Friday, December 24, 2010

Stars for Christmas

Who would have thought?

I am not for moral victories or counting chickens before they are hatched. Let's get that all out of the way here early.

I am not for reading meaning into sample sizes that are too small or trends that are not complete enough to leave room for regression.

I have grown up following the NHL, and one thing that they say every year around the league is that we need to wait until the Holidays and see what sort of team we have. The implication there is that by Christmas and New Years, you are about 40% of the way through your schedule and your warts will have appeared. Teams hate to make any major moves prior to the holidays because sometimes those moves are unnecessary if you are patient enough to allow things to normalize a bit.

But here we are. At Christmas.

And the Dallas Stars are tied for the top spot in the Western Conference.

To suggest that you could have received some rather long odds on this in Vegas back in the summer when the Stars biggest move was to acquire Adam Burish, well, that would be a bit of an understatement. We all love Adam, but the NHL was not rocked by that signing.

But, the Stars, for the most part flying under the radar, have gone about their business without doing much...other than collecting points over and over again.

In fact, heading into the Christmas break (if that's what you call no games for 48 hours), the Stars have grabbed points in 14 out of 16 games. The game early in the month at Chicago and the game at Phoenix are the only nights with no northward movement in the standings. Shocking, surprising, and wonderful all at the same time.

I have to believe this start is all Dallas Stars fans wanted for Christmas. Oh yes, we can continue to hope Santa Claus buys the team before the trade deadline and perhaps drops a young version of Derian Hatcher down the chimney, too, but are you kidding me?

So, why has everything started to go right for the Stars? There are actually a ton of statistics that are very fun to review over this stretch from roughly Nov 16 to Christmas Day. There have been some great advancements in a lot of areas, but I have one for you.

One that is so dear to my heart, that I wrote an entire blog on it back in October when I was convinced that it was taking the Stars down - the Penalty Kill.

Here is a passage from that essay:
There is no way you can make the playoffs with this penalty kill performance we are seeing. You may win games in the short term (4 out of 5 games), but in the long term, it is impossible. It can't be done. There is no way. (Is there any other way I can express my feelings about a topic?)

In 2008-09, the Stars missed the playoffs. One reason why is that their PK unit was 24th in the NHL.
In 2009-10, the Stars missed the playoffs. One reason why is that their PK unit was 27th in the NHL.
In 2010-11, the Stars want to make the playoffs. One reason why they may not is their PK unit is 30th in the NHL.

There are only 30 teams.

If you combine all 3 seasons since the Stars last were in the playoffs - and had one of the greatest PK defensemen of our generation, Sergei Zubov, they are 29th in the NHL as a cumulative total. 77.3% is well off the pace, and only is ahead of the 3 year total of Toronto (75.1).

And if you calculate NHL Penalty Kill units since Nov 16th, do you know where the Stars are with killing off penalties?

Try 2nd. 2nd in the NHL behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins. 86.5% PK, when the league average is around 80%. They have killed off 64 of the 74 Penalties they have taken over this stretch, and have moved up 30 points in the standings. Do you know the only team that has added more points? Pittsburgh has 31 points over this period.

I think it is important that we identify who is getting the great work done on the Penalty Kill. Razor tells us that the most important Penalty Killer is the goaltender, but how about those 4 that are scrambling in front of the goalie at all times?

Well, on defense, the man who plays a ton in every situation is Stephane Robidas, and he is the Stars ice time leader in the PK. Joining him with heavy duty on the PK in the back is Karlis Skrastins, Trevor Daley, and Nik Grossman. Those 4 are pretty much the main penalty killers in the back.

The forwards who are always doing the dirty work on the PK are the same Adam Burish and Steve Ott as the usual first unit. Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson are the fabulous combination of forwards who can help on the PK and the PP. Heck, Benn even has a couple shorthanded goals to show what he can do as a young player. Great assets indeed. And then Tom Wandell and Toby Peterson are the next two forwards who play the most while this PK has shot up the charts.

Then, to have Kari Lehtonen snagging 93% of all shots, well, you see why the Stars are going north in the standings.

The beauty of Penalty Killing is that it can be the absolute spine of your team and it is generally based upon continuity, resolve, and courage. World-class skill is needed to score goals, but a lot of times stopping goals requires grit and determination.

And in 2010-11, the Stars seem to have grit and determination.

Thank you, Santa Claus. This has been a very fun start to a season in which the Stars are on pace to return to the playoffs and finish well north of 100 points.

Keep pushing, because there is lots of work to do. But, the signs of success are emerging.

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