Leading From Behind - Dallas' Early-Season Struggle to Stay Ahead

Another lost lead raises alarm bells, but is it really time to worry? Let's take a quick look at Dallas' unfortunate habit of coughing up leads this season.

Your Dallas Stars managed to take the lead three separate times last night en route to an overtime loss against the St. Louis Blues. They opened the scoring at 1-0, went ahead 2-1, and finally 3-2 before a Tyler Seguin penalty in overtime sent everyone home unhappy. Twice, the Stars contrived to concede within a minute of going ahead, and this was against a Blues squad missing multiple key players (David Backes joined Paul Stasny on the injury list mid-game).

Currently, the Stars "boast" a winning percentage of .400 when scoring first. That mark is good for 27th in the league, and must be taken as a serious warning sign for a team that made the playoffs with a two point margin of error last year. Despite the flash and fun, the Stars have managed repeatedly to let valuable points slip away, but why?

Believe it or not, the optimist in me says not to worry. St. Louis is a top 10 team in goals against per game (2.12), shots against per game (24), and goals for/against ratio at even strength (1.33). To get a lead three separate times against a team with that sort of defensive solidity is impressive. It’s also fair to say the Stars had several chances to win outright prior to the extra frame. In particular, Jamie Benn must be shaking his head after a flurry of near-misses. It’s not like Dallas needs lockdown defensive perfection to compete, just a little jump towards competency.

Still, it’s fair to wonder from where that jump might come. Sergei Gonchar is the only notable member of last year’s unit not currently contributing, but at this point, does his pending return boost anyone’s spirits? Dallas’ vaunted stable of prospects could be an option, but Jamie Oleksiak, Kevin Connauton, and Jyrki Jokipakka are already in the lineup. At some point, call-ups just become new meat, don’t they?

Speaking of those three, how much more can they really give? All play around 13 minutes a night, none seem to really be clamoring for an increase in those minutes. Oleksiak did score last night, and showed more willingness to throw his weight around, but decision-making doesn’t improve overnight. The Islanders game was gruesome.

A trade? Maybe, but what do you give up? Dallas doesn’t need depth, they need a serious player. That means you’re talking about a Brett Ritchie level prospect and almost certainly someone off the active roster as well. To clarify, a valuable someone, with upside and a reasonable cap hit. Just think about the Tyler Seguin deal and work your way backwards.

Perhaps unfairly, I find myself looking towards Brenden Dillon. Not because he’s playing poorly (I actually thought he had a strong effort last night, and deserved better on a few half-chances), but because he profiles to play so much better. Did you know he’s consistently playing less per night (nearly 4 minutes less) than Jordie Benn? I feel like more Dillon should help, the trick is to figure out how to get him out there.

And while we’re on the subject of things to figure out, I have to mention the goaltending. In this case, starter Kari Lehtonen has not yet resembled the all-world stalwart of last year’s playoff run. Versus last season his save percentage is lower (.907 vs .919) and his goals against average is higher (2.90 vs 2.41). Set against the rest of his peers, Kari has gone from being nearly 10 goals better than league average to a full goal (1.07 technically) below league average.

All of which swings me back around to optimism. Yes, the boat has been leaky so far, but consider the circumstances. Dallas is seven games into a season in which they’ve already lost a full third of their projected starting defensive unit. They’ve also got a goalie performing below well-established career norms. Despite that, they’re a playoff team at this moment. Yes, Ruff and company have work to do on the backend, but so long as they can ride the horses up front, the Stars will stay in enough games, and leech enough valuable points, to keep pace.