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Ken Hitchcock and the Importance of a Strong Start

While the record isn’t what was hoped for, the Dallas Stars are off to a strong statistical start, something Hitchcock has grown accustomed to

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

While squeaking by the Colorado Avalanche (in the goal column) to win for just the second time in the first five contests may not be exactly what fans had hoped for, Stars supporters should be thrilled at what they saw in that game and what they have seen overall in the opening week.

It’s difficult to get excited about 2-3-0, especially after the offseason the Stars had. Context is important when considering that record, however.

With a brand new coach and plenty of roster turnover, a perfect start was never likely. In the first week, fans really just need to see something that will give them hope.

Hitchcock behind the bench should give them some.

Hitchcock and the Quick Start

Hitchcock with the Stars is currently off to his worst start over the past six seasons, strictly standings-wise.

Through the first five games of the season with St. Louis, Hitchcock has put up records of 4-1-0, 4-1-0, 2-2-1, 4-1-0, and 3-1-1 starting with the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13. In those five seasons, the Blues finished 2nd in the Central three times, 1st once, and 3rd once. He was fired after 50 games last season, the season in which the Blues finished 3rd in the Central.

The Stars certainly have expectations of a top-three divisional finish this season and will look to Hitchcock to guide them there.

So far, the Stars have done a good job at mimicking Hitchcock’s strong Blues’ teams.

The Stars have been running away with shot attempt battles so far this season, very similar to what Hitchcock has seen from his teams in the past.

How are the Stars doing it? Surprisingly, it has been more of a defensive effort than an offensive one.

The offensive shot numbers are there (6th in the NHL for 5v5 shot attempts/60 minutes of play per and will likely be there for most of the season. Scoring hasn’t been there so far, but it’s reasonable to expect that to significantly increase if they keep pushing the play like they have been.

Limiting shots and more importantly, limiting quality scoring chances is what everyone wanted to see improvement in with Hitchcock’s arrival.

While it’s only a five-game sample, Hitchcock and the Stars have delivered an immense improvement in that category of the game so far.

For those unfamiliar with expected goals, it is a shot attempt metric that involves shot quality. A thorough write-up on it can be found here.

The lower the better with expected goals against per 60 minutes, and this year’s version of the Stars find themselves sandwiched between some really good Hitchcock teams of the past through five contests. They are currently allowing the fewest expected goals per 60 minutes in the NHL during 5v5 play so far this season.

Along the same route, Ben Bishop has faced the 3rd-fewest amount of high danger scoring chances at 5v5 among goaltenders who have played at least 100 minutes so far this season. That has been an issue for seasons and really played a large role in the poor surface statistics of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi.

Because they’ve been severely limiting shot quantity from their opponents, the Stars’ shot attempt differential at 5v5 is among the very best in the NHL. While it doesn’t match up with their actual goal differential yet, the trend is quite promising.

Seeing those numbers, even if only for a small sample to kick things off, has to be encouraging for Hitchcock and the Stars.

As the season rolls along, we’ll do a couple more check-ins on some of this data and try to spot comparisons between these Dallas Stars and Hitchcock’s St. Louis Blues. The Stars don’t necessarily have an Alex Pietrangelo roaming the blue-line, but at the same time those Blues teams didn’t have the offensive talent that Dallas possesses today.

The defensive numbers will be the ones to monitor moving forward with Hitchcock. If they can keep up their early pace, the Stars will be winning plenty of games and nobody will remember that they started 2-3-0.