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Puck Philosophy: What Thomas Kuhn can teach us about the real reason for Dallas Stars' struggles

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There are a lot of explanations for why Dallas isn’t the team they were last season, but what’s the problem with who the Stars are now?

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn, the famous Harvard physicist and philosopher, explained the nature of “paradigms” in science. His book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, articulated how scientific disciplines were woven into the specific language and models in which theories exist.

These paradigms sometimes shift, it is said. Even though Kuhn’s book still makes my head hurt, we see these shifts in science all the same. Contrast, for example, the 16th century paradigm that body and mind were separate, with the new conventional wisdom; that mind is merely the byproduct of body and brain interactions. Today this link between physiology and psychology isn’t just patched in theories about autism connected to stomach problems, but in disorders such as Capgras syndrome (a specific delusion involving a patient who believes a loved one is an imposter), revealing how the distinct lack of emotions can lead to irrational thinking. Now we know just how bound rather than divorced, emotion and reason really are.

I find it useful, however pretentious, to think about paradigm shifts because I think hockey itself is a good analogy for them. In the same way body and mind once represented a separation of will, offense and defense in hockey once represented a separation of production.

Plus I think it helps us go beyond the numbers in assessing what makes Dallas so mediocre thus far. But let’s consider (read: lament) them anyway.

There have been plenty of good theories explaining why the Dallas Stars aren't very good. The injuries to key forwards and their distinct impact. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde goaltending that is more Hyde than Jekyll on special teams. The special teams themselves. A blueline that has gotten bigger, but not better. Lindy Ruff's questionable decisions to scratch underperforming players while promoting other equally underperforming players. Even Jim Nill deserves a spotlight for Dallas' troubles given his faith in a young blueline that might not have deserved it, and a skepticism of young forwards who probably deserved more trust given the underperforming rentals Nill sought in the offseason.

These are good theories, with plenty of data to back them up. Added up, they form the answer to the riddle. But they only address the flaws in the context of who Dallas used to be. Not the team they are now.

Perhaps some general hockey history will help. If you were to watch a hockey game around the time John Carpenter made his classic run of great horror films, things would look a lot different for obvious reasons. Not just in terms of aesthetics, but in terms of strategy. The most notable is the D-to-D pass.

The Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa, exploring the death of the D-to-D pass, noted what made it so effective back then:

D-to-D was usually the most efficient breakout method. A sharp first pass trapped F1 up the ice. Before F2 could close, the defenseman receiving the pass from his partner could beat his advance with multiple options.

This 1988 playoff game between the Capitals and the Flyers isn’t really a good example, but it highlights just how much space blueliners used to have.

In the above gif, not only is the D-to-D pass a good option but the Philly forechecker acts as more of an obstacle than a threat. Going forward into the next decade, or what we can sarcastically call the glow puck era, the same scenario presents itself in this 1998 Stanley Cup Final clip between Detroit and Washington.

Same scenario. The forecheck creates obstacles rather than threats, perhaps paying too much respect to the D-to-D pass. It’s not that the 2-1-2 forechecking scheme didn’t exist until recently. It’s that it’s simply become more pronounced.

Continuing from Shinzawa’s article, “the shift has taken place because of how most teams apply a 2-1-2 forecheck. They slam two forwards down hard on both defensemen. The third forward is an important player in the middle, trained to read off what his two forechecking teammates force opponents to do.”

Dallas fans saw this emphasis in rather stark terms recently against the Buffalo Sabres.

Here, John Klingberg bobbles the puck, and within seconds he’s surrounded by three Sabres. The most notable is F3; the forward that reacts and adjusts to the forecheck. In this case the F3 is Tyler Ennis, who quickly realizes Klingberg’s predicament (if you will), and pinches accordingly, leading to a goal against.

As far as the 2016-2017 Stars are concerned, this has been the story: they play a lot in their own zone because they don’t have the speed to transition. Their blueline is filled with plodding blueliners who use the boards to exit the zone. This may cut down on explicit turnovers, but as Jack Han notes, it reduces rhythm and transition flow while creating opportunities for opponent’s to counter more successfully over time.

This is largely a function of the modern NHL. With no more goons to take up roster spots, speed and skill is a premium from line one on down.

The old paradigm of offense is no longer about static setups in one zone, nor is defense about static setups to counter offensive schemes. Rather, offense is about the interaction across all three zones.

This interaction across all three zones, in turn, affects defense, which helps explain why speed is so critical even for defensemen. Vancouver’s Troy Stetcher is a good example when you watch how he uses his agility in the neutral zone to play gap control. If we consider the Norris Trophy to be a gauge for good defensemen, then speed is critical even historically, as the large majority of Norris winners have been on the smaller side going back to 1985.

Thinking about defense within this context (as a three zone dynamic) also helps explain why Esa Lindell and Klingberg don’t mesh as well as presumed. Lindell is a big bodied defensemen who plays well in his own zone. Klingberg plays well in the offensive zone. This sounds like a match made in hockey heaven, except they are 6th in corsi for among Dallas blueline pairs with at least 50 minutes of ice time, and 10th in expected goal percentage. Lindell’s propensity to use the boards and general lack of footspeed might be one factor in explaining why Klingberg’s differential when it comes to zone exit percentage versus carry-in against percentage is among the league’s worst (to be fair there’s a good twitter thread arguing over the methodology of this particular stat).

Lindell is not the problem, however. Klingberg’s struggles have been by his own design in some cases (especially early in the season when he was pinching carelessly and struggled just to stay on his skates), and there’s no reason to pick on a rookie playing tough minutes who continues to get better. After all, if defenders carry the burden of contributing to offense in the modern NHL, then the same philosophy applies to forwards contributing to defense. The Mike Babcock led Toronto Maple Leafs are a good example of using their forwards and defensemen interchangeably to maintain possession, allowing each player to think in dynamic rather than static terms.

But again, look at who’s anchoring their blueline. Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner form a mobile top four unit. And their forwards, like Marner and Matthews, are already adept two way players. That Dallas has struggled to score isn’t all that surprising in the context of the NHL’s new ‘paradigm’. Russia had a much better group of goal scorers in Sochi than Dallas, but the same disconnect between their blueline and forward core kept them from producing; a carbon and blade circus of good players receiving bad passes.

Dallas notched a fun, but insane win over the New York Rangers on Tuesday. It’s the kind of stick to your ribs hockey that’s enjoyable when consumed, but after some digestion, all you’re worried about is the onset of acid reflux.

Inconsistency, thy name is #Starsing

Looking at their demolition derby goal and possession stats, one thing is clear. These are not the charts of a team with an identity. They are the charts of a team struggling to fit in with the NHL’s new paradigm.