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You have to hand it to the Dallas Stars. It seems every couple of seasons, maybe more often, they’re ready to shed their skin. First they were going to be the Run n’ Gun n’ Fun team under Lindy Ruff. Then when that didn’t go anywhere they were going to be a more solid unit under Ken Hitchcock that took its limited opportunities while boring the lower intestines out of everyone. And then that didn’t work so they went outside the box to the University of Denver for Jim Montgomery. And lo and behold…they’re on pace for the same 85-92 points they seemingly always get and never go anywhere. They’re just south of the Wild in the consistency standings, and right there with them in the “Never Do Anything That Matters” standings. Kind of symbolic.

While Jim Nill always wins the Best Offseason GM Award, nothing ever seems to really change on the ice when the season starts. The thought was that Hitchcock was too conservative for the modern game, and that he didn’t really get through to younger players who want to get up the ice more often and faster than Jabba The Hitch would ever be comfortable with.

And yet so far this season, under the supposed forward-thinking Montgomery, the Stars get less attempts, less shots, less goals, and less chances than they did last year under Hitch. They’re not even getting as good of goaltending as they did, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re on pace for 89 more irrelevant points as a team that neither makes them a contender or puts them anywhere in the draft to make a difference next year.

So what’s the problem here? It’s not the top line, which has produced every year as long as Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have been together. Now they have Alex Radulov joining the fun. It’s not the goalies, as Ben Bishop has a .920 this year and has been more than solid in his time in Texas.

So scrape beneath that just a bit, and you see the young players that the Stars have pinpointed and hoped would pick up the secondary scoring, and you start to find some answers.

Devin Shore: Second round pick in 2012, point-per-game or thereabouts for three seasons in the NCAA. Had injury problems in his first season as a pro in the AHL but still was a point-per-game when he was around there. Has put up 24 goals and 55 points in two NHL seasons and this year is on pace for…the same 13 goals and 32-ish points that weren’t enough to be a second line player in the first place.

Radek Faksa1st round pick in 2012. Impressive numbers in junior. Good enough in his first season as a pro to spend half the year in Dallas. 17 goals last year in his first full-season in the NHL, looks set for bigger things. On pace for barely 14 goals this year while only just averaging a shot-on-goal per game.

Mattias JanmarkPicked up from the Red Wings in what was thought to be something of a steal. Very good numbers in Sweden. Went from 15 goals to 19 goals last year and looked to be a genuine second-line player. Has two goals this year and like Faksa, is barely registering a shot per game.

Brett Ritchie2nd round pick in 2011. Two-time member of Canada’s WJC team. Bounced between the AHL and NHL for a few seasons. Put up 16 goals last year in his first full foray into the big-time. Has two goals this year and is basically a 13th or 14th forward.

Val Nichushkin: Looked to be a real ass-kicker in his rookie year with 14 goals in ’13-’14. Missed almost all of the next year with a terrible injury, never really looked recovered the next season, fucked off back to Russia for two years, and has yet to score this term.

Honka! Honka! (Julius Honka): 1st round pick in 2014. Tore up the OHL in his one year there. Always thought that Ruff and Hitchcock wouldn’t give him the time of day because of just being a young d-man. Has four points this season though with some promising underlying numbers. Stars needed him to push the play beneath John Klingberg and especially in his absence. Hasn’t really happened. Now behind Miro Heiskanen on the depth-chart

And once again, the Stars are a top line, Klingberg (when healthy) and that’s it. They hope they’ve cracked the code on defense with Miro Heiskanen, and maybe they have But until they finally produce a second line from somewhere, they seem destined to be scenery in the Central Division.

 

 

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The Stars switched from Ken Hitchcock to Jim Montgomery before the season. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed from the two coaches, other than the team playing hockey that doesn’t feel like an existential crisis?

It’s hard to tell what Monty wants this team to be as they’ve been absolutely devastated by injuries on the backend. They’ve been without John Klingberg for 6+ weeks, longer for Connor Carrick and Marc Methot. Stephen Johns has yet to play a game this season. At one point, 12D on the depth chart was playing in the top six at the NHL level. That is…less than ideal. They’ve been one of the best defensive teams even with all those injuries, so it’s safe to say being responsible in their own end is part of the identity. The offensive side of the puck is less clear, as Dallas relies on their blue line to generate offense, and with that position decimated by injury…

Seems like everyone is awfully excited about Miro Heiskanen down there…

All aboard the Heiskanen hype train! He looks like a veteran out there, and as he’s been thrust into a 1D role with all those injuries, he’s only grown in confidence. He has the trust of the coaching staff and is a big part of the Stars being a top 10 PK team. His game is already close to complete, and he’s drawn comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer. He’s only 19.

The Stars have been waiting for a bust-out from the likes of Faksa, Janmark, and Shore for what feels like forever. Is this all they are by now?

Maybe? Faksa seemed to have a bit more spark when he was shifted to wing last game, so maybe his scoring comes back a touch. He’s still one of the best shutdown forwards the Stars have, and having a guy that’s been in the discussion of Selke nominations last season is not anything to sneeze at. Janmark and Shore are likely what they are now, though if they had a more shoot-first linemate maybe they’d find some apples more often as they both make some good plays.

