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Analyzing Ken Hitchcock’s Defensive Pairs Through the First Five

What can small sample sizes tell us about Dallas’ blueline through five games?

Boston Bruins v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Before the season Ken Hitchcock had the top six he wanted. Esa Lindell and John Klingberg looked to be taking the necessary next step. He liked what he saw of Jamie Oleksiak and figured he could slot in next to Marc Methot. Dan Hamhuis and Stephen Johns rounded out a blue collar blueline the size of an adult mastodon.

He said he’d evaluate them after five games, but a rough start and a sore groin accelerated that process.

Now he’s got Methot with Klingberg, Lindell with Honka, and Hamhuis with Johns. The good news is that there’s no real bad news. Just a mixture of good news and ‘what happens next?’

Klingberg and Lindell together were second in the entire league among defensive pairs with at least 50 minutes of icetime together at 61.9 percent CF.

Breaking them up seems a bit premature, but it accomplished two things. The first is that it allowed Methot w/ Klingberg (Methberg? Okay maybe these two don’t need a supercouple name). Methot might not get shots on net the way Lindell does, but he transitions a bit better in his own zone with useful experience and even a little blade flare.

The second is that Lindell w/Honka (Lindonka? Nevermind, sounds like they don’t either) looked as comfortable in the NHL as they did in the AHL (when they carried Texas after Johns got the first call up). Their 78 percent CF is more or less completely unsustainable, but it’s worth exploring.

Finally, Hamhuis w/ Johns (Ham-J?) are 53 percent CF together, which makes each pair well above the defensive pair league average in shot attempt differential (49 percent).

In addition, the defensive pairs haven’t been quite as specialized as you’d assume.

Honka is being sheltered, not necessarily as dramatic as presumed, but his numbers are skewed based on ice time. Hitchcock has been careful with him - almost too careful. He hasn’t deliberately put Honka in for defensive zone faceoffs, and against Colorado, there were times when Klingberg or Johns would be double shifted in his place.

But it’s evident who will be running the second power play unit. And it’s evident that while he hasn’t always looked too comfortable (perhaps feeling the tug of the short leash he seems to be on), he has looked efficient. And perhaps Hitchcock wants to ease Honka into more defensive zone starts.

All of this is, of course, preliminary. Do the current pairs look like a core worth building on for this season? At least until Hamhuis is replaced by Miro Heiskanen next season (who is looking like a minor phenom in a men’s league).

Which brings us to Jamie Oleksiak. It’s difficult to discuss Oleksiak without confronting our own preconceived notions. I include myself in this discussion, taking part in snark, and even outrage toward a player often unfairly seen as a symbol of the franchise’s first round draft failures of the previous regime. If Dallas had Cam Fowler instead Jack Campbell, and Ryan Ellis instead of Scott Glennie, I’m sure Oleksiak would be seen in a different light.

Oleksiak has played with Methot and Honka. Both were positive possession pairs (51 and 52 percent, respectively). Both, however, were just under the bar already set forth by the current pairs.

But it’s a small sample size.

Which goes without saying.

However, small sample sizes are not always irrelevant. For young players, it’s all they have. If they waver from game to game, or never quite build confidence, pretty soon the only way to truly evaluate them is through small samples.

It might not be entirely fair, but teams must be built for efficiency, not fairness. To Oleksiak’s credit, his expected goals for differential, and CF relative to teammates has been better than Hamhuis thus far. With news that Hitchcock wants to bring him back in on Tuesday, it’ll be interesting see who gets scratched if he decides one of Hamhuis or Honka are more expendable*.

Hitchcock’s not done tinkering with his lineup. Five games is small beans. But he should stick with the best samples until proven otherwise, and for now, it looks like he has (most) of them.

*Hamhuis struggled against Colorado, but it’s hard to believe a veteran wouldn’t receive the benefit of the doubt (at least long term). If it’s Honka, then some might start asking questions about whether some players even have leashes while others have theirs set to choke. I believe Stars fans call this the Eakin Effect.