First the good. The beleaguered Dallas Stars defense took a modest step forward last season. Whether we look at goals against (24th in 2013 to 17th in 2014), shots against (22nd to 18th) or more advanced measures like Corsi (20th to 14th), signs of improvement were indisputable. I’m cherry picking a bit, but last year’s squad was the first since 2010 to finish with a positive 5 on 5 possession number. Sure, the fact we’re celebrating 17th place means team defense wasn’t exactly a strength, but it wasn’t a train wreck either. That’s new, and it’s a very good thing.
A couple of individuals stood out as well. Alex Goligoski shook off a rough first quarter to finish 21st in overall defensive scoring, and a more impressive 11th at even strength. Despite fears he’d struggle without training wheels, Brenden Dillon overcame the injury to, and eventual trade of Stephane Robidas. Further down the lineup, Jordie Benn didn’t just make the team, he played 78 games, scored 20 points, and may well have led the league in HWTGiKoG ("Hey, Wait, That Guy is Kind of Good!").
Despite these strides, the unit still raises more questions than it answers. Jim Nill couldn’t find any takers for Sergei Gonchar, nor did he bring in additional help. Aaron Rome’s departure will clear a little space for the likes of Cameron Gaunce, but that’s more of a steadying move than a true game-changer. Once again, the path to success will be the same mish-mash group managing to exceed the sum of their parts.
Which means one bizarre, troubling problem will remain. For all of their disparate skills, the one thing the Dallas Stars’ defense absolutely cannot do, under any circumstances, is be right-handed. From Goligoski to Gaunce, they’re all lefties. It’s a startling uniformity, and a strange vulnerability to consider.
Remember, NHL players make decisions in fractions of seconds. Working from the backhand means every action comes with an extra step. That step reduces the fluidity of a player’s actions. It’s an opportunity for the forecheck drop the hammer, or for the penalty kill to slide into a shooting lane. Bye bye one-timer. That step is also an opportunity for error. Just look at the curve of your average hockey stick. The split second it takes to ensure a wobbling puck doesn’t slide under the blade is more than enough time to pull a forward offside or close off a pass.
Tactically, Dallas’ lack of right-handed options creates limitations all over the ice. Offensively, Dallas has to either forgo point-to-point play, cycle a forward to the top of the zone, or on the powerplay, remove a defenseman entirely. Were Dallas a beefy, cycle-heavy attack, such limitations might not be a big deal, but ours is an offense built to run. The left-handed tilt makes this more difficult.
Defensively, Dallas ends up with one defensemen consistently turned back towards his own net. This forces difficult, possession-killing chips up the wall, and encourages dangerous cross-ice breakouts. It makes the forwards work harder further away from the opposition net just to get the puck, and creates more time for the opposing defense to settle into their own system.
Lack of balance creates blind spots, increases the time to act, and makes every facet of Dallas’ game that much more predictable. By the end of last season, it got pretty clear when Dallas was going to get scored on, or take a bad penalty. It would start with the other team maintaining possession, progress into a series of increasingly frantic turnovers, and finally, devolve into 5 individual Stars chasing after the puck.
My point isn’t that making Brenden Dillon right handed would suddenly fix the issue, but it sure would increase the margin for error. How the coaching staff addresses this in the coming season will be, frankly, fascinating. So far Nill has been aggressive, and Ruff has been flexible. Maybe it’s a trade; one useful piece sacrificed for the greater good. Maybe it’s schematic. Maybe a prospect comes good.
No matter what, any conversation about the Stars taking "the next step," has to start with the defense.