(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)
Last year, the Dallas Stars were a bit of an “it” team.
Lots of reason to think they'd be really good, from how the team was managed in the previous summer to the amount of talent already there, but they ended up missing the playoffs largely because Kari Lehtonen couldn't make a stop to save his life.
By Nov. 8 last season, they were 4-6-4 and losers of seven straight, and never fully recovered from that early stumble.
This season, though, they're off to the best start in franchise history, with the second-largest point total in the league and a plus-10 goal differential, despite a fairly difficult schedule.
So the question is a simple one: What's different?
Obviously there were plenty of major changes in the offseason. Antti Niemi was brought in as an insurance policy against another garbage year from Lehtonen, Johnny Oduya was brought in to shore up a young defense's play in its own zone, and Patrick Sharp was brought in to provide more balanced scoring.
So far, all have been resounding successes. With Lehtonen's quality-adjusted 5-on-5 save percentage at just .895, it looks like Niemi was a good investment even if it does create an awkward situation. Oduya is well above water in terms of possession, allowing the fewest attempts against per 60 of anyone getting meaningful minutes. Sharp, obviously, is playing very well on that top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
It doesn't hurt that Benn and Seguin are once again ripping the competition apart at the seams, scoring a combined 14 goals in all situations over 11 games. It also doesn't hurt that Jason Spezza is actually producing on the second line (5-5-10), which is something he often didn't do last year (“only” 17-45-62 in 82 games).
But perhaps the biggest reason that the Stars have roared out of the gate here is the apparent emergence of John Klingberg as a clear No. 1 defenseman.
Entering last season, the one weakness you would have clearly said the Stars possessed was that the blue line was a little iffy. Who was the best guy they had? Alex Goligoski? Not a good scenario, because he's a decent enough No. 2, but you sure don't want him playing almost 24 minutes a night alongside Trevor Daley (who now gets just 17:30 a game for Chicago). Not if you want any legitimate hope of even coming close to competing for the Cup.
As an aside, it's fair to wonder how much the defensive infirmity ended up affecting Lehtonen's performance, but he did a lot better the year before (.919) despite similar questions on the blue line, and even with the greatly improved ‘D’ corps this season he's been even worse, albeit in just four appearances.
Getting back to Klingberg's step into the limelight, though, it should be noted that his usage isn't changing much at 5-on-5, but what he's doing to the high-level competition he's facing is completely different. He was being deployed in a far more defensive role and certainly held his own last year, but this year, he's getting more time on the power play (about 3:30 a night versus less than 3:00, which may not sound like a lot but makes a big difference) and at 5-on-5. Using him on the top pairing with Goligoski instead of Daley is going a long way toward helping this team actually succeed this season where it did not a year ago.
But what's fascinating about the turnaround is that this team really isn't doing anything appreciably different than last season.
So far they've shot 9.2 percent at 5-on-5, a number which is going to come down, but not as much as one might expect given the high-level offensive talent as far down on the roster as the third line, where Val Nichushkin still seems to be working things out after his catastrophic injury last season. They're certainly getting more saves as well, especially now that Niemi seems to have taken firm control of the starter's job (Lehtonen hasn't gotten into a game in a week, and sat out an entire seven-day stretch before that as well).
So if the results are pretty similar at 5-on-5 more or less across the board — they've improved marginally in a lot of ways, and taken small steps back in others, so let's just call it breaking even — then the improved results necessarily have to be coming as a result of insane special teams performance. It should be noted, though, that going from abysmal defensively (they allowed 260 goals last year versus a league average of just 224) to mediocre (their current 30 conceded is one above the league average) makes a world of difference. You can put a lot of that on Niemi, all by himself.
And yes, that 26.3 percent efficiency on the power play has been astonishing, even as they're only a little bit better than average on the PK. It's more than 40 percent better than the league average through Saturday's games. If you can score 10 goals on 38 opportunities, that's going to make a difference.
Dallas has only had 56 minutes of power play time this season, just 17th-most in the league, but they have nine goals (tied for fourth overall) and that amounts to 9.6 goals per 60 minutes, fifth-best in the league. Even if you're not drawing that many penalties, that kind of number is going to be terrifying for opponents and put you in a significantly stronger position to win games. It helps that they're shooting 17 percent, but that's barely top-10 in the league. But even given the talent, 17 percent does not seem like a reasonable shooting percentage when they have one fewer defender to deal with.
