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Tape to Tape: Why the Dallas Stars Defense Can’t Transition Up Ice Effectively

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The Dallas Stars are a mediocre possession team thus far. And it starts with their blueline.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Nill had a tough decision this summer. Keep Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers on cheap, affordable contracts to maintain a decent blueline core. Or let them walk, avoiding term that could hurt them in the long run while risking space for prospects that are near ready.

Jim Nill chose the latter, and now we’re seeing why it kept his mustache up at night.

Dallas has always been considered one of the premier offensive teams in the NHL. But in the past, they could boast a high percentage shooting team that was supported by elite possession. It’s the possession part that’s struggling. And for a lot of reasons.

For one, Goligoski and Demers were good possession players on their own who made up a top four complimented by John Klingberg and Johnny Oduya. They may not have been big, or capable of ‘nasty little crosschecks in the corners’, but they could carry the puck well to support Dallas’ speedy forward group. The “hope” from fans and observers is that Dallas could replace that puck efficacy with size, and youth. And that’s just not happening.

It’s useful to first talk about John Klingberg. After all, he’s Dallas’ number one defensemen. If your best defensemen is struggling, chances are, so will the rest. Klingberg has been the architect of his own struggles. He’s made some putrid passes, and doesn’t seem in sync with the forwards (also not helping the cause by being out of sorts themselves). But consider his change of scenery. In place of Goligoski, he’s split his time with Dam Hamhuis, Patrik Nemeth, and Jordie Benn (!).

It’s hard to understate Goligoski’s absence in the context of Klingberg. 85 Percent of his even strength time on ice last year was spent with Alex. His struggles with Jordie this brief season aren’t even worth mentioning. Jordie is and will never be first pairing material. But let’s look at his play with Nemeth against Columbus. Apologies for the blurry pics.

Here Nemeth takes the puck from a clean face off win by Devin Shore. He takes far too long corralling the puck, and even then, his pass to Klingberg is too soft to get to John quickly enough to give him room to efficiently move the puck out. Which leads to this:

Klingberg has to rim it up the boards, where the mixmaster of humanity is and will be. Shore might have been an option for Klingberg if Nemeth wasn’t slow in getting him the puck. Columbus wins that battle from the Dallas forwards, and ends up shooting on Kari.

As I said, Klingberg is experiencing plenty of his own mental flatulence. But none of his partners are agile enough to make the pair a dual threat, which means he’s having to drive, spot, steer, and GPS all at once. I know a lot of fans like the idea of ‘offensive d-man with defensive d-man’, but how efficient is that, really? Even Hamhuis with Klingberg have registered a 46 Percent CF in their 51 minutes together. Incredibly, that differential isn’t even boosted by shot generation. The pair is only marginally creating more shots than the Oduya-Johns pair (57 to 53 to be exact) who are much better with a 52 Percent CF together.

It’s not enough for Klingberg to have an efficient partner. But that partner has to accentuate Klingberg’s strengths in skating the puck out, transitioning, or being that threat on their own shooting from the point. And nobody actually does that on the current roster.

Dallas wants to be a transition team, but they’ve lost the agility they used to have, and it’s showing. For example, here’s Nemeth and Benn with little sense of geometry, passing too close to each other, resulting in whatever this is supposed to be:

Nemeth takes the puck from Benn, and then slaps it down the ice for an exit that never happens. That Dallas is on a change doesn’t excuse Nemeth and Benn being unable to read the situation, and react accordingly by playing keep away in the defensive zone rather than turn it over outright. Dallas has traditionally loved to use the boards.

As Jordie does here. The problem with this is that you end up with a trade off: exiting the zone at the cost of a successful entry.

Jordie’s pass up the boards results in bounces Dallas’ forwards can’t read, which turns into Columbus retrieving the puck in the neutral zone.

As we know by now, some of this is part of Dallas’ strategy. After all, everyone except Klingberg and Johns can’t beat opposing forwards with bladework (even then I’d argue that Johns is, pound for pound, better at skating it out). So you give the blueliners a scheme that doesn’t set them up for failure.

The issue here is that it confuses the transition game of the forwards, who opponents can double down on in the neutral zone, knowing full well the threat is coming from three players rather than five. This makes clogging passing lanes, and counterattacking more fluid for Dallas’ antagonists. It’s just five games into the season, but these are clearly issues. It took Dallas nine minutes to get a shot on goal in the 3rd period against the Blue Jackets. It’s no fluke to struggle for that long.

So what’s the solution? Don’t look at me. I just write here.

But two things I’d like to see. Some of the positional switching that Pittsburgh did against San Jose in the Stanley Cup Finals on zone exits, with forwards using their speed to retrieve the puck down low with support up high from the defensemen in-zone. And some roster makeover.

Dallas does have smooth skating defensemen with good defensive IQ. They’re just all in Cedar Park. If Dallas could try Jordie with Kling, why not Backman (I’ll keep plugging this one until he’s rotating in over one of Nemeth, Oleksiak, and Benn)? Ludwig Bystrom could also slot into the bottom pairing. Honka would be that 20 ounce can of Red Bull fed to you intravenously Dallas could use complete with all the benefits and detriments, but it’ll probably be another year before we can entertain that notion. Which leaves potential trade options. And I can’t imagine anyone dealing.

Right now Dallas wants to race like a McLaren on ice, but they have the aerodynamics of an El Camino.