Note: Perhaps we'll follow this up with a more in-depth statistical look at this issue, but I'm going to refrain from using advanced stats too much with this post. All statistics referenced can be found at behindthenet.ca.
Ever since Glen Gulutzan took over as head coach of the Dallas Stars, he preached a philosophical change from what we've seen in the past. The Stars would become a defense-first team, built from the goal out that would cut down on goals scored while still maintaining pressure up ice. He calls this system "pacey" and "hard to play against", not wanting the Stars to become trap team yet still wanting to maintain defensive discipline.
Considering the defensive issues of the Stars over the past seasons, the new focus on these issues was certainly welcome. He brought with him a new defensive approach as well, shifting from a "man coverage" scheme to one that is more zone-oriented and designed to provide a better transition game for the defensemen. The changes have helped in many ways, especially considering the issues the Stars had in past years in clearing the zone aren't nearly as prevalent this season.
With the departure of Brad Richards, and even with the addition of four new forwards, the Stars were also facing an uncertain future offensively. The Stars would need both Jamie Benn and Mike Ribeiro to provide a solid one-two combination up front for the Stars to have a shot at attempting to replace the offensive production that Richards provided -- especially on the power play.
Through the All-Star break this season, the Stars find themselves currently out of the playoff picture yet still very much alive. Compared to last season, the team is technically allowing more goals per game (2.79 vs. 2.76) -- something that's a bit frustrating considering the defensive changes. What's most frustrating, however, is how the offense has struggled, scoring just 2.56 goals per game -- with the power play falling from 18% to 13.6% this season.
What's the reason behind the drop in offense, something that has cost this team dearly over the course of the season so far? It's not just the Jamie Benn and Mike Ribeiro injuries, as the offense struggled at times with them healthy as well. Let's take a closer look at how the Stars are deploying their players and their lines this season, and perhaps we'll get closer to determining just what is frustrating us the most this season.
Glen Gulutzan came to Dallas with the plan of putting a team on the ice that could roll four lines effectively throughout any given game. He wanted a deep and balanced team that could wear down the opponents with a steady attack, not just relying on one high-offensive line for all of the Stars production. Given the fact the Stars were optimistically heading into this season deeper than before, it's understandable why this approach was met with high hopes.
Yet the Stars have never been able to find consistent and balanced offense. Most of the wins for the Stars this season have been reliant on the offense generated by Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson. Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow have both struggled offensively this season, and the Stars only recently seemed to find the right balance in line combinations between the top two lines.
The issue goes much deeper than line combinations, however. The Stars have been so focused on rolling three lines during a game that there is little to no strategy in exactly how those lines are deployed and it's resulted in some very inconsistent numbers and performances from players that have long been reliable offensively.
Let's take a look at Mike Ribeiro's stats this season and compare to last year. Ribeiro is on pace for just under 20 goals and around 60 points, not that far off his career average but certainly lower than hoped for with Richards departing. What stands out the most, however, is how Ribeiro is being used in a game and how it's hurting the Stars defensively.
|GP||TOI/60||Corsi RelQoC||Corsi QoC||Corsi Rel||Corsi On||Corsi QoT||Off Zone Start|
A couple of things automatically stand out here, and it's something that Josh has brought up a few times this season with his scoring chances product. The first is that Ribeiro -- and consequently his linemates -- are getting much less offensive zone start chances this season compared to last year. Part of this could be because of the team's idea that icing the puck isn't a bad thing and part of that is due to the fact that Gulutzan uses his top three lines almost exclusively the same, offensively and defensively.
That is to say, that the Jamie Benn line (47.1%), the Mike Ribeiro line (48.1%) and the Vernon Fiddler line (46.3%) see almost identical zone start percentages -- and all three lines start in their defensive zone more often than they do in the offensive zone. Compare that to last season, when the top two lines were seeing nearly 55% offensive zone starts while the third line -- in a clear checking role -- were seeing just around 31% offensive zone starts.
What this means is that the Stars have gone from having three well-defined lines with well-defined roles, to three lines that are used nearly identical over the course of a game. While that's obviously something that Gulutzan and the Stars made a point to emphasize heading into the season -- three balanced lines throughout a game -- the actual execution of that plan is putting his players in a poor position to actually succeed.
Look closer at Ribeiro's numbers, and you'll see what the effect of the heavier defensive load has done to the Stars. He's facing much tougher competition this season and as a result his Relative Corsi numbers (shots for and against while on and off the ice) have taken a dramatic turn for the worse.
It's no secret the Ribeiro line has struggled defensively this season, just read the scoring chances updates after each game. Yet what's frustrating the most is that Ribeiro -- and consequently each line and player on the team -- is not being put in a position best set up for their success. Ribeiro is an offensive forward who is best with the puck in his own zone; putting him on the ice for more defensive zone starts than offensive zone starts comes across as incredibly counter-intuitive.
It's also obvious that because the Ribeiro line has struggled defensively -- which is in turn hurting their offensive production -- teams are able to better focus on shutting down the Jamie Benn line, something that has worked countless times this season.
Many fans have become enamored with the third line of Eric Nystrom, Vernon Fiddler and Radek Dvorak but the truth is that line being misused as well. The line is attempting to be used as a checking line without actually getting the defined ice time and zone distribution that a true checkling should see, and it's severely affected them defensively over the course of the season.
We could dig even further and analyze how the lines are actually set up and whether players are being utilized in a manner that benefits their style or not, but we'd be looking at around 2,500 words for this post alone. What we can do is take a look at Tomas Vincour, and how his usage on this team is perhaps the perfect microcosm for this issue as a whole.
Vincour, while facing average competition compared to the rest of the team, has the second-best Corsi On-Ice numbers on the team. He's just behind Toby Petersen, who is facing significantly easier competition on a game-to-game basis.
Vincour is a player who generates offense and chances and has proven that so far in his short career. While the actual production isn't where we'd like it to be, he also doesn't allow many chances when he's on the ice either. As we've seen this season, not allowing chances and goals is almost as important as finishing on the offensive chances created.
Yet Vincour continuously sees significantly less time on ice than his teammates, even those above him in the depth chart that have struggled for much of this season defensively. The Stars are in a desperate fight for the playoffs, apparently, yet it seems there is still a hesitation to use young, energetic players in bigger situations out of a fear of failure -- this is having a domino effect on the rest of the roster and too many players are finding themselves out of their comfort zones.
Never before has this been more apparent than, with Ribeiro and Benn both injured, the Stars were using Adam Burish in top-six minutes with Vincour getting just a handful of minutes a game. This season, Burish has a Corsi Relative of -2.8, compared to Vincour's 9.0.
The frustration carried over to the utilization of Matt Fraser, a player who does nothing but create offensive chances and who saw just over four minutes in his NHL debut. In that time, he and Vincour created more actual chances on offense than the rest of his team combined in the first period of play. Yet the Stars, perhaps too focused on the "balance of offense" stuck with the veterans that continue to struggle offensively, and defensively.
There is still have a season to go and the Stars are still alive for a playoff spot. Glen Gulutzan, an intelligent hockey coach who is well liked by his players, is still learning of the importance of in-game strategy and tactical player deployment. There is hope, that perhaps the Stars will put ego aside and realize that putting the right players in the right position to succeed is more important that making sure everyone's ice times are equal.