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Seguin, Benn facing more internal criticism

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Last year it was the team CEO. This year it is the head coach.

For the second year in a row the Dallas Stars top forward duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn is facing some criticism from within its own building for a lack of early season production. While neither player was specifically mentioned by name, it was pretty clear who coach Jim Montgomery was talking about in the wake of their 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.

The duo — which accounts for more than $19 million of salary cap space — has combined for only four goals on the season and was held off the scoresheet on Sunday. Montgomery said he was “very disappointed” in the production of his team’s top players, and when asked if he is seeing any signs of progress as a follow up he said, “No, are you?”

When asked how to fix it, he talked about reducing ice-time and one-on-one video sessions, while also adding, via The Dallas Morning News, “They got to decide that they want to be a difference maker. I mean, look who scored for the Jets. We got really good big goals by Janmark and Faksa and that’s our third and fourth line.”

It’s not quite as harsh as when CEO Jim Lites went nuclear on the duo 11 months ago, but it is still a pretty direct message to the team’s two best players — score more goals.

What stands out this time around is that the criticism is probably at least a little more justified. When Lites called out the duo last year it came at a time when the Stars were in a playoff position thanks almost entirely to the play of Seguin and Benn. Their line had been carrying the team and providing the most significant chunk of the team’s offense even if their own individual numbers had declined. Had it not been for them the Stars probably would have been well out of playoff contention given how little forward depth the team had around them.

It’s a little different this year. The recent turnaround that has seen the Stars win seven of their past nine games (collecting 15 out of a possible 18 points) has mostly been carried by the goaltending of Ben Bishop and Anton Khubodin, as well as some secondary forwards.

Seguin does have seven points during the nine games (tied for the team lead during that stretch) but has scored just a single goal. Benn has only three assists during the stretch, only six points for the season, and has not scored a goal in 13 games, one of the worst droughts of his career.

There are a few interesting layers to this.

First, you can not ignore the fact that just like last year when they were the focal point of criticism, Seguin and Benn are being crushed by abnormally low shooting percentages scoring on just four of their 93 shots this season (4.3 percent). You can talk about not bearing down, or not getting to the right areas, or not getting enough quality chances all you want, but there is a pretty big element of bad luck for any two players to only score on 4 percent of their shots. As I’ve pointed out several times (including last year when we were talking about Seguin and Benn) nobody scores goals consistently. Even the top goal-scorers go through phases where they score goals in bunches, and then follow it up with lengthy dry spells. We tend to overrate what they are doing during the hot streaks, and overreact to what they are not doing during the cold streaks. In the end it will all balance out.

The concern isn’t the number of shots they aren’t scoring on, but rather the number of shots they aren’t getting. As of Monday Seguin is averaging 3.01 shots per game, more than a full shot less per game compared to a year ago, and his lowest total since he was a first-and-second year player in Boston. Benn is averaging just 2.11 shots per game, the lowest mark of his career. That is where the concern should be. At some point the shooting luck is going to change and more pucks will start going in for them, but if they’re not generating as many shots they still may not score as much as they normally do.

The last point here is the Stars became way too defensive and conservative in the first part of the season (something that Montgomery recently admitted to) and that has to have limited the play of their top players at least a little bit. For the longest time this team wasn’t playing to its strengths.

I like to bet on talent, and it’s more likely than not that Seguin and Benn are going to start scoring more goals sometime soon, not because they are responding well to criticism, but because that is how hockey works (talent eventually wins). When it happens it could make the Stars an interesting team to watch. They have the goaltending, they have two great top-pairing defenders when healthy, and they improved their depth. They just need their top players to get going, something that hasn’t typically been an issue for them during their time in Dallas.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Power Rankings: The quiet dominance of the Capitals

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Maybe it is because we are so used to seeing them at the top of the NHL standings.

Maybe it is because they already won their Stanley Cup and there is no longer any pressure on them to shake their postseason disappointment label.

Or maybe it is because there are so many other intriguing stories around the NHL that are dominating headlines (Edmonton and Vancouver off to surprising starts, the Islanders winning 10 in a row, Boston and St. Louis looking like they can get back to the Stanley Cup Final).

Whatever the reason, it seems like the Washington Capitals are getting a little overlooked this season and it is kind of amazing given just how dominant they have been. Entering the week they are 13-2-3 for the season, are one of the highest scoring teams in the league, have the best points percentage in the league, and have recorded at least a point in 11 consecutive games (10-0-1). What stands out the most about this start is they are doing it while getting mostly sub-par goaltending from Braden Holtby. If he gets back on track there is the potential for another championship parade in Washington D.C..

