Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill understands that it’s easy for outsiders to blame their struggles on the team’s goaltending.
Ever since Nill traded for and signed Antti Niemi in the summer of 2015, Dallas’ goaltenders have come under fire as the reason why the team has seemed to struggle defensively.
Nill has never wavered in support of the two netminders and sees them as the reason why the Stars are still hanging on in the Western Conference in an adversity filled 2016-17 campaign.
“The focus has always been kind of on our goalies and to be fair to them they’ve been really the ones that have kept us afloat here as we’ve kind of gone through this injury bug.,” Nill said. “Because of the way our team has been this year, we haven’t had the puck possession we used to have in the past and there have been a lot more chances against. We didn’t manage the puck as well as we should have the first 15-20 games and there were many nights where they’ve been the first stars for us and come up big for us.”
A year ago, the Stars’ track meet type style caught the NHL by surprise and led to one of the hottest starts in the league.
The team was one of the most exciting groups, using youthful speed along with veteran savvy to beat their opponents en-route to a Central Division crown.
This season the shine around the Stars in 2015-16 has worn off. The team’s offense, which ranked tops in the league at 3.23 goals per-game last year has fallen to 19th in the NHL at 2.50 goals per-game. Their defense is the NHL’s worst, allowing 3.20 goals per-game.
At 11-13-6, the Stars are just five points ahead of the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche for the worst record in the NHL.
“It’s time now,” Nill said. “We have to get our game going. The league is tight and every night somebody is getting two points. There’s two points and another point here or there. We have to start grabbing those points also.”
In some ways, the Stars were set up to get off to a slow start before the season even began.
Captain Jamie Benn suffered an abdominal injury during the summer that required surgery, which knocked him out of the World Cup of Hockey and slowed his preparation for the year. Center Tyler Seguin was hurt during pre-tournament play in the World Cup.
Forward Ales Hemsky suffered a hip injury during the World Cup that will require him to miss five-to-six months of action.
Then in late October, forward Patrick Sharp suffered a concussion that has still kept him out. Also, forward Jiri Hudler – a free agent signing last offseason – has played just five games because of an undisclosed illness.
“We started the year with six of our top nine forwards out. Never really got any traction going. It felt like training camp a month into the season almost,” Nill said. “We’re starting to get healthy now. We’re getting back there.”
One of the more troubling developments around the Stars season has been the play of defenseman John Klingberg. The 24-year-old blue liner has seen his points per-game drop from 0.76 last season to 0.50 this year.
Nill has faith that Klingberg will find his game, but it’s going to take some extra work to get back to the level where he was a year ago.
“It’s a tough league. Everybody’s well coached everybody has video. Everybody knows a player’s tendencies and I think other teams have figured John’s game out and now he has to make those adjustments moving forward,” Nill said. “He’s the first one to admit he didn’t get the start he wanted and then we had some of our other players, our high-end players, have struggled also. So that’s something we’re fighting through with all these injuries.”
Benn has notched 24 points in 30 games played – well below his points per-game average from the previous two seasons. Jason Spezza, who has 14 points in 23 games played, has also seen a drop-off in his numbers.
“There has been some struggle (with our high-end players) there and once again I think it’s the league getting to know our team better,” Nill said. “We had a good season last year and teams know that and they’re playing a little bit different and I think a lot of our players have to change their games a little bit too.”
Nill has built the Stars around the belief that a good offense can help a team’s defense – if the team has the puck, the other team doesn’t. But from a puck possession perspective the Stars have dropped off considerably going from a 52.66 adjusted 5-on-5 CF% in 2015-16 to 48.96 this year.
The GM notes that this has inflated the numbers of his netminders. In 19 games, Lehtonen has a 2.92 goal-against average and .894 save percentage. Niemi has a 3.20 goal-against average and .902 save percentage.
“A lot of times we’ve been a little too high risk,” Nill said. “I think the game has tightened up. You can’t play that way anymore. Teams have adjusted to us and really it’s more managing the puck better.”
Nill pointed out that there are some positive markers. They’ve gotten more contributions out of Patrick Eaves (10 goals), Antoine Roussel (16 points), Brett Ritchie (seven goals), Lauri Korpikoski (four goals) and Devin Shore (13 points) than they projected before the season. If the Stars’ big names can start playing better, the team could go on a run in the second half of the season. If not then the rest of the year could be more of the same from Dallas.
“If you’d have told me that Brett Ritchie would have seven goals, Devin Shore would have five goals, Roussel five goals, Korpikoski four goals, Eaves 10 goals (at this point) I’d say ‘I think we’re humming,’” Nill said. “But it has been the top of our lineup that hasn’t been able to score, especially 5-on-5 they’ve struggled. That’s where we have to be better.”
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