If you listen to the podcast or follow me on Twitter, you’ve surely heard me clamoring the last week that goaltending has not been the issue this season for Dallas.
Let me preface this by saying I don’t necessarily love the Kari Lehtonen/Antti Niemi duo in net. I was one of those clamoring for a buyout and an acquisition of Ben Bishop in the offseason. However, I’m also a pragmatist and once it became clear that was not going to happen, I switched to the mindset that “acquiring Ben Bishop/Marc-Andre Fleury/whoever isn’t just unlikely, it’s almost contractually impossible.”
We could argue why that’s so until we’re blue in the face, but that’s not the point of this. Yes, Dallas fans, barring some sort of miracle, or catastrophe, depending on your point of view, Lehtonen and Niemi will be your two goaltenders of record in Dallas for the remainder of this season, and probably next season, too.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Sure, it doesn’t seem that way on the surface. Heading into the team’s Thursday night game against the New York Rangers, Niemi and Lehtonen rank tied for 34th and 46th, respectively, in save percentage among goalies who’ve played at least eight games this season. Lehtonen is 37th and Niemi 42nd in goals-against average. That sure looks like a putrid goaltending duo, no?
It is, and it isn’t. You see, at even-strength play, the Stars rank ninth in the league in save percentage, at .9268. Last season, they were 27th at .9168.
That’s a full percentage point. While that doesn’t seem like a huge difference, that’s one less goal scored per 100 shots, which at the rate Dallas concedes shots, equals one less goal allowed every three-ish games. Again, doesn’t seem like a lot, but over 82 games that equates to 27 fewer goals, which last season would’ve given Dallas fewer goals allowed than Chicago, San Jose, Nashville and Minnesota, among Western Conference playoff teams.
Additionally, the Stars rank 10th this year in 5v5 goals-against per 60 minutes at 2.12; last year, they were 25th at 2.34. The decrease in both of these numbers can be attributed to a relative decrease in even-strength scoring as a whole this year. However, Dallas’ jump in both categories cannot.
My challenge to anyone who thinks the Stars need an upgrade in goal is this: who would you suggest? Among goalies who’ve played at least eight games, Niemi ranks 14th in even-strength save percentage at .9319; Lehtonen ranks 24th at .9225. These are the goalies who rank behind Niemi in ES SV%:
I count at least three goaltenders on that list that were on many Stars’ fans wish lists in the offseason.
Now, this post isn’t my way of saying “the goaltending is great, we should all be happy!” Because, no, that’s not the case. With the Stars’ overall save percent sitting barely above .900, and the fact that Dallas will likely be the first team in the league to concede 100 goals this season, against New York on Thursday, the goaltenders do bare a good portion of that responsibility.
What I want to illustrate from this post is that goaltending has not been the Achilles Heel of this team this season — in fact, I’d argue that if we put this year’s goaltending with last year’s offense, Dallas would’ve, at least, been battling San Jose in the Western Conference Finals. But again, not the time or place for that.
The problem is that: this year’s offense simply hasn’t been good.
There are certainly reasons for that. Injuries, a new cast on defense, etc. But the fact of the matter is, last year Dallas was the third-best even-strength possession team in the NHL at 52.6%; this season, it is 20th 48.9%.
The change hasn’t been a defensive issue, either. Sure, even strength shot totals against are up — 55.5 attempts against per 60 minutes a year ago, versus 58.1 this season. The more alarming number is Dallas’ shot attempts for: 61.6/60 minutes a year ago, down to 55.7 this year.
The increase in attempts against has been mitigated by goaltending that has improved. The greater issue is, with nearly six less shot attempts per game, the Stars aren’t generating as much as they did last year.
A year ago, 18 of 20 players who suited up for at least 200 minutes were positive possession players for the Stars. This season, only seven of 17 are. Of those seven players, only Antoine Roussel has seen his corsi-for percentage improve.
Those are concerning trends, particularly since we are nearly at the halfway point in the season, and should have a decent enough sample size to make judgements.
What changed for Dallas? Injuries didn’t help. Ales Hemsky (54.2 CF%) and Mattias Janmark (54.0 CF%) were Dallas’ fifth and sixth best possession players last season; their absence on a line with Jason Spezza can help explain his decline this season. Also missing from a year ago are Alex Goligoski (53.8 CF%) and Jason Demers (54.2 CF%), eighth and fourth best on the Stars, respectively.
