The 2016-2017 event’s totality of calumnies, indignities and deceits have weighed most heavily upon the team. Thus, acutely aware the franchise cannot rebuild their vulcanized rubber of ruins amongst the ice of American Airlines Center, for the sake of Dallas fans, the Stars must "strike another match, go start anew" by embracing the promotion back from the beguiled in blades to kelly green champion.
And so it begins. But not without some trepidation. To the wonderful readers, first, my apologies. I might beat a dead horse or two, but please trust that I have brought a fair and balanced arsenal. After all, Herbert West was pretty successful.
The Bottom Six
One of the pleasant surprises - though maybe not for some - is the potential makeup of the bottom six. Most teams have a top six and a bottom six. Some teams are lucky enough to have a top nine (like Toronto). Dallas has something of a connect four.
Assuming Jason Spezza is playing 2C minutes, the lines 3 and 4 should project to be something like:
Antoine Roussel-Radek Faksa-Gemel Smith/Adam Cracknell
That’s not too bad (Tyler). It may not be ideal for Radek Faksa, who has already shown an ability to play a checking line role. In fact, his shot suppression stats last season are what we call ‘gangster’, not merely stacking up well against the elite, but rising above even that. But it does mean Hitchcock can roll four lines with reckless abandon.
It also means he has flexibility with line matchups, and can switch up his checking lines if one falters. There might even be scenarios where Spezza is functionally Dallas’ 4th line center. In theory at least, any team that has Spezza on the 4th line can’t possibly suck. Granted, we’ve seen what theories are worth - “Benn’s game has really stepped up with Eakin up there” - but this isn’t 8 defensemen, where having options is the same thing as choosing 4, and rolling a dice to see who’s 5 and 6 while 7 and 8 eat cookies next to Razor and Luds.
The “Top Four”
By all indications, this is it.
My educated guess on the 6 D:— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) September 28, 2017
Let’s talk about it.
Last season Esa Lindell, paired with John Klingberg were one of 19 attempted defensive pairs. They were 14th in CF together, and 19th in expected goals against. Can they turn the corner?
Though HERO charts have become something of a talking points memo kind of thing, I consider seasons snapshots - after all, seasons vary wildly in the era of parity, and team performance is another variable on individual performance just like anything else - no matter how much genuine work and information goes into making them. Still, it’s genuine work and information. So here’s Jamie Oleksiak.
And here’s Marc Methot.
And they will make up half of Dallas’ top four. Ken Hitchcock has keyed in on Oleksiak’s play, and fans have, in the absence of footage, appealed to authority. Of course, nobody appealed to authority when Cody Eakin got first line minutes, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Oleksiak might well be turning it around. Fans certainly hope that Hitchcock is doing more than “knocking on wood” to ensure he’s earned a spot on a blueline he couldn’t crack even when it was thin.
To me, the real question is whether or not four blueliners who have struggled to generate shots at even strength (either together or individually) can do so with a rejuvenated offense. In Inception terms, will Hitchcock distinguish between a successful offense in spite of its blueline or because of it? The weather might be sunny now, but can they maintain the correct climate? You don’t have be an Oleksiak/Methot/Johns/Lindell “hater” to have real concerns about the blueline. Which brings us to...
Honka if You Endear Me
It’s great that Julius Honka has made the team. Especially for those of us who have been steering the wheel since jump street.
But he’s gonna need more than just murder eyes and carefully crafted hair. In Hitch’s words:
“We don’t want to let him get too far away without making a decision. We don’t want have a guy like him, who looks like he has tremendous upside, if he continues to grow as a player than he’s earned a right to keep playing,” Hitchcock said. “But he’s not there yet. He’s not in our top-six, but he’s got a chance to be a top-four guy. We want to see how far we can get him in the first 10 days here.”
The discussion around Honka is fascinating. The prevailing narrative is that he needs to “work on his defensive game”. There’s nothing wrong with this criticism (though I do question the degree). I just wonder about the context. We don’t ask rigid attention to offensive zone play for players like Methot, or Hamhuis, so why ask for rigid attention to defensive zone play for Honka? Is one zone less important for defenders than another?
It’s not like I know so much about hockey that I assume Hitchcock himself doesn’t understand this question. He obviously does. And his comment about a potential top four role attests to this. But by recognizing Honka’s potential, and how close he is, why wait in the first place? It would be one thing if Honka were competing against a bunch of veterans, but he isn’t. He’s competing against a group of bubble players from last season. It’s not an issue of comparing the blueliners to each other (“well player X couldn’t outplay Y in preseason”). It’s an issue of comparing their values relative to a system that promises safety and support to begin with. In that context, what is more valuable? Safe speeds in a safe system, or unsafe speeds in a safe system?
Ben Bishop and Kari Lehtonen will lead the way, and once again pundits, fans, and Jim Nill’s blood pressure will wonder if the two men between the pipes can carry the team.
Bishop did struggle during the preseason, but it is preseason. Perhaps the most interesting story will be whether or not Kari somehow wins the starting role back, which is entirely possible if Bishop struggles early. It won’t be what Nill intended, but as long as the team is winning, I doubt it matters.
Perhaps even more critical will be goaltending’s relationship with the blueline. If the blueline can stabilize, and be a real asset, this will do more for the team’s averages than whether or not the goaltenders themselves are firing on all cylinders. If the blueline doesn’t, well, I don’t know what to tell you Sam J. hasn’t already told you before.
Jim Nill’s Tenor
I wanted to talk about Hitch, but since I already have, here and elsewhere, let’s turn the spotlight to Nill.
Nill has always been capable of big, flashy moves. But it’s the little ones that get you. Thus far, I’m not sure Nill has made the most of small moves with positive ripple effects (on average). At least, until recently.
Nill has historically struggled with depth signings, in my personal opinion. The same defensemen he has kept on the roster for years were the same guys he didn’t trust over a few months of Kris Russell. Granted, at least one of them has earned an apple in Hitch’s eye for the moment, but the other (Nemeth) was put on waivers and claimed by Colorado. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with carrying 8 defensemen. 19 teams carried 8 defensemen last season. But he’s moved like molasses when identifying value.
It was clear last season that a lot of young forwards were ready to make the jump. Lo and behold, Gemel Smith has made the team, and Hitch explicitly liked Hintz, Elie, and Dickinson. Pitlick has looked really good - a signing I hated at first, came around to soon after, and that is looking good if the preseason is any indication - but it’s entirely possible another prospect could be playing.
Nill is not on the hot seat. He made some excellent moves this summer, and he has proven to be an above average GM. But he’ll enter into this season without a single first round draft pick of his on the roster. It’s gotta sting knowing the roster is not totally yours. Obviously, draft status should never determine who gets to play and who doesn’t, but it’s easy to see how this could have been avoided. The Nichushkin scenario may be its own thing, but Honka, Dickinson, Hintz, and to a lesser extent, Gurianov, could have been real, tangible possibilities if Nill had simply done some spring cleaning.
The Nemeth and McKenzie situations show signs of this. Roussel, Hamhuis, Cracknell, and Pateryn are all on contract years. Will Nill start moving some guys out early? Or will he let the contracts run out and give the spots to young players on the cusp? After all, he doesn’t have to put all of his eggs in the Miro Heiskanen basket next year. Gavin Bayreuther, John Nyberg, and Dillon Heatherington are knocking on the door too. Will Nill finally start actively make room for his prospects? Or will he continue dipping into the market for depth? The trade deadline may be more critical this season than most, regardless of how well the Stars are doing.