Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bag of Pucks - Feb 11 - Olympic Break Edition

There is no question that when a team is playing fantastic hockey that all surrounding the squad want the next game to be played as soon as possible.  That, of course, won't happen here for the Dallas Stars who last played Saturday night in an impressive shutdown of the Phoenix Coyotes and won't play again for 16 more days when the Carolina Hurricanes come calling on February 27th due to the Olympic break that has many of the leagues top players in Sochi for the Olympic Tournament that starts tomorrow.

As a brief aside, I highly recommend the NHL Gamecenter App for your phone to help with schedule, channel assignments, stats, and information regarding the Olympic tournament, but I am guessing if you care enough to read a column on the Dallas Stars every week, odds are pretty good you already have the Gamecenter App to follow the Stars, so you are all set up already.  Hint: Team USA starts Thursday at 6:30 am on NBC Sports with Canada and Jamie Benn starting the same morning at 11:00 am on USA Network (which is confusing to put the USA on NBCS and Canada on a Network actually called "USA").

You hate to stop down a rolling freight train when it has gained momentum, especially if you are aware of the roller coaster ride that the entire Stars season has been.  If you divide the season into 10 game segments, which is surely something that coaches do when they track the relative progress of the squad, you see how absurdly "to and fro" this season has been for the local side that is trying to break its playoff drought.  

It is a long season.  Good things are happening in Dallas.  But as we reach the 60 game barrier soon, check this chart below to see how they are completing the 6th segment of a season that just cannot sustain its course in either direction:
 With a maximum of 20 points in a 10-game segment, you can see that the Stars just cannot put 20 games together of excellence.  So, with 24 games to go, you can understand how this tight battle that includes the effort to hold off 4 other teams (Phoenix, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Nashville) for the final wildcard playoff spot is anything but a simple task.

I have no idea how many people read the column I write at DallasStars.com, but I would invite you to read the most recent one I have written which breaks down this playoff push (way too early, I admit).

Here is a brief excerpt of said essay:
(8) DALLAS: 58 games/64 points - We have talked plenty about how the Stars have started scoring on the power play and have limited all shots on goal by their opponents to well below 30 on a nightly basis. But, clearly, the fact that they were so awful in the first three weeks in January (1-8-1) and then so red hot in the last three weeks (6-1-2) makes us wonder a bit which Dallas team we will see over the final 24 games of the stretch. As it stands at this very moment, they hold a tie-breaker over the Coyotes so they are in, but given that there are five teams within four points, there is no time to do anything but keep winning. The great news is that even though he was in a goal scoring "drought", the team is still led by Tyler Seguin in points in 2014 as he has 17 in the New Year, with Jamie Benn at 16. But, they have been aided with plenty of help and the 18-year old Val Nichushkin has six goals in January-February and that trails only Jamie Benn. Keep digging, boys. 
(9) PHOENIX: 58 games/64 points - The Coyotes are that one team that you don't want to depend upon for losing a game down the stretch because it sure seems like nobody grinds out results like Dave Tippett and his crew in the desert. The Stars had to take four of four points from them last week to close the gap they had built up over Dallas, and they did. However, the two teams are in a deadlock with the same number of games to play and points in the bank. The stretch run will be fantastic and if there is a team that should not be undersold, it would be a team that figures it out almost every year. And we all know that the Coyotes have been pretty solid in that department over the Tippett run. 
(10) VANCOUVER: 60 games/63 points - The Canucks have really been a spectacle in the last month as the NHL's ironman Henrik Sedin has missed a bunch of games with a rib injury after being crosschecked by Martin Hanzal of Phoenix. Then, of course, the Canucks lost their coach, John Tortorella, after the line brawl incident against Calgary three weeks ago. Well, that hasn't really worked out very well for Vancouver which has now lost 11 of their last 14 games and went from nine points up on Dallas on Jan 1 to one point behind at the Olympic break. They also have played 60 games so the Stars and Coyotes will have that advantage when play restarts. You certainly do not want to count them out, as this time will give Sedin more time to get his body right, but Vancouver looks really lost without a compass at the moment. 
(11) WINNIPEG: 60 games/62 points - If it is possible for a Canadian team to have a story under-reported, it would seem that there should be more talk about this insane run that has occurred over the last month since the Jets decided to fire Claude Noel and hire Paul Maurice to coach the Jets. Since the firing on January 12, the Jets are 9-3-1 and have absolutely dominated the scoreboard with a ton of goals. People have always talked about the talent on the roster, but it had never really resulted in wins. But, Maurice knows his way around the NHL circuit for sure and looks like they have caught lightning in a bottle. The odd part is that Winnipeg was dead and gone before this rally and still may not be considered a real playoff contender by some, but discount this Winnipeg team at your own peril. They have done much of their damage with Maurice on the road, and we all know what advantage their rink can represent. 
(12) NASHVILLE: 59 games/60 points - And then those Predators. Like the Coyotes, they get results because of their ability to play their system and depend on grinding out results that aren't pretty. In fact, they have points in seven of their last nine games (since their spanking of Dallas on January 20), but have been outscored over that stretch 27-25. They have nobody with over 40 points, but five players with at least 30 points. The Stars, for example, have two players - Seguin and Benn with 50 points, but nobody else over 30. The Predators are balanced and confident in their system, and if Pekka Rinne returns down the stretch, things could get very interesting. As it stands, they appear to be on the outside looking in at the present.
Look, I fully recognize a breakdown of the 5-teams-one-spot blog is absurdly early pre-Valentines, but I am really taking this playoff dream seriously.  I have no idea what they are capable of for the final 24 games, but I am guessing we should assume it will take at least 30 points to get the final spot.   So, 94 points needed for the Stars seems to be the bare minimum, and maybe 34 to feel safe (98).  That is a real task if you put pen to paper.  For now, we will allow everyone to breathe and for many to go all the way to Russia and back while playing a ton of physical, high-pressure hockey games for their home countries.  No worries.


