The Dallas Stars are designed to be an offense first, last and always sort of team, something that has been both their saving grace and worst flaw at various times this season.
That offense is starting to trend back up in recent games, but it's the major defensive breakdowns that we turn our attention to today. Dallas has begun to limit those again, but when things go wrong, they go wrong in a hurry.
A fair number of these breakdowns come down to a bad read by one or more players more than some sort of defensive ineptitude.
Let's take the first and third goals against from the game against the Colorado Avalanche as examples and try to see how things can go wrong so quickly from solid initial backchecking efforts.
The first goal against starts with the Stars in beautiful position in the neutral zone, with good spacing on Colorado forwards and numbers back.
This shot gives a good rationale for why Jordie Benn decided to step up at the blue line on this play. Even if he gets beaten clean (which he eventually does), In order of how close they were to him, Tyler Seguin, Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Benn are all back and would have this as a 3-on-3 rush from the blue line in, which is fine.
The play has just switched from the other side, which is why Nemeth and Seguin are lagging a little laterally. But they're recovering quickly and have more than enough time to finish switching as the play turns vertical.
Here's the step up and miss. Blake Comeau plays this really well, taking the angled puck off the boards and using its natural momentum to come inside of Benn's attempted check. Seguin and Nemeth are both facing this play and should now recognize the 2-on-2 situation on the strong side.
Jamie Benn is being a little out-skated by the Avs winger, but it's also understandable here because there was more resiliency in this play until his brother's failed check. Still, everyone is fine with some good reads and quick adjustments.
Here is the first sign of the read and adjustment not being made by a key player.
Seguin reads the 2-on-2 and starts to shift toward Comeau. Jamie Benn is still in a footrace but within stick length of the Avs forward. His role at this point, at least positionally, shifts to that of part of the low triangle until his brother can recover.
But Nemeth is making the key mis-step here by cutting back to the middle, away from the puck carrier and his slot help. I'm not quite sure what he's reading here - perhaps he things Jamie Benn is beaten by this point. But even so, that player is the least dangerous on the play because Benn can take the penalty and hook the heck out of him should the pass get over.
Instead of staying middle, Nemeth needs to work in concert with Seguin and come over to the strong side to play a straight up 2-on-2, or cheat it like a true 3-on-2 if he really doesn't have faith in Jamie Benn. By staying so far middle, he's conceding a 2-on-1 from the top of the circles in and doubling the coverage on an already covered guy.
Here's where you can really see Nemeth not even looking at the most dangerous players on the ice. His head locks onto Benn's guy (and Benn has his stick tied up here, so Nemeth is doing very little good by going back to the weak side). Seguin recognizes this and can't step up to try and force Comeau further outside without help on the slot man.
This is where you see that Nemeth's read took this play from a 3-on-3 to a 2-on-1.
Nemeth is physically engaging a guy who is already somewhat covered and conceding a dangerous rebound opportunity in the slot if the shot comes back out. Seguin is being the most defensively responsible person on this play and trying to take away the pass. Antti Niemi, hardly the problem here but not helping either, is already down and making himself pretty small, exposing a ton of the net to a guy with a good angle to shoot, even if he is pretty low.
The double coverage by Nemeth is super evident from the back camera. Had he made a good read after Jordie Benn's miss at the line, Seguin could go much harder to Comeau, stick check him or take a slashing penalty here to take away the scoring chance. Any pass across the middle would be much more difficult with that direct pressure But with the 2-on-1 and no one covering the slot, Seguin has to respect that pass instead of challenging.
So that's how a bad read can turn a recoverable mistake into a mess. The third goal was how bad reads can lead to a mess all on their lonesome.
We start with the Stars again in good defensive position, all five players back and spreading out nicely.
Patrick Sharp is making his way over to the strong side, Alex Goligoski has coverage on Gabriel Landeskog near the crease, Seguin is proving extra low support, Jamie Benn is F3 and the weak side wing, and Jordie is keeping the puck carrier to the outside. But with only two Avs in the picture, you know more will be coming soon.
Comeau is making a strong cut here to get separation, but Jordie Benn is going to continue to keep him on the outside. That's a plus. You'd maybe like to see Goligoski closer to Landeskog, but he'll fix that shortly. Seguin, Sharp and Jamie Benn are all well placed. Notice the overload at the weak-side point though. That will become important shortly.
Ah, the back-door sneak. We covered this play when the Stars ran it earlier this season with Klingberg scoring against the Anaheim Ducks, and the same principles apply. The Avs are running a different version, though, either because of a line change or simply slowness to join the rush - they have three guys starting up high here (the other one is off screen to the left) rather than starting typically and fading a guy out.
High overloads often become a situation where body-on-body can't apply, because you want the center/F1 down low looking for anyone sneaking into the slot. What that means is that the wingers have to be really aware of the extra guy up high and communicate when he starts getting back into the play.
Jamie Benn, well, isn't doing that. He's locked on the puck (like every other Stars player in the picture) and clueless about Mr. Wide Open sneaking down the weak side.
Seguin might be getting a clue about the weak-side player here, but he's the only one. And there are three guys in this passing lane, but only Jordie Benn has his stick really on the ice (Seguin is at least trying. Jamie Benn likes to knock pucks out of the air and has the hand eye coordination to do it sometimes, but you'd rather him with the higher percentage play here). Comeau is actually cutting again to find a different lane with a really nice, blind backhanded spin pass, but the sticks up will make coaches crazy.
(Thing that makes me laugh - Goligoski is so effectively screening Niemi from the puck carrier that I think Niemi is trying to look between his legs.)
Hey look, Seguin noticed the weak-side guy after the pass was made. I'm not sure Jamie Benn has noticed him yet though. He's very stagnant this whole play.
The difference in this and the Stars version of this play was that Jordie Benn kept the passer to the outside (when the Stars ran it, Seguin shook his man entirely and was able to make a simpler pass). The finish is much the same though. Clueless winger, open back-door.
And that's how this happens. In overload situations, whether that's the defensive team consciously keeping more players down low or the offensive team sneaking players up high, the off-puck players, particularly the wingers, need to keep their heads on a swivel to make a good read. Jamie Benn didn't here, and the puck ended up in his net.
Now, it should be remembered that both of these goals against happened in a game the Stars out-Corsi'd the Avalanche 85-34, out scoring-chanced them 42-12 and out HSCF'd them 17-5. And as in any sport, mistakes happen despite the best of intentions.
But there are two important takeaways.
The first is something I like to tell new beer-league players (recognizing that I am the most awful beer-league player to ever be awful) - count. In an even-strength situation, there should be one of you for one of them. Even when you're purposefully not lining up like that, as in the lead up Avs third goal, the count being off means your head has to be on a swivel for overloads and mismatches. A player might not be your guy at that very moment, but when the numbers don't match, there's a greater chance he will become your guy in the immediate future.
The second is that no one can get locked on to the original read of a play. Sometimes mistakes happen, as in the Avs first goal, and what would have been a good read had the play stayed 4-on-3 is now a costly one when it becomes even numbers. Both Nemeth and Benn got mentally locked on to the original read, didn't keep their head on a swivel to reassess, and both played big parts in their team giving up a goal because of it.
These are fixable mistakes that only require a little more mental focus rather than cheating away from the offensive side. The Stars are getting much better overall defensively after the horrendous start to January. Plays like these show they still have a little ways to go.