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Afterwords: Everything Is Beleaguered in New Jersey

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The Stars are officially a .500 team.

Dallas Stars v New Jersey Devils Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

3-0 may not have felt like a blowout, but losing two games by a combined 7-1 score is being effectively blown away. Or maybe, ineffectively?

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Through six games, the Stars have three goals from players other than the big four. Connor Carrick, Devin Shore, and Radek Faksa (empty net) each have a single goal, and that’s it. Which, let’s face it, is not going to quiet the questions about secondary scoring you’ve been hearing since last year.

On a road trip to Ottawa (who are bad) and New Jersey (who both are good and have been playing above their heads this year), the Stars amassed but one goal: a slick Jason Spezza nutmeg to John Klingberg, who beat Craig Anderson over the blocker.

We could go through all the chances in these games, but for this shorter version of Afterwords, I’d rather ponder a few key questions:

1) Is Jason Spezza ever going to start finishing chances this season?

He had some great ones in Jersey, including a full-fledged breakaway (that he created with a nice pickoff) that he either missed wide or that Keith Kinkaid got a stick on (it was tough to tell which from my angle on the old cathode ray tube).

If you’re Jim Montgomery, this has to be frustrating. Jason Spezza is still clearly a player that does things your team needs. Spezza can lug the puck into the zone on the power play, create great chances with his elite passing, and stickhandle with the best of them to set up his linemates.

And yet, Spezza is sitting on zero goals six games into the season, along with eight other forwards on the team.

The Stars don’t have much of a choice here: they have to be patient, because they don’t have any other playmakers below Spezza ready to take his spot. And really, would we even be this frustrated if Val Nichushkin, or Brett Ritchie, or Tyler Pitlick, or Gemel Smith, or Roope Hintz, et. al. had converted one or more of their own chances?

Bill James said it best:

There’s not arguing that Spezza has been trending down from his peak as a 30-goal scorer (as nearly every player who hits 30 in his thirties will do) in the last couple of years, but getting mad at the guy who’s close-but-not-quite seems to be a convenient scapegoat for the bigger problem in the bottom-nine forward group: lack of scoring/playmaking talent in general.

Sure, you can talk about putting Pitlick or Guryanov or Janmark or someone in more favorable positions, but the mere fact that we’re fantasizing about who would score more on the ideal second line is a searing indictment of this team’s scoring when you get beyond the top end. If the Stars don’t start proving they can convert chances—and they’ve had chances, created and gifted—throughout the lineup with more frequency in the next ten games or so, don’t be surprised if a new face shows up.

2) Can Miro Heiskanen and/or Julius Honka bring some potency to the bottom two defense pairings?

In my most humble opinion, these players have already answered this: Miro Heiskanen was dynamite in his first couple of games, and has since slowed down a tick, but is undoubtedly fitting in nicely as the #3 defenseman on this team. Heiskanen is averaging almost 21 minutes a night as a rookie who is 19 years old. That’s right up there with Shayne Ghostisbehere, Dougie Hamilton, and Morgan Rielly.

Julius Honka, while more polarizing, has also been quite solid in his contributions since getting into the lineup, a soft cross checking call and two mistakes by Marc Methot notwithstanding. Honka was one of the livelier players on a sluggish Stars team Tuesday, and he was getting pucks to the net as much as anyone without giving up any grade-A chances against.

Miro Heiskanen is 5th on the team in attempted shots, and Julius Honka is on a similar pace in fewer games. Both players are solidly positive play-drivers, despite neither getting especially sheltered in the offensive zone, with Honka in particular getting more responsibility in the defensive end than in the last year or two.

Honka doesn’t need to be a superstar to make the Stars better, but he and Heiskanen have softened the loss of Stephen Johns (for however long) quite considerably, just by getting pucks moving north and into the hands of forwards in space.

3) Was Gemel Smith and Brett Ritchie’s collision before the stickless Anton Khudobin was scored upon a sort of ghastly portent?

It sure was in the moment, yeah.

4) Is John Klingberg trying to do everything?

