The Stars face an interesting problem. It's a problem most teams would love to have, but it's a problem nonetheless. After struggling for most of the season the Stars finally began putting things together when their best player went down with an injury. Since Jamie Benn's leg injury the Stars have picked up 14 out of a possible 17 points (including the previous three games since his return). The Stars lineup has been evolving all season as you can see here. Appropriately fitting Benn back into a fluid lineup isn't much of a challenge.
The Benn injury forced the Stars to emphasize the defensive end of the rink. Gulutzan turned the volume of "The Great Zone Start Shift" (as chronicled at the previous link) up to eleven. The Mike Ribeiro, Michael Ryder, and Loui Eriksson trio was the only offensive option with Benn out of the lineup. They were fed offensive responsibility. The entire lineup appeared to be structured to get them into the offensive zone to give them chances to score. The inverse is also true. Ribeiro and Ryder were kept out of the defensive zone with the other nine guys fed the difficult minutes. And something clicked.
Enter Jamie Benn three games ago. The Stars finally found a gameplan that worked, and a (pleasant) wrench was thrown into the mix. Over the past three games with Benn the Stars have picked up five points, but they haven't figured out what to do with him yet. They were fortunate to be playing the Flames and Oilers during this tinkering stretch, but a few systematic problems stand out which are going to cost the Stars valuable points down the stretch unless fixed. Follow the jump to see the problems, and become acquainted with the potential solution(s).
One of the first life lessons we learn growing up is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", or something to that effect. You always strive to improve however you can, but fundamental changes to systems that are providing desirable results generally will prove to be unnecessary. The Stars situation is unique. The Benn injury forced the Stars to adjust their zone start distribution further. The results of the initial change have been unmistakable. Since the break the Stars have rolled out a 10-6-2 record against competition with an average Fenwick Close % (shot differential in close games) of 49.2%. They've legitimately beaten up middle of the pack competition, but the shock to the system from reintroducing Benn has thrown the Stars off lately despite the results.
I've taken the three games since the return of Benn and focused on the process of the game instead of the results to show what is actually happening. The first two tables focus on the players on the ice. I'm only going to focus on the top nine forwards due to a couple of reasons. The fourth line is most likely going to be marginalized, and when they're on the ice they've proven that they can play in all three zones. Adding three lines of information to each table that says something to the extent of "yep...they're still doing their job, but they aren't going to play much" is a bit unnecessary.
The first table is the Corsi rating from each game for the top nine forwards. I sorted it by general line combination.
The Edmonton effort sticks out like a sore thumb among the three. The third line is the only group who were able to hold their heads above water.The top two lines got torched by an inferior Oilers club. This was a pretty obvious reversal from the effort against Pittsburgh. Against Pittsburgh the top two lines were well above average as the third line gave up a ton of shots while being matched up against the Evgeni Malkin line.
Move forward to the Calgary matchup. The Benn and Fiddler lines stabilized, but the top line continued to perform poorly for an average Corsi of -11 over the past two games. That needs to change quickly, but all is not lost if they're able to generate some scoring chances.
The above table is scoring chance differential for each of the top nine in the past three games. Everyone except the third line and Benn is trending down. The past two games have seen the Stars get outchanced by a decent margin, and outshot on an individual basis by a considerable margin. Those two trends plus the reintroduction of Benn into the lineup made me curious about how Gulutzan has shifted the lineup to accommodate the ice time needs of Benn.
Below is a table of the OZ% (offensive zone start %) for each of the top nine forwards during the past three games.
This chart takes a few moments to digest. Let's start at the bottom. The third line was used as a very strict checking line in the first two games. They have little offensive ability so the fact that they were given 67% offensive zone starts against Calgary is hard to digest. One potential reason for getting the third line in the offensive zone is to establish a forecheck/cycle, but to have any (limited) value there they would need to actually gain possession of the puck (win some faceoffs), which we'll get to in a moment.
