Rebuilding The Dallas Stars Crumbling Defensive Infrastructure

[Editor's Note: Please welcome Josh Lile to the Defending Big D team. You may have noticed some of Josh's excellent FanPosts recently and he's stood out as one of the top members of this community for a while now. Josh is going to bring us some interesting statistical analysis this season, along with introducing a very intriguing statistics project that is encompassing many teams and many websites. For now, here's his take on the defensive system of the team]

The road that took the Stars from perennial Pacific Division title contenders to hoping for a playoff berth is littered with theories and crumpled up blueprints attempting to describe exactly how the Stars got from point A to point B. Scapegoats have included Sean Avery, the decline of Marty Turco, injuries, Marc Crawford, the young defense, bad luck, ownership, etc., etc., etc.

Some of these excuses are more valid than others (Sean Avery’s 23 games as a Star didn’t derail 3 seasons), but whenever a team falls as hard as the Stars did there are bound to be numerous reasons for that fall.

I don’t think the forward defense gets enough credit, and I’m going to use Point Shares to show you exactly what I mean.

 [A quick aside about Point Shares: Point Shares is a system developed by Jason Kubatko for Hockey-Reference.com. If you’re familiar with Win Shares in baseball then this will be a fairly easy concept to wrap your arms around. The idea behind the system is to try to approximate how many points (not just goals and assists, but an attempt at a total calculation of goals produced vs goals saved) in the standings Player A contributes to the points Team X compiles over the course of the season. One point share is equivalent to one point whereas in Bill James’ baseball system 3 Win Shares is equivalent to 1 win. If you would like to see the math behind the system, Click here]

 Whenever the Stars problems over the past three seasons have been addressed by fans the focus immediately goes to the defense, and it should. The Stars went from 207 goals against in 2008 up to a whopping 257 goals against in 2009. The defense hasn't been very good for three years now, but that doesn't necessarily mean the defensemen. They have taken a beating in public opinion over the course of the past three seasons.

 

Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley, Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Grossman, and Mark Fistric in particular were blamed for how many chances the opposition got on net. It’s true that Niskanen hit a wall, and that Fistric has been up and down, but the other guys have been just fine over that time defensively despite the losses of Sergei Zubov, Mattias Norstrom, and Philippe Boucher. Daley, Grossman, and Robidas have been about as consistent a trio of defensemen as you could ask for over the past three years.

 

Defensive Point Shares
Name 2009 2010 2011
Robidas 4.5 3 3.5
Grossman 2.4 2.3 2.8
Daley 3.6 3.5 4.4

 

The forward group is the area I would like to highlight. They took numerous substantial defensive losses that were never addressed as a symptom of the worsening financial situation and few premium draft picks due to the Ladislav Nagy and Norstrom trades. Keep in mind that those kids they would have drafted would be Jamie Benn's age at this point, and pushing for significant playing time. They wouldn’t all have star potential, but that isn’t necessarily the point of the draft. You need to be able to fill the back end of your roster with affordable (hopefully) defensively-responsible talent. The Stars didn't have those guys.

 

They lost several key defensive players beginning with the 2007/08 off-season that they simply couldn’t replace. The group of losses ranges from players who began the steep decline which comes at the end of a career, players most fans were happy to see leave, and some that just left. The list includes the following:

 

Defensive Point Shares
First Last 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Stu Barnes 1.9 1.2 retired retired retired
Antti Miettinen 1.4 1.3 2.2 1.8 1.5
Jussi Jokinen 2 .9 .8 1.6 1.4
Niklas Hagman 1.9 1.7 .8 1.3 1
Mike Modano 2 1.4 1 .6 .3
Jere Lehtinen 2.4 1.5 1 .5 retired
Jeff Halpern 1.7 1.2 .4 .6 1.4

 *Bold Italicized entries occured with other teams

 

Jeff Halpern’s defensive contribution mirrors that of Brad Richards, but the other contributions weren’t easily replaceable with limited money and limited prospects to choose from. Trading Jokinen for Richards was definitely a worthwhile move, but I’m suggesting that the sum total of these defensive losses up front is a very significant reason for the Stars struggles while fully appreciating that the Stars were never going to be able or willing to pay the prices Hagman or Miettinen commanded on the open market.

 

The good news is that it looks like the Stars recognized this deficiency fairly quickly. They began addressing the issue last off-season with the signing of Adam Burish to an affordable deal to begin shoring up the bottom six. Steve Ott has been a warrior for the Stars in a third line role, but with his elevation to top six status the Stars needed to do some work to the bottom six.

 

Enter Radek Dvorak, Jake Dowell, and Vernon Fiddler. The Stars still didn't have a ton of money to work with this offseason after Richards left, but they spread it around to plug the holes at the bottom of the lineup. They simultaneously improved the penalty killing, improved the forward defense, and potentially helped take some of the hard penalty killing minutes away from the top six guys. Fiddler will be a significant boost to the club's faceoff percentage, and Dowell has everything you'd want from a bottom six guy except experience.

 

The foursome of Dvorak, Dowell, Burish, and Fiddler combined for 4.7 defensive point shares in 2010. When combined with the defensive utility of Ott, Eriksson, Morrow, Petersen, and Benn the Stars should have enough quality defensive talent up front to get back to mid-aughts level defense which would suit Joe Nieuwendyk just fine. I imagine the defensive short comings stuck out to him like a sore thumb considering his background in professional hockey.

 

The Devils team he won The Cup with was (is) notorious for strict accountability and strong defense. The Stars team he won The Cup with had similar attributes. For all of his offensive accomplishments, this is a man who won championships because of the outstanding defensive teams he played on. You can finally see that his mark is firmly on this roster, even if it is still a little hamstrung financially.

 

*Any point share data is easily accesible via www.hockey-reference.com

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