The Dallas Stars had a very long week. It began last Saturday with a satisfying 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres. Saturday night’s good vibes evaporated quickly, however, thanks to a Central Division nemesis.
After allowing the Winnipeg Jets a 3-0 head start for the second time in five days, the Stars lacked the firepower for a comeback Monday night and fell, 4-1, to the visitors. With no game until Friday, the players, coaches, management and fans had all week to ruminate on the club’s 8-7-0 start.
While ruminating, the Stars wrestled with injuries to Brett Ritchie, Radek Faksa, Tyler Pitlick and Marc Methot, as well as a tight salary cap situation which kept the organization from calling up a replacement player until Friday morning. By 7:30 Friday night, the team was ready to unleash a weeks’ worth of pent-up aggression.
Enter the seemingly-unaware New York Islanders. The visitors were taken aback by John Klingberg’s goal 92 seconds into the game and the Stars never gave them a chance to regroup. Late in the first period, goals two minutes apart by Gemel Smith and Esa Lindell left the Isles thoroughly deflated. When John Tavares & Co. began to show signs of life in the middle frame and earned a power play opportunity, Mattias Janmark erased any thoughts of a comeback:
Jason Spezza scored his first of the season on the power play to further pad the Stars’ lead, and Ben Bishop put an exclamation point on the evening with his first shutout as a Dallas Star.
Other than the uniforms, Friday’s Stars bore little resemblance to Monday’s iteration. What’s going on with this team? Let’s dive in.
Dallas Struggling Against Central Division
Two losses to the Jets dropped the Stars’ record against Central Division opponents to 1-5-0. Falling behind early within the division wasn’t in the club’s plan, with good reason. Since the NHL realigned the divisions in 2013, teams in the Central with a points percentage below .500 against divisional opponents miss the playoffs 87.5 percent of the time, while teams above .500 make the playoffs 90 percent of the time.
In three of the Stars’ losses, they dug themselves a 3-0 hole in the first period. Asked if he was more concerned about his team’s record within the division or those slow starts, coach Ken Hitchcock offered a thoughtful response.
“I don’t look at the 3-0. I look at the overall game, that those teams are playing better than us and their experience is showing over the 60 minutes,” said Hitchcock. “We have not been able to handle the surges in the games like experienced teams do, and I can’t speed that up. We’ve just got to go through it. But if you look, we played great in Nashville [but] didn’t handle a five-minute surge. We played even better in St. Louis, didn’t handle a six-minute surge. Didn’t handle a four-minute surge against Winnipeg. And that’s tough.”
“We’ve got to get through those surges, and experienced teams know how to dumb it down,” the coach continued. “We get wrapped up in the surge. So it starts unraveling, and we unravel it more by continuing in the track meet. We’ve got to get out of the track meet, get it calmed down, get it settled down. We just get wrapped up in the emotion of the game and if we can find a way to calm it down with maturity, then…” Hitchcock trailed off before concluding, “To beat these teams, quite frankly, we need to grow up quick and we’re hoping we can do that.”
The Stars’ next Central Division game is November 22 at Colorado. How much can they grow up in a little over a week? We’ll find out.
Injuries + Cap Crunch = Oleksiak at Wing
Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak played left wing on a line with Martin Hanzal and Gemel Smith in Monday’s 4-1 loss to the Jets. The switch wasn’t part of Hitch’s attempts to jump-start all forwards not named Benn, Seguin or Radulov; it was strictly business-related.
The reason behind Oleksiak’s temporary move to the wing fueled much discussion among the Stars press corps throughout the week. In search of answers, some of us even made deep dives into the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (Stars Press Corps Motto: We read the CBA so you don’t have to). Without getting in too deep, here’s what we learned.
For a team to gain salary cap relief when a player is hurt, that player has to go on Long-Term Injured Reserve (LTIR). Once a player is placed on LTIR, he must miss a minimum of 10 games and 24 days in the season. Placing a player on regular Injured Reserve (IR) keeps him out of action for at least seven days, but provides no cap relief.
At the beginning of the week, Ritchie was on IR retroactive to October 30 and Faksa and Pitlick were hurt, leaving the Stars with only 11 healthy forwards. The club had roughly $660,000 in “current” cap space, barely enough to call up either Cole Ully or Mark McNeill from the AHL. Current cap space changes constantly, increasing each day a team remains under the salary cap and decreasing when a player is added to the roster.
Rather than bringing up Ully or McNeill, Stars management decided to allow their current cap space to build until Friday morning, when they would have just enough room to call up proven NHLer Curtis McKenzie. Thus, Oleksiak played wing Monday night, an experiment borne of financial necessity.
In an effort to get his bottom-nine forwards going, Hitchcock did the unthinkable: he broke up the Benn-Seguin-Radulov line and moved Benn to center. The radically-revamped lines paid off Friday night. After the win over the Islanders, Hitch addressed the change.
“I think what happens is when you have one line that is doing everything, you tend to let it do everything. That’s the feeling I had that was happening on our hockey club,” the coach said. “We were just allowing that line to save the day and in the end, the two games against Winnipeg were a wake-up call for me…We just needed more people involved and that’s when I made the decision to do what I did.”
Once Hitch gets the desired results from his bottom-nine, I think he’ll reunite Benn and Seguin. That duo is far too dynamic to be separated for long. Factor in Benn’s discomfort at center, and this move has “temporary” written all over it. When the two are reunited, will the burden of scoring shift back to their line as the others slip? We’ll see.
Before Friday’s contest, I took a look at some of the advanced statistics for Bishop and Kari Lehtonen. The latter had a higher save percentage (.914 to .911) and the former has had a couple of rough starts so far, so I was curious about the underlying numbers.
Compared to last season, Lehtonen is facing more low-danger shots, about the same number of medium-danger shots, and less than half as many high-danger shots per 60 minutes. Also, Lehtonen’s high-danger save percentage (HDSv%) of .917 is tops among goalies with at least 200 minutes played. With just three starts and two relief appearances, the sample size is small. Nevertheless, those are confidence-boosting numbers for both the big Finn and the team in front of him.
Bishop’s stats indicate the quality of competition he’s been up against. While seeing more than two fewer low-danger shots per 60 than Lehtonen, Big Ben faces slightly more medium-danger shots and more than twice as many high-danger shots. Coupled with the well-documented bad luck he experienced earlier this season, Bishop’s apparent “rough start” to his tenure with the Stars is understandable. Perhaps his shutout of the Islanders marks a turning point. (Stats provided by corsica.hockey)
While diving into the CBA, I came across a bit of sunken treasure. Your StarsFunFact™ of the Week is found in Article 13.7 – Expansion Draft, Team Relocation, which states:
Any Player forced to move as a result of being claimed in an expansion draft, or as a result of a team relocation, shall be paid $6,000. (This payment shall not affect or be credited against “moving expenses” to which the Player might otherwise be entitled).
Telling 30 NHLers, “Welcome to Las Vegas – here’s $6000!” may not have been a good idea, but it was definitely an awesome idea. The next time someone tries to tell you hockey is boring, please refer them to Article 13.7.
For the record, were I Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, former Star Cody Eakin and his new teammates would’ve been paid with either oversize novelty checks or a cash-stuffed canvas bag with a large dollar sign on it; I can’t decide.
Quote of the Week
“Today I felt that I was back in my first year of playing hockey so it felt very good. My confidence is really good now. I felt that I have a really good gap right now and playing well defensively. It feels good now.” – John Klingberg, after putting up three points against the Islanders to take over the NHL scoring lead among defensemen.