Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Dallas Stars are all but eliminated from the playoffs in a season that once seemed so promising, so how will they turn things around in time for next season? The solution might be simpler than you think.
When it came to pre-season predictions, the Dallas Stars were supposed to be the next big thing in the Central Division. They added big names, had promising depth and the playoffs seemed certain. Now, 70 games later and with their playoffs hopes all but dashed, how does Dallas turn things around next season?
The answer, or so most people thought early on, would have been to replace what looks like a mediocre defense corps. Sure, Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley are Dallas’ bigger names, but top-flight, Norris Trophy-contending defensemen? There are none in the Stars’ lineup. But as it turns out their defense has held up about as well as, if not better than, could be expected for a team that has no standouts on the backend.
The real issue for Dallas lies between the pipes. You need look no further than the Minnesota Wild for proof.
While it’s nearly impossible for there to be a one player cure-all for every team, which Devan Dubnyk seemingly has been for the Wild, it’s not as if the Stars would have needed a Dubnykian performance from their netmidners this season. In fact, just passable goaltending likely would have been enough to put the Stars into wild-card contention and the same will likely be true next year.
Consider that of all teams, no club musters more unblocked shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 than the Stars. They’re tied with the New York Islanders at the top of the heap with 45.3 unblocked attempts per 60. If Dallas is as offensively talented as the Isles, why have the fates of the two squads been so different?
First, defensively speaking, the Stars allow 41.7 unblocked attempts against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5, 23rd in the league. The Islanders allow four fewer attempts against per 60, eighth best in the NHL. Overall, however, that puts Dallas 11th in the NHL at 52.1 percent, meaning they get the bulk of the unblocked shot attempts for at 5-on-5. That’s ahead of playoff clubs such as Washington, Anaheim, Boston, Vancouver, New York Rangers and Montreal and wild-card contender Calgary.
When it comes to shot attempts, including those that are blocked, Dallas has controlled a similar amount of the play. Per 60 minutes of 5-on-5, they muster 60.9 attempts, behind only the Islanders (61.6). Defensively, though, they’re 25th with 57.2 attempts against per 60. Combined, Dallas gets 51.6 percent of the attempts, a healthy percentage.
Where do the Wild come in? At 5-on-5, Minnesota ranks four spots ahead of Dallas for seventh in unblocked shot attempts percentage (52.7). And the two teams are tied in shot attempts percentage at 51.6. That means when it comes to run of play and possession time, Minnesota and Dallas are actually more alike than you’d expect.
While the Wild may be more stifling on defense, the Stars are much more offensively gifted and unload a barrage of shots at the opposition net like few teams can. That’s the benefit of having offensive stars like Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky – when your defense fails you, you can outscore the competition or at least put pressure on opposing defenses.
And while the defending in Dallas has at times been lackluster or the offense hamstrung by injury, again, it’s neither that has been the greatest concern. Rather, the problem has been the lack of passable goaltending. Coach Lindy Ruff has made no secret of his displeasure with Kari Lehtonen’s play and GM Jim Nill’s acquisition of Jhonas Enroth from Buffalo was a warning shot to Lehtonen that the Stars expect better.
This is where Minnesota and Dallas are more similar. Before Minnesota’s acquisition of Dubnyk, which occurred on Jan. 14, they were 30th in the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage with an abysmal .895 mark. Their company at that time included Edmonton, Arizona and Carolina – all bottom seeds in the NHL. Since Jan. 15, Minnesota ranks fifth with .939 SP at 5-on-5. That’s been enough to pull Minnesota into competition for a wild-card berth and possibly a spot among the top three in the Central.
As for the Stars, they ranked only four spots ahead of the Wild with a mark of .910 as of Jan. 14. And since Jan. 15, Dallas’ .901 SP is the worst in the league. Overall, Dubnyk has improved the Wild’s 5-on-5 SP by 0.18, while the Stars goaltending has faltered to a drop of 0.03.
Lethonen has three years left on his deal at an annual value of $5.9 million. He’s not going anywhere – at least not without the Stars absorbing some of his salary. Enroth is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and likely won’t be back unless it’s a sweetheart deal. So, where does Dallas look for a solution?
Antti Niemi will be available, but it might be at a hefty price. Viktor Fasth’s deal in Edmonton is just about up, though his play for the Oilers has been questionable at times. Ilya Bryzgalov’s career looks over. Karri Ramo is an interesting possibility, but it’s a guessing. After that, the options begin to thin out even more.
Maybe the most interesting option of all, however, is Devan Dubnyk. With no contract extension in Minnesota and on his way to becoming an unrestricted free agent, he’ll have suitors if the Wild can’t lock him up. Could Nill go out and pitch Dubnyk on the Lone Star State? If he can turn things around for Dallas next season, underlying numbers won’t be the only similarity between the two teams.