They shot 14.4 percent on the power play last year and added a pure sniper in Patrick Sharp. If that shooting “quality” doesn't decline much this year, it probably means the Stars have the one of scariest power play in years; only two teams have cleared 17 percent in power play shooting percentage for an entire 82-game season (Tampa last year, and Philadelphia in 2008-09).
Supposing there is regression in this area, the Stars might struggle a bit more to win some games. Of course, we can assume that anyway, given they're 9-2-0 and no one is ever going to keep up that pace. But given that this team is always going to score its goals, and Niemi so far represents a significant upgrade over what they had last season, there's little reason to think they're going to miss the playoffs this year.
They have 18 points in 11 games. They didn't have that many until Nov. 21 last year, and at that point they were already five points out of a playoff spot. This year, they're already four points clear of the drop zone, and that's a gap that's likely to grow in the weeks ahead.
This is a team with a solid all-around roster that should remain in the thick of things in hockey's toughest division all year. They may not be world-beaters or anything, but they're very good top to bottom.
Overall, it's a good place to be where you can say, “Regression is coming, and there's no reason to be worried.”
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: The fact that Anaheim might still theoretically be in punching distance of a playoff spot in the Pacific speaks pretty clearly to how bad the “three teams from each division make it” idea is.
Arizona Coyotes: Everyone loves Max Domi, and why not? Here's a crazy stat: He has four goals at full strength on just seven high-danger scoring chances. At some point he's going to stop shooting almost 31 percent. That's my guess.
Calgary Flames: This was without a doubt the most fun game of the year. It'll probably hold up that way too. The Flames blew three separate two-goal leads and still won with 8.7 seconds left.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Turns out all you have to do to get John Tortorella to be mega-honest is have him coach a terrible team.
Dallas Stars: Also worth noting on the Stars is that they're not operating at 100 percent. Three forwards who were supposed to be bottom-six contributors this year are out for their entire four-game road trip.
Edmonton Oilers: Not great, Cam.
Florida Panthers: Aleksander Barkov is out for at least the next two weeks. Bummer.
Los Angeles Kings: Another team that was crap out of the gate and everyone panicked. Now they've won seven straight. Here's a great stat for the people who poo-pooed the Bruins, Kings, and Penguins: They started a combined 0-9 and were outscored 36-12. After that? They're 20-1-1, outscoring opponents 75-36. Hmmmmmmmmmm. Maybe we shouldn't put all our stock in the first two or three weeks of the season?
Nashville Predators: The only way this puck ends up in the net faster than the Shea Weber bomb is if it's teleported.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Best Halloween costume of the year, by far. Blessings to Bryan Rust:
St. Louis Blues: If the Blues can keep winning with all these important injuries throughout the lineup, then look out for them down the stretch. Hoo-boy.
Tampa Bay Lightning: This could be the point at which Ben Bishop ends up being Wally Pipp'd.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The guy I feel worst for in all this Leafs losing is Mike Babcock. I don't know why because he's rich and he knew what he was getting into, but man this has to be tough to watch.
Vancouver Canucks: This is Brendan Gaunce's first career goal. I like to see these always.
Play of the Weekend
This is what wraparounds are supposed to look like.
Gold Star Award
This Wisconsin women's hockey team is up to eight consecutive shutouts and hasn't allowed a goal since Oct. 3. It's 521:15 without conceding. That's gotta be some kind of record.
Minus of the Weekend
Sergei Bobrovsky is down to .865 on the season. How deep does this well go?
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “thrillermiller89” is looking for a lose-lose.
LeCavalier ($4.5 mil, 3 years left)
MacDonald ($5 mil, 5 years left)
Tyutin ($4.5 mil, 3 years left)
Clarkson ($5.25-$1.25 mil retained=$4 mil, 5 years left)
Hahaha it's easy to forget Vinny Lecavalier has three years left on his contract. Good lord.
I can't say I approve of the "woo" but the "hurrah" was quite heartening.
(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)