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Dallas Stars Defy Definition

How did the Stars wind up with top-of-the-league defense and little offense to show for it? What can February tell us about the team as a whole?

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Dallas Stars
Ben Bishop is currently fourth in the league with five shutouts.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Stars are 12th in the league in total points since the start of February (20 points in 15 games as of today). Notably, they’re behind the Nashville Predators (28 points, first in the league), the Minnesota Wild (22 points, seventh in the league), and now just one point ahead of the Winnipeg Jets. The teams ahead are either the league’s acknowledged elite (Nashville, Tampa Bay, Boston) or in the midst of impressive winning streaks (Philadelphia, Florida). The teams beneath are either fading or have already faded (smell ya later, Chicago), leaving Dallas lumped in with the likes of Pittsburgh, San Jose, and Vegas. That feels - about right, honestly.

For the record, February was not an arbitrary decision. Instead, it was a month that seemed to perfectly reflect the 2017-2018 Dallas Stars. During that stretch, the Stars took care of business against the likes of Arizona (4-1) and Chicago (4-2), stole games against Calgary (2-0) and St. Louis (2-1), gave a game away against Tampa Bay (4-5), got robbed by Ducks (0-2), mobbed by Canucks (0-6), bombed by Jets (3-5), and chomped by Sharks (2-5). Oh, by the way, they also beat last year’s champs (4-3), blanked the Kings (2-0), and kicked dirt a second time on the reeling Blues in OT (3-2).

Go ahead, tell me what any of that means. I dare you.

Behind the wins and losses, Dallas experienced a dramatic drop in offense. Their 37 goals for is better than just the New York Rangers and aforementioned Blues. Their “power play”, meanwhile, has been fixed firmly in famine mode (seven goals - 27th in the league, 17.1% - 25th in the league, 41 opportunities - 24th in the league). Seriously, if you want to check on the Dallas offense, find the stats page and scroll down. Keep scrolling.

Thankfully, the power outage has been counterbalanced by superb defensive play. During the same stretch the Stars have surrendered just 34 goals (best in the league), and have killed penalties at a 90% clip (also best in the league). Think about that, the Stars are the best defensive team in the league by at least two important metrics, and have managed just a 9-4-0-1 record over that stretch. There is zero margin for error.

Again, that feels about right, doesn’t it? They’re pretty good. Excellent by some metrics, deficient by others, and mostly on track (sort of) to make the playoffs. With the trade deadline passed, it’s unlikely the status quo is going to do much changing. These are the guys, they will remain the guys, in some configuration. Does that mean the Dallas Stars are having a good season? A bad one?

Al Davis would probably balk. As constituted, this year’s team feels a little too unbalanced to be considered a true contender. If the goal is to win, they’re likely to fall short. By that same metric, the Stars’ lack of action at the trade deadline is another negative mark. The team did not do anything to meaningfully enhance their ability to lift the Stanley Cup. If that’s your success metric, the answer is pretty straightforward.

Is that fair, though? Do 30 teams really fail every season?

Some would argue no. The Stars of recent memory have not been a stellar defensive team. They were characterized by an unsettled crease and over-stuffed defensive rotation. Signing Ben Bishop took care of public enemy number one. Coaching and attrition, meanwhile, seem to have done wonders for the backline.

Instead of a Stanley Cup, let’s use last year’s Stars as a benchmark. John Klingberg continues to be amazing, and Esa Lindell is rewarding last season’s faith every night. More critically, Stephen Johns has emerged from the wilderness to become a serious, positive factor on the Stars backline. Throw in the Marc Methot signing, continued strong play from Dan Hamhuis, and Greg Pateryn. Ben Bishop has had more “vs. Calgary” games than “vs. Tampa Bay” games this season, and Kari Lehtonen might be Dallas’ first consistent backup goaltender since Mike Smith.

There’s also the small matter of Tyler Seguin. He was always dynamite offensively, but the growth he’s exhibited in his overall game this season might be enough of a win by itself. Stars fans expect the goals, and so far, Seguin has not disappointed. As of Monday morning he sits third in the NHL in goals (36, behind Evgeni Malkin’s 37 and Alexander Ovechkin’s 40) and fourth in power play goals (12). However, Seguin has also become a factor on the penalty kill. Among Stars forwards, only Radek Faksa (1:56), Martin Hanzal (1:43), and Tyler Pitlick (1:40) average more than Seguin’s 1:34 short-handed TOI.

So the Stars maybe punt a season. Winger help, either through free agency or the Stars’ minor league system, would go a long way to making this team a true contender, as would the early arrival of Miro Heiskanen (and if you don’t think that’s a possibility, follow Derek on Twitter). You don’t want to leave the cake in the oven too long, but you don’t want to take it out too early either, in other words. From a certain point of view going from playoff watching to wild card to contender would represent a big win.

The Stars just have to stick the landing. That means figuring out what their center position looks like moving forward. Is Martin Hanzal going to be an injury problem? Are they going to find the right slot for Jason Spezza? How far up the lineup is Faksa able to move? In addition to whatever they do on the ice, you have to think part of what Dallas needs to accomplish with the rest of this season is finding a better feel for their forward group.

If things break right, they’re the team that throttled Los Angeles. If things break down, it’s the squad that struggled against Winnipeg. Standards in the Central Division are high, but maybe that’s a good thing. The Dallas Stars certainly have every opportunity to compare themselves against the league’s very best.