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Dallas Stars Climb Fenwick Close Leaderboard With Unorthodox Tactics

The Stars appear to be much improved from the 2013 season. Strategy appears to be playing a role in that.

Komrade Horcov and buddy Valeri Nichushkin skate up the ice.
Komrade Horcov and buddy Valeri Nichushkin skate up the ice.
Ronald Martinez

The weirdest thing about the 2014 season so far is that the Stars have jumped out of the gate much better than could have reasonably been expected. The Dallas Stars have been a dominant team at even strength.

The fun of early season production statistics is that they could easily be flukes. The early success could also be a function of the competition. The Florida Panthers picked second in the last draft. The Washington Capitals are a powerplay team forced to play 40-46 minutes a night at even strength. Regardless, through two games the Stars are fourth in the NHL in Fenwick Close. Essentially only three teams in the early going have been more proficient at generating net positive shots when the game is close at even strength.

How they have done it is what is interesting. Lindy Ruff isn't matching lines at all. The top three lines are rolling regardless of who is on the ice. The top two lines are definitely rolling. The third line is seeing a slightly lower level of competition, but there isn't enough of a discrepancy between the top three lines to suggest Ruff is doing anything to protect them.

I think it's too simplistic to say Ruff isn't doing anything to manage the game though. He isn't focusing on matchups, but he is focusing on where certain players are starting their shifts. Ruff is getting Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin into the offensive zone with regularity. The Ray Whitney and Alex Chiasson net crashing experience gets a fair dosage of offensive starts, but the Seguin/Benn combo is the clear emphasis. They have been used against almost equivalent competition like Ruff suggested would happen.

The third line is where the situation is sticky. Ruff has been using Valeri Nichushkin, Shawn Horcoff, and Vern Fiddler almost exclusively for defensive zone draws. Given the faceoff prowess present on the line it makes sense. The competition they are seeing hasn't been overwhelming so calling them a checking line is overstated. The strange aspect is that Nichushkin is playing the role of a defensive forward as an 18 year old rookie.

The construction of the Stars roster necessitates the weird situation to a degree. Chiasson and Whitney need to stay together doing what they do on the second line. Ruff isn't likely to hand first line minutes to a rookie so putting Nichushkin with Seguin and Benn routinely is unrealistic. Plus, Erik Cole has played well with the two. Now add Rich Peverley, who seems likely to slide into the second line center role sooner than later. There really is nowhere else to play Nichushkin.

What it does do is allow Nichushkin to work on his defensive game in a less pressured environment. He has shown himself to be a hard worker early, particularly on tracking back down the ice. His position on the third line, while strange, does fit in with a larger plan that seems to be in place. Ruff is focusing on transitioning out of his own end as quickly as possible to get back on the attack. The defensive deployments bear this out.

The very dependable defensive pairing of Stephane Robidas and Brenden Dillon has gotten 66% offensive zone starts through two games. Like the forwards, no defensive pair is being matched against an opposing forward line. I don't think it's a stretch to say this pair is the Stars worst in transition. It doesn't mean they are bad, but the other two pairs should be better in that regard.

Playing those two up the ice allows them to be a defensive safety blanket for the top two lines. Conversely playing the other two pairs more in their own end allows the Stars to get the puck out of their own end with more frequency. It does potentially invite more goals which is a problem. I think you have to pick your poison if you're the Stars though.

The Stars could continue to sit back and huddle up defensively, but sitting around waiting to be attacked is no way to go about doing anything in life. The strengths of this Stars team are offensive talent, puck moving/skating defensemen, size up front, and goaltending. Hunkering down in front of Kari Lehtonen puts the entire emphasis on him and ignores all of the positive aspects about this roster.

It's what the Stars have done for the last two years. Look where it got them. The style of play Ruff wants to play is going to burn the Stars sometimes, but they are showing that they trust Lehtonen to cover for the mistakes they make in their quest for offense. Through two games it has worked out well. It could crumble apart over the next week, but it is hard to be anything but encouraged through two games.

The Stars once again look like an organized NHL team.