What’s the deal with the Dallas Stars? And by that I mean nothing negative, but rather where was this last season? Given that their roster has stayed relatively similar (with the addition of just Patrick Sharp), many would have expected this last season (and many did predict that). After dissecting their roster in the latest version of Hockey Prospectus, I was able to realize one thing: this team is really good. They’re deep, they have depth up-front, and young stars who are ready to take over the league. With Jamie Benn’s dramatic Art Ross victory at the conclusion of the 2014-15 season, the hype became real. The Stars have been sure to let the rest of the Western Conference and the league that they are a force to be reckon with.
At this date last season, Dallas saw themselves in 5th in the tough Central Division, with a record of 18-15-6 and 42 points in 39 games. Currently, they sit atop the Western Conference, boasting a 28-10-4 record through their first 42 games. Their 60 points puts them second in the race for the President’s Trophy behind the Washington Capitals. When evaluating this squad after last season, it was clear that their underlying numbers were not bad. But why the change in success so quickly?
It was always clear that the Stars were a high-event team, playing a style of game that was fast-paced and relied greatly on skilled offensive talent in order to get wins. At even-strength, the Stars averaged 116.3 Corsi events per 60 minutes to this date last year, and are playing to the tune of 116.5 events this season. Not a significant change at all (both 1st in the league), so their style of play has certainly not shifted.
When looking deeper, the breakdown of this possession has seen a shift. Shown in the chart below, they have seen a slight increase in CF60 and a slight decrease in CA60, enough to almost offset each other. The result is a CF% increasing from 51.1% in the first half of last season to 52.6% thus far this season.
Part of this jump can be credited in-part to Patrick Sharp. His acquisition in July indicated Dallas’ intent to go all-in offensively, but also brought a possession-friendly forward to their impressive roster. Sharp’s career numbers are impressive – he has posted a CF% of over 53.7% at even-strength in each of his last seven seasons. Mind you, playing on a highly talented Blackhawks squad will do that for you, but his individual numbers are nothing to shrug at. A four-time 30-goal scorer, Sharp deserves at least minimal credit for Dallas’ first half success.
Broad possession numbers are only one way to look at a team’s success, and often are an incomplete way to do so. More context exists, and in this case it comes in the form of War On Ice’s scoring chances metric. To this date last year, Dallas was producing 31 scoring chances for per 60 minutes of even-strength play (first in the league), and allowing 28.8 scoring chances against per 60 minutes at 5v5.
This season, the Stars are producing 32.2 scoring chances for per 60 minutes while allowing 27.7 scoring chances per 60; a similar shift to that of their Corsi numbers. While it’s a small change to the eye, it jumps their SCF% from 51.9% to 53.8%; they are getting a large number of the quality chances in the games they play.
They don’t lead the league in terms of the percentage statistics (CF%, SCF%, etc.), due to their rather high-tempo and frantic gameplay style. However, their offense leads the league when it comes to rate statistics (CF60, SCF60). As noted, they have the highest “pace” in terms of Corsi events per game. In the chart below, you can see that their scoring chances per 60 minutes compared to the next best four teams in the NHL. It doesn’t even seem to be a competition, as Dallas is clearly an offensive powerhouse and is setting the pace for the rest of the league.
These incremental increases have been seen almost across the board for the Stars. Diving deeper into scoring chances, we can also look at the rate at which they produce and allow high-danger scoring chances. According to War On Ice, Dallas’ HSCF60 sits at 13.2 for this season, up from 12.2 at this point last year.
A point of focus in my review of the Stars at the conclusion of the 2014-15 season was their goaltending. Inconsistent and rather unreliable were the typical adjectives used to describe the play in net for the Stars last season, and it may have been a key reason for their exclusion in the playoffs. With the addition of Antti Niemi, the Stars are confident in the two goalies that take the crease behind them. They are getting a save percentage of 92% at even-strength thus far in 2015-16, up from 91.1% to this point last season.
While there is not one single number that the Stars have improved, they have been incrementally better in a number of key areas. Their possession, while good last season, is even better this season. They continue to produce quality chances at a league-best rate, and are getting better underlying numbers from their netminders.
The way they take the ice has not changed much. They are still a team that is reliant on their offensive power, looking to simply “outscore” the opponent. They are not a good defensive team by any means, and cannot take pride in their ability to limit chances in their own end of the ice or control the game for 200 feet. They allow a significant number of chances, which is the reason why they struggle to be a league leader in terms of percentage-based statistics.
But with all else said, they are a very, very good hockey team. The talent they have up-front, in their top-six is dynamic. And they can play four lines with the best of them. As they look to push a deep playoff run, they will need to tighten up around their own cage in order to keep the top Western Conference teams off the board. The conference is stacked with talent and only the most complete team will get a shot at Lord Stanley in June.