The way in which the Dallas Stars went from “very likely” to make the playoffs to looking around in utter shock at what happened to them was stunning.
On Feb. 9, they beat the Penguins in a shootout to improve to 33-20-4, a pace for nearly 101 points over the full 82. Little did they know that W, which gave them a five-game winning streak, would be the last time they would win even back-to-back games for nearly two months.
Their game two days later was portentious: They lost 6-0 at home to Vancouver. They won their next game against the Blues, dropped two straight in San Jose and Anaheim, and on and on. Even on March 5, at the end of their 66th game — their third straight to go to overtime — they were a respectable 37-23-6. Their pace had dipped just two points, and hey, everyone goes through futile stretches.
But their problems were just beginning. They lost that 66th game in OT, despite being at home against a woebegone post-deadline Ottawa team, and the next in Nashville (it happens!), then beat Anaheim.
Then they went on a six-game road trip and the wheels absolutely fell off. They lost every game on that trek, came home and lost two more. It gave them losses in eight straight, 10 of the last 11, and 15 of the last 20.
Their season was effectively over. It turns out you can’t lose three-quarters of your games over a seven-week stretch and hope to stay in playoff contention. By most measures of these things, they went from about an 85 percent chance of making the cut in early February to the about 3 percent ahead of Thursday’s games. It’s an incredible collapse.
The “why” of it isn’t really hard to figure out, and Dom Luszczyszyn had a great examination at The Athletic earlier this week. In short, there was little change to the way they played the game, but their team 5-on-5 shooting percentage dropped 3.7 percent and their PK cratered. Luszczyszyn notes that part of that can be attributed to the schedule they played and some injuries (most notably to Ben Bishop, but only since mid-March), but it really might just be a lot of very very very bad luck.
The question, then, isn’t so much what went wrong, but whether the Stars spent 50-something games playing well above their heads and saw it all come crashing down in stunning fashion. Even the flukiest of fluke corsi-defying teams of the last decade haven’t fallen apart like this, not “losing 15 of 20” bad.
You look at the Stars lineup and you see it’s got solid talent at the top of the lineup. Seguin, Benn, Radulov and Klingberg are all north of 60 points on the season. While even they have been susceptible to this downturn to some extent — they have 25 combined goals in the last 22 games despite heavier usage — they collectively face the same problem as guys like Taylor Hall and Connor McDavid. The gap between the Big Four here and the next-highest scorer (Mattias Janmark) is 30 points.
Likewise, the Stars’ defensive depth was an issue last season and it’s not like Jim Nill went out and tried to address it too much in the summer. They traded for Marc Methot, a low-scoring guy, to solidify the top pairing and otherwise didn’t fidget much with the blue line. Perhaps they expected Julius Honka to take a bigger step than he did (not that Hitchcock’s usage of him has helped).
And speaking of Hitchcock, you can’t say this isn’t a more cogent system than whatever Lindy Ruff was running last year. Adding Bishop (.916 this year) has improved the goaltending for sure, but Kari Lehtonen is up to .912 from his .904 over the previous three seasons, so I’m willing to chalk that up to Hitchcock’s penchant for making goalies look better than they otherwise might.
So the question is a simple one: Should we have expected a team with some pretty obvious roster deficiencies to be as good as we did?
Hitchcock and Bishop were always going to help, but it seems fairly clear that the team was mostly looking at what it did in 2016-17 and just said, “Yeah but if the goaltending were better,” then conjecturing as to the what-ifs. Because honestly, the offense apart from Patrick Eaves going off until they traded him was pretty bad last year, too. Seguin and Benn were worse, as was Klingberg. The only other saving grace was Spezza, who had 50 points in 68 games at age 33, though his most common linemate was, of course, Seguin.
So the addition of Radulov, while a prudent one to juice the top line, only further exposed the lack of offensive depth this team brought to the table when Benn and Seguin were off the ice. Look at this projected lineup from the start of the season:
That’s a lot of guys who are either serviceable but don’t excel in their depth roles (Roussel, Faksa, Hanzal), guys in over their heads (Janmark on the second line?), and guys who have limited profiles as NHLers regardless (Roope Hintz seems to have been replaced on the main roster with another “who?” prospect in Remi Elie).
The blue line still drops off pretty substantially after the first pairing, as well. Klingberg and Esa Lindell join Klingberg as the only defenders who average more than 20 minutes a night, and after that it’s Greg Pateryn, Stephen Johns (who was a rookie at 24 last season) and Methot. After that you’re in the weeds with Jamie Oleksiak (traded) and Honka (12-minutes-a-night’ed). Even if Honka were dynamite for 19 minutes a night, that’s not fixing the Stars’ problems.
That’s because the Stars’ problems are pretty simple to explain: When the top line is on the ice they’re a team with 53ish-percent underlyings, which is solid but not great for a top line. When they’re off the ice, it’s more like “less than 51 percent,” which is also solid but not great for the rest of the team.
But when you’re only just getting by in possession and don’t have a lot of scoring talent in the lineup, you’re operating on very thin margins and hoping the other teams also don’t have a lot of scoring talent. Let’s just have a quick look at the depth among a lot of teams in the Central and, ah, I see the problem.
This was not entirely foreseeable or anything, but the fact that Spezza, at 34, stopped scoring when you moved him away from elite talent shouldn’t be surprising, nor is the fact that this team’s bottom nine forwards has continued to not score much.
Depth is more important in the NHL than ever, and we’re seeing it all over the league. Dallas is no different, and even with a great coach, improved goaltending and a little more punch on the top line, maybe they were never going to overcome that.
The collapse is significant, no doubt, but taken on the balance and looking at the roster as a whole, I kinda feel like, in hindsight, a point total in the low 90s might have sounded just about right for these guys.