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Sub-par penalty killing a big problem area this season

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

After the Dallas Stars missed the playoffs for the second season in a row - the first time that’s happened since the franchise relocated here from Minnesota in 1993 - it didn’t take a hockey genius to determine some of the factors that led to such an outcome.

Probably the one most glaring aspect of the game that the Stars underperformed at this past season was their penalty killing. The club finished 27th in the 30-team NHL after nullifying 77.4 percent (223-for-288) of their opponent’s power plays, including a league-worst 76.1 percent on home ice. The full-season PK efficiency was its worst since the North Stars’ 75.2 percent in 1987-88, when they finished last overall in the NHL standings.

Club management acknowledged that the penalty kill was a specific issue they wanted to address during the off-season heading into 2010-11.

“In terms of what areas we need to improve, to me there’s some obvious ones,” assessed coach Marc Crawford. “Statistically, you look at goals against, you look at our penalty killing, and they’re obvious. The more pointed response is, ‘How do you make those improvements, and how are we going to make those improvements?’ I’m confident that we’re going to be able to.”

“I think you can point to some of the categories where we fell short,” added General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “Our goals-against obviously, our penalty kill, those are all areas that through our evaluation process we’ll look at and have to improve on.”

Top defenseman Stephane Robidas, one of the players who anchored the PK unit, knew it was a soft spot and shouldered some of the blame for it.

“We weren’t good enough and I’m part of it,” said Robidas, who averaged 3:05 of ice time per game while shorthanded, ranking second on the squad behind fellow blueliner Karlis Skrastins. “I’ve played on every PK and it’s really disappointing for me, I take it really personally, because every time I go out there, I want to kill it. Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job as a team, and I take full responsibility for it, because I’ve been on it every game. I don’t know what it was.”

The Stars did have some impressive stretches during the year while penalty killing, such as an eight-game period in late October/early November in which they killed 24-of-26 attempts over a 10-game span from late November to mid-December when they shut down another 23-of-25. But there were also some rough spots, with a couple of two-game meltdowns where they gave up five goals on 12 chances in November, or six goals on nine opportunities in December, not to mention the seven-game span in January when the Stars surrendered nine goals on 22 advantages.

Their ability to stop opposing power plays did go up a notch around February, as the squad managed to nullify 22-of-24 opportunities over a span of eight games and surrendered 20 man-advantage goals in 105 attempts (81.0 percent, which would have ranked 19th over a full season) in the final 25 games.

With a new coaching staff in place this season, some observers speculated part of the PK problems stemmed from players’ difficulty adjusting to Crawford’s new style of play, and it improved as the season went along because they started to grasp it better. But Robidas flatly dismissed that notion.

“We changed little things, but nothing crazy,” Robidas pointed out. “It doesn’t really matter what system you’re playing, it’s the players that are on the ice that are going to make it effective or not. You can have the best system, but if the players on the ice don’t do the right thing, it’s hard to be successful.”

Robidas believed the club’s improvement in that area late in the year was due to a more aggressive mindset and a better ability to get the puck down the ice when they had the opportunity.

“I think lately, we were a little better, because we’ve been more aggressive and on our toes, getting better clears, and I think that’s something that really haunted us,” Robidas said. “Usually, on the clear, if you don’t get it out, you give a second chance to a team and usually that’s when they capitalize. They usually don’t score the first time, it’s the second time, because then you get caught on the ice for a long time and you’re tired and the other team gets momentum by staying in the zone. If you can clear it, then they have to go back and try to come back and enter the zone again and then you have a chance to break their momentum. That’s one point that I could see we haven’t been really effective.”

One mitigating circumstance that contributed to the sub-par PK was also the fact that the club utilized several younger players in that role for the first time in their careers - guys like second-year winger James Neal and rookie center Tom Wandell for 50 games until his season-ending injury in January. Their inexperience in those situations undoubtedly had an impact on the team’s overall effectiveness in that area. 

“It’s a lot of things, little things you can do better and I think overall, it’s guys learning - we had a younger team learning how to do things right on the penalty kill,” said veteran winger Jere Lehtinen, a longtime penalty killing guru who ranked third on the squad (and first among forwards) in shorthanded ice time, averaging 2:17 a contest. “You have to be on top of that if you want to be good in this league.”

“I think we had a lot of new personnel at it this year, a lot of younger personnel, and I think sometimes there’s a learning curve and that’s part of it,” added assistant coach Stu Barnes, himself an outstanding penalty killer during his 17-year playing career, the last five-plus of which he spent in Dallas before retiring in 2008.

One other reason for the PK struggles can be answered by the old adage, ‘Your goaltender is usually your best penalty killer.’ Crawford pointed to the inconsistent nature of the Stars’ goaltending in 2009-10, as starter Marty Turco endured an up and down year, at least until the acquisition of goalie Kari Lehtonen from Atlanta just before the Olympic break.

“I think that any time you look at any of the defensive structures of the team, and it’s not only us, but the teams that don’t have great penalty killing, with the exception of Nashville, haven’t had great goaltending seasons from their group,” Crawford noted. “Whenever you’re trying to develop young players and teach them how to penalty kill, like we are, with Eriksson and Neal this year, and you’ve got the older, experienced players like Robidas and Lehtinen, they don’t make a lot of mistakes. They put the puck in the right spot, they understand the read, but when you’ve got the likes of the younger guys that we’re using this year, you’re going to struggle in those areas unless you get great goaltending. Because inevitably, in those areas you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to expose those elements of your team. 

“I think the same thing could be said for our defensive play over the year. You need to develop a level of confidence in your play that we didn’t get until later in the season - basically around the time we made the trade for Kari. Marty’s play went up, and Kari, once he got comfortable and once he got in shape, Kari’s play came up, so those are better evaluations of how we’ve played.”

If that last stretch of the year is an indicator of how the Stars can kill penalties, and how better season-long goaltending can help that aspect of their game, it would seem that their PK prospects for next season look bright, even if Jere Lehtinen ends up retiring. One thing’s for sure, the coaching staff will be focusing on it from the get-go.

“There’s tweaks every year anyway, I think you make little adjustments,” Barnes said. “I think it’s one of those blips on the screen, and I think we saw a lot of improvement as the season wore on. Some of the new faces, guys that hadn’t killed before, started to get better and better at it, so that’s a very big positive for the future.”

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