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Dallas Stars Coaching Staff Adjusting Strategically?

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OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 29:  Jamie Benn #14 of the Dallas Stars and Team Chara poses prior to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Place on January 29, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 29: Jamie Benn #14 of the Dallas Stars and Team Chara poses prior to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Place on January 29, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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One of the big issues the Stars have faced this season has been the inconsistent play of the second line. The first line has never been an issue. Loui Eriksson, Michael Ryder, Steve Ott, or whoever is out there with Jamie Benn generally ends up making things happen. He has been the Stars best player by far this season, and when he's on the ice everyone is better. The Ribeiro line, on the other hand, hasn't been inconsistent though. We've chronicled the hit and miss nature of the trio throughout the season.

The point totals aren't terrible for Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow. They've had little consistent drive to the net though. When they do take shots they usually aren't quality chances as I chronicled here. The Morrow/Ribeiro duo has never been particularly good defensively. The offensive struggles have manifested themselves in the defensive end this year, compounding the problems.

Some of that is due to injuries to Morrow. Age looks to be unfortunately catching up to him. The neck and back issues have taken their toll. The line as a whole has been a mess, but they've continued having significant ice time handed to them anyway. The Stars desire to roll the top lines consistently has been documented via coaching staff quotes throughout the season, and through charts like the one I generated a couple of months ago called an OZQoC. That chart, plus a look at recent zone start percentage numbers, after the jump.

It was dreamed up by Rob Vollman of Hockey Prospectus, and I made a version for the Stars :


The chart shows offensive zone start percentage compared to Quality of Competition. If the Stars had a diversified in game strategy you would be able to see it in this chart. Instead what you see is three lines jumbled together in the middle with the fourth liners sticking out to the bottom left because they've been protected. Every other line has basically been rolled regardless of the situation or match up. Players with questionable defensive ability (like Ribeiro/Morrow) have been starting out in vulnerable defensive position as often as the third line that has been routinely dubbed the "checking" line.

Since the All Star break something appears to have changed. I think the Stars have adjusted how they deploy their lines during games. Whether that is coincidental (it's only three games after all) or a definite shift in policy is debatable until we see it over a longer stretch of time. I think we have something encouraging at our fingertips.

I want to preface this by saying I'm not trying to beat up on Ribeiro. His offensive skill set can be very valuable, particularly on the powerplay. His Corsi numbers (found here at BehindTheNet) and scoring chance net generation (profiled here after every game) have been mediocre though. Those data points suggest that he's a liability defensively. Since the All Star break it looks like Glen Gulutzan is getting Ribeiro on the ice away from his own net in an attempt to protect him.

The chart below is of Offensive Zone Start percentage for the Stars current top nine forwards. The first two columns of data are the defensive and offensive zone starts of each player in the three games since the break. The final two columns are Offensive Zone Start % for the season and Offensive Zone Start % since the All Star break.

Name D-Zone O-Zone OZ% Season OZ% Post ASB
RIBEIRO, MIKE 8 15 49.1% 65%
RYDER, MICHAEL 9 17 47.5% 65%
ERIKSSON, LOUI 9 15 45.8% 63%
OTT, STEVE 12 17 49.4% 59%
NYSTROM, ERIC 10 12 47.7% 55%
BENN, JAMIE 15 16 47.7% 52%
DVORAK, RADEK 11 6 45.5% 35%
FIDDLER, VERNON 11 6 45.6% 35%
VINCOUR, TOMAS 4 1 52.6% 20%

Contrast those final two columns. The season column reflects the chart I attached prior to the jump. The final column is a stark contrast. The top nine forwards have a coherent pattern. Fiddler and Dvorak are being used as sincere checking forwards. Ribeiro is being used primarily in the offensive zone. Ryder, still playing wing with Benn, isn't starting in the defensive zone with Benn. He's changing when they leave the defensive end. The recent trend is more in line with the rest of the NHL

This is a fantastic step in the right direction, and the Stars have been able to pick up four out of six points since making this change. These changes present a new set of realities for the Stars though. In January I posted a piece about the Stars Adjusted Scoring Chances, based off some work done by George Ays of Blueshirt Banter. The scoring chance data I've collected on the Stars was adjusted based on the average starting position of each player on the Stars to put everyone on equal footing to compare how well they've played. That data suggested that despite the starting position of the Ribeiro unit they've still played poorly. Now that this change has taken place we can see if that theory holds water.

In these three games the Stars are -23 scoring chances at even strength with the aforementioned changes. We can use Ribeiro as an example of what the second line has done over that time since, well, it's his line. In the three games Ribeiro, despite starting in the offensive zone 65% of the time, is -15 chances at even strength. There is no other way to characterize those numbers than poor. The Ribeiro line simply has to do better. He and his linemates are too talented for that level of negative production.

Can the coaching staff do more though? Yes, absolutely. Adjusting the zone assignments is a big help, but they have to consider line matches as well. Again, using Ribeiro as a proxy for the second line, what level of competition have they faced since the break? Against Anaheim they played pretty evenly against all units. Against the Sharks 11 of his 17 minutes came against Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton. Against the Wild 7 of Ribeiro's 15 minutes came against Dany Heatley. Those two units torched the Stars. The coaching staff has to do a better job of matching lines going forward. Zone start adjustments are good, but good offensive players can still create offense from their own zone. When they get ice time against poor defensive players they're even more likely to do so.

Ultimately the Stars players and coaches can, and need to, do more to increase their odds of success. The second line has to play better, and the coaching staff needs to do a little more to put them in the best possible situation to generate positive plays. They're evolving on the fly though, and it's wonderful to see. Hopefully this isn't a three game mirage. It would be great to see the Stars develop further. Anything they can do to increase their odds of making the playoffs is progress. A few more tweaks could be beneficial, but this is a good first step.