The Dallas Stars are in free fall. On Saturday, the club lost its seventh contest in a row, falling 5-3 to the San Jose Sharks. A 4-1-2 start has been buried by a long string of defeats to the point that entering action on Thursday the Stars are dead-last in the NHL’s Western Conference.
What has happened to the team over the last couple of weeks? A glance at the club’s goal differential over that span is revealing:
|Goal differential by situation since October 25|
The big problems in terms of goals for and against aren’t really happening in five-on-five play, where the team is pretty close to even (it probably deserves a better fate than that, which we’ll get to shortly). Instead, special teams have been a disaster, and the team has been utterly unprepared in (relatively rare) four-on-four situations.
Still, at least one expert sees five-on-five play as the Stars’ big problem. An unnamed coach with a Western Conference team told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun that Dallas still had to find the balance between scoring and defensive play.
“The focus every year for every team starts out on creating offense but the teams who figure out checking are the ones who have success; that’s why Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago have won, they strike a balance,” said the anonymous coach.
But it’s awfully difficult to make the data match that sentiment. Here’s how Dallas has compared over its losing streak in terms of shots for and against to the three clubs our unnamed coach identified:
|Shots for and against since October 25|
|Team||Shot/60||NHL Rk.||ShotsA/60||NHL Rk.||Differential|
If anything, we might argue that the Stars’ problem is that they don’t focus enough on offence. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings both have taken more shots than Dallas while simultaneously allowing more shots against.
But while the Stars don’t have a shot-prevention problem at even strength, they do allow too many goals. Since the losing streak started on October 25, the Stars rank 11th in the NHL in goals per hour at five-on-five but 25th in goals against per hour; that suggests that either the club is allowing too many high-quality chances or that the goaltenders are struggling mightily.
Which is it? A look at the performance of the goaltenders makes the answer pretty obvious:
|Five-on-five save percentage since October 25|
|Player||Saves||Shots Faced||Save Percentage|
If Kari Lehtonen had made one more save over this stretch he’d be well-clear of the NHL average; as it is he’s right in the range. Anders Lindback, meanwhile, has been just terrible. This isn’t a new thing for Lindback, who was awful in each of the last two seasons and whose career 0.902 save percentage is basically on par with what one would expect from a third-string goalie.
The Stars signed an AHL-calibre goalie to be their backup, and that has cost them tremendously this season; Lindback has gone 0-3 with a 0.852 save percentage on the year.
At five-on-five the Stars have been just fine—even while losing seven in a row—except for Lindback’s crippling failings. The team’s problems, however, extend beyond Lindback in other situations.
The power play has been simply miserable. The team ranks dead last in the NHL in shot attempts per hour and second to last in shots per hour on the power play over the last seven games. Worse, the unit has surrendered 11 shots against and two goals, in no small part because of a laissez-faire approach to exiting its own end of the rink.
Trevor Lewis’ short-handed goal against Kari Lehtonen was an ugly example of a team not competing for pucks, but it pales in comparison to the disaster that was Nikolai Kulemin’s goal:
Literally three Stars were on the defensive side of Alex Goligoski when he started struggling to handle the puck; somehow all three were caught napping when Kulemin grabbed it and skated into the zone. Jason Spezza in particular looked wretched on this goal, as he was in perfect position to backstop Goligoski but instead did a lazy flyby as Kulemin went past him with the puck.
The penalty kill has been a little better, ranking in the middle of the pack in the league in terms of shot prevention, but it too has some specific failings. All six goals surrendered while short-handed during this seven-game losing streak were generated by a low play from the opposition rather than from action on the points.
All too often the Stars are letting opponents in the slot or in front of the net have too much space. Thomas Vanek’s goal is a good one to focus on because three of the six have been basically carbon copies of this play:
The passers on the perimeter draw out the defenders, opening space in the slot for Vanek, who has all the time and space he needs to beat Lehtonen. The Nashville Predators' Craig Smith scored exactly the same way, while San Jose’s Patrick Marleau put away the rebound of the same play (this time with Joe Pavelski the shooter in the slot).
The team’s struggles in special situations extend to four-on-four play, and there are few enough goals to look at each of them. And this is where the Stars’ underwhelming defence looks particularly bad.
One of the three goals featured a brutal break (Tyler Seguin was tripped away from the play), but even so Jordie Benn badly misplayed the ensuing two-on-one. Trevor Daley was the goat in the two goals surrendered in the Stars’ loss to the Anaheim Ducks; he pinched low on the first and didn’t show nearly enough urgency getting back. And then in overtime he just let his man go unimpeded to the net.
Put it all together, and those are the Stars’ problems. At four-on-four, specific braincramps by individual defencemen have cost the team. Dallas is plus-eight/minus-eight in terms of shot attempts at four-on-four over its losing streak, but that doesn’t matter when Benn forgets how to play a two-on-one or Daley decides it’s OK to give Corey Perry a head start on net.
The penalty kill is leaving too much space in the middle, which is probably a combination of overly cautious defencemen and a need for coaching tweaks, while the power play has been flat-out ugly. Throw in a backup goaltender who probably shouldn’t be in the NHL, and that about sums up the problem.
It isn’t about one big thing, an issue with identity or a love of offence at all costs. It is instead a combination of a series of small, specific sins and personnel deficiencies on defence and in net.