Let’s not sugarcoat it. Losing Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers is rough. Both absorbed minutes well and assisted heavily in driving the play into the opponent’s end of the ice. Sadly, Dallas wasn’t in a financial position to keep either of them as they each went on to receive hefty paydays in Arizona and Florida.
When a team that already struggles defensively loses two of its top-three defensemen, tough times are expected. Not only do the Stars need the new guys to come in and play well but they need the defensemen that remained to step up and absorb those key losses.
It’s early (sample size alert!), but Johnny Oduya and Stephen Johns have done exactly that so far for Dallas.
Defending the Blue Line
Inspired by the great work of Corey Sznajder, I decided to track zone entries and zone entries defended for all Dallas games this season. Through four games, Oduya and Johns have excelled at stopping plays immediately at the defensive blue line.
As a quick note, here is a great piece by Eric Tulsky which explains why we track such things. It’s important to note that zone entries in which the player carried the puck over the blue line have been found to generate twice as many shots, scoring chances and goals opposed to if the player dumped in the puck in.
Forcing the opponent to dump the puck in as opposed to a controlled entry is crucial to limiting shots against your goalie. For starters, so much bad can happen from a controlled entry against your team. The player can shoot off the rush for a scoring chances or a rebound. The player can immediately pass to a teammate, changing the point of attack and forcing the goalie to adjust. Controlled entries allow for so much more creativity offensively and is a big reason why forcing dump-ins is so important.
If your defense partner has a good read on the play, you forcing a dump-in can lead to an easy retrieval by your partner and the puck is immediately started in the other direction. So far this season, the Stars have forced 90 dump-ins at 5v5. Just 31 of them have been immediately recovered by the opposition. That’s not an incredibly high success-rate and really illustrates the importance of forcing dump-and-chase hockey.
Through four games, I have tracked 240 zone entries against the Dallas Stars while playing 5v5 hockey. Obvious line-change dump-ins and odd-man rushes are not included in this data sample in order to give a clearer picture of how each individual defenseman is defending his own blue line.
Let’s start with the veteran. Oduya has been targeted 40 times on 5v5 zone entries by the opponent so far this season. He’s allowed the opponent to carry the puck in just nine times, far and away the best rate on Dallas through four games. He has forced 21 dump-ins and has broken up 10 attempted entries, immediately allowing for the play to start in the other direction.
Adding to that, just eight entries against Oduya have led to a shot attempt. All told, Oduya allows 8.77 entries that lead to a shot attempt per 60 minutes of 5v5 play. That is the second-lowest rate of any defenseman on the team, bested slightly by Dan Hamhuis.
As our own Wes Lawrence stated, Oduya has been keeping the puck out of his own zone a majority of the time despite frequent defensive zone starts. Both he and Johns have been relied upon heavily by head coach Lindy Ruff to be the steady pair that gets the Stars away from their own end of the ice.
Still being considered a rookie, Johns has been targeted often by opponents but his aggressiveness at both blue lines has been paying off so far. He’s faced 38 zone entry targets playing 5v5 this season and has allowed the opponent to carry the puck in just 36.8% of the time. That’s good for 15.37 carries against/60 which is a higher rate than Oduya but still a bit below the rates of John Klingberg, Jordie Benn and Jamie Oleksiak. Let’s take a look at how both he and Oduya are doing it.
Here, Johns recognizes Cogliano standing still to receive a pass in the neutral zone. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the speedy Cogliano to either carry the puck in or send it in deep, he forces the issue by immediately getting in Cogliano’s space. This forced Cogliano to chip the puck in quickly which led to an easy recovery by Oduya.
This next look, from the same game, shows Silfverberg receiving a pass and headed towards the Stars’ zone. Oduya is standing tall right at the face-off dot. Does he back up and allow Silfverberg to carry it in or does he force Silfverberg to dump it in with not much support on the way?
Oduya forces Silfverberg to the inside where three Stars are converging. Silfverberg ends up chipping the puck harmlessly at Niemi who steers it aside and eliminates any real threat on goal.
These are just a couple of examples of what Johns and Oduya have combined to do through four games. They’ve been the Stars’ most aggressive defense-pairing and it has paid off early. With all of the offense and creativity, it would be nice to have a defensive duo that can be relied upon when Dallas is attempting to lock down a lead. Johns and Oduya have fit that description through four.