Eyes on the prize - Ronald Martinez
How are the Stars using their forwards early on, and what conclusions can we draw going forward?
The Stars have yet to ice their full lineup, but the way they deployed their lines through the first three games tells us quite a bit about how they intend to do things once everyone is finally together, which could be as early as tonight. Given all of the injuries we're going to ignore how Gulutzan used his guys Saturday night.
The table you're about to see has the Stars forwards clumped together with their linemates. Shown is the offensive zone start percentage for each player and their Corsi Relative Quality of Competition (a stat used to measure the average quality of competition a player faces). The table is below in all of it's meaty glory, but we'll go through it bit by bit if you want to slide right past it for now.
Derek Roy and Co.
The Stars first line thus far has been used as a blunt force weapon. Roy, Jaromir Jagr, and Loui Eriksson have generally been matched against the top competition of the opposition deep in their own end of the rink. The idea here is that this trio will be such a difficult group to handle that it will keep the top scorers from the other side busy enough that they won't be able to generate much offense.
It's definitely an interesting idea, particularly since this group is most likely their top line in transition on top of being the most skilled. The problem is that the heavy amount of defensive zone starts is limiting their offensive ceiling. Among Stars forwards, Eriksson is generating shots at a higher rate than only Eric Nystrom, Vernon Fiddler, Brenden Morrow, and Cody Eakin. They're going to have to earn their money on the powerplay if this scheme continues.
The Second Line
Ray Whitney, Michael Ryder, and Tom Wandell have been the most consistent group playing together as the second unit. When Jamie Benn returns, he will slide in here. This will, likely, be the Stars top offensive line given the way they've been used.
One problem the Stars had last season was finding enough ways for Benn to make an impact offensively. Notice how his line has been used early in the season though. Whitney, Wandell, and Ryder have been getting the most offensive zone starts of any of the Stars top three lines, and they've done so against relatively easy competition thanks to the tough minutes the Roy line has played. It isn't a coincidence that these guys have been scoring lately, and that they lead the Stars in Corsi Relative (shot differential among players on one team).
Assuming that this is how the Stars plan to roll their lines for the remainder of the season (or at least the foreseeable future) what they have done is primed Benn to be a superstar-level performer. If this line continues to get such easy minutes when he returns he and his linemates should light the scoreboard up.
Fiddler, Nystrom, and Morrow
I want to preface my comments about this line with these few tangentially related thoughts. First, I’ve always enjoyed the body of work of Brenden Morrow. Seeing him like this isn’t pleasant to watch. I want him to be successful, and find his game consistently again. But, boy he still doesn’t look right.
Fiddler and Nystrom both can bring some value to the table also. Fiddler is excellent on the draw. Nystrom is a good forechecker. Both are serviceable defensively. They are prototypical fourth line players who play easy limited minutes at even strength and eat up ice time on the penalty kill.
The problem is that they are masquerading as a third line, and the fact that they need to shows the Stars still have depth issues. Gulutzan has been able to shelter their matchups very well so far this year, but they're still giving up a lot of shots.
The biggest issue they face, and the issue most directly caused by their starting zone assignments, is how little offense they generate. Through three games the trio averaged 13 shots per 60 minutes of even strength ice time. For some context, the fourth lowest total on the roster was 23.3 after three games. Gulutzan may have found a solution to some of these problems, and we'll get to that in a moment.
The fourth line of Reilly Smith, Ryan Garbutt, and Cody Eakin has been the most protected line of the four. It makes sense given their collective lack of experience. They get the highest percentage of offensive zone starts while facing a relatively easy level of competition. So far they've been pretty good, particularly Smith. Smith is second on the Stars in Corsi Relative. When Reilly has been on the ice offense has happened. He could easily have two or three goals just from offense he created himself.
He still has some work to do, but he is obviously a gifted player. Eakin has had flashes of brilliance too. Over time it wouldn't be entirely shocking to see this line given more responsibility, and if they continue to perform the way they have that might not be too far into the future.
More or less, this is how things shake out. The Stars are heavily protecting the fourth line, but they’ve loaded the fourth line up with talented young offensive players to bring an offensive punch to minutes which would otherwise be wasted.
The third line has limited offensive value still, and marginal defensive value. They get stuck in their own end because they have little ability to transition which further increases the amount of shots they allow.
They began tinkering a little during the Blues game to help this group out. Gulutzan inserted Tomas Vincour into the lineup on the third line in place of Morrow who was shifted to the fourth line. Morrow and Fiddler both immediately saw their shot rates increase significantly with Vincour now leading the Stars in shots generated per 60 minutes. It’s obviously way too early to proclaim the situation fixed, but the immediate results were very positive.
Basically, what the Stars have set up is a system where the top two lines are going to determine how this season turns out. The top line is taking all of the tough minutes which sets up Benn to lead this team offensively when he takes the ice for the first time. He, above anyone else, is going to have to lead this team to the playoffs if they hope to make it. The scheme is set up to maximize his impact. It’s up to him to do it now.