Losing a two goal lead to the Colorado Avalanche, sending the contest into overtime, which John Klingberg scored in but that the NHL didn't count because Klingberg's skates didn't have enough subatomic particle interaction with the ice, which forced a shootout sounds about right when talking the 2016-2017 Dallas Stars season.
Sure, Dallas won, but it was another display of the hockey gods' cruelty; even in victory, Dallas had to be reminded of something rotten.
Talking about this Dallas team like a Thrashers squad is disorienting. Everything about Dallas' numbers last season suggested this wasn't a Flock of Seagulls. They had elite possession numbers, and lower than you might think shooting percentage, and an unfortunate PDO.
Then like a Teddy KGB Oreo in a losing game of poker, the once edible chocolate edifice came crumbling down. Dallas’ 30 point decline from one season to the next, as Mike Heika noted, is 14th all time in historical meltdowns. Let’s revisit the hits one more time because what Stars fan doesn’t feel like a masochist at this point?
Jan Sparks What Hell Hath Wrought
Mattias Janmark won't play this season, but hopefully he'll be good to go for next season. pic.twitter.com/beB87DyC9Y— Amanda (@ShatteredLensTX) March 23, 2017
It started during the summer, and continued on what felt like a nightly basis like everyone on the roster was taking too many naps on Elm Street. Mattias Janmark, Ales Hemsky, Patrick Sharp for long stretches, Valeri Nichushkin to Russia...
That was the guts of Dallas' secondary scoring.
I've seen people argue that injuries were just an "excuse". A position as tenable a flat earth theory, and one we already have a corollary with when looking at Tampa Bay. It's not just about the injuries themselves.
It's about the role of the substitutes. As a former substitute teacher, I consider myself an expert. For example, if I took over a biology or English class, chances are, my temporary class would still benefit given my experience in both. If a kid asked a question, I could bring the academic ruckus like Tom Berenger, minus the part where he uses a crumpled soda can as a weapon against delinquency of course. But any other topic, and I was as useful as Latino Siri.
My point being, injuries have a cascading effect. It’s not just the stress on the system, but a stress on those unequipped to assume roles in a system that demands precision over improvisation.
It's why Jason Spezza spent over 100 minutes each with Lauri Korpikoski and Antoine Roussel. Or why Tyler Seguin got sandwiched between Remi Elie and Brett Ritchie down the stretch. These might be fun campfire stories for hockey commentary about "opportunities", but that Seguin line was dreadful in shot attempt differential (second worst among trios with at least 50 minutes of ice time), and I'll just assume that you, the educated reader, can figure out whether Spezza benefited from having Korpikoski on his wing or not.
It also goes a long way helping explain why it's silly to throw Dallas' best players under the bus for not being their best players.
Bad News and Bad Bears
Having said that, injuries are not some all-encompassing explanation for everything that went wrong.
Early in the season, there were two players who did not look like themselves with or without being anchored by questionable line mates: Jamie Benn and John Klingberg.
Benn is typically the hard charging power forward who seems most comfortable when he's dominating physically. This was not the case this season. In fact, he only had 89 hits this season compared to 156 last season. Are hits at all useful as a stat? Not unless you want to know who doesn't have the puck often in my estimation. Does it suggest Benn wasn't his usual self? I think so.
Then there's Klingberg, who wasn't just lost in the first month, but seemed to forget his skills too. I recall several moments in those first few weeks where Klingberg struggled just to stay on his skates without doing the Bambi shuffle. It was weird, unfortunate, and clearly not indicative of his general skill.
Nonetheless, the loss of Alex Goligoski clearly had an effect on the 24 year old Swede early on. I don't consider Goligoski the missing link or anything. Klingberg and Goose, as I noted in my analysis of the Klingberg-Lindell pairing, were dreadful at preventing scoring chances against. But when two of your best players struggle out the gate, you’re battling uphill.
Eaves of Reduction
Dearest Annabelle, I have been forced to battle alongside the most evil of men. Pray for my safety, I hope to return soon https://t.co/qVXeUY5rIM— Lauren Lyssy (@LLphotography91) February 25, 2017
When it became obvious that Dallas was en route to missing the playoffs, Jim Nill offloaded what he could. The trade deadline itself was quiet given the expansion coming up. Nill got a good return for Patrick Eaves, and a grab bag for players like Johnny Oduya and Korpikoski. Given Sharp’s injury, the deadline could have been better, but in a season full of disappointments, it’s hard to lament what might have been. It’s not like Dallas was offering up Dalmore Scotch to a thirsty Hemingway.
