In something that comes as a surprise to no one who has watched them for the past few seasons, the Dallas Stars are an aggressive hockey team.
They throw layers of guys at the transition attack despite the risks of the play coming back the other way. They tend toward aggressive puck pressure in even-strength defensive play trying to force key turnovers. It's a style built into their very roster DNA.
It's a style that translates down to individuals, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Which brings us to Patrik Nemeth, who is embodying the blessing part of that aggressiveness recently and flourishing because of it. The Stars young defenseman has found himself a healthy scratch for much of the season but looks set to make his seventh consecutive start tonight against the St. Louis Blues.
The eye test indicates that Nemeth has been significantly more aggressive in all areas of the ice since the start of February, and while the possession statistics can't provide much evidence in that vein, they can show his much improved play.
For his first 11 games of the season, all before February started, Nemeth had a single assist, CorsiFor% of 51.6 with a zone starts of -6.2 percent (meaning he started proportionally more of his shifts in the defensive zone). He was 54.2 percent in Scoring Chance For% but -0.5 percent in the relative stat (which means the team had a better percentage when he was not on the ice) but a very impressive 56.2 High-Danger Scoring Chance For%, which was a hugely impressive +9.9 percent rel.
In the six games in February, he is in slightly more sheltered minutes and being significantly more productive. He has four assists in six games with an astounding (though short-term) 60.7 percent CF% and zone starts of -2 percent. Scoring Chance For % is an extremely 65.5 percent (4.5 percent rel, so positive compared to the rest of the team) and a 65 percent HSCF% (6.3 percent rel).
A significant portion of those minutes have been played alongside Jordie Benn, whose possession statistics have also jumped way up over the same period. The pairing appears to be working because Benn hangs back in more conservative defensive position while Nemeth is allowed to embrace some aggressive instincts that are really working.
Several of Nemeth's recent assists, for example, have come on risky but ultimately fruitful pinches deep in the offensive zone. And he's been equally aggressive with pursuing people around the defensive zone, mostly for the better.
All of that begs the question, however, how aggressive is too dangerous? We've seen hints of this problem from other defensemen this season, particularly as John Klingberg tries to find the right line between offensive dynamo and defensive responsibility. But I'd argue a better parallel where aggression often swings too far on the pendulum is Cody Eakin.
Eakin's had an interesting season, though not always in a particularly productive way. After signing a long-term contract extension this off-season, his game has seemed to plateau a bit as he's struggled to meet rising expectations. He's played relatively consistent minutes this season in tough zone starts and opponents, but to the eye test, his struggles often stem from an incredibly aggressive checking style that leaves him running around a bit and often out of position.
That's the danger of the new aggression that Nemeth is showing. It's working beautifully while he's balancing it with offensive production (and solid defensive support from his partner), but there is a risk it could tip over into running around that hurts more than helps.
How do you keep that from happening? There are several tacts.
The first is solid coaching to keep players accountable while understanding that mistakes are inevitable when a more aggressive style brings out the best in the player. The Stars have been very good about this with Klingberg this season, and while no one will argue that Nemeth and Klingberg are direct parallels, the ability for Lindy Ruff and James Patrick to hold the reins just tight enough will be critical.
The second is chemistry with linemates, or in this case defensive partners. In Eakin's case, I'd argue this has been the biggest hang up for him this season - you can make fundamentally overaggressive puck pursuit a strength if one individual is allowed to go wild while his linemates play meticulous positional defense behind him and take advantage of the turnovers created. But he's been a part of the rotating cast on the second and third (and even occasionally first) lines, which has left him unable to develop the type of chemistry with his fellow forwards. I don't think it's any coincidence that the best play from Eakin came when he was on a consistent checking line for several months.
In Nemeth's case, he seems to be finding that sort of chemistry, as much as can be demonstrated in about two weeks of play at least, with Jordie Benn. The pairing gives up slightly more chances than the brief duo of Nemeth and Johnny Oduya (when Jason Demers was out sick) but is producing shots at a higher average than Nemeth with any other defensive partner while still being reasonable defensively.
The other thing that chart shows - Nemeth and the recently productive duo of Ales Hemsky and Mattias Janmark have a good thing going as well.
What seems to work about the pairing of Benn and Nemeth is both understand their roles. Benn is who he is at this point in his career - a sneaky good wrist shot that can be used on occasion and a mind-meld like ability to find his younger brother breaking up the ice, but not the defenseman you want deep in the circles in the offensive zone. In the short term at least, he appears to have embraced the role of stay-at-home guy with Nemeth while the latter explores just how far he can pinch to keep offensive rotation alive.
This year's Stars, and the Stars for the foreseeable future, are going to be a team that lives and dies with aggression. Trying to pull everyone back to play tactically perfect, defensively oriented hockey just isn't going to happen because it doesn't play to the strengths of the group.
There are going to be times when that blows up in their face, such as the month of January this season, and when individuals look a little silly. The upside of it, for individuals at least, is growth in players like Nemeth. As the Cody Eakin example shows, though, walking the line consistently is as difficult as finding it to begin with. Nemeth is playing at full confidence right now as the results roll in - the ability to adjust when he goes too far either way will be the next key step in his development.