What went right and wrong in Stars’ season

Now that the Dallas Stars’ shortened 2013 season is in the books, it’s time to dissect what went right, what went wrong and what is promising heading into the start of the Jim Nill era as the club’s general manager.

The Play of Kari Lehtonen in Net
The numbers might not illustrate it, but it was overall another solid year for Kari Lehtonen between the pipes for the Stars. The No. 1 goalie appeared in 36 games, 35 of which were starts and went 15-14-3 with a 2.66 goals-against-average and one shutout. Sure, his .916 save percentage is something his coaches, the man himself and fans would like to see improve, but had Lehtonen not been in net for much of the year, it’s very likely the Stars would have been nowhere near the playoffs. He stood on his head for much of the season and his ability to keep them in a lot of games has to be commended.

Pretty Strong Play on the Road for Much of the Year
While the Stars finished the year at 11-11-2 on the road, their record away from American Airlines Center was rock-solid for a good part of the year. Maybe a big part of their road success can be chalked up to Dallas having the league’s fourth-best road penalty kill, a unit which snuffed out opposing power plays 86 percent of the time. In a year where the Stars struggled on home ice for much of the schedule, it was their ability to consistently get points on the road that ultimately helped keep them in the playoff race.

Improvement on the Power Play
After finishing last season with the worst power play in the league and the worst in franchise history, the Stars’ PP had nowhere to go but up. Of course, Dallas did finish middle of the pack in the NHL when it came to power plays, but converting at a rate of 17 percent is a definite improvement from last season, when the Stars converted at just 13.5 percent. Of course, the true test of how improved this unit is won’t come until we can see those numbers over an entire 82-game season, but any improvement over last year is definitely welcomed.

Strong Performances from Four Newcomers
When the Stars signed veteran forward Ray Whitney last summer, big things were expected and after missing the early part of the season with a foot injury, the Wizard was nearly a point-a-game player. But few could have foreseen the emergence of fellow newcomers like defenseman Brenden Dillon, center Cody Eakin, acquired from Washington in last summer’s trade for Mike Ribeiro, and gritty Frenchman Antoine Roussel. Dillon was stellar at the blueline as a rookie and learned a great deal by being paired with veteran Stephane Robidas for much of the year. Eakin played up and down the lineup and chipped in consistently on both ends of the ice while Roussel did a little bit of everything-get under opposing players’ skin, score some goals, chip in some assists, occasionally drop the gloves and do the dirty work that never shows up in a box score.

The Offensive Production from Alex Goligoski
When the Stars acquired Goligoski from Pittsburgh prior to the 2011 NHL Trade Deadline, he came to the Stars as a puck-moving defenseman. “Goose” had 21 assists over 71 games last year, so seeing him rack up a team-leading 24 helpers in 47 games this year. While some have said the club might try to move Goligoski this summer as along with Trevor Daley and Philip Larsen he is one of several puck-moving d-men the Stars currently have on their roster, it would be pretty surprising not to see him back for next year.

Struggles on Home Ice
The Stars’ final home record was 11-11-2, an identical mark to their final road record. Plain and simple, Dallas was not a consistent winner at the AAC, and that’s clearly something that has to change going forward. The crowds in the barn down on Victory were solid for much of the year but unfortunately, the Stars didn’t seem to capitalize on having what was often a good atmosphere in that spacious building. Dallas failed to “make hay” at home in the truncated season as head coach Glen Gulutzan said they needed to do at several points during the shortened schedule and that alone was a big reason why they missed the playoffs for a fifth straight year.

A Rash of Slow Starts, Especially at Home
Another issue that is closely associated with the Stars’ mediocre home record is the fact that there were more than a few games this year where the opposition jumped on Dallas early, putting the Stars in an early hole and forcing them to play catch up the rest of the game. To their credit, Dallas was highly resilient in battling back but every NHL coach will say that playing from behind is a tough road to hoe on a consistent basis and the Stars seemed to dig themselves a considerable number of early holes this year, especially at home and doing that consistently only made it even tougher to end their current playoff dry spell.

