On the Radar: Continuing the Debate
Last week we examined some of the reasons that the Dallas Stars did not make any blue line acquisitions this summer as they fortified their forward and goaltending positions. Among the biggest reasons were the players who were available, the asking price for those players, and the help that appeared to be ready to step in from the minor-league system. But one key ingredient that also figured into the decision is that the Stars defense last year was better than most people give them credit for.
Now, if you are quick to disagree with that notion, before you start rolling your eyes, let’s take a look at some of the numbers.
Last year the Stars were almost dead center in the NHL in goals and shots allowed per game, ranking 17th and 18th, respectively. Dallas allowed an average of 2.72 goals and 30.4 shots against. While those numbers won’t exactly blow anyone away, it was an improvement from the previous season when the Stars were 24th and 22nd, respectively. But where the story really gets told is how the Stars fared as time went on.
Because of all the success the team experienced last season, it’s very easy to forget that the Stars began the year with a new coach, new systems, and several new players. Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill have both admitted on multiple occasions that they did not know a whole lot about their roster before arriving in Dallas. They were figuring out their team, while their players were also getting to know them. And the numbers reflect that there was indeed a steep learning curve.
In the first ten games of the season, the Stars surrendered 3.0 goals and 35.4 shots per game. Both numbers are well above their season average. Remember all of the odd-man rushes against Dallas at the start of the year? Remember the pairing of Alex Goligoski and Sergei Gonchar that prompted Ruff to say he would never go back to that tandem again? Remember the Stars 4-5-1 start to the season? That was Ruff and his team figuring each other out. It might seem like forever ago because of what followed, but the early part of the season still factors into the averages that make up the Stars mediocre year-end rankings. Dallas was climbing uphill from that start all year long.
But what about as the season progressed?
Well, let’s fast forward to the second half to see how far they came. Over the final 35 games of the season, Dallas allowed just 2.34 goals against and 27.6 shots against per game. Keep in mind, we’re not talking about a small sample size. That is nearly one half of the season. And in case you’re wondering, those numbers would have ranked the Stars 5th in the NHL in both goals-against and shots-against stretched out over the season. At one point, Dallas kept their opponents to 30 or fewer shots in 15 straight games. In 12 of their final 33 games (36.4%), the Stars held the opposition to one or zero goals.
Pretty good numbers, right?
But regardless of how the team may have responded in the second half, calls for a big-name addition on the blue line remain. And that’s understandable. Every team covets a top-end defenseman. Someone who plays about half a game. Someone who can run a power play as well as kill penalties. Someone who ranks among the NHL leaders in defensemen scoring. And someone who can line up night in and night out against the other team’s top line.
Well, what would you say if I told you that Stars had someone who actually checked off all of those boxes last year? Now, what if I told you his name was Alex Goligoski?
Ok, hold on. Before you completely dismiss the idea, check out the following statistics.
Goligoski led the Stars last season with an average of 24:18 of ice time per game – 21st in the NHL. He finished third overall on the club in scoring, and was among the top-20 NHL defensemen in points. He matched up against the opposing top line nightly and still finished the season with a +9 rating. He led Stars defensemen in power play and shorthanded ice time. And since we already covered how there was a period of adjustment for the Stars, let’s take a look at how it affected Goligoski.
The seventh-year defenseman had just one point and was a -9 in the first month of the season. Through the end of November, he had just 6 points in 23 games. But once he got comfortable in his new role, the numbers flew off the charts. Over the final 37 games of the season, Goligoski had 28 points. That’s an average of .76 points per game. Last season only two defensemen – Erik Karlsson and Duncan Keith – had more points per game than that. Additionally, Goligoski posted those numbers with a Stars power play that severely underperformed. Despite the slow start, he finished the season tied for 13th among NHL defenseman in even-strength scoring. Almost everyone universally believes the Stars will have much-improved power play with their offseason additions, which means Goligoski should see an increase in that department.
But as good as those second-half numbers are, his reliability was even more noteworthy. Goligoski was looked to more than anyone on the Stars blue line last year. And his response down the stretch was impressive to say the least. With a playoff spot on the line, Ruff rode Goligoski like Seabiscuit. Over the final 10 games leading to the Stars clinching a playoff berth, Goligoski logged more than 26 minutes a night, had 9 points, and was a +13. In the postseason he played a team-high 28:30 per game, had 4 points, and was +7 in 6 games against Anaheim. Again, remember, this was all against the other team’s top unit. And in case you forgot, the Ducks have a pretty strong one.
You also can’t talk about the stretch-run without mentioning the play of Trevor Daley. Partnered with Goligoski, Daley was also outstanding late in the season. He finished the year with 13 points in his last 17 games, while posting a +8 rating. In the playoffs he had 5 points and was +5 in 6 games. When Ruff was hired in Dallas, Daley said he was excited to play in a system where he was encouraged to lead and join the rush. As was the case with the rest of the team it took a little time to get acclimated, but Daley finished the year with a career-high in goals and arguably played the best hockey of his career late last season. Together the duo created a formidable top-pair that paced the way for the rest of the team.
Now, let me be perfectly clear about a few things. I am not claiming that the Stars have a top-five defense. Nor am I saying that you should pencil in Goligoski for Norris consideration. I’m also not suggesting that the Stars stop pursuing an elite defenseman if they can get one. Most people can agree that when you look over the Stars roster, it is still the defense that poses the largest question marks.
But when you look at how the Stars progressed throughout last season, you realize that this team was a whole lot better defensively than most give them credit for. That may be difficult for some to admit about a defense whose top-four features Goligoski, Daley, Jordie Benn, and Brenden Dillon. But while they might not be household names, the fact is that they got the job done a lot more often than they didn’t. And if you simply watched a group of hockey players ply their trade, with no preconceived opinion of what type of players they were based on either their resume or lack of one, the truth is that the Stars iced a pretty solid back-line for the majority of last season.
Now, in the upcoming season, add another year of experience for the younger guys, take away the learning curve of playing under a new coach in a new system, inject some high-end young talent from the pipeline and we’ll find out really quickly just what the Stars have on their blue line this time around. They have to make sure they duplicate the second-half of last season, and not fall into the trap of the start.
As far as any future additions are concerned, in his ‘Ask the GM’ interview, Nill said he’s always looking to improve his team. Rest assured he’s already got names of defensemen circled as possible in-season targets if they come available. The defensemen he wanted – for the price he wanted – weren’t there this summer. Time will tell if they will be there this winter. But in the meantime, Nill knows that if he gets a repeat of the final three months of last season the Stars will be just fine either way.
Last year Nill and Ruff – two of the most respected minds in the NHL – had little knowledge of their team heading into the season. This year they know exactly what they have and are making a push to be contenders. Yet, while they were busy making moves all over their roster, they chose to leave the defense untouched.
If the aforementioned numbers don’t tell you enough, that should.
Josh Bogorad is the Pre-Game, Post-Game, and Intermission host for Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on ‘Stars Live’ and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.