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Defending the Blue Line - A Look At The Stars’ Defense Thus Far

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With the offense on crutches, the defensive side of the Dallas Stars’ game has to step up and fill the void.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Chicago Blackhawks Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The offense that lit the hockey world on fire for the past two seasons isn’t here right now and it likely won’t be returning this season.

Season-long injuries to Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky combined with sporadic absences from Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza should already be enough to knock the Stars’ offense down a few pegs. Add in the offseason losses of excellent puck-movers Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers and suddenly it isn’t so easy to score goals.

This isn’t to say the offense is bad, it’s not. It still possesses plenty of high-end talent. It just likely won’t be enough to outscore other problems this year. With that being the case, the defense must fill the gap.

The Dallas Stars are through 14 games as of this writing and the defense has been a mixed bag so far. For the purpose of this piece, we are going to hone in one key area and how it is helping or hurting the Stars: defending their own blue line.

As I have mentioned previously, I decided to take on the task of tracking 5v5 zone entries against the Dallas Stars for every game this season. With the blue line looking so different from last season, I wanted to see where the strengths and weaknesses are and how it is impacting the Stars’ territorial game.

For those who may have missed the previous post regarding this, here is a piece from Eric Tulsky highlighting the importance of defending the blue line. It has been found that carrying the puck into the zone leads to twice as many shot attempts as dumping the puck in.

For this sample of data, I have thrown out odd-man rushes and obvious line-change dump-ins in order to get a better representation of how each player is defending their zone. All of this is 5v5 only. Let’s get into it.

Stephen Johns and Johnny Oduya

Let’s start with the good, shall we?

I’ve lumped these two together as they are sharing similar statistics in this regard and they’ve spent a majority of their season together. They’ve easily been the Stars’ best defense pairing through 14 games which is why it was rather puzzling with Johns was scratched.

Then again, Lindy Ruff seems to have a good read on Johns as a player. Look no further than Thursday night’s game against Calgary. Johns coughed up a puck that led directly to a goal against and was promptly benched for a good remainder of the period. Ruff saw he was rattled and settled him down. Johns would come back in and have an incredible third period.

He was targeted on eight zone entries in that third period and allowed the Flames to carry the puck in just once. He didn’t just force dump-ins either. He eliminated people from the puck entirely.

Both he and Oduya have made a habit out of that so far this season and they go about it in entirely different ways. While Johns takes a physical approach, Oduya relies more on sound positioning and a well-placed stick to disrupt entries. Let’s look at how they compare to their peers.

They are allowing the puck to be carried in at the two lowest rates of any defenseman on the team through 14 games. Combine that with the fact that they are a consistent pairing and you’ve got a pretty darn good shutdown defensive pair.

I mentioned earlier about how they each go about defending the line in totally different ways. Here is a prime example of how Johns does it from last year’s playoffs.

How many defensemen, especially being all alone in the back, decide to back off and play it safe in that scenario? Johns is immediately on top of Upshall and completely separates him from the puck, extinguishing any type of rush chance that could have came from it.

Oduya defends his line similarly to the way Dan Hamhuis and Jordie Benn do, who we will talk a bit about later. Oduya uses his stick a lot and strong positioning at the line to force frequent dump-ins.

John Klingberg

How do you solve a problem like John Klingberg?

He’s been an interesting guy this year. His obvious struggles have come when attempting to move the puck out of the zone as his passes don’t seem as crisp as they were last season. You can probably chalk part of that up to just being out of sync with a lineup that has seen massive amounts of turnover. He seems just entirely uncomfortable at times and it shows when he is defending his own line.

Here is an entry from Columbus early in the first period. Klingberg had position on the play but elected to back off. He’s giving up a lot of space to Lukas Sedlak here and isn’t really using his stick to attempt to disrupt the flow of the play. Klingberg doesn’t attempt to engage until the top of the circle and by then, the Blue Jackets have plenty of support in the zone allowing Sedlak to pass it around the boards. This would eventually lead to a dangerous scoring chance right in front of the crease.

This is something I’ve noticed often with Klingberg this season. He is giving the opposition plenty of cushion when they enter the zone and that allows the puck-carrier plenty of options. He can try and score off the rush, he can drop it back to the point, he can pass to a teammate which would change the entire angle of the play. The entire point of not giving up space against the rush is to take away time and options from your opponent. The earlier you force a dump-in, the less likely they will be able to recover it and turn it into a scoring opportunity.

With Klingberg, this is the type of issue that could be overlooked if he was still pushing the play offensively at a high level. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening this season. The out-of-sync offense combined with struggling to defend his own blue line has hurt Klingberg, who finds himself sitting near the bottom in terms of shot attempt differential. His 5v5 Corsi-For-% of 48.26 is second-worst among Stars’ defensemen, ahead of only Esa Lindell so far.

If Klingberg can’t start outweighing his defensive issues with high levels of production, this is one of the first areas of his defensive game that he could look to improve.

And the Rest

While I wanted to highlight the two defensemen standing out in different ways, it would be rude not to take a look at the rest of this group and how they’re performing in relation to each other.

We’ll start with Hamhuis and Benn, two defensemen who have done pretty well at limiting carry-ins and go about it in a similar fashion.

Hamhuis has been enormously effective with his reach at the blue line this season. As referenced in the table earlier, nobody on the team has a higher rate of entry break-ups than Hamhuis.

While Benn hasn’t broken up as many entries, he has forced quite a few dump-ins with a similar strategy. He doesn’t lay a ton of hits like Johns but he does force the issue by getting in attackers’ space immediately.

Finally, we have the three “kids”. Even though both Nemeth and Oleksiak have some NHL games under their belts, their frequent trips to the press box has made it difficult for either of them to build any foundation.

Could that play a factor in how often they are backing off to let the opponent carry the puck into the zone? Perhaps they want to make a “safe” play rather than get aggressive and end up getting burned for it? Maybe so.

Still, those are some pretty inexcusable carry-in rates for two defensemen who possess above-average reaches and size. Lindell’s rates are a little more understandable and really not too terrible for a true rookie to the NHL this season.

We will be taking a look at this throughout the season to see how Dallas defenders are holding up their own blue line. The Stars will need to see some improvements from a few key individuals if they are to get back into the playoff hunt.