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These struggling NHL playoff contenders should use these cures

Once again we are correct in our diagnoses.

Los Angeles Kings v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

December is usually regarded as a turning point in the NHL season. A third of the season passed, teams generally know where they stand and what they need to do to either make the playoffs or salvage what they can.

Right now, as of Dec. 7, eight teams who made the playoffs last season either sit on the cusp of a playoff spot or outside the race entirely. If you think that’s a lot, you’re right! It’s quite odd.

So we’ve put on our doctor hats (they wear hats, right?) to diagnose what’s going on with a few ailing contenders.

Dallas Stars

Calgary Flames v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Ailment: Actual ailments

Last season, the Dallas Stars rode the best start in franchise history to the best record in the Western Conference and the top seed in the playoffs. They were 20-5-2 by Dec. 7.

A year later, they’re 9-6-10 with little of that energy left. What’s the main reason?

Exactly. The Dallas Stars of 2016-17 are a roster of turmoil.

Jim Nill let Valeri Nichushkin (KHL), Colton Sceviour (FLA), Jason Demers (FLA), and Alex Goligoski (ARI) walk in the summer to give way to younger players. What he didn’t bank on was the rest of his veterans getting injured for long stretches early in the season. With Mattias Janmark, Cody Eakin, Jiri Hudler, Ales Hemsky, and Patrick Sharp missing significant time, the Stars are tops in cumulative minutes lost to injury. And they’re on the wrong end of this graph of man-games lost vs. team wins.

Plus, top players in Dallas are not starting well. John Klingberg is experiencing the worst stretch of his career, with multiple healthy scratches. Jamie Benn only recently re-found his scoring touch. Jason Spezza can’t hit the net.

This situation has forced Dallas to rely on inexperienced players like Devin Shore, Julius Honka, Esa Lindell or role players like Lauri Korpikoski and Antoine Roussel to drive offense most nights. It’s resulted in one of the worst penalty kills and the third-worst goal differential (-20) in the NHL.

They are sputtering.

Cure: I don’t know, hope?

There’s no easy fix here. By letting Demers and Goligoski walk, Nill gambled on young defensemen finally earning their spot in the lineup. Outside of Julius Honka (who was an emergency after Klingberg’s failings, but has been fantastic), that hasn’t been the case. Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, and Klingberg continue to struggle despite a better-than-usual season from Dallas goalies.

And when you’re forced to use young forwards, the pressure on defensemen to clean up mistakes becomes that much stronger. Trading for Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury suddenly isn’t a big priority anymore; finding rhythm and stability in the chaos is. Good luck, Lindy!

New York Islanders

Florida Panthers v New York Islanders - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Ailment: Poor systems

Watch the Islanders over the last three years and you’ll notice a team slowly abandoning its strengths for some unknown reason.

They play safe. And this wasn’t always the case. In 2014-15, they finished with a top-five offense thanks to some better-than-average possession numbers:

That was driven by play-style: carry the puck into the offensive zone. Forecheck hard. Pepper the net with shots from all over the ice. They nearly led the league in total shots that year.

Now, they’re fourth-worst in that category, middle of the pack in goals for per game and only the Rangers and Coyotes have a worse Corsi For percentage than the Islanders’ 46.03.

So, what changed? A couple of things. They’ve become passive in the neutral zone. And when they hit the opposing blue-line, they soften up. Lighthouse Hockey documented this shift in philosophies well recently:

Count the pucks sent around the boards into the waiting feet of an opponent. Count the passes sent behind the net for no reason. Count the failed clears on the penalty kill (which was once great) that lead to full two minute shifts in their own zone. Count the pucks sent sailing out of their own zone down to the other end for icings when no support was present. Count the carry-ins versus the dump-ins on breakouts. Count the dump ins that aren’t retrieved and go right back the other way.

Cure: Change systems (also known as getting a new coach)

It’s unfortunate that Jack Capuano might get the axe for this ailment, because he was also at the helm in 2014-15 when the Islanders were thriving as a fire-wagon hockey team. But the shift in play styles and the subsequent nose-dive to the league cellar is also happening under his watch, and a new voice might help right the ship.

Washington Capitals

NHL: New York Rangers at Washington Capitals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Ailment: Evaporated offense

Alex Ovechkin (12 goals), Marcus Johansson (11), and T.J. Oshie (8) lead the Capitals in goals right now. Washington, as a team, is 23rd in the NHL with 61 goals. So you’re looking at the top three scorers for the Capitals accounting for 51 percent of the team’s scoring through a third of the season.

That’s not good, and it’s a far cry from where they were this time last season, when they trailed only the Stars in total goals. By Dec. 7 last year, the Capitals had scored the fifth-most goals in the NHL and their top three scorers only accounted for 37 percent of that.

So, it’s no wonder Washington finds itself trailing the Flyers, Blue Jackets, Rangers, and Penguins in their own division. Even though the teams aren’t separated by many points, a better spread of offense would propel the Capitals to a more secure playoff spot.

Cure: Spread the talent throughout the lineup

Coach Barry Trotz has already hinted at this if things don’t improve. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are playing top-six minutes and giving back 0.42 points per game. So usually nothing.

So mixing things up would help. Burakovsky, Ovechkin, and Kuznetsov have played consistently together all season despite a team-worst possession combo. Those numbers improve when T.J. Oshie plays with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, while Burakovsky plays well with Backstrom. Or heck, toss one of the two young Russian forwards on a line with Jay Beagle. Ask Lindy Ruff if you can borrow his line blender and good things could happen.

Washington has the talent. They’re just not producing in roles they were in last year. Trotz should experiment with different ingredients and see what fascinating tastes he produces. And then post over-filtered photos of them on Instagram.

Los Angeles Kings

Ailment: Speed

L.A.’s loss to the Canadiens over the weekend highlighted a flaw their division rivals would do well to expose this year.

Specifically, this goal:

First of all, not a great matchup. Andrew Shaw gets the goal, but he’s flanked by speedy Brendan Gallagher and David Desharnais. The problem is the Kings have Nic Dowd, Dustin Brown, and Dwight King on the ice. It’s no wonder the Habs transitioned so quickly and beat both King and Brown to the net to score.

Faced with the speed of the Canadiens, coach Darryl Sutter played that line 24 percent of the game. In fact, take a look at the Kings’ line combination frequencies this season and you’ll notice a lot of slow-moving guys dominating lines:

Left Wing Lock

In the speedy Pacific Division, that roster is a problem. To his credit, Sutter has tried to spread his faster players around in games against the Sharks, the Oilers, and the Flames. But there’s only so much he can do with what he’s given.

Cure: Trade for Ryan Spooner
St. Louis Blues v Boston Bruins Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

It’s no secret the Boston Bruins are shopping the young center. They’ve tried him on the wing, but while he’s added speed they don’t like his rate of puck battle wins compared to other young players. That sounds like someone the Kings wouldn’t like, but Tyler Toffoli isn’t known for his strength in the corners and he fits in just fine in that system.

Spooner is quick, a good puck possessor and cheap (he’s in the last year of his contract with a $950,000 cap hit). Taking a buy-low flier on him could work out and help alleviate the Kings’ dearth of speed options on the wings.