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Dallas Stars 2015-16 Season in Review: The Penalty Kill

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There were some skeletons in the closet of the Stars' tenth ranked penalty kill.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams are important in hockey. The Dallas Stars were top ten in penalty killing (10th) and power play efficiency (4th) in the regular season, and over 82 games that means something. Today, we examine the penalty kill in Dallas. What worked? What didn't? How can they improve?

The Good

For starters, the penalty kill ended the year top 10 in the league. From March 1st to the end of the regular season (about 18 games), the Dallas Stars were the best penalty killing unit in hockey. The team allowed four power play goals in 56 attempts over that time killing off a ridiculous 92.8 percent of their opportunities. This is a penalty killing evaluation, but it is worth mentioning that over the same time period, the power play was second in the league.

Dallas was tied for third in the NHL scoring 10 shorthanded goals. This stat tends to regress towards the mean from year to year, but the Stars' kill was scary.

There were several things that contributed to the Stars finding their groove when they were outnumbered. David Castillo posted an article on April 12th of this year outlining the (at the time) recent success the team was enjoying on the kill. I highly encourage everyone to go back through David's article, because it is really good stuff.

To summarize, the team used a combination of personnel deployment and a change in strategy to turn their season around on the kill. Without getting into the weeds, Radek Faksa was a savior. His underlying numbers said he should have been on the PK long before Ruff trusted him, but Faksa did not disappoint when given the opportunity. His faceoff percentage and shot blocking ability stabilized his pairing with Antoine Roussel. The two made beautiful music together on the kill. Kris Russel's ability to suppress shots was also valuable to the team while he was available.

In combination with the infusion of new personnel, the Stars played started to be more aggressive. The team was adept at attacking from the kill, and used that to their advantage. It is hard to crash the net with four players knowing that Jamie Benn and Cody Eakin were going to be off on a 2 on 1 if the power play missed.

The new found aggressiveness and player deployment vaulted the Stars kill from 24th to 10th from March 1st to the end of the year.

The Bad

The bad isn't too hard to find if you re-read the last sentence of "The Good" section. From start of the season through March 1st, the Stars were the 24th ranked penalty kill in the league at 78.8 percent. October to March is no small sample size. The Stars were pathetic on the kill for almost 5 months of the season.

In January, at the peak of its ineptitude, David wrote an article about the hapless penalty kill. David uses film and still frames to explain to us lay-people the issues with the kill at the time. Again, please go read that because it gives great insight into the X's and O's struggle the team was fighting for most of the year.

In some ways the bad part of the kill was just the inverse of when the team picked it up after March 1st. There was no pressure, no formation discipline, no shot blocking, and it looked like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off.

The playoff Stars penalty kill, when the team needed it the most, was especially awful. Out of 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs, the Stars were the 4th worst unit. The team managed to successfully defend only 73.7 percent of opponents' power plays.

All of this begs the question, what happened? Is this a good unit that struggled in late April and May? Or is the Stars' PK a bad unit that had a great finish to the regular season?

Sample sizes alone tell us that 6-plus months of work indicates a trend, and 6 weeks is an anomaly. The Stars penalty kill was completely terrible for 6 months, and other worldly for 6 weeks. You can decide for yourself.

The pieces were all there for the team to continue their run of success into the postseason. But as every couch-GM knows, the game changes in the playoffs. Teams take it up a notch. Guys grip the stick a little bit tighter. I can't help but wonder if the gravity of the playoffs took some of the aggressive edge off of the kill that had been so successful to close the year.

Curt Fraser has two great things on his resume from the season. His team's penalty kill was 10th in the league, and his power play was 4th. But therein lies the problem with looking at season's this way. The penalty kill torpedoed a lot of games for the Stars this season. Does Fraser get another chance to prove he can make March 1st through April 15th stick? Probably.

How can the team improve?

There is a movement among readers that want to see a change in the coaching of Dallas' special teams. To that I would respond, it isn't going to happen. The way professional sports work no one is getting replaced after icing two top 10 special teams units. It just isn't the world we live in.

The encouraging part of this story writes itself. For an extended period of time, using the personnel already on the team (exception: three weeks of Russell), the Stars' PK was absolutely dominant. And a large portion of that credit must go to the change in the mindset of the coaching staff. Aggressiveness, speed, and formation discipline were instituted and executed by the players. Talking about changes that can be made? You know, other than just doing that more, it gets a bit more dicey.

Good penalty killers are hard to find, especially when you are talking about an aggressive kill that Dallas will hope to use. Loui Eriksson would be a player that could help the power play and the penalty kill. Eriksson playing on the kill next to Faksa would be incredible.

It's the same conversation every time a free agent is mentioned. (1) How. Much. Money. (2) How. Many. Years. Does Eriksson get $5 million a year for 3 years? Or does he get $7 million for 4 years? Those are different scenarios entirely. I have little doubt that given his skill on special teams and his defensive responsibility, if Eriksson is available at the right price Jim Nill will give him a long hard look.

Dan Hamhuis has been a reliable penalty killer. The Stars already made a move for him at the trade deadline. Does Nill make another run at Hamhuis to shore up an oft-leaky penalty kill?

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The Stars' season ended two weeks ago for a lot of reasons. But it would be hard to argue that the penalty kill (or lack thereof) was not one of the main problems the team had in the postseason run. The success was there for the last six weeks of the season, but what will the team do to ensure that success becomes the trend rather than the anomaly?

What would you do to improve the Stars penalty kill?