The Ribeiro line has seen their offensive zone time drop 15% over the past three games. It may not seem like much, but that's a radical shift. The line's Corsi and Scoring Chance numbers have both dropped in lock step with the shrinking offensive zone time. Some of that is due to strategy. Some of that (in the Edmonton game in particular) is due to the team as a whole simply having a poor game. The coaching aspects are what I'm interested in, and Jamie Benn is at the root of those issues.
The Stars haven't figured out what to do with Jamie Benn. They found a winning formula with Benn out of the lineup, and with him back in the lineup they've yet to find a place for him. Against the Penguins he was getting as much offensive zone time as the Ribeiro line. Against the Oilers Benn was used in a checking role, garnering only 27% offensive zone starts. Steve Ott, Adam Burish, and Benn picked the Stars up defensively against the Flames by taking the toughest defensive zone minutes of the three lines.
Benn has gone from a primarily offensive focus to a primarily defensive focus to a little of both. There are issues with each of the three roles. If Benn is being used solely in an offensive capacity the remainder of the lineup is being exposed defensively given that his wingers (Burish/Ott) are among the Stars top defenders (and they have faceoff ability unlike Ribeiro's wings). It also cuts down on the offensive zone time of Ribeiro and Ryder which forces them to play more defense. No one wants that.
If Benn is used in a primarily defensive role the offensive production from the Stars most skilled player is severely limited. The Ribeiro line will continue to take all of the offensive zone time while Benn's unit has to work hard for their chances. The Fiddler line will play more in the neutral zone (as they did when Benn was out), and they will need to generate offense to compensate. With 67% offensive zone starts against the Flames they generated little offense. They've proven time and again that they aren't very useful offensively.
The third role is a hybrid of the two, and sort of what the Stars drifted towards against Calgary. You split Benn's zone starts right down the middle to allow him to contribute in both ends of the rink the rest of the way. In this scenario the Fiddler line takes defensive draws. Ribeiro takes the offensive draws. Benn fills in the gaps, and does his thing. I think this is what the Stars want to do, but the Calgary game highlights an issue the Stars want to address.
The Stars aren't getting possession in the offensive zone off of faceoffs. Over the past two games Ribeiro is 31% on the draw which is obviously poor. The Stars attempted to address the issue, I think, by using the Fiddler line in the offensive zone to try to win some of those draws. It's an effort at correcting the problem, but that line of thinking is ultimately going to stifle the Stars offense. It's throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The marginal upgrade in faceoff ability from Ribeiro or Benn to Fiddler (an extra faceoff win per game, maybe) isn't worth the huge downgrade in offense.
The ultimate idea to take away from this is that drastic changes aren't necessary. The basic framework of the recent winning streak continues to offer a lot of utility. The Stars need to continue feeding Ribeiro and Ryder offensive zone time while allowing Benn to contribute at both ends of the rink. They can go about solving these problems several ways. They could break up the top two lines by swapping Ott or Burish with Eriksson or Ryder. If you move Eriksson down you limit the production of your two most talented players. If you move Ryder you expose him defensively. Neither possibility is particularly enticing.
Or, they could resist the urge to reinvent the wheel. The system wasn't broken before Benn came back, and it isn't broken now because of Benn. The problems of the past two games are from (arguably necessary) tinkering. Long term you want to maximize the offensive abilities of Benn. Long term you want to increase the faceoff percentage of the top two lines. Right now, what you have has legitimately worked over a 17 game stretch. It's tempting to make significant changes to the lineup to put Benn in as many offensive situations as possible, but at what cost? They're finally playing solid defensive hockey up front. There is little reason to risk messing that up so close to the finish line when the game as a whole is trending up.
The Stars are inexplicably leading the Pacific Division in March. The time for massive tinkering has passed. Jamie Benn can dominate a game in all three zones if given the opportunity. The best teams in the league play well in all three zones, and are excellent in transition. Benn can bring this element to the Stars for the rest of the way. The Stars should use Benn the way the Canucks use Ryan Kesler at even strength down the stretch. He doesn't get all of the glory, but no one can question his value to the Canucks. It's the least radical option available at a time when the Stars need to avoid radical options. Most importantly, Benn has the skill set to pull it off.