Yes, and it’s hard to blame him when the bottom half of the lineup is doing nearly nothing as the team’s 3-1 start evaporates.

5) Can John Klingberg do everything?

He might be able to, but let’s not try to find out two seasons in a row.

(But yes.)

6) Jamie Benn took a big hit in Ottawa, then voluntarily took (and gave) a few face punches in New Jersey. Considering Benn has looked reinvigorated this year, should we be concerned about this?

I am not going to tell Jamie Benn to chill, because probably if NHL coaches are perhaps too scared to do that, I definitely am too scared to do that.

7) We need to blame someone for the Stars being 3-3. Who can we blame?

You can blame Radulov for some bad penalties this season, or you can blame Jim Nill for not acquiring Max Pacioretty for Ondrej Vala and a 4th-round pick, like we all suggested he do in the offseason. You can blame Esa Lindell for scoring zero goals so far, or you can blame Les Jackson for drafting or developing badly-but-effectively, the way a few other NHL clubs have drafted (and they all draft badly, sometimes) and developed (you haven’t heard about the development issues with other clubs, because those players never gave you a reason to).

But ultimately, I think the truth is this: the Stars beat Winnipeg, Arizona, and Anaheim. They lost to Ottawa, Jersey, and Toronto. There’s enough there to make hay with either way, but the Stars aren’t getting crushed by any of these teams. They’re getting beaten to a few pucks here and there, and their offensive system isn’t penetrating the slot enough against stout defensive clubs. And when it does get into the high-danger areas a bit, like it did in Jersey, the Stars have had trouble capitalizing.

Stop missing the net, would be some good advice for NHL players. Has anyone thought to tell them that yet?

8) So, wait, are the Stars going to struggle against boring teams, and be a house afire against more uptempo teams? Are they going to go to overtime against Chicago tied at nine goals apiece at some point this season?

Don’t bet on sports, ever. It’s foolish and unpredictable, and the house is a better predictor than you are, unless you get a hot tip from a slick ol’ insider like *points both thumbs at self*, so yes, you should definitely bet five thousand dollars on this exact thing happening.

9) Why are the Stars also .500 in penalties drawn and taken?

Because the Stars have been equal parts good and bad so far this season, you knucklehead.

10) Is losing the second game of a back-to-back pretty common with your backup goalie in and everything?

I mean, “common” would be a nice change from five years ago’s “ineluctable.”

11) Which was more foolhardy: John Klingberg not icing the puck so Khudobin could get a stick, or Taylor Hall tossing the puck into the bench for a delay of game penalty to negate a 5-on-3?

Yes.

12) Wait, but those are both world-class players. Surely you’re not saying they made a mistake?!

You’re right, my fault. Obviously we should blame *checks fan Twitter discussion from both teams* uh, Ben Lovejoy and Roman Polák for putting their teammates in such compromising positions.

13) Please promise me that Dallas won’t pull this nonsense when Minnesota come to town Friday.

That’s not a question.

(But, I mean, Minnesota hockey teams have always done quite poorly when they travel to Dallas, with the exception of the one team that came here in order to win a cup.)

14) Losing to New Jersey? Seriously?

New Jersey really did play well tonight. It probably helps to be rested and playing a tired team—it definitely helps, I mean—but New Jersey has beaten San Jose, and they embarrassed the defending champs 6-0. The Stars can afford to lose games to good teams. All teams do. It’s the games against middling teams that really show your true colors, and so far, the Stars have lost to Toronto (excusable) and the Devils (everyone has, so far!) and the Senators (I don’t want to read about hockey anymore, what’s on the old youtube these days). A bit early for any sort of verdict, but it’s safe to say early returns are like cookie dough with Pop Rocks: exciting but mixed.

15) Is it time to panic? Are all of my complaints now validated because the Stars are no longer atop the league like they were two games in?

It’s never time to panic until the team starts to panic. So far, they seem pretty annoyed, but not quite desperate (the bad sort of desperate, I mean). Let’s check back around game 20 for a real assessment, then have ourselves a nice, orderly panic at that time as scheduled.