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Overreaction and Undercorrection: Ken Hitchcock’s Stars Improving Despite Ugly Special Teams Play

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The Stars apparently spent all their power play dollars on Halloween candy.

Dallas Stars v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Hi there! It is December 15th, and Vegas is two points shy of leading the Western Conference, the Penguins are out of a playoff spot, the Devils are keeping pace with the Capitals, and the Stars are just, just barely, in the 8th and final playoff spot in the West. We are primarily concerned with that last one.

You can couch the discussion in a couple of ways. Things are dreadful because the Stars ought to be better! Or, things are Good because they could be much worse! The middle way is usually the safest, but then again, middling is hardly a complimentary word, isn’t it? Nobody takes pride in a team that isn’t excellent, and pride is kind of the point of rooting for a team. Also beer sometimes. Mostly pride!

Ken Hitchcock was on the Ticket yesterday with Bob and Dan, and you should really, really listen to the interview. Hitch talks about his early years, his philosophy about teaching rather than coaching, and he even tosses out a nugget I questioned a bit about how the Stars were relying on special teams to start the year, but weren’t very good 5v5, which is an odd thing to say, but you can sort of see how a coach might not “like” his team doing so much scoring on the power play, even if they should have been scoring more at 5v5 as well, given their performance with the puck:

Things were good!

Through 10 games, the Stars had scored nine of their 30 goals on the power play, and then things cratered a bit team-wide. But in their last 10 games, the Stars have scored 35 goals, and 34 of those have come at even strength.

Things have rebounded a bit lately, as we’ve seen, though it’s also just barely been enough to keep the Stars clinging to playoff position. So, yes, Hitch is right in that his team isn’t just relying on special teams any more, but that’s also because they haven’t been able to rely on them at all.

The power play, by the way, is still absolutely cratered, mired in a 1-for-35 slump, as we said. The Stars are 8-4-0 in their last 12 games despite going 78% on the PK (not great) and 3% (not great-er) on the power play. These are bad numbers, but special teams are weird. You might say the Stars have been fantastic and terrible this year at uneven strength, and you’d be correct! As of today, the Stars rank 16th in both power play and penalty kill percentage, which seems right for how good they were, and how bad they’ve been.

The improved 5v5 play recently is encouraging, although it’s odd to see it happening in vastly different ways that it did early in the year. The lines are different, and the Stars are much more defensively stout, but also less lethal. If you’re a “defense wins ‘ships!” sort of person, perhaps this is validating to you. If you think the Stars are hamstringing themselves but managing to eke out wins (three of those eight victories recently came after 60 minutes), you may likewise feel reassured. We really don’t know, but Ken Hitchcock certainly seems to think there is more buy-in, more dedication, and more “coaching coming from the players” (to paraphrase) than there was earlier.

For once, I’m not going to talk about line combinations, both because David and Wes have recently written good stuff about them, and because everyone’s going to keep talking about them regardless of what I blather on about here. But in a broad, systemic way, the Stars are getting it done in spite of themselves on special teams. That’s comforting, as far as it goes, but I can’t also help but hope the Stars could be much better than this. A 16th-ranked power play should be scoring in every five or six opportunities, not every 35. And a 16th-ranked penalty kill should at least be keeping you in games.

So, you might say the Stars just need to take fewer penalties, and that’s always true. But as long as we’re playing with tiny sample sizes, how about this: the Stars this year are 8-4-1 when allowing four or more power plays to the other team. Well, huh.

I guess what we’re left with is this: the Stars have gone 7-3 in their last 10 despite being bad at special teams, and they were 5-5 to start the season despite being good at special teams. In both stretches, they’ve been good at 5v5 play. Goaltending is helpful, too.

We still don’t know what these Stars are, but for now, it’s nice to know they can win games despite losing some of the battles within them. Maybe that’s what moxie is all about.