Because of all of that the Capitals climb to the top spot in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

Where does every other team sit this season?

To the rankings!

1. Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin at 34 years of age is off to the second best goal scoring start of his career. He just keeps going and completely disregarding the normal aging curve of players.

2. St. Louis Blues. The defending champs were 3-2-3 after eight games and lost their best player for what will probably most — if not all — of the regular season. All they have done is go 9-1-0 in their past 10 games. Lot of overtime luck in there, but they are building themselves a nice cushion.

3. New York Islanders. After starting the year 1-3-0 they are entering the week on an 11-0-1 run, with the only loss coming in overtime after surrendering a three-goal third period lead.

4. Boston Bruins. Eventually somebody other than David Pastrnak or Brad Marchand will have to start scoring some goals. They have time to figure it out.

5. Philadelphia Flyers. Very quietly the Flyers have one of the top points percentages in the NHL (sixth best) and have won five out of their past six. Five of those six games have gone to overtime or a shootout so they are not really decisive wins, but their underlying and possession numbers paint the picture of a team that might have the right process.

6. Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid and Leon Drasaitl are doing exactly what is expected and exactly what they always do. The big difference-makers this season, though, are Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen playing great in net. Those two are the players that will determine what this team is able to do.

7. Colorado Avalanche. They slumped recently but am going to give them the benefit of the doubt due to the injury situation. When healthy they showed they can dominate, and they showed against Nashville and Columbus they can still score goals even without Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins. Just when it looked like they were starting to get fully healthy Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist all exited the lineup with injuries. They are still playing extremely well despite all of the players they have been missing but the absence of Crosby will be a huge test.

9. Montreal Canadiens. Shea Weber can still be a great player and change a game when he is healthy.

10. Florida Panthers. If Sergei Bobrovsky would start playing like the goalie they paid him to be they would really be on to something this year. There is still plenty of time for him to turn it around and if/when he does this could be a sneaky dangerous team.

11. Nashville Predators. Filip Forsberg has five points in five games since returning to the lineup. The offense has been great, but they need more from the goalies, specifically Jusse Saros.

12. Dallas Stars. Ben Bishop got back on track and so did the Stars. They still need to do something to find some more offense because no goalie is great enough to allow one goal every game.

13. Winnipeg Jets. Paul Maurice deserves a lot of credit for keeping this team competitive given the state of the defense. But do you know who deserves more credit? Goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

14. Tampa Bay Lightning. They are starting to show some signs of getting back on track, but something still seems a little off here.

15. Toronto Maple Leafs. Everybody wants the Maple Leafs to change the way the play, but what if the change they need to make is to become more aggressive offensively, and not less?

16. Calgary Flames. They are starting to get back on track after a slow start. Matthew Tkachuk is the engine driving this machine right now.

17. Arizona Coyotes. They are definitely on the right track but still need to learn how to finish games.

18. Vancouver Canucks. The offense has gone cold during their four-game losing streak, but there are still a lot of encouraging signs here with this team.

19. Vegas Golden Knights. They have lost five out of six and still have not found a competent backup goalie to give Marc-Andre Fleury some rest. That is an under the radar problem that is going to need to be addressed.

20. Carolina Hurricanes. I still believe when all is said and done this season they will be a contender in the Eastern Conference, but they look out of sorts right now across the board.

21. Buffalo Sabres. The competition has started to get tougher and the losses have become more frequent. Not a good sign. After starting the year 8-1-0 the Sabres are 1-5-1 since with the only win coming against a lousy Detroit Red Wings team.

22. New York Rangers. Adam Fox has been the most impressive rookie on this team. That is not a knock on No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko, just a statement on how good Fox has been.

23. San Jose Sharks. Starting to show some signs of life, but how far are they really going to go with that goaltending?

24. Chicago Blackhawks. They are finding ways to collect points every other game, but there is not really anything impressive about their play.

25. Ottawa Senators. They may not have a ton of talent but they play hard and are not throwing in the towel on this season.

26. Anaheim Ducks. If John Gibson and Ryan Miller are not flawless this team has no chance. Both goalies are having outstanding years and the team is still trending toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

27. New Jersey Devils. Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, is starting to look more comfortable.

28. Minnesota Wild. Their big rally against Arizona was a nice break from the overall disappointment that has been the 2019-20 season.

29. Columbus Blue Jackets. My sleeper team for the season is turning out to be exactly what everyone thought it would be.

