Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Power Play Has Zapped the Stars

Game #80 of the NHL season came and left Tuesday night with a giant thud for the Dallas Stars. Their dreams of the playoffs for the first time since the glorious spring of 2008 dashed for yet another year. The idea that barring some sort of late season miracle, some of the core vets who were part of that Western Conference Finals team from that year will now play roughly 400 regular season games before they get another crack at it this time next year is indeed a bitter pill to swallow. 400 games is a lifetime in the NHL for many, and now the 4 year drought appears that it will become 5 (and counting).

Many aspects of this evolution of the organization were promising this season. Coming off a summer of losing Brad Richards as the most coveted free agent in the league and still being in a spot where with one week to play they led their division is a consolation prize on some level and should not be ignored. Things that needed to happen this year did fall into place. The Stars received elite goaltending for a good portion of the year. They saw growth with a number of young players who could hypothetically be the core moving forward, including their star Jamie Benn. They battled with great grit and effort and competed hard on a majority of occasions.

Basically, all of that tells observers that the selection of new coach Glen Gulutzan was a sound decision and he appears to have a promising future in this league. A team came together this year and had a lot of pieces achieve at very high levels, and for that he should be congratulated and encouraged as the team enters an off-season that will hopefully include some talent upgrades. Upgrades that will offer him more tools in his toolbox for navigating through another meat-grinder of a season next fall.

But, clearly, when it appears that you have missed the playoffs again, we should recognize that the target was missed. And in that, we should review what will have kept the Stars out of the postseason. And, I think you would have a hard time looking too many places before you get to the Dallas Stars "power play".

The power play can either be your biggest weapon or your biggest energy-sucking-internal-defeat-mechanism. And for the Stars, that has been an easy choice to identify. In a 30-team league, the Stars power play has ranked 30th. It was bad in the early part of the year, and has steadily become worse and worse to a point now where the Stars power play this season is historically bad.

How bad is that, you ask? Hold on to your hats. Since 1970, only the 1973 expansion New York Islanders and the 1974 New York Islanders have scored fewer power play goals in a season than the Dallas Stars 33 power play tallies this season. The 1998 Tampa Bay Lightning also had 33, but beyond that, every team in every season played in the last 42 years in the NHL has scored more than 33 power play goals.

That is bad. Awful, really. Now in fairness, the 1994-95 season had several teams (9) who scored fewer than 33 power play goals, but that was the lockout year where the league only played 48 games. That's right, a majority of the league scored more than 33 PP goals that year in only 48 games. But this one is a full 82. And with 2 games to play, the Stars sit at 33, with the 30th best conversion rate on their power play in the league. Amazingly, Phoenix is almost just as bad. In fact, they are nearly a mirror image in all sorts of statistics, but when the Stars allowed 13 goals in their last 3 games, the Coyotes allowed 0, so I guess there are many ways to skin a cat. And it appears Dave Tippett's Coyotes have managed to sort their way into the playoffs yet again (barring a catastrophe).

And herein lies my concerns. I heard Razor talk the other night about the "commitment of Glen Gulutzan to his beliefs". I wish I could have heard further elaboration, but unless I was misunderstanding his message, I believe that was a respectful way of suggesting Gulutzan is stubborn and committed to the ways that he sees the game. These are admirable traits that should not be questioned in many regards. But, if you have stubbornness, and it applies to one of the worst power plays to ever take the ice, perhaps one might attempt any and all alternatives.

It must be noted that the Stars draw very few power plays, too. That is bothersome and a fact of how this team is built where face-offs are seldom won and puck possession is not its specialty. But, that is another issue for another blog entry.

The Stars have run their power play with the #1 unit of personnel generally being the following 5 players: Mike Ribeiro, Michael Ryder, Loui Eriksson, Alex Goligoski, and Stephane Robidas. This list contains 5 very talented NHL players and important members of the team. But, it doesn't contain this team's best skater: Jamie Benn. And I have a very big issue with that.

Here are the average amounts of power play time per game for the #1 unit: Goligoski 3:08, Ribeiro 2:50, Ryder 2:39, Eriksson 2:37, Robidas 2:36. Jamie Benn? just 2:15 Sheldon Souray, the player with the biggest bomb from the point? 1:48.

Now, I know that Gulutzan is aware of these numbers, and If I were to guess, he would rather keep his lines the same on the power play, and have Benn anchor the 2nd unit. That makes sense on paper. But, it stops making sense about 60 games into the season when the results are proving to be historically bad.

Benn has to be my first option on the power play. If I need to go with 4 forwards, I do. One of the biggest reasons that Benn is on the bench at the most important moments of the game - including last night's 5 on 3 for a minute when the Stars did not get a shot on goal - is that he is the 2nd center. Well, the 1st center, Ribs, has some of the longest shifts in Stars history. In a 2 minute window, some of his PP shifts go 80-90 seconds. That leaves center #2 with table scraps. And a spot on the bench for most of these man-advantages.

But, if the coach doesn't believe in a 4 forward power play, then make sure one of your defensemen is the guy with the giant bazooka, Sheldon Souray. I am guessing a few blue-line turnovers off blocked shots that turned into odd man rushes scared the staff out of this strategy, but that seems flawed as well, to a point. If my power play is going to be this bad, and maybe the biggest single reason I miss the playoffs, then I have to go down knowing that I had Souray and Benn out there and couldn't figure it out. Instead, one of those guys plays the 7th most power play minutes on the team, and the other plays the 10th most.

If you observe this team on the power play, you know it is often customary to place a D-man in the offensive slot. It is not uncommon to see Philip Larsen or Goligoski or Robidas down in front of the opposing goaltender. That seems to defeat the purpose of having 2 defensemen on the ice, by placing one so far up ice that he couldn't prevent a 2-on-1 going the other way, anyway. He is too far away. Are you telling me Jamie Benn wouldn't be a better option?

I like "committed" in my coaches. I like "stubborn", to a point. But, when this season is over, I am going to have a hard time understanding how this power play - that will perhaps be the headline on the grave stone - never featured Jamie Benn as its main attraction. When your season is expiring because a 5-on-3 was not even flirting with a goal, I need Benn to have been the focal point. He is too good. And your #1 Power Play unit has been too bad.

Something to ponder into another long summer.

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