What a difference a year makes. Waaay back in 2015 (roughly three weeks ago), the Dallas Stars sat atop the National Hockey League with a record of 28-8-3. Three weeks into 2016, the Stars are slogging through a 1-5-2 skid. The red-hot Chicago Blackhawks have overtaken them for first place in the Central Division, building a five-point lead in the process. The Stars are now clinging to second in the Central by their fingernails, tied in points with the St. Louis Blues, albeit with three games in hand. As players, coaches and management work to right the ship, fans in Dallas wonder what happened to last year’s world-beaters. The Stars’ slump can be boiled down to five S’s:
Following their 3-2 loss in Los Angeles, Alex Goligoski summed up the situation nicely:
Our penalty kill is killing us right now.
Through the slump, the Stars’ PK is only working 72 percent of the time. How bad is that? The current league average penalty kill is 81 percent. The Calgary Flames PK is a league-worst 74.8 percent. It’s B-A-D. It’s not just an inability to kill penalties, however, as Stars television host Josh Bogorad pointed out so succinctly:
Stars have lost by one goal in 5 of the last 8 gms. In those, they are 3/22 on the PP (13.6%) & 18/25 on the PK (72%). Game defining numbers
— Josh Bogorad (@JoshBogorad) January 20, 2016
The Dallas power play has been streaky all season, and it’s currently mired in a down cycle. Again, a look at the rest of the NHL puts the Stars PP in perspective: league average is 18.9 percent, and the Flames come in last at 14.9 percent. For both the Dallas PP and PK to be significantly lower than the league-worst, at the same time, is extraordinary.
The Stars are built to be a “high-event” team. They generate, and allow, a lot of scoring chances. The area of greatest concern is High-Danger Scoring Chances, which have undergone a dramatic shift with the turn of the calendar. A look at Dallas’ numbers before and after January 1 is eye-opening (all numbers are at even-strength and are courtesy of War-on-Ice.com):
- Percentage of High-Danger Scoring Chances For (HSCF%) before/after January 1: 53.0 (6th in NHL)/38.6 (30th)
- High-Danger Scoring Chance plus/minus (HSC +/-): +48 (5th)/-35 (tied for 29th)
- High-Danger Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes (HSCF60): 13.4 (1st)/9.1 (26th)
- High-Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes (HSCA60): 11.9 (29th)/14.5 (29th)
Through the slump, the Stars are generating more than four fewer high-danger scoring chances per hour, while allowing almost three more. Put another way, they’ve gone from averaging +1.5 HSC per game to -5.4. Again, this is at even-strength, so it’s got nothing to do with special teams. The bulk of the problem falls squarely on the shoulders of the Stars’ best players.
(Not so) Super Stars
Following the loss to the Kings, Lindy Ruff opined on his team’s woes:
I think the biggest thing is our big boys haven’t been converting, and it’s tough on the rest of the lineup when they’re not on the scoresheet. When they’re on the scoresheet, we’re gonna win games.
Ruff’s full take can be heard in the clip below:
The stats of the Stars’ top players through the last eight games illustrate Ruff’s point:
- Jamie Benn: 2 goals, 2 assists, 4 points, -7, 14 PIM, 2 power play goals
- Tyler Seguin: 2-1-3, -5, 0 PIM, 0 PPG
- Patrick Sharp: 2-4-6, -2, 4 PIM, 0 PPG
- John Klingberg: 1-2-3, -3, 2 PIM, 0 PPG
- Jason Spezza: 2-6-8, +4, 6 PIM, 0 PPG
While Spezza and Sharp have put up good numbers during the slump, Benn, Seguin and Klingberg have seen a serious drop-off in production. These five players have combined for just two power play goals in the last eight games, prompting Ruff to move Klingberg off the top PP unit. To paraphrase the coach, the big boys’ absence from the scoresheet is reflected in the standings.
The increase in High-Danger Scoring Chances allowed has led directly to more goals for the opposition, a fact reflected in the save percentages of both Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen. A look at the numbers before and after January 1 tells the tale:
- Save Percentage, All Situations: Niemi .919/.878…Lehtonen .911/.901
- Save Percentage, Five-on-Five: Niemi .935/.899…Lehtonen .909/.907
Compounding the problem is the fact that the Stars’ netminders are not only seeing more high-danger shots, but they’re also allowing a greater percentage of those shots in:
- High-Danger Save Percentage, All Situations: Niemi .850/.813…Lehtonen .860/.816
- High-Danger Save Percentage, Five-on-Five: Niemi .875/.821…Lehtonen .857/.800
Though the players in front of them have definitely had an impact on both goalies, the bottom line is that the Stars aren’t getting league-average goaltending from their Finnish tandem right now. With five of seven losses coming by a single goal, some of the blame must fall on Niemi and Lehtonen.
Amid the gloom-and-doom of the Stars’ 1-5-2 slump, a few rays of sunshine are poking through the clouds:
- Mattias Janmark was moved from wing to center for the San Jose game. For the last two games, he’s centered Antoine Roussel and Ales Hemsky. That trio produced a goal in each game and was arguably Dallas’ best line. The Stars have discovered Janmark has another gear and, if the last two games are any indication, the young Swede is an NHL-caliber pivot.
- Ales Hemsky hadn’t scored a goal since November 12. He has goals in each of the last two games, and has developed instant chemistry with Janmark and Roussel.
- Defenseman Esa Lindell was called up from the Texas Stars and made his NHL debut against Los Angeles. Paired with the oft-scratched Patrik Nemeth, the duo was thrown into the deep end of the pool against the top team in the Pacific Division. Though their possession stats left much to be desired (a combined Corsi percentage of 33.3), they didn’t drown. As television analyst and former Dallas defenseman Craig Ludwig said, Lindell had a fairly quiet game, and that’s a good thing.
- Finally, the loss to the Kings was the best, most complete game the Stars have played this month. It showed the team is moving in the right direction. While the slump isn’t over yet, that game gave both the team and fans a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel.