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On the Radar: Defensive Counter

by Josh Bogorad / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars went 1-1-1 last week. While the Stars have points in four of their last five games and are recently coming off a .700 homestand, the pair of losses over the weekend left a sour taste in the mouths of Stars fans. A big reason why was the fashion in which those losses came. Dallas gave up five goals on back-to-back nights, marking the fourth times in the last seven games that the Stars had allowed five-or-more goals. It doesn't take a hockey expert to know that giving up five goals will dent your chance of winning. Games like that cost you.

But the ten-goal outburst got me thinking. I recall last season the Stars having their share of defensive hiccups, too. Especially at the beginning of the season. Yet, something seems different about this year. So, how do the two seasons compare?

This season the Stars have allowed 5-plus goals in 7 of 24 games thus far. That comes out to 29.2% of their games. Last year the Stars surrendered 5-plus goals 12 total times. Five of those came in the first-24 games of the season. That's 20.8%. While marginally less frequent than this season, that is still a pretty large number. But, again, why does something seems different this year?

As it turns out, the reason can be found at the other end of the extreme. The fact is that even as the Stars defense battled through major growing pains last year, there was a boom/bust element with their goals-against. Yes, the Stars were going to have their rough nights and get pelted on the scoreboard. Opponents would get their half-dozen and the Stars got a learning lesson. It happened more than Dallas cared to experience. But the Stars also had their nights where everything fell into place. And it's those nights that Dallas is missing more than anything else this year.

Last season the Stars held their opponents to less than two goals in 23 of 82 games. That's 28% of the time. In those first 24 games we just mentioned, the Stars did it seven times. If you need reminding, that's twice more than the number of games where they gave up five-or-more.

This year, however, the Stars have only held their opponent to fewer than two goals twice in 24 games. That's just 8.3% of their games. Last season the Stars were able to balance the big numbers-against by posting just as many - and eventually more - of the minimal-against variety. That's why the Stars were three-games over .500 at the end of November. This season the Stars haven't been able to find those great defensive counters. That's why Dallas is one-game under .500 heading into December.

You can draw your own conclusions as to why they have had so much trouble in the goals-against department. Their 78.6% penalty kill (10th worst in the NHL) isn't helping. Neither is their 32.5 shots-against average (6th most). Their .893 team save-percentage (3rd lowest) certainly has been a contributing factor. But as Lindy Ruff has pointed out multiple times this season, every night seems to be a different issue for the Stars. So you can't really point a finger at one, single element to blame. Whatever it is, it needs to be improved. Quickly.

The Stars have allowed 83 goals in 24 games. That translates to just about three and a half goals-against per game. It ranks tied for dead-last in the NHL. As bad as the nights are when the Stars give up five, six, and seven, the consistent nights of three and four with little respite are just as damaging. Through 24 games last season, despite giving up five-or-more goals a handful of times, the Stars only allowed 68 total goals over that span. With a similar number of big nights-against, the Stars still managed to lower their overall goals-against average by 0.63 from their current number this year. It's pretty easy to understand the correlation between GAA and record, but if you need supporting evidence, here it is.

There are nine teams in the NHL who have losing records this year. ALL of them rank among the ten-highest in team goals-against average. In today's NHL, you simply cannot give up that many goals on a consistent basis and expect to be successful.

But as tough as the first two months of the season has been from a goals-against standpoint, there is still good news for the Stars. First of all, the Stars begin this month just five points back from the final playoff spot. Five points is a good week in hockey. It is a very small gap. Secondly, there is plenty of time left in the season to tighten things up. There are 58 games remaining. While Dallas hasn't started the way they would have liked, they have hardly been left in the dust.

But lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the numbers show that the Stars don't have to be perfect. They just have to be better. The Stars have an offense that is going to win them games. It already has, even with their goals-against near the bottom of the league. The Stars are on a better offensive pace than last year when they finished in the Top-10 in NHL scoring.

Earlier we used the measuring stick of allowing one or zero goals-against to show just how well the Stars balanced out their bad nights last year. However, this year the defensive magic number has been much more attainable. This year the Stars are 8-3-2 when allowing THREE goals-or-less. That's a .692 winning percentage! When allowing up to three goals! That's the type of offense the Stars have supporting them.

Last year the Stars defense was hit or miss for most of the season, but got much stronger over the final two-thirds of the season. This year the Stars need a repeat of that. But through 24 games, they've shown that the "hit" doesn't need to be as strong as some might think. Maybe it's getting that one extra kill, that one additional save, that one shot blocked. Whatever it is, even for a team that has been struggling, the numbers show that it is an attainable goal.

Or, more appropriately, an attainable goal-against.

It's an Original-Six week for the Stars with road games in Toronto and Detroit, and a Saturday night hosting of the Montreal Canadiens. Here are a few things to keep 'On the Radar' in the Stars upcoming games:

Familiar Faces

The Stars will see some familiar faces in their three games this week. On Tuesday, Dallas faces off against former Dallas defenseman, Stephane Robidas for the first time since he signed with the Maple Leafs in the offseason. Robidas spent 11 of his 15 seasons with the Stars. Tuesday is also a homecoming trip for three Stars players. Tyler Seguin, Trevor Daley, and Jamie Oleksiak are all from Toronto, and this will be their only trip home this season. On Thursday, Stars forward Patrick Eaves returns to Detroit in the first season after spending five years with the Red Wings. Finally on Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens come to American Airlines Center, and it will be the first meeting since the Stars acquired Travis Moen in exchange for Sergei Gonchar.



NO-vertime

On Saturday the Stars went to overtime for the first time in 13 games. Despite the layoff, their unfortunate history after regulation remained intact. After falling the Minnesota, the Stars fell to 1-5 in OT/shootout games this season. Their 4-games under .500 mark ties for the worst in the NHL. Dating back to last season, Dallas is 7-16 in games decided past regulation. That is second worst in the league, ahead of only the New Jersey Devils. Ironically, the only OT/shootout win for the Stars this season came at the expense of the Devils.

Dog Pound

Stars forward Ryan Garbutt is eligible to return to the lineup on Tuesday after serving a two-game suspension. Garbutt has missed five of the last six games due to an injury immediately preceding his suspension. Despite the offensive success Cody Eakin saw playing as a center between Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in Garbutt's absence, Ruff appeared in Monday's practice to reunite Eakin with Garbutt and Antoine Roussel. Ruff cited that trio's energy and versatility as the reasons he wants to keep them together. In the lone game of the last half-dozen that Garbutt appeared in, Ruff didn't start with the three of them on the same line. If Ruff does keep that line together, it would make Tuesday's game the first in over two weeks where they skate together from the start. Based on Monday's look the change could also coincide with Ales Hemsky getting moved up to the top line with Benn and Seguin. Hemsky scored his first goal with the Stars on Friday, and has four points in his last five games. He is on his most productive stretch since joining Dallas over the summer.

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.

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