The Dallas Stars and the National Hockey League are slated to return to meaningful action on August 1 when the league officially drops the puck after nearly five months away due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fact that the league is officially on the way back to games in less than two weeks is a major miracle considering the state of the world at the moment. For that, I’m pretty thankful that the NHL has seemingly come up with a league protocol that will keep players, staff, and officials safe as we all await what should be the most anticipated playoff season in recent memory.
The Dallas Stars will be one of twelve Western Conference teams heading to Edmonton, Alberta next week to begin their journey to a Stanley Cup. The club will play the Nashville Predators on July 30 in a tune-up game before entering the four-team round robin kick-off of the playoffs with the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Vegas Golden Knights.
The three round robin games are crucially important.
The Stars will be battling for seeding (1-4) to see which team out of the best-of-five play-in brackets the team will be facing in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The stakes couldn’t be higher and the challenge will be immense given the substantial time off from the sport.
It is safe to say that the Stars coaching staff, players, and scouts have been working over this time to shore up deficiencies in their game, hammer in what they do well, and tinker with the intricacies of the game of hockey itself. Given the Stars’ six-game losing streak before the global pause, the team had no shortage of material to go over.
The same can be said for the staff here at Defending Big D, and as the Stars shake the rust off before traveling to Edmonton, we did some homework as well. Here are some details to watch for as the Stars fire back up the 2019-20 playoffs.
Defense, Goaltending Polished
The rust that will be experienced by every NHL team in the 24-team playoff format will not be mutually exclusive. However, the effects of the rust will be felt in different ways by some clubs.
The layoff will most likely lead to wide-open, offensive hockey, as teams like the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers look to use their team speed to take advantage of defensemen who are still working toward game speed. That could spell trouble when it comes to the Dallas Stars, who are at their core still built from a base of strong defense and goaltending.
The Stars are not going to win an offensive slugfest, which means the defense and goaltending need to be ready to go from the jump. When fans last saw the Stars there was a crack in the defensive armor, as they allowed four or more goals in nearly half of their games in the month of March. All games in which they surrendered four or more goals in March were losses.
With the stakes so high in the round robin and first round of the playoffs, the Stars must commit to a total team defense approach. The forwards must come back and assist the defensemen, mitigate turnovers, and force the game to slow down to a pace that is agreeable with the Stars’ speed.
In turn the Dallas defensemen and goaltenders will have to use the ramp-up in practices, scrimmages, and exhibition games to knock off the rust as quickly as possible. For the most part, the game comes at defensemen and goaltenders, which makes reads much more difficult, important, and impactful.
If the Stars can find their base, they can mitigate the damage from open, offensive hockey, and turn the rust into an advantage.
Offensive Production Paramount
In the same vein of rust on the defensive side of the game, the forwards should relish this opportunity to hit the ground running in Edmonton.
The Stars of course have the 28th ranked offense in the league when it comes to goals for, which is the lowest of all playoff teams. However, the Stars’ opponents in the round robin, with the exception of the Blues, are not teams that come to mind when it comes to strong defense. For example, the Stars outscored the Avalanche 12-6 in the season series, scoring three or more goals in three of the four games.
The one caveat for the success of the Stars on offense is going to hinge on the production from Tyler Seguin, Roope Hintz, Denis Gurianov, Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski, and Alexander Radulov. If the Stars have any designs on doing any type of damage this summer, those key players have to produce.
Interim head coach Rick Bowness has said repeatedly that it is a huge priority for the Stars to generate more offense. In the early portion of training camp, the Stars have begun to activate their defensemen to act as fourth forwards in the offensive zone. Matthew DeFranks had a great tweet about this a few days ago:
I re-watched all the Stars' goals this season to find out how often defensemen joined rushes that became goals. It was more than I thought it would be. How it affects the Stars in Edmonton: https://t.co/NAMp5NZsCN— Matthew DeFranks (@MDeFranks) July 21, 2020
This one guy kept showing up. pic.twitter.com/qXjxCf0N1I
The Stars have also made a point to increase their puck possession time in order to cycle and generate in-zone chances on net. Even the line combinations have been engineered with offense in mind, with Seguin, Hintz, and Gurianov forming a line that should terrorize teams with their speed. Bowness also mentioned that Hintz and Gurianov, the team’s leading scorers, should be seeing more ice time.
The Stars truly need to unlock their offensive game in order to relieve the stress that the time off will have put on their defense and goaltending. With the other NHL teams going through the downtime as well, the round robin games should be offensive affairs, giving the Stars a chance to build some offensive confidence.
What the Stars showed in March will not cut it, and thankfully, they know it as well.
Special Teams A Factor
When the Stars hit the pause on their six-game losing streak, it can be argued the penalty kill utterly failed them. During the streak, the Stars gave up a total of seven shorthanded goals in five of the six losses. In three of the losses, the goals on the power play were the only goals scored by the opposition.
That simply isn’t close to acceptable for a team that regards itself strong on the penalty kill.
During the Stars’ woes, the penalty kill was scrambling far too much, the goaltending was leaky, and the opposition was able to carve the Stars up with ease at times. If the Stars hope to return to winning ways in the round robin and playoffs, the penalty kill needs to return to what made them successful. That means the Stars need to play positionally sound in their structure, allow the goaltender to see the puck by clearing the lanes, and pressuring the puck appropriately.
On the other side of the special teams coin, the Dallas power play was equally as bad. The Stars scored a grand total of three power play goals on 23 attempts in the six-game sample.
For the Dallas offense to improve, the power play will need to improve as well. When watching those power play attempts, the Stars seemed to push too hard, forcing the power play set into situations that were not advantageous for them. When watching the Stars’ power play goals in 2019-20 one thing stuck out.
On the sets where the Stars scored a goal, the team patiently worked the puck around, opened up the penalty kill, and generated a chance on net.
Take Seguin’s goal in Florida as a key example of this. The Stars swung the puck from one side to the other through a series of calculated, patient passes. When the puck swung, the killers swung with it, which left Seguin open on the half-wall. If Seguin receives a good pass, he usually generates a quality chance on net, and this instance was no different.
The Stars have the tools to make this change, but the implementation has to return to its levels prior to the six-game skid.
Without special teams in the playoffs, it’s safe to say the Stars will not be in the Edmonton hub for very long.
When the Stars take the ice on July 30, it will mark the end of a four-month stretch that had casted doubt on future of the 2019-20 hockey season.
The Stars are no stranger to the adversity of this break and the adversity that the return will demand of them. After beginning the season on a 1-7-1 start and going into the break on an 0-4-2 run, the very fact that Stars are in the round robin means they are a good roster. The Stars went 36-13-5 between the skids — the best record in the NHL.
If the Stars can come out firing on all cylinders, return to a comfort zone in their game, and prove to themselves that they have sorted out some of what ailed them, then they could be primed for a run.
Hockey is back, everybody. Let that sink in.
The Stars are back, so throw on your victory green, fire up the TV, and cheer from the couch like you’re in the building with them.