After Thursday’s 5-4 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, the Dallas Stars are 1-4-0 on the road this season. Rolling down the highway to Calgary, the third stop on their five-game odyssey, the Stars might’ve pondered the lyrics to Texas troubadour Max Stalling’s “Green Lights“:
Here I am back on the road again
Don’t it feel just like my old worst friend
The ne’er do well that a mother prays against
Jack Kerouac meets Huckleberry Finn
Dating back to last season, the road has indeed been unkind to the Stars. Changing the coach, the goalie and other key personnel over the summer has yet to improve results. In fact, some statistics are headed in the wrong direction: The club allowed a league-worst 3.45 goals per road game in 2016-17 and are at 4.40 through five games this season.
Why is this happening? Will the Stars improve, or will this be another lost season? Let’s break it down.
PDO No Friend to Stars
As ‘advanced’ statistics go, PDO is quite simple: just add team shooting percentage to save percentage. A PDO greater than 100 indicates a hot goalie, a team shooting lights-out, or both. Below 100 indicates the opposite. The stat is often referred to as a measure of ‘luck,’ both good and bad, as the number tends to gravitate toward 100 over time.
The Stars’ 5-on-5 PDO at home this season is a respectable 100.55, but that number falls to 92.98 on the road. That huge drop-off is due entirely to the team’s save percentage, which drops from 93.33 at home to 85.84 away from the friendly confines of the AAC.
The jarring disparity between home and away save percentages can be attributed to several factors. Coach Ken Hitchcock blamed Thursday’s loss in part on a team-wide lack of attention to detail. That’s to be expected as the Stars work to shed old habits and fully embrace their new coach’s style of play.
Young defensemen usually learn lessons the hard way. Julius Honka certainly did against the Colorado Avalanche Tuesday night. Jamie Oleksiak’s turn came Thursday, when an ill-timed pinch led to an odd-man rush and a goal for the Oilers.
Though frustrating near-term, these young defenders will learn from their mistakes or move on, either to another team or to the minors. Beyond defensive miscues and a periodic lack of attention to detail, the Stars have struggled with one game-deciding factor beyond their control.
Watch the video carefully. You’ll see goalie Ben Bishop get tangled up with Antoine Roussel, which prevented him from getting over to make the save. For the second time in three games, a teammate kept Bishop from preventing a goal. That’s just bad luck, as were the three(!) Oilers goals that went in off Stars defenders.
Bottom line: Five road games is too small a sample size to get worked up over. The Stars’ PDO will improve over time because, statistically speaking, it must. As that number improves, so will the Stars’ road record.
Stars Glass Half Full
Despite the dismal early-season road record, there are some huge positives on which the team can hang their collective hat. First and foremost, the Stars’ special teams this season are an order of magnitude better than last season.
Stars Power Play: 29.0% (2nd in the NHL) vs. 17.9% (20th) in 2016-17
Stars Penalty Kill: 91.7% (3rd) vs. 73.9% (30th) in 2016-17
Though both numbers will likely come down a bit over the course of the campaign, they’ll still be a marked improvement over last season.
More significant than special teams is the growth of key players John Klingberg and Tyler Seguin. The former was all smiles at training camp, appearing more relaxed off the ice and more confident on it than in recent seasons. That confidence has carried over into the regular season, where Klingberg’s 10 points through 10 games ranks fourth among NHL defensemen.
Hitch also has the skilled Swede killing penalties. Klingberg’s shorthanded ice time so far this season ranks third among Stars defensemen and is already nearly six minutes more than all of 2016-17. The veteran coach has given his most talented blueliner much greater responsibility and the 25-year-old is thriving.
The day Hitchcock was hired, he stated his desire to mold Seguin into a true number-one center. The coach warned that to become a top pivot, the player would have to go up against the opponents’ top line every night and kill penalties.
Ten games in, it’s clear that Seguin has embraced the challenge. The oh-so-talented boy from Brampton’s offensive skills are still on full display, but he’s now killing penalties with aplomb and even dropping the gloves (with a former teammate, no less). Seguin is maturing before our very eyes, and it’s a wonder to behold.
Remember the Stars’ franchise-record start to the 2015-16 season? That team began the year 8-2-0 and finished atop the Western Conference. Here’s an interesting stat to ponder: The 2015-16 squad came from behind to earn four of those first eight victories. After 10 games, those Stars were 4-0-0 when their opponent scored first. Statistically speaking, they should’ve been no better than 2-2-0, as teams rarely win half their games when allowing the first goal.
At 5-5-0, you might not think the current club can compare to the 2015-16 model, but the new and improved Stars are a league-average 1-2-0 when allowing the first goal. My point is that the early success of the Stars of two years ago involved a significant amount of good luck, while the 2017-18 team is playing .500 hockey despite a heapin’ helpin’ of bad luck, at least on the road.
As with PDO, luck tends to even out in the long run. The 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs proved those Stars weren’t as good as they appeared in the first month of the season. I suspect we’ll see next spring that the 2017-18 Stars are better than they appear right now.
Before the Stars left town, I asked Esa Lindell about playing with both Klingberg and Honka. How are they similar? How are they different?
“Good question,” said Lindell, flashing a grin. “I think they both are very similar players. It’s easy to play with both of them.”
Lindell, whose English is still a work in progress, admitted to being more comfortable playing with “Honks,” because they can speak Finnish to each other on the ice. So far this season, Lindell looks quite comfortable, no matter who he’s paired with.
The aforementioned Finnish blueliner also talked about the current road trip. Although it can be a grind, hitting the road can also be a good thing.
“It’s going to be fun to be with the boys there,” Lindell said. “I think it gets us closer when we’re together on the road…it’s just different.”
No longer a rookie, Lindell gets a hotel room to himself this season. Last year, he rotated through several road roommates. Which one was the worst?
“I don’t know,” Lindell laughed. “There wasn’t anyone too bad…I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus.”
Quote of the Week
“Green lights all the way to nowhere/Half the fun is in the getting there/And once you figure that out, you’re on your way” — Max Stalling, “Green Lights”
Matt blogged about all things hockey at On Goal Analysis/The OGA Blogs from 2008-2014 and has written several travel articles for The Dallas Morning News. He began covering the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers for The Hockey Writers in August 2015. Matt is also writing a biography of “Tex” Rickard, the Texas cowboy who founded the New York Rangers and the Madison Square Garden Corporation.