Saturday, December 10, 2022 Dec 10, 2022
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Hockey

Yes, the Stars Really Are a Stanley Cup Contender. Here’s Why.

A year ago at this time, Dallas was trying to stay in the playoff picture. What a difference a season makes.
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Could the Stars be celebrating into June? Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This time last year, 18 games into the season, the Stars weren’t bad. But they weren’t good, either. With a 9-7-2 record and a minus-3 goal differential, their results felt like an accurate representation of their two years before: not as good as their Cup Final appearance suggested, not as bad as they were when they missed the playoffs outright. Most critically, the Stars never felt like a group working in unison. The offense relied on one line, and the defense leaned on its goaltender. And nobody seemed to be having any fun. When all was said and done, fans only remembered two bittersweet things: losing John Klingberg to free agency and Jake Oettinger’s otherworldly performance against Calgary in the playoffs. With so much raw talent to work with, the organization seemed behind the eight-ball.  

What a difference a year, a new coach, and young talent can make. The Stars are 11-5-3 and sitting atop the Central Division, and you’d be hard-pressed trying to rank your top 10 favorite stories. Let’s start with one. There’s probably no bigger talking point than the resurgence of Jamie Benn (complete with a ridiculous but awesome reddit meme) and Tyler Seguin. This time last year, they were both on pace for an underwhelming 41 points. Their first 18 games were wasted on trying to rekindle the chemistry they lost with Alex Radulov—as well as each other—and yet they led all forwards in ice time per game through the first month. This year, Dallas has a plus-22 goal differential. Benn is on pace for 91 points, Seguin for 68. Their workload is being better managed, and they’re not asked to fight for pucks all the time. The Stars under Pete DeBoer are not just better. They’re a wagon. 

Hockey might be about more than numbers, but there are numbers that hockey can’t escape, like the Thanksgiving Cutoff. It turns out one month of hockey is not a small sample size. Since the salary cap era started, 77 percent of the teams on pace to make the playoffs by Thanksgiving will do so. But just how comfortable should the Stars feel about that? Very, it turns out. 

Even the math feels comfortable. MoneyPuck gives the Stars a 10 percent chance to win the Stanley Cup, behind only Vegas, and above Carolina and Boston. We are well past talking about whether the Stars profile like a team that will make the playoffs. Instead, the conversation should be about whether they profile like a team that can do damage once there. There’s no formula for what makes a contender, but there is a rule of thumb. As Craig Custance wrote last year (lifting the idea from studies of NBA championship windows), an NHL contender typically checks at least four of these boxes: 100 or more points, top 10 in both special teams, top five in goals-for percentage, top five in expected goals-for percentage, top five in SRS (a measure of goal differential in the context of strength of schedule, per Hockey-Reference), and reached at least the second round of the playoffs the previous year.

Spoiler alert: Dallas checks four. 

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Data per Evolving-Hockey and Hockey-Reference (point projection based on Hockey-Reference’s simulations

With the help of assistant coaches Steve Spott and Alain Nesreddine, Dallas is dangerous in every facet. Miro Heiskanen’s impact on the power play might be a little unexpected, but it can’t be understated; the Stars own every inch of ice in and around the right dot with Heiskanen patrolling the back end. The top line predictably dominates in all situations, and Oettinger has saved eight goals above expected, which ranks sixth in the NHL. The only contender boxes Dallas doesn’t check is top five in expected goals and advancing to the second round the previous year. Regardless, the data is clear. The Stars aren’t playing like a good team. They’re playing like a great team, with elite talent at the most key positions.   

DeBoer won’t take credit because that’s the honorable thing. After Dallas beat the New York Islanders last Saturday, he praised Benn and Seguin for “turning the clocks back.” He mentioned Benn being the first guy in the gym and how hard the 33-year-old captain has worked. That’s all well and good, but a time machine sounds like a bad explanation for why Dallas is playing like a contender. DeBoer gets the credit, plain and simple. 

It’s not just a matter of attacking aggressively, but attacking with possession. Dallas is entering its opponent’s zone with control of the puck on 66 percent of its opportunities. For perspective, this is higher than the entry rate for teams on the power play. Per Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, it’s also the highest entry rate of any team since 2016. I’ve made it a point to track the Stars’ zone entries (and exits) because I think it gets us closer to understanding why they are scoring more. Despite the reputation of the post-Lindy Ruff era, the Stars were 14th in expected goals per game, meaning they were taking quality shots at a pretty normal rate. And yet they were dead last in shooting percentage. The regression you’d expect to happen didn’t. Why? From 2016 to 2020, Dallas broke into the opponent’s zone with possession on only 47 percent of its entries, meaning it was attacking without control of the puck, leaving defenders and netminders more time to anticipate. This point might seem redundant. The Stars are scoring more because they’re entering the zone with control of the puck more. Moreover, we know controlled entries have a positive effect on both goals and shots. Except this process affects defense, too. Uncontrolled entries lead to the defending team taking back control of the puck 90 percent of the time. No wonder DeBoer has Dallas scoring more and defending well.  

If you’re waiting for an asterisk, you’ll have to keep waiting. Yes, we can expect regression in some areas. And yes, I’ve seen just how obscene the breaks have been in Dallas’ favor. But I have a hard time believing Oettinger will suddenly forget how to goaltend. I have a harder time believing Heiskanen will forget how to defend. Jason Robertson is on pace for 123 points, which sounds hard to believe, except he ranks above Austin Matthews and Connor McDavid in points per 60 minutes of even-strength play over the last three seasons (to the surprise of no loyal reader). He may slow down, but he’s not about to be stopped. 

That’s not to say everything will be fine. We’ve already seen the blueprint for how to slow the attack. The Stars have won only one game in which their opponent scored more than three goals (Florida), and they’ve only won one game in which they scored two or fewer (Washington). Eventually, they’ll hit a stretch where goals are harder to come by and the energy to stop goals is harder to muster. How will they fare then? 

That’s a question for another time. I have a hard time worrying, though. Players want to be creative, and the more creativity you can coax out of them, the better they can manage both ends of the ice. Despite early concerns about whether he was the right choice, DeBoer has tapped into that process, making it no wonder that fans are celebrating the success of so many more individuals than just Oettinger and the top trio. If defense has the abstract value of preventing worst-case scenarios, then offense has the abstract value of producing best-case scenarios. Players are being given the opportunity to be heroes rather than worker bees. I know we’re getting ahead of ourselves in talking about the Stars as a contender. But that’s because as Thanksgiving approaches, this team is ahead of the curve.

Author

David Castillo

David Castillo

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David Castillo covers the Stars for StrongSide. He has written for SB Nation and Wrong Side of the Red Line,…

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