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The Stars sacrificed run-and-gun for stronger defense, but it’s not paying off yet

The once high-flying Stars have taken on a new identity under coach Ken Hitchcock, but Dallas isn't quite where many expected heading into the campaign.

It’s no secret that the Dallas Stars have had two priorities over the past two off-seasons, the first being the need to address the goaltending issues that have plagued the franchise for a handful of seasons and the second strengthening a blueline that has struggled to insulate the crease.

And after failing to truly do so ahead of the 2016-17 campaign, Stars GM Jim Nill was believed, by almost all accounts, to have done that over this past summer. To fix the former, the goaltending issues, two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop was brought aboard, Kari Lehtonen was shuffled to second-string duty and Antti Niemi was sent packing by way of a buyout. Nill did his best to shore up the team's defensive play, too, first by acquiring Marc Methot from the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, then by adding depth down the middle by way of responsible center Martin Hanzal. If there was a cherry on top of the entire off-season, it was that Nill had also managed to bring in coach Ken Hitchcock, one of the most revered bench bosses in the league who has a mind for defense, to steer the ship.

So, given the changes the Stars made, to say the start of Dallas’ campaign has been disappointing would be an understatement.

Through 17 games, one-fifth of the season for those scoring at home, Dallas doesn’t find themselves at or near the top of the Central Division, where many, including we at THN who selected the Stars to win the division, expected them to be. Instead, Dallas is sitting in a wild-card spot, two points back of both the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets with one more game played and already nine points behind the class of the Central, the St. Louis Blues, who just so happen to be Hitchcock’s former team. Recent play hasn’t been all that kind to the Stars, either, as they’ve gone 5-5-0 over their past 10 outings. Contrary to what some would believe, though, the Stars’ so-so start isn’t a matter of old issues cropping up again. In fact, the truth is Dallas has become one of the league’s stingiest teams.

In almost every defensive category, Dallas is among the class of the league. No team has held opponents to fewer shots on goal than the Stars, who are only allowing 28.7 per outing. Only the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings have been better on the penalty kill than Dallas, who boast an 86.7-percent success rate. And while not tops in the NHL, the Stars’ 2.82 goals against per game are comfortably in the middle of the pack. Even advanced stats give reason to offer praise of the Stars, as Dallas has allowed the fewest shot attempts against, second-fewest scoring chances against and sixth-fewest high-danger attempts against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. And while Bishop has been mediocre at best, with a .907 save percentage at 5-on-5, he hasn’t been the weakest link in Dallas. 

Rather, it appears that by hunkering down defensively and focusing on the things that ailed them over the past two seasons, the Stars have fallen behind in the one area of the game that set them apart. As strange as it may seem, there’s now reason to have some concerns about the once-run-and-gun Stars’ ability to consistently generate and finish off prime scoring opportunities.

During the 2015-16 campaign, a year in which Dallas finished atop the Western Conference with the league’s best goals for total, the Stars were an offensive juggernaut. They were among the league’s best teams at 5-on-5 — and we’re talking anywhere from first to third — when it came to generating attempts, shots, chances and high-danger opportunities. They were lethal, scoring 267 goals, and it led some to believe Dallas could outscore anyone on any night en route to competing for the Stanley Cup. Eventually, though, the offense dried up in the post-season and Dallas was sent packing, and allowing four or more goals against in seven of 13 post-season games was enough to see a significant shift in style of play.

From 2015-16 to 2016-17, the change from the up-tempo game the Stars had been playing to a more defensive style was evident. Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Dallas’ shot attempts dipped by nearly 4.4 (62.9 to 58.5), they fired 2.2 fewer shots on goal (32.1 to 29.9), earned 3.7 fewer scoring chances (31.7 to 28.0) and had 1.3 fewer high-danger attempts (12.5 to 11.2). And that’s a trend that has continued this season with the increases in every category from last season to the current campaign fairly minor. The Stars are averaging 58.5 attempts, 30.4 shots, 28.8 scoring chances and 11.9 high-danger attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 so far this season.

It may appear that it hasn’t impacted Dallas’ overall ability to score, as the Stars sit 19th in the league with 2.82 goals per game and are on pace for 230-plus goals this season, but that figure is bloated by Dallas’ power play, which accounts for 16 of the Stars’ 48 goals or one-third of their total offense. At 5-on-5, where the bulk of the game is played, it’s a different story as Dallas has the seventh-fewest 5-on-5 goals and fourth-fewest goals for per 60 minutes.

As with any team with scoring trouble, struggling shooters are partially to blame. Dallas has their fair share of those, to be sure. Hanzal has one goal 28 shots, Jason Spezza one on 38 shots and Devin Shore zero on 29 shots. However, the big guns — Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov — are firing above 11 percent. Overall, though, the Stars’ 5-on-5 shooting percentage is in the dumps, sixth-worst at 6.5 percent and maybe that isn’t so surprising given Dallas sits in the bottom half of the league in many of the same offensive categories they led only two seasons ago.

There’s no one set to press the panic button at this point in the campaign, mind you, and Dallas is still well within reach of the top of the Central if they break off a hot streak. But if the goals don’t start coming at 5-on-5 and the power play hits a slump, the Stars’ biggest issue might be the least expected: putting the puck in the net.

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