Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The Stars' defensive woes have held them back in the early season, but there's hope for things to turn around if Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill can provide the team with the defensive adjustments they need.
Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill was universally lauded for his off-season moves. Signing Ales Hemsky and trading for Jason Spezza? Just like that, Nill landed two of the biggest off-season fish in one fell swoop. But an oversight on the defensive side of the puck has Dallas trying to claw their way out of the Central Division basement.
Breaking down the reasons for Dallas’ lack of success isn’t easy. From the outside looking in, you see a team that has all the makings of a contender, but hasn’t been able to produce the results.
What plagues Dallas, at least to this point, is a miscalculation by coach Lindy Ruff on how to properly deploy his defensive pairings and how those pairings are made up. Though there may be no true defensive superstars on the Dallas blueline, a permanent shuffle of the deck is necessary.
Take, for instance, the pairing of Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski, which until recently was a mainstay of the Dallas blueline. Tasked with playing the toughest minutes of any pairing on the team, the two were getting absolutely walloped. When they were on the ice they’d start just about as many shifts in their own end as they would their opponents, but more often than not they’d end those shifts in the defensive zone. When your top pairing isn’t doing much to help you drive play you need to shake things up.
That’s where the permanent separation of the pairing of Jordie Benn and Brenden Dillon comes in. When together, the two face tough minutes of nearly the same quality as Daley and Goligoski, but they’re faring much better than their counterparts. If Ruff can be swayed to split the pairings permanently – and he did in last night’s victory over Arizona – he could be on to something.
Over the past two seasons, when paired together, Dillon and Goligoski have positively affected the Stars possession. And while the sample isn’t massive, it’s hard to discount their level of play together over what amounts to nearly 565 minutes of even-strength play. In the same breath, Daley and Benn, when together, have made a similar impact.
Effectively, by splitting the pairings, Ruff would create a backend that is better at controlling play and getting the Stars the ever-important offensive zone start. And with a younger pairing in Jamie Oleksiak, who is heavily sheltered, and John Klingberg, Ruff would be afforded sheltered starts and lesser competition while he better understands their best usage. When the defense are moving the puck into the opposition zone, you can sit back and let the newly acquired offensive Stars go to work.
With more play in the opponents’ side of the rink, you could also expect the Stars to draw more penalties. Already 11th in the league at getting the extra man, even more time spent 5-on-4 would certainly help matters. That said, the power play is going to need some work.
For the most part, the top unit has been comprised of Goligoski, Daley, Spezza, Tyler Seguin, and Jamie Benn. Sure, they’re loaded with talent, but the unit has been struggling to generate shots. By struggling, I mean they’re the worst in the league. It’s reflected in their power play which is ranked 19th in the league at 17.9 percent even while shooting an incredible 18.2 percent. On top of that, the trade of Sergei Gonchar to Montreal – aging and injured or not – is going to leave the Stars missing someone to quarterback their second power play unit.
Of course, it doesn’t help when on the other end of the spectrum, the penalty kill, the team is struggling to suppress shots and has nearly the league’s worst penalty kill save percentage. The good thing? The save percentage is sure to go up. The bad? It’s hard to tell if the shot suppression will get any better, especially seeing as the 50.8 shots per 60 minutes of penalty kill time this season is actually an improvement from last season’s 55.
More than anything, Dallas’ penalty kill percentage should go up because of Kari Lehtonen. Throughout his time in Dallas, Lehtonen’s penalty kill save percentage has never been below .870. So far this season it’s a mere .833. He’s due to start stopping some pucks, and he will.
With what has been a largely porous defensive effort this season, Dallas is going to need Lehtonen to be a rock. To this point, though, he’s played like himself, posting similar numbers as he has throughout his entire career. Aside from some saves on the penalty kill, the failings of the Stars can’t really be reflected on Lehtonen.
Nill has shown that he has a proclivity for a well-timed trade or a big ticket deal – look no further than the trades of and for both Gonchar and Spezza – but he’s going to need to pull another rabbit out of his hat. Some believe jettisoning Gonchar could be a sign of more to come. Stars fans should hope it is. But Dallas doesn’t need more offense, they need someone who can defend.
If Ruff doesn’t shuffle the defense pairs and keep it that way, the Stars biggest defensive names will keep getting crushed. And if Nill doesn’t – or can’t – provide Ruff with at least one more horse, there’s potential for big trouble in Big D.