often. Most of the time, it is viewed as a one-sided contest. For the same reason you don't look too hard at Corsi stats while a team is on the man advantage, a slaughter is supposed to happen. But Dallas gave up 15 shorthanded goals this season. Fifteen.
The way power plays are evaluated when you hear, "Dallas had the fourth best power play in hockey" is quite simply power play goals divided by power play attempts. But given the Stars propensity to allow shorties, it felt insufficient. Using Excel (stay with me), I added in the shorthanded goals given up next to every team in the league, and subtracted that from total power play goals scored. Essentially creating a goal-differential on the power play, then I divided that number by each team's power play attempts.
See where I am going with this?
The Dallas Stars power play goes from the fourth best unit in the league, to the 13th. Not a catastrophic fall, but at the very least it splashes some cold water in your face. Just as a point of reference, using this metric (factoring in SHG against), Montreal had an adjusted power play efficiency of 11.97% this year (259 opportunities, 42 goals for, 11 goals against).
The shorthanded goals were a problem, but it is part of the fire you're playing with in such a high-risk high-reward system. Sometimes bad things happen. Generally, the team was able to live with the mistakes in an effort to make the fantastic play. Gotta dance with the one that brought you, I believe the saying is.
How Can They Improve Next Year?
You could copy and paste this sentence to evaluate most teams throughout a season, but the Stars' power play was hot and cold this year. The hot streaks saw the team win games on the backs of their man advantage, and the cold streaks saw the team get outscored while on the power play in January.
The description of the Dallas Stars power play could be summed up in one word: streaky.
Unfortunately for Dallas, that streaky power play was on a downswing in the playoffs. The Stars converted only 15.4 percent of their opportunities in the postseason, good for 11th out of 16 teams. Needless to say it wasn't a good time to get cold. Credit the Blues (at the time, the playoffs' most efficient penalty killers) and Wild, but it is hard to not attribute at least part of the Stars' woes to the absence of Tyler Seguin.
What is the cure for a streaky power play?
Personnel deployment will always be the easiest way to cure deficiencies. For starters, putting Spezza, Patrick Eaves, and Patrick Sharp on the second unit and having two balanced units would distribute risk. When all of the superstars are on one unit, naturally the second unit is going to struggle with the imbalance of power. And when that first unit struggles, the team can get frighteningly cold (see January).
Expanding on the personnel, are there players that will be available that would help the team's power play outside of the organization?
Radim Vrbata, if found at the right price, would certainly make the second unit more dangerous. Either playing there himself, or allowing Patrick Eaves to move to the the second power play. Fan favorite Loui Eriksson would add a level of responsibility to the group.
Keith Yandle's name is hard to ignore, because it would be difficult to assemble a better 1-2 power play quarterback combination than Klingberg and Yandle. But at what cost would Jim Nill give him a chance? And would he really be better than Alex Goligoski? On the power play, probably. At even strength, probably not.
The umbrella first unit was guilty at times of being too cute. The second unit dumped the puck in far too often, only to have no one go retrieve it. Sometimes it felt like five guys trying to make sure someone else scored. But all of these complaints are on a micro level.
It isn't hard to get caught up in an individual failed attempt when the team needed a goal. But over 262 attempts this season, the unit was dangerous and struck fear into the hearts of coaches everywhere.
But just as my coach used to scream at us during spring football, "if you aren't getting better you are getting worse". What changes, if any, would you make to the Stars power play for next season?