When the Dallas Stars were last burning down villages around the NHL, they were riding the crest of the defensive hockey wave. Led by coach Ken Hitchcock and general manager Bob Gainey, the 1990s and early 2000s Stars were more than happy to beat a team who played any style of game by holding the offense in tight check.
Heck, the reputation became so ingrained with the team that it led to the name of this very website just about a decade after the Stars Stanley Cup victory in 1999. The Stars, we knew, played textbook hockey in the vein of Jere Lehtinen - smart plays, avoid the high-risk passes, and out-work opponents.
Of course there were exceptions - Sergei Zubov being the most obvious one - but the archetypal story of those Stars was how Hitchcock and Gainey convinced young offensive superstar Mike Modano to give up points and replace them with defensively responsible plays. That sort of commitment to team defense set hockey expectations in the Metroplex.
The new era of Dallas Stars hockey is decidedly different.
Now, the Stars are a complete turnaround from the glory days of old, eschewing the low-risk play for a high-risk one that hopefully leads directly to more offensive opportunities. It's so apparent, and so different from even the current crop of hockey played by most teams, that some national hockey media have suggested the Stars might be a good team for a neutral fan to root for in hopes that, in a "copycat league," more teams would copy their exciting style if it's successful.
Here's an obvious example that was being discussed a bit the other day. Conventional hockey logic says that the defending team should never put the puck in front of their own net unless the circumstance is dire. But the Stars appear to have a designed outlet play where a player who wins a puck battle on the wall bumps the puck to a defender who has set up just inside the near post, close to the face off circle. That defender can then move the puck quickly up the ice to breaking forwards to maintain possession, and the entire play takes the puck away from the crowded defensive coverage up the wall.
Of course, this is a high-risk play because the Stars are intentionally putting the puck into an area of the ice where bad things can and do happen. A number of things could (and occasionally do) go wrong, and sometimes the puck has ended up in the back of the Stars net because of it.
There are innumerable other differences of that nature as well. In all, it leads to a designed, high-event sort of hockey where no team, the Stars or their opponents, is ever out of the game.
Lost in that conversation though is the obvious question - is the switch from a low-risk, just-enough-reward style to a high-risk, high-reward one a good one? It's certainly more fun to watch in many ways (particularly because there's not much more cringe-worthy than a defense-first team that doesn't have the offensive firepower to stay competitive), but does it set the team up for long-term success?
That's a very hard question to answer.
So much of the language of sports cliche is wrapped up in team defense. Sports fans, not to mention coaches and players, have been conditioned to hate the high-risk play except in the most dire of circumstances. It's much better to avoid mistakes, the logic goes, than to create via risk taking.
I'd argue that this is so popular because it strives to eliminate the need for high-end talent as something critical for success. The truly elite offensive talents are very rare, and even offensively gifted players can be difficult to accumulate. For teams that don't have the budget or drafting to get such players, focusing on eliminating mistakes is an attempt to make the game come down to one or two bad bounces against the other team. It attempts to equalize the playing field, particularly in the regular season when there is a wider gap in talent level to begin with.
It also tries to remove the variable of streaks. Because there is inherently luck-based variation in shooting percentage, it's common for even the best talents to go through dry spells, even before you factor in injury. Coaches abhor cold streaks - the lack of goal scoring or a goalie who can't stop a beach ball can get them fired, after all - so it makes sense that limiting shots from both sides may make them feel like they're minimizing the role of luck in a game.
That all seems to be an argument for the low-risk approach being correct, but the Stars have two things that counter this for their situation.
The first is a wealth of offensive talent. Through some draft successes and shrewd moves by general manager Jim Nill, the Stars have as many bona fide Top Six forwards as any team in the league in Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Valeri Nichushkin and Patrick Sharp. Mattias Janmark is making a case that he also belongs on that list, Ales Hemsky has been in that group when playing well, and Patrick Eaves has proved to be Mr. I-Can-Play-Everything once again. Heck, even Cody Eakin regularly rises to the occasion when playing with Benn and Seguin.
On the blue line, the Stars feature no less than four players who can make an 80-foot outlet pass look easy, and in Alex Goligoski and John Klingberg, they boast probably the best pairing of offensive defensemen in the league.
With that much offensive talent, the Stars have the theoretical ability to overwhelm their opponents in a run-and-gun style game. It's certainly not a style that would work for everyone, but it maximizes this particular group's assets.
Of course, other teams in the league have the ability to throw out more raw offensive talents than their opponents, so what sets the Stars apart from, say, the Colorado Avalanche? That question leads us to the second way the Stars run counter to the low-risk norm - despite, or perhaps because of, their high-event ways, they are a very solid possession team.
According to the venerable War-on-Ice.com, the Stars are the seventh-best team in the league in CorsiFor percentage, taking 52.5 percent of all shot attempts in 5 v 5 play.
(It's worth noting here that five of the top 10 teams in CF% are in the Central Division - Nashville and St. Louis are second and third, Chicago eighth and Winnipeg 10th.)
When expanded to all situations, the Stars are fifth, trailing only Nashville in the division and LA and Nashville in the conference. The positive metrics continue to scoring chance percentage as well, where the Stars are fourth in all situations and sixth at even strength. Even in high-danger scoring chances, the Stars are ninth in all situations and 11th at even strength.
And when the game is within one goal either way, the Stars are even better, trailing only LA in all situations and LA and Nashville at even strength.
The combined numbers point to a team that, unlike the Avalanche, controls the puck for the majority of the game while engaging in a drag race. If the best way to give yourself a chance to win is to hang on to the puck, the Stars do that in spades while playing to their offensive strengths.
Now, it's impossible to say if this style of play will succeed in the playoffs. The Stars are the highest-event team in the league in all categories, and anecdotal data says teams of this nature can struggle in a seven-game series setting where hot goalies and careful game-planning may eliminate some of their strengths.
Given that, it's almost more important that the Stars learn to play to their strengths when their opponents, as the St. Louis Blues did on Saturday, attempt to take them out of their game. They are a team designed to play a specific type of game, and to be successful, they need to dictate rather than adjust.