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Powerful Ineptitude: Taking a Look at the Stars’ Lackluster Power Play

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Head coach Jim Montgomery blames the players, but it’s coaching decisions that are truly holding back the roster’s special teams.

St Louis Blues v Dallas Stars Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

You’ve probably seen it, but this is what Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery had to say following Saturday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins:

Robert put it best when he said that these comments are fine “in a vacuum.” In a game against one of the best teams in the NHL, you need your top players to produce, and going 0-3 and a shorthanded goal against is not what any team wants to see from their power play.

The problem is that this wasn’t just a “bad game” for the Stars’ man-advantage. It was probably one of their worst, but the Stars’ power play has been struggling all season long:

The Stars’ rapid decline in 5-on-4 goals for throughout the season

Now before we jump into the chart, let’s clarify some things. The Stars’ power play isn’t bad. They are 18.65% with the man advantage, which is good for 17th in the NHL, or average. The issue is that “average” isn’t good enough. For starters, the Stars’ are tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the least number of power plays in the league (193). The difference between the two teams is that the Maple Leafs make their opportunities count — they rank seventh in the NHL with a 22.28 PP% — while the Stars do not.

You could make the argument that Toronto has some elite scoring talent at their disposal, but so does Dallas. Most teams would kill for a unit consisting of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, and John Klingberg. That’s a lineup that should be near the top of the league in power play goals. And for a short time, they were.

While it’s a distant memory by now, you can look at the above chart and see how the Stars started off with a very strong power play unit. It quickly started to trend downwards, but it didn’t reach a painfully low level until mid-to-late November, which is non-coincidentally around when Klingberg got injured.

It’s a small sample size, but this early-season success — and honestly just common sense — shows that the team’s top scorers aren’t somehow allergic to power play success. So what happened to a unit that looked so promising early on?

I’m definitely over-simplifying things, but the Stars’ power play struggles can be broken down into two key issues: shots generated and player usage.

Shots/60, Goals/100 shots, and player usage for the Stars’ power play

As you can see, the Stars were shooting more on the power play at the beginning of the year than at any other time during the season. When the shots started to go down, scoring did as well. When Klingberg was injured, the shots for reached season-low levels. When he returned, shots received a nice bump and scoring did as well.

It’s worth noting that there are two noticeable periods where shot frequency did not change, but scoring rates did increase. Taking a look at the player usage, the surge in late November could be attributed to both Devin Shore — who was playing quite well at the time — and, surprisingly, Martin Hanzal. Meanwhile, the surge in late February coincides nicely with Roope Hintz’ sudden emergence as a true top-six scoring option.

Those bumps are nice and all, but they were only bumps for a reason. The underlying problem of not enough shots being generated wasn’t fixed. Compare the shot charts of Dallas and Toronto on the power play, and it's easy to see why one team is ranked ten spots above the other:

Dallas (left) is ranked 17th on the PP, while Toronto (right) is ranked 7th

Let’s go back to the Stars’ player usage on the power play. As you can see from the graph, one player began the season with as much power play time as Jamie Benn, but gradually saw his usage decrease, even after Klingberg was injured. Coincidentally (or not), the Stars’ power play goals started to drop at a similar rate, then picked up again when his playing time came back up, and then bottomed out when it went back down once more.

The player in question? Jason Spezza. And note that this was long before the coaching staff apparently soured on the veteran center. Right from the beginning, Spezza’s power play time was decreased even though he was doing extremely well on the top unit. Why? It seems that the coaches wanted Spezza to “boost” the struggling second unit, and saw him as the best player to move down. This is, of course, a ridiculous strategy — the goal should be to ice one amazing power play unit, not two good or average units — but that’s a topic for another time.

The point is, Spezza’s started getting less power play time, and the time he did get was with the Stars’ secondary scoring options, who are more or less non-existent. But despite that, he still continued to produce well on the second unit — out of all Dallas skaters with at least 10 games played, Spezza’s GF/60 on the man-advantage is the highest at 9.0.

Stars’ skaters ranked by GF/60 on the power play, 10+ GP

Even though he’s slowed down with age and is no longer worth $7.5 million, Spezza’s still a top-shelf playmaker and thus a vital power play asset. Yet the Jim Montgomery and the Stars coaching staff has decided to start scratching him because it’s “what’s best for the team.” And then when said team struggles on the power play, he blames the players instead of himself for scratching a top power play option. You can’t make this stuff up.

Looking at the above list, another name stands out: Denis Gurianov, who’s tied for second on the team’s power play with 7.0 GF/60. Across 21 games, Gurianov has only three points, but his offensive ability has done wonders for the Stars’ power play when he’s out on the ice. Yet for some reason Gurianov is still down in the AHL, kept down in favor of Justin Dowling and Joel L’Esperance. You can at least make an argument for Dowling — if you drop the “minimum 10 GP” qualifier, he is second on the team with a 9.8, behind only Martin Hanzal. But L’Esperance? After 16 games, he ranks dead last on the Stars with a power play GF/60 of just 2.6.

And it doesn’t stop there. If I wanted to, I could go on about how Julius Honka — who was rarely used on the power play even when he was in the lineup — could boost the 5-on-4. Or how Ben Gleason, who leads the Texas Stars defensemen in scoring, or Gavin Bayreuther would be great options for a callup. Or at least they would have been had the Stars not traded for Jamie Oleksiak and Ben Lovejoy. Because we all know that a team who ranks second in goals allowed and third-to-last in goals for needs more penalty killers.

But I’ll spare you several more paragraphs, because I think I’ve gotten my point across. The Stars have enough talent on the roster (and in Cedar Park) to have a top power play unit and a pretty decent second team. Instead, assistant head coach Todd Nelson has put together a mediocre unit, one that can’t seem to get goals when the team needs them most.

Do the players need to improve? Absolutely. But the coaching staff does as well, and they’ve had all season to figure something out. Yet here we are in late March, and nothing has changed. And going forward, there’s little reason to believe it will anytime soon.