There have been a lot of words dedicated to explaining why the Dallas Stars are struggling. Goaltending, a young and inexperienced blueline, really bad execution on the PK, et cetera.
Except some of the reasons have been marginal. Though hardly perfect, goaltending has actually been decent in recent games. Especially at even strength, where Kari Lehtnonen in particular has shined. Though hardly perfect, the young and inexperienced blueline has been steady. Julius Honka and Stephen Johns are two of the three best defensemen at keeping unblocked shots against down, while Esa Lindell has been one of Dallas’ better penalty killers.
But the Stars offense isn’t exactly the phoenix ignition it used to be. Last season Dallas was 3rd in goals for per 60 minutes of even strength play. This season they are 25th. Last season they were 3rd in shots for per 60 minutes of even strength play. This season they are 16th. Last season they were 13th in percentage of faceoffs in the offensive zone. This season they are dead last. Last season they were 2nd in total unblocked shots for at even strength. This season they are 6th.
That last little stat is critical because it sounds positive on the surface. Unblocked shot attempts are getting through at least. Except it just reinforces what we already know: Dallas is a premier shooting team, able to slip packs through traffic better than most teams. But shooting is just one among many elements of offense.
Which leaves one constant that feels understated whenever fans and media talk about Dallas’ struggles: their depth at wing. The Stars are 19th in goals for per game. A far cry from first in the NHL last season. This is because Dallas had wingers adept at generating chances. Of Dallas’ ten best possession trios, eight of them contained wingers either no longer on the roster, or currently injured.
Keep in mind, that’s a hell of a cutoff: nobody below 55 percent in shot attempt differential. Not only that but Janmark and Hemsky were critical pieces of two lines that weren’t just good, but straight nightmares for opponents, right on par with the “supernova line”. Now look at the top ten forward trios in possession this season.
Only four lines above the 55 CF percent mark this season compared to ten last season. The loss of Mattias Janmark, Ales Hemsky, and Valeri Nichushkin for the functional season cannot be understated. Especially when Patrick Sharp (with only a goal and an assist this season) can more or less be included in this list with his concussion symptoms.
Dallas has built its identity around being a fast team. Some of the new guys have pulled their own weight. Devin Shore, Brett Ritchie, Curtis McKenzie, Lauri Korpikoski, and the like have been productive depth wingers. But none of them come close to replicating Janmark and Hemsky’s speedy two way play (nor do any of them break even in possession: of those listed, McKenzie posts the highest Corsi For, at 47 percent).
Defense is so often tied to defensemen, and centers. But as the game has become more dynamic, as defenders have become more intimately linked with offense, so too have wingers become more intimately linked with defense. Justin Bourne noted this a few years ago after a discussion with Mike Babcock, commentating on the winger’s defensive zone responsibilities:
...a winger is now constantly triangulating, keeping himself between the puck and his D-man, and ideally between the net and his D-man. He’s also being asked to make the decision to drop down and help when things start to fall apart, so he’s constantly shoulder checking his guy and the play.
I recommend reading the entire article, which has highlights and diagrams for your viewing pleasure.
Janmark and Hemsky were good at triangulating in their own zone, and part of what contributed to Dallas’ transition game. In addition, both were firmly entrenched in the top six, and bottom six respectively, highlighting their importance further. Especially Janmark, whose underlying numbers were ridiculous last season.
If Dallas were healthy (I’ve included Nuke for the sake of argument), this would have been their opening night roster:
Jamie Benn - Tyler Seguin - Patrick Sharp
Mattias Janmark - Jason Spezza - Valeri Nichushkin
Antoine Roussel - Radek Faksa - Ales Hemsky
Patrick Eaves - Cody Eakin - Jiri Hudler
Haggle about the spots all you want, but this forward core could have easily masked a lot of Dallas’ deficiencies. They say you can’t know how far you can fly until you spread your wings. It’s not exactly consolation for Stars fans. But expect this principle to hold true for as long as they try to fly on broken wings.