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Reasons For Blueline Optimism

It's the slow doldrums of August, and there's little news to be found regarding our Dallas Stars. Trust me, I know. I just spent fifteen minutes searching Google news for anything on the Nicklas Grossman contract situation. Nada. Nothing. It's not too surprising, since this regime tends to keep everything contract-wise close to the vest. But I guess I just want some security knowledge that Grossman will be back after looking at stats this morning.

After spending a couple hours this morning going over our defensive stats from last season, I'm convinced things aren't as bleak as they seem for our blueline. I specifically focused on three players: Nicklas Grossman, Mark Fistric, and Trevor Daley. The idea was to look at things differently than usual: instead of looking at the defense as a unit, I decided to look at the progression of the individual players themselves. I did this because that is how the Stars themselves look at it. They trust in the growth of the young players, as trying as that may be for us fans. But really, if you think about it, it might just be worth the wait. 

Nicklas Grossman

Grossman is hard to quantify just based on stats from last season, mainly because he was paired with Stephane Robidas on the top line. The top pair on any team will go up against the opponent's best players, which will result in lower-than-average numbers. But I don't think numbers tell the story of Grossman as well as our own eyes do. Grossman uses his size well: He's blocked 100 shots and shelled out more than 150 hits in both of the past two seasons. For two years now, Grossman has handled more than 17 minutes of ice time per game, and done it fairly well. Well enough that Mark Crawford trusted him with top pair minutes most of the season. I think that says a lot about Grossman. All season long, Fistric was performing admirably, and could have supplanted Grossman on the top line if Grossman's play dropped a bit. But it never did, and the top pair stuck together for most of the season.

Think about that. This is a 25 year old kid who the Stars clearly believe is coming into his own as a defenseman. It's hard to argue with them. His Corsi number relative to Quality of Competition was the highest on the team. His plus/minus rose four points, and has risen over the past two years. Clearly Grossman's impact on the ice is growing right before our eyes, and is growing positively at that. And at the age of 25, the Stars are about to see him in his prime. Will he be a number-one defensemen? It's hard to tell at this point, but probably not. But there's no question that if the pattern continues, Grossman's on-ice influence will be very noticeable next season.

After the jump, a look at Mark Fistric and Trevor Daley's numbers....

Mark Fistric

A few days ago in the Raising The Cup GDT, a few of us were remembering the good 'ole days with Derian Hatcher defending the front of the net like a cave troll in Lord of The Rings. He had that "Certified Badass" thing about him, something our current blueline currently lacks. But one name kept coming up in that discussion: Mark Fistric. We all agreed that Fistric was the closest thing we have to a badass, intimidating presence on the blueline. And you know what? We might've been right. 

To me, Fistric is a huge bright spot for the Stars going into next season. Just looking at the BehindTheNet numbers, it's hard to argue. 

Mark Fistric 28 67 13.91 2.64 -0.085 -0.082 1.42 -4.61 -3.19 2.7 1.03 1.67 26.9

There's a couple things to look at there. First off, his BTN rating was the highest on the team. Secondly that Corsi difference is a bit surprising. (For an explanation of Corsi numbers, check this out). Fistric isn't known for being much of an offensive player, yet the difference between the number of shots taken when he's off the ice compared to on is the highest on the team among defensemen. So that tells me that Fistric's plus/minus isn't just a fluke, and that Fistric does in fact have a positive influence offensively. Lastly take a look at that goals against/on the ice stat. It's the lowest by far on the team.

So Fistric showed last season that he is a stabilizing force on the blueline while not slowing down the offense one bit. And all of this progress occurred within one season. Remember that Fistric had what Matt Niskanen did not: a full season in the minors to hone his skills. It seems to have paid off. Whereas Fistric was once overly-physical and shaky in his own end, he has become a more well-rounded player who handles himself more responsibly. Now, that doesn't mean that Fistric doesn't have an edge. He still does, perhaps the meanest edge of the current blueline. The key will be for Fistric to become even more intimidating while continuing to man his zone responsibly and consistently. We should have no doubt he can do that after seeing how much he can improve in just one season.  The Stars believe Fistric can be a top-pair defenseman, and we fans should expect no less in the future.  

Trevor Daley

Going into last season, Daley was expected to make huge offensive improvements in Mark Crawford's system. Crawford prefers to have his defensemen lead the rush and jump-start things in the offensive zone, which theoretically would lead to better offensive numbers from the defense. We all had seen Trevor Daley play for years, and all recognized his offensive potential. So naturally Daley should have blossomed in Crawford's system. And as we all remember quite well, he didn't. 

But that doesn't mean last season was a complete waste. In fact, there are a few numbers that suggest that Daley is still capable of putting up great offensive numbers. The first thing I want to point out is his play on the road versus his play at home. Just from mere observation alone, it seemed to me that Daley excelled at the AAC all season. He was much more noticeable, more memorable than he was on the road, where he was invisible. The plus/minus splits back this up. At home, Daley boasts a +14, and on the road, Daley posted a -11. Now, that's not to say he didn't score on the road, because he actually had more points on the road than at home. So what this tells me is that, like the rest of the team, Daley's defense only suffered on the road. Simple consistency will fix that. 

Okay, now to offense. First thing I looked at was power play time and production. In the '08-'09 season, Daley had 102:24 PP/TOI, and 1:21 PP/TOI per game. This season, Daley had 129:05 PP/TOI, and 1:40 PP/TOI per game. So with an increase in extra-man minutes, should come an increase in point production, right? Right. And he did, upping his grand total of one point in '08-'09 to 2 goals and 3 assists this season. 

As for the rest of his performance? Well, I admit that the numbers aren't good. Especially if you look at his Corsi numbers. But the thing I keep pointing to is the last 18 games of the season, when Daley went 3-7-10. Could it just be a hot streak? Yeah, maybe. But from just watching his poise, the way he carried himself on the ice, it seemed more like Daley was finally taking advantage of Crawford's system. That's why I choose to believe that Daley will be much improved this season. 

So in conclusion: Yes, the stats for the unit as a whole are terrible. But judging by the progression from these three players in specific areas, it's safe to guess that the entire blueline could be markedly improved next season. Part of dealing with young players is patience, and with that comes frustration. It's hard to sit by and wait for an entire defensive unit to grow up when you're so used to winning consistently. But like I said yesterday, it's not like this team is currently rebuilding its blueline. That's already happened. We've been in a holding pattern for two years...and from what some of the stats can tell us, the unit might finally be close to reaching potential. And who knows? Maybe a full offseason and another training camp working with the system will lead to better results next season. 

So I preach patience, friends. There is hope yet for our young blueliners. Keep an eye on these three next season.