Another Disappointing Finish
For a second straight year, the Stars finished the year on a five-game losing streak. Just two weeks from the end of the regular season, Dallas was definitely a factor in the race for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference, but a couple of tough losses in their final five games doomed their chances and relegated the Stars to the playoff sidelines for a fifth straight season. Sure, the losses at the Kings and Sharks were heartbreaking and with a play or two breaking in the Stars’ favor, the game could have swung Dallas’ way. But dropping five straight to end the season in back-to-back seasons is clearly no way to finish the year no matter whether the schedule is shortened or not.

Penalties Remaining a Big Issue
One of the bigger mantras to come out of last season was that the Stars wouldn’t be penalized as much in 2012-13 as they were in previous years. Some thought the trading of Steve Ott to Buffalo and Ribeiro to the nation’s capital would help alleviate this issue, but those moves did not. Dallas finished the year with 623 total penalty minutes, averaging 13 per game, which ranks them sixth-worst in the NHL. The Stars also spent 287:54 on the penalty kill, the fourth-worst total in the league. But the most disconcerting numbers associated with the Stars’ rash of penalties again in this truncated season was the fact that they tied with the Flyers, a team that also didn’t make the playoffs, for the league lead in bench minors with nine. Whether Gulutzan returns to the Dallas bench or if the Stars have their fourth head coach since 2009, if they can’t get discipline under control, then this streak of no playoffs could continue well into the future.

Second-Period Struggles
Looking at the goal differential between the Stars and their opponents for both the first and third periods and things are pretty even. However, taking a glance at Dallas’ numbers in the middle frame and it becomes glaringly obvious where much of their struggles originated from in the 48-game season. The Stars were minus-15 in the second period and those woes in the middle 20 minutes were another strong factor in why they missed the playoffs yet again. Shoring that up next season and beyond could go a long way in seeing this playoff drought come to a hasty end.

A Mediocre Record in One-Goal Games
In recent years, it seems like Dallas had been pretty solid in close games. However, this year, the Stars seemed to regress a bit in that respect, finishing with a 10-10-4 mark in one-goal games, a mark that is clearly not good enough to be a playoff team in today’s NHL. Maybe much of that record can be chalked up to the Stars having a pretty young roster, but then again maybe this record illustrates how infrequently Gulutzan’s club was getting it done at crunch time.

A Solid Young Core Remains in Place
Besides Dillon, Eakin and Roussel, there were several other young players who made a strong initial impression this past season, with rookie winger Alex Chiasson, who played well before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the final part of the stretch run, also earning high marks for his solid offensive production even given a small sample size. Fellow forward Reilly Smih also showed flashes of his immense potential but like many young players still struggles to find consistency on an ongoing basis. Hulking defenseman Jamie Oleksiak also showed flashes of his potential but also looked lost at times. Backup goaltender Richard Bachman, who also had an up-and-down season before finishing strong in his final few starts, also warrants mentioning.

Offense Wasn’t an Issue
When the Stars made their surge after the NHL Trade Deadline, they ranked among the top 10 in the league in goals scored, which was also a good sign. Of course, that pace ebbed a bit further down the stretch as games tightened up and the stakes became even higher, but seeing Dallas knock the puck in at a regular pace pretty late in the year was a good sign and definitely a favorable omen going forward. And if the Stars are going to continue climbing when it comes to attendance, playing an attacking style of hockey with plenty of goals can only help that cause.

This is a Tight Group
No matter the results or lack thereof over the past few years, these last several Stars teams have all possessed strong chemistry, which is definitely encouraging going forward. Some might say chemistry doesn’t mean anything, but it is highly important that everyone in the room is on the same page and not only fighting for the team name on the front of the shirt, but also for every other name on the back in the room and the Stars clearly have that down. They not only play for the city of Dallas and the entire Metroplex, but they also play for each other. That mentality isn’t something that’s taught. Either a team has it or they don’t and the Stars clearly have that quality going in their favor.