Analyzing the Underperforming Stars Power Play

Are the Dallas Stars struggling on the power play because of execution, structure, or decision making? The answer: all of the above.

After Dallas’ 5-3 loss to the Nashville Predators, Mike Heika asked Lindy Ruff about the underperforming power play. Heika even pointed out Dallas’ inability to score on the two man advantage to Ruff in the postgame interview.

Ruff’s response was interesting for two reasons. One, he deflected on the point about the two man advantage, noting Sharp’s goal at 5 on 3. Except the Stars had two unsuccessful minutes on the two man advantage prior to Sharp’s goal. With Dallas’ talent, is it fair to argue that they should have cashed in on both 5 on 3 opportunities? Probably. Even Sharp’s goal itself seemed fortuitous more than anything, as a rebound bounced perfectly off Pekka Rinne and onto to the tape of Sharp’s stick.

Second, Ruff argued that whatever goodwill the PP earned, it was squandered by Tyler Seguin’s turnover on the PP that ended up breaking the tied game in the third period. It’s a fair point, but a point that amounts to a tangible detail; Seguin’s turnover was critical within the game, but does little to address the general struggles of Dallas’ 5 on 4 play.

Judging by Dallas’ shot location on the power play in that Nashville game:

Maybe Heika had a point. That’s with nearly four minutes of 5-on-3 time (for 11 total), and only 7 shots in the red zone to show for it.

This then begs the question; what exactly makes Dallas’ power play, filled with Art Ross talent and offensive pedigree, so stagnant?

Dallas is currently ranked 18th in the NHL. If you know how many teams are in the NHL, good for you, because that’s below average.

However, the Stars rank first in an important category, and one that potentially explains the lack of luck they’re getting. That category is raw scoring chances, which are shots tallied within the homeplate area of the ice, where Dallas tops the NHL with 147 total.

There’s a caveat to this, of course. Which is that Dallas’ top unit is the only unit getting the job done. Below are the shots for per hour, scoring chances for per hour, and expected goals for per hour at 5 on 4 for both of Dallas’ power play units.

As you can see, there’s a dramatic difference between the two common man advantage units. Especially in expected goals for, which approximates varieties of shot quality. Just how dramatic the difference? Consider this: out of 404 power play contributors with at least 20 minutes of man advantage time, Brett Ritchie ranks 303, Jordie Benn ranks 364,  Devin Shore ranks 370, Roussel ranks 375, and Hamhuis ranks 390th in shot attempt differential.

Maybe that explains why Dallas’ second unit only has three goals on the year.

The first unit fares better in shot attempts, but not by much. Patrick Eaves tops Dallas’ list, sitting at 172 in the rankings.

So why is Dallas so middling?

Matt Cane over at Hockey-Graphs wrote a brilliant article measuring power play structure. I’d advise you to read it for yourself instead of deciphering my uneducated interpretation. But as I understand it, measuring power play structure goes something like this; we can predict power play efficiency in part by studying their structures. How do you study structure? By looking at whether or not players are shooting from locations we can presume they’re supposed to shoot from given the preponderance of shots they’re taking from said location.

Comparing the distance of a player’s shot to their average location along with the amount of shots by that player combined with a look at each player’s shot location as a team (go ahead and exhale), and Matt ends up with what he calls a PP Structure Index. There, Dallas ranks 15th.

We can see this for ourselves compliments of Micah Blake McCurdy.

Compare that to Tampa Bay’s 4th ranked PP Structure, and you begin to see why Dallas has struggled the way it has. In Tampa’s graph, you can point out that Stamkos parks out near the left dot, Namestikov in the slot, et cetera. Contrast this to Dallas. What is Spezza trying to do? Engage in a curling contest from blueline to crease? Is Seguin playing halfwall peekaboo?

Two other things that are important to note since this season’s version of the Dallas Stars couldn’t possibly have just one, two, or even three things go aggressively wrong. First, Dallas has allowed the most shorthanded goals (10) of any team this year. Second, they are 8th in penalty differential on the man advantage, meaning Dallas has figured out not just one, but two ways to kill any momentum or advantage power plays are designed to provide in the first place.

Are there solutions?

I’d argue that the second unit needs an infusion of talent. Benn, Seguin, and Klingberg are talented enough on their own to form a powerful 5 on 4 unit. The other two players could be master blaster, and you’d probably retain enough focus and talent to be successful.

And then there’s Esa Lindell. Dallas has opted for a four forward, one defenseman setup on the first power play unit. Which is fine. Four forwards and one d-man is statistically more efficient than using the traditional two d-men. The second unit relies on Hamhuis and Benn for blueline backup.

Neither Hamhuis, nor Benn have ever magically sprouted goal scoring wings in their careers. Lindell, if you had ever watched him in the AHL or on the international stage or even read my lengthy profile of him in August, on the other hand, does have an offensive pedigree. He managed a lofty 42 points in the AHL because he logged prime power play minutes where his reputation was formed by being a point specialist. Sure enough, not only does he have the best unblocked shot attempt differential on the team at 5 on 4, but the best unblocked shot differential relative to his teammates.

Why wasn’t Lindell on the PP in the beginning? The refrain that “well he’s a rookie” doesn’t sit well with me for two reasons (three if you consider that Honka was granted power play time in his debut). One, Lindell plays on Dallas’ top pairing defensive unit so he’s already being trusted with critical minutes. Two, whether or not a player has met some arbitrary standard of “earning playing time” should always be secondary to optimizing a team’s roster. If a player has a history of managing the point with success, maybe he should be manning the point?

To the extent that NHL teams further player development, this is where they accomplish that; identifying a player’s strength and placing them in a position to succeed. In a way the power play struggles have been a microcosm for Dallas’ struggles in general; finding new ways to handicap their own efficiency.

TL;DR - Dallas has an underperforming power play because the structure is lacking, the execution on the top unit has marginally stabilized it from being a complete disaster without the help of a second unit, and they’ve managed to compound their struggles with extracurricular issues they have yet to correct. No wonder this coaching staff is on the hot seat.