Since we do have this awkward break in the action, I also thought we could study the first 58 games by examining the special teams briefly.  It is, again, best done by 10-game segments and we can see that in the department of penalty killing the Stars ability to kill off Power Plays at a Top-10 level (which is 83% or better) mirrors the exact ability of the team to get points.  This may depend on the ability for the best penalty killers to be available and at the top of their game.  

Those most used penalty killers include: Alex Goligoski, Brenden Dillon, Trevor Daley, and Jordie Benn on the D, with Vernon Fiddler, Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel, and Ryan Garbutt up front.  There are others who contribute, but those are the Top 8 that are being used right now.  

Very little glamour here, but you can see that as the penalty kill goes, so goes the good fortune of the Dallas Stars...

The Stars are 20th in the NHL in Penalty Kill at 80.1% on the season, which oddly has been a bit of a strength over the last several seasons.  They have been in the middle of the league at this stat throughout the Glen Gulatzan run and into Lindy Ruff.

Ah, but now, the dreaded and feared power play.

Since the 2008 season, the Stars power play has always been pretty powerless, ranging from 13% at its worse to 18% at its best.  If 25% is Pittsburgh and 20% gets you in the Top 10 in the league, we should set our goals for anything at 20%.

This year, at 15.1%, they sit 23rd overall in team rank.  Last season, they were ranked 18th, after 2012 where they were dead last in hockey with a power(less) play at 13%.

But take a look at the graphic below to see how the Stars added new personnel and took a while (into December) to sort out this new power play.  But since then, they have kicked it into gear and have given us a 28 game sample that has not moved above or below 20% on the button.

To be exact, they are 20 out of 100 since Dec 13th, which means that not only are they in the Top 10 in conversion rate, but they are #1 during this long stretch in power play opportunities.

Let me repeat: Since December 13th, Game 31-Game 58 of their season, no team in the sport has been on the power play more than the Dallas Stars.  Other teams are in the mid to high-90s, but nobody has reached 100 besides this team.

So, you are on the job as much as anyone and you are converting at 20%?  It doesn't mean that everything is going to go right, because the Stars had a 1-8-1 stretch during this haul, but are you kidding me?  This team is pretty good right now.

They have certainly stacked the power play with the star power.  Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have been on the ice for 105 and 101 minutes during this stretch, with Alex Goligoski and Erik Cole next at 95 and 93 minutes of PP ice.  Then, Alex Chiasson is next with 86 minutes and it drops below 60 minutes with Ray Whitney, Cody Eakin, Rich Peverley, and Sergei Gonchar all between 50-60 PP minutes and then drops again into the 20s with Val Nichushkin and Shawn Horcoff.

But, the consistency from night to night is solid.  Add this to the Corsi/Fenwick #s that show the Stars are almost always winning the puck possession battle at even strength and we have reason to believe that there is nothing fluke-ish about the team's performance levels.  I say that because this team has been in the playoff mix several times in the last several years, but many times I did wonder how they were doing it.  Smoke and mirrors was usually my explanation with an occasional reference to the dead cat bounce.

I don't see that this season.  I see quality.  Not enough to be a contender, but enough to say that they are building a foundation and there is more substance than there has been in a long time around here.

Now, hopefully, they can figure out what might be added for the stretch run because I don't think they are inferior to the other teams in this playoff mix.

Next time, we will look at trade deadline targets and how it might fit with the bigger plan.  But for now, it is interesting how evidence is everywhere that indicates this team is ready to be taken more seriously in the mix for the post-season.

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