Tyler Seguin‘s shooting percentage seems to have cratered. Just bad luck or is there something in his game?

He’s having the worst of luck. He’s not going to shoot at a career low percentage for too long. He’s due for a hot streak, and there’s no better time than the present to get that going with Dallas finally getting some time at home instead of spending like 30 of 52 days on the road or something.

 

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Last time we saw the Stars, they were in the muddle of the last playoff spot along with the Hawks. They’ve since separated themselves into the first wild card spot and are hot on the heels of the Blues for the third spot in the Central. What’s been the change?

The Stars defense continues to improve. They’ve climbed from somewhere in the 20’s in the league in terms of goals against average to 5th in the league, allowing only 2.56 goals against on average per game. It’s been improvement in both even strength defense and penalty killing (where they rank 9th in the league today at 82.2% of penalties killed.) The goaltending has been fantastic of late, with Kari Lehtonen having a renaissance in terms of stats (.919SV% and 2.22 GAA) and Ben Bishop’s performance nothing to sneeze at, either (.919 SV%, 2.44 GAA). The offense has also come on of late, averaging slightly more than three goals per game on average now. It’s a big change from the first roughly 15 games of the season, when the team was struggling in all aspects other than the power play.
Jason Spezza only put up 50 points last year, and is on pace for way less this year. He’s been shuttled between center and wing. Is it just time that’s caught up? Is this a major problem?

The Stars have struggled to figure out Spezza’s role on the team. It’s driven by Radek Faksa emerging as a premier two-way center on the team as well as the offseason signing of Martin Hanzal. Spezza struggled offensively at the beginning of the season, and his ice time suffered because of it. He’s also been paired with wingers that haven’t been known for finishing, and think the game a pace behind Spezza. That’s contributed to his offensive decline. One thing I will say is that Spezza has looked better since being reunited with Mattias Janmark, so there’s still hope that it might turn around for him in the last 20ish games or so. As they say, it’s all about how you roll into the playoffs, right?
There are two players in Brett Ritchie and Julius Honka who don’t have the scoring stats you might want, but have glittering underlying numbers. Are the Stars happy enough with these two just pushing the play?

I think they are happy to a degree, yes. With Ritchie, the coach has come out and even said that he’s struggled mightily this year. That’s why he’s found himself pushed down the lineup or eating some healthy scratches at times, as other players look better and produce. But he’s still getting the chance to play through his struggles for the most part, even if it’s to the chagrin of some fans. As for Honka, it’s tough for fans to see a young player with that much potential get jerked around in terms of playing time, but at the end of the day, the Stars need a defense that works. Honka seems to have taken his healthy scratches in stride, and his games of late have shown he’s listened when the coaching staff has said he’s been too cautious in terms of offense. I feel like he will be tough to fit into the lineup when Marc Methot returns to the lineup healthy, if only because I’m not sure he’s done enough to beat out Stephen Johns for the 6th D spot, and Hitch seems to love him some Greg Pateryn (even if the underlying numbers are just blah with him…)
Is. a 2.44 GAA and .919 SV% what you expected out of Ben Bishop? Is that enough to go where the Stars want?
The last few years, all Dallas would have needed was LEAGUE AVERAGE goaltending to go far. Those numbers are far and away better than what Stars fans have seen in the past 5ish years, so we’ll happily take it.
What will the Stars be looking to do at the deadline?
To be honest, I’m not sure there’s much that the Stars will do at the deadline. I think they like their lineup, and it’s been working for them of late, so it’s possible that they won’t want to overpay for a deadline rental. If they target anyone, I’d bet on a top six right wing to add some depth to the second line in terms of scoring, or someone that adds to the second power play unit to make that player set more lethal. But with the draft coming to Dallas this summer, they likely won’t want to deal too many of their picks — and their pipeline of talent isn’t in a position to deal too many of those (though if they are going to do so, blueline seems to be a position of depth but not necessarily strength, and they have a few forwards that could be of interest to other teams.)

 

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Ah yes. Everyone’s darling, the Dallas Stars. Another offseason championship for the Dallas Stars, as they upgraded behind the bench from Lindy Ruff to Ken Hitchcock, going from one coach who hasn’t won anything in over a decade to… another coach who hasn’t won anything in over a decade. They signed a winger who until last year was considered “enigmatic” and then went bonkers in his free agent year, because that always sustains after he cashes in. They upgraded their goalies, which tells you something as signing an over-30 goalie who has had hip and groin issues being considered a massive upgrade lets you know just how woeful their goaltending was. And there are a raft of kids who haven’t quite proven to be ready to take up the slack, with a coach who hasn’t always shown patience. Surely it’s going to work this time!

DALLAS STARS

’16-’17 Record: 34-37-11  79 points (6th in Central)

Team Stats 5v5: 50.0 CF% (17th)  50.7 SF% (11th)  48.9 SCF% (20th)  7.5 SH% (17th)  .919 SV% (23rd)

Special Teams: 17.9 PP% (2oth)  73.9 PK% (Dead Ass Last)