30. Detroit Red Wings. After losing 12 out of 13 they managed to beat Boston and Vegas in back-to-back games. Even with those two wins they are still just 3-11-1 in their past 15 games. That is bad. What is not bad? Robby Fabbri scoring two goals in his first game with the team.

31. Los Angeles Kings. Time to start selling off whatever they can.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Injuries mounting for surging Stars

Thanks in large part to starting goalie Ben Bishop returning to form the Dallas Stars are in the process of digging themselves out of the deep hole they jumped into at the start of the season.

They will have to continue that process over the next couple of weeks without two of their top players.

Already without John Klingberg, their top defensemen who will be sidelined for at least the next two-to-four weeks, coach Jim Montgomery announced on Thursday that leading goal-scorer Roope Hintz will also be sidelined for the next two weeks. Hintz already missed the Stars’ most recent game when they beat Colorado, 4-1.

He already has nine goals this season in 17 games. No other player on the team has more than five goals as of Thursday.

Obviously it’s not an ideal situation, especially with a difficult stretch of games ahead of them, but with Bishop and Anton Khudobin playing the way they have been in goal they should be able to stay in games. Joe Pavelski and Alexander Radulov are also starting to pick up their production, while their top duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn has been snakebit so far this season and should hopefully be on the verge of a breakout sometime soon.

Related: Ben Bishop is back on track and so are the Stars

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Ben Bishop is back on track and so are the Stars

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You could not have possibly drawn up a worse start to the season for the Dallas Stars.

They collected just three out of a possible 18 points in their first nine games, did not win a single one of those games in regulation, their big offseason acquisition (Joe Pavelski) could not find the score sheet, their other big signing (Corey Perry) had not played due to injury, and their goaltending — one of their biggest strengths — had abandoned them early.

It all seemed like they were one or two losses away from either making a coaching change or having Jim Lites publicly blow another gasket after another slow start.

If nothing else it put them in an early hole that was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to crawl out of. But just a couple of weeks later, they are in the process of doing just that.

After beating Colorado on Tuesday (their second win over the Avalanche in a week) the Stars are back to .500 on the season with an 8-8-1 mark and have won seven of their past eight games.

Obviously, a lot of things have started to turn around for them during that stretch, including Pavelski starting to get hot (six points, including four goals), improved play from second-year standout Miro Heiskanen, and complementary players like Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov contributing to the offense.

But no development has meant more than the turnaround of the two goaltenders, and especially starter Ben Bishop.

The Stars’ biggest strength entering the season was always going to be the fact the top of their lineup is capable of competing with any team in the Western Conference on any given night. They have a top line that can be great, two outstanding defenders (John Klingberg and Heiskanen) and a Vezina caliber goalie (Bishop is a three-time finalist for the award). That may not be enough to win a Stanley Cup, but it is enough to give you a chance.

Bishop is probably the biggest X-factor out of that group because as a goalie he can be the ultimate game-changer and someone that can mask a lot of team flaws. He was one of the top goalies in the league a year ago and was one of the biggest keys in their second half turnaround.

He is also one of the biggest factors in their recent hot streak.

During this 7-1-0 stretch, Bishop has appeared in six of the games and allowed just eight total goals (with two of them coming in one game) with a .955 save percentage.

Combined with a couple of great games from backup Anton Khudobin, the Stars have allowed more than one goal just twice since Oct. 19. You can’t realistically expect a team to give up only one goal every game for a full season, but the play of Bishop and Khubodin has at least given the Stars a chance to stay afloat in the West while the other top players get things figured out.  And you have to think they can. The trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Klingberg has combined for just five goals in the first 17 games and have a combined shooting percentage of 4 percent (five goals on 123 shots!), far below their normal career averages.

There is no way that is going to continue, because just like last season when they slumped at the start they are still way too good, and way too talented to not score more goals given the number of shots they are getting.

Klingberg is set to miss the next few weeks due to injury, and that will hurt, but with Bishop playing the way he is they should be able to get through it.

The Stars still have enough question marks to limit their potential ceiling, but they have enough impact players that their floor should be better than they showed early in the season. Right now their most important impact player has gotten it together. Once the other ones follow this season might once again become interesting in Dallas.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg sitting at three points (after Thursday’s goal and assist).

Things should improve to some extent, even if it’s foolish to count on all-world goaltending once again. With six of their first nine games on the road, maybe Dallas is having some trouble bringing its small-margin-of-error style out of Dallas.

While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving, so Dallas needs to shake out of this funk as soon as possible.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

[MORE: What’s wrong with the Stars?]

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.