Only One Kid is Alright so Stop Using This Writing Device
Julius Honka-DAL is good at hockey pic.twitter.com/B84u8BS3Hm— (((Corey Pronman))) (@coreypronman) March 20, 2017
Okay, I’m being a little hyperbolic. But not really.
It’s time for Dallas to figure out who’s a sunk cost and who is the future. Nill’s a good GM, but his biggest mistake was the sudden trust of a nesting doll of blueline journeymen he was willing to sacrifice assets for just so they wouldn’t play over Kris Russell. Remember?
Julius Honka, on the other hand, is every bit as advertised. Just ask everyone Arizona had on ice in overtime. Nill has a tough, but clear gameplan for fixing the blueline: get Honka and Klingberg proper partners. I’m a big (lone?) believer in giving Stephen Johns a look on his offside in the top four. Two righties is atypical, but Dallas might be best served simply putting its best defensemen together. If not, there’s always trade, and Dallas is finally developing the pieces to get what they need.
There were other bright spots. Namely Devin Shore. His possession stats are a real concern, but his assist rate per hour suggests promise. Remi Elie and Gemel Smith offered bottom six speed and skill. Even Brett Ritchie quietly topped Dallas in goals per hour at even strength. Unfortunately it was also the best Dallas’ “secondary scoring” could offer, so as with everything else this season, caveats abound. Jason Dickinson and Denis Gurianov deserve Nill’s trust, and hopefully Nill can ensure there’s room for them when they’re ready instead of buying out the entire rental market.
Putsch Cassidy and the Special Teams Skid
That last stat: In the last 20 NHL seasons, the '16-17 Stars are 561st of 561 seasons for Penalty Kill at 73.4%. #NotGreatBob— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) March 1, 2017
Alot of things went wrong for Dallas this season, but one of their biggest flaws was one well within their control: special teams. Dallas ended up the worst team on the PK in 20 years, and they probably have a top ten spot in the NHL’s lifetime if the NHL actually listed proper stats before 1985. If there’s one thing the NHL is committed to, it’s being dragged kicking and screaming towards trying to promote their own product.
When Ruff came in, he was sort of the antithesis of what I had been warned he was. He trusted 18 year old rookie Nichuhskin in prime minutes (my favorite non-stat is that Dallas has made the playoffs everytime Nuke has played a full season in victory green). He played a progressive north/south style, and even seemed to enjoy his stats. Every season until now, the product on ice was effective. The 2014-2015 season seemed to hinge more on Lindback and Lehtonen than Ruff’s ability to coordinate 18 men to possess the puck efficiently.
I still think Ruff is a good coach. I think his debut was a success in every way given the roster he had, and if Seguin had been healthy last season, Ruff might be viewed differently. Goaltending tends to sculpt our picture of good coaching, and Ruff has never had consistent backup in this regard. Does the style he coached exacerbate bad goaltending? Perhaps, but it’s probably better to have 1 player, like the goalie, adjust to a system rather than have 18 players adjust to one.
Amusingly, Ruff did exactly this. But like trying to pass three toddlers stacked in a trench coat as an adult, Dallas had less points in the second half of the season than the first, when they played ‘better defense’ at the cost of offense.
The players played on edge, and I feel like Ruff coached on edge as a result. Despite feeling like Ruff deserves the benefit of the doubt, he unquestionably contributed to many of the team’s problems. The treatment of Stephen Johns and Cody Eakin are, at least in the eyes of this critic, unforgivable for drastically different reasons. You’d be hard pressed to list a single team who has a player with 11 points logging the most minutes of all forwards. Conversely, it’s hard to think of Johns, previously a staple in the top four when the games held the highest stakes, as some sudden liability except as a player whose confidence was shaken by a coach whose voice was clearly lost in the locker room at some point.
You deserved better, Stars fans. A kickstarter for the hockey gods to hear your puck prayers is only an online pledge away.