Goligoski in particular looks like a big loss, which sort of serves as a told-you-so moment for plenty of Stars fans. It’s impossible to say what he’d have brought to this itineration of the Stars, as he’s been a complete dud in Arizona (42.3 CF%) for a bad team. You can certainly argue he’d not have been worth neither the dollars nor term he was given by the Coyotes, but it seems rather apparent that John Klingberg misses his old defense partner.
Which brings us to the apex of this point: perhaps the biggest reason the Stars have been a sub-par team this season is their special teams.
There’s a lot to dislike about both special teams units for the Stars so we’ll start with the most obvious: at 76.6%, the Stars penalty kill is among the worst in the NHL.
This partially explains the abysmal goaltending numbers for both Niemi and Lehtonen. A year ago, the duo stopped 86.87% of shots faced while shorthanded. This season, that number has fallen to 83.22%, second-worst in the league. Given the improvements made at even strength, I don’t see it as fair to place anywhere near majority of blame for that on the goaltenders.
Additionally, a year ago the Stars penalty kill ranked 10th in the league at 82.3 percent. For a numbers standpoint, that means, if we’re rounding down, the Stars were allowing one goal per every five and a half or so opponent power plays. This season, they’re allowing one goal per slightly over four power plays. I don’t think I need to tell you what that means.
The most concerning aspect of this team, for me, has been the continued high-risk aspect of the power play, which is no longer producing high rewards to go along with it.
This year Dallas has allowed the second-most short-handed goals in the league (five), has the fourth-worst power-play goals-for share (80%), and the worst power-play corsi-for percent (83.7%) in the league. The Stars’ 18.7 short-handed shot attempts against per 60 minutes is a shot and a half more than second-worst Pittsburgh, and nearly three more than third-worst Toronto.
These are alarming numbers, but they aren’t necessarily new. Last year, the Stars had the worst power-play goal share in the league (80%), and the 15th-best CF% (89.4), while also allowing a league-worst 14 short-handed goals.
What is new is the continued high-risk mentality of the Stars’ power play isn’t being justified with results. A year ago, Dallas’ power play ranked fourth in the league at 22.1%. Only six teams averaged more shot attempts per 60 minutes on the power play than Dallas, and only San Jose scored more power-play goals than Dallas’ 56. When you’re scoring a lot, you can overcome other detrimental aspects of your game.
This season, the mind-numbing turnovers at the offensive blue line aren’t being canceled out by power-play goals. Sure, Dallas has scored the ninth-most power-play goals this year (20), but they’ve also had the second-most power play time in the league. They’re also generating 10 fewer shot attempts per 60 minutes this year.
How does that get fixed? Well if I had the answer to that I’d be on the bench and not writing this right now. The numbers suggest it isn’t bad luck — the Star’s power-play shooting percentage is 13.9, down only slightly from 14.4 a year ago — but merely that the Stars aren’t getting enough quality opportunities.
That starts with the top players. It’s been digested plenty over the past few week, so I won’t belabor the point here. For the Stars to get back on track this season, they need their big guns to start carrying the load again.
Offensive depth is a good thing, no doubt. But as Sean and I have discussed on the podcast, when Adam Cracknell and Devin Shore are serving as offensive torch-bearers for your team, you’re in trouble. The good news is that there is room for improvement; if the Stars are able to find that remains to be seen.
On the other side of the ice, perhaps it’s time to trade a defenseman (as we’ve been calling for on the podcast). At even strength the Stars defense has been good enough this year; it’s special teams where the improvement needs to be made.
Unfortunately for Dallas, special teams often only improves with improved timing and confidence, something that’s difficult to achieve when you’re shuffling eight and nine defensemen in and out of the lineup. Perhaps if Jim Nill were to send a man out, and return Julius Honka to the minors once healthy (ducks for cover) then Lindy Ruff will finally be able to settle on a consistent defensive rotation and allow his players to get in sync with each other.
That’s all merely speculation on my part, but with the Stars running out of time to remove themselves from this hole, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to start.