After the first period, Ben Bishop had put his team in a good position to win. Despite the Stars’ having spent most of those 20 minutes struggling to transition with any meaningful possession in the offensive zone, a couple of huge stops by the homecoming netminder had kept the Stars in it.
After the second period, you had some doubts that the Stars would be coming back from a 3-1 deficit. The Brayden Point goal off a John Klingberg misplay was a dagger in any body of hope, and the Stars would end the period going a resounding -1 for 3 on the power play. The period was a good push (as teams so often seem to mount after trailing), but the Stars would need to score one early to make things interesting.
As it turned out, the Stars did make things interesting, but more in the “hey, check out what happened to my finger after that blender accident” sense. Tampa Bay systematically neutralized Dallas’s attack while adding another three goals of their own, and the Stars were left thrice sliced and diced. The word “embarrassing” is quickly losing meaning as a result of overuse, but understandably so.
Dan Hamhuis fought Vladislav Namestnikov, and I’m not sure we appreciated that fight as much as we should have. Hamhuis channeled the smoldering fury of his entire team into patient, methodical punches, but the catharsis was, like so much color analysis, only efficacious if you subscribed to the preexisting narrative. I’m saying that it felt good but didn’t help. Still, some not insignificant part of me really appreciated Hamhuis doing that. He and Radulov both sent messages that put them in the penalty box, but you don’t seem to mind so much when your ire is up, do you?
The Stars were very obviously trying to ramp up the physical game in this one, perhaps hoping to knock the league’s best team off their gold-plated rockers. Unfortunately, the only punch the Stars ever landed came off the stick of Radek Faksa, who still got less 5v5 ice time than Remi Elie and Gemel Smith. Tampa Bay weathered the Stars’ attack and landed one devastating counterpunch after another. It could easily have been worse, but try not to think about that. We all have enough problems these days.
Devin Shore had a forgettable game tonight, as a couple of misplays (and even a shot block, unfortunately) led to Tampa Bay fun. Greg Pateryn had two pretty unforgivable turnovers as well, but we know by now that Ken Hitchcock has acres of grace for the mistakes of what we all figured were the Stars’ fourth pair of defensemen coming into this season. Then again, it’s not as though the Stars have much choice right now, with Marc Methot hurt. One of Jamie Oleksiak or Pateryn was still going to play in lieu of Methot, because the organization has decided that Julius Honka cannot be trusted to, presumably, make the same amount of mistakes as Pateryn or Oleksiak while contributing more to the offense.
Honestly, it’s getting tough not to just unload some vitriol at the Stars for appearing to work so arduously against their own best interests. The team is laboring to score goals—Faksa’s goal was great, but breakaways are hardly a reliable source of team offense—and they have done nothing to address this beyond preaching more effort. Or perhaps that’s not correct; Hitchcock has put Tyler Seguin on a line with someone Hitch trusted so little that he scratched him for nine games to start the year, and with Devin Shore, who is making Cody Eakin look like Rocket Richard this season. He is putting Jason Spezza with Martin Hanzal and Remi Elie. Roussel and Faksa, who scored 12 goals apiece to Shore’s 13 last year, are stuck on the fourth line.
The results have been stark. Martin Hanzal tonight collected a puck in the offensive zone about even with Dan Girardi, but he chose to pass instead of trying to beat the aging Girardi to the net. It’s just one instance, and confidence surely plays a part, but it’s a good starting point for throwing up your hands just a bit higher. This team, spent right up to the cap after signing three big players over 30 this summer, is losing its ability to create offense. They don’t appear to have any answers.
Honestly, think about this: we all love Remi Elie and Gemel Smith, but neither of them has any business playing beside Jason Spezza or Tyler Seguin by virtue of their NHL scoring abilities (though Smith isn’t the worst choice on the Stars’ roster, I’ll grant). Linemates should not be everything, of course—and Spezza did have a grade-A chance tonight off a nice Hanzal pass at the blue line after which Spezza was foiled by Vasilevskiy while drawing a penalty—but when a team ready to compete for a cup is below .500 (they’ve won nine of 19 games) and trending heavily downward, line combinations are where the coach’s fingerprints show up the most. Why Spezza has been kept away from the Benn-less Seguin is anyone’s guess, but if the answer is simply that Hitch wants the Seguin line to be as fast as possible, then hold on while I look up Tom Wandell’s phone number.
The good news? The team was winning every faceoff imaginable (they’re second in the NHL). Surprise, though: it’s not helping. It’s almost like faceoff wins don’t really create a meaningful amount of offense or something, who knew? Also, the team’s power play has been outstanding, and even tonight, they probably deserved at least one goal from some good chances, but boy, they really sagged after that brief 5-on-3 expired. Why is that? Well...
Confidence, confidence. Jamie Benn is playing like Jamie Benn, and that’s a winning combination, on an individual level. Alexander Radulov has been a bullseye for Jim Nill, even with the rest of that huge contract looming. But as Mikhail Sergachev (Montreal’s own Julius Honka, traded to Tampa this summer) was carving up the Stars en route to second star of the game, I couldn’t help but wonder if the problem with this Dallas team wasn’t lack of confidence by the players, but too much confidence in the decision processes that got the team to this point.
Tampa is willingly forfeiting a second-round pick by playing Sergachev for the regular season (assuming they don’t just pull the ripcord 40 games into the season, and they don’t sound like they will). Dallas, meanwhile, refused to waive Patrik Nemeth for an age, and I can’t see them waiving Oleksiak for fear of losing a player who would likely not get more than a 4th-rounder in a trade (that’s a guess, and maybe a high one). The Stars won the West (in the regular season) two years ago behind a system that unleashed the team’s speed and utilized some smaller but skilled defensemen to move the puck enough to keep it from burning them. It was, by all accounts, wildly successful, as far as it went. The Stars, this year, have attempted to reign in everyone from Spezza, to Honka, and even Tyler Seguin, who got the same amount of 5v5 ice time as Martin Hanzal tonight, which seems curious when your team is trailing for so much of the game. Yes, the Stars’ new efforts have borne fruit in some ways—the defensive game is overall much better than last year—but they have paid a price far too high, through 19 games. The organization’s belief appears to be that these are growing pains required for skill guys to become the players they need to be in order to make the team better.
Historical footnote: Jason Demers was not a silver bullet, but he gave the Stars a distinct second defense pairing that could move the puck up the ice and create offense instead of just chipping the puck out and hoping someone else would do the job after he got back to the bench. Stephen Johns is sneaky good at transitioning, but he’s also being asked to do a lot of heavy lifting with (lately) subpar partners, and the sheltered minutes are being given to the riskiest pairings who are also, incidentally, not creating offense either. My point: the Stars have their Jason Demers trade ready to go, and it’s a hybrid of Johns on the second pairing and Honka being promoted for more sheltered, third-pair minutes. They have yet to pull the trigger. It is harming this team. They are 12th in the West.
Contrast, again: Kucherov and Stamkos do not kill penalties. I have not heard Jon Cooper criticize them for not playing tough, defensive games in a while. Perhaps he risks letting their games run away with them? Well, tonight, they certainly did, and Dallas felt it. Yes, Cooper has used Stamkos on the wing quite a bit, but if Stamkos didn’t trust Cooper, the giant extension he signed with the team sure is a strange one. I am sure Cooper would love it if those two become killer PK and two-way guys, but team depth is also there to let everyone play to their strengths. Not everyone can be Alexander Radulov, unfortunately.
This is devolving into the familiar rants, and I didn’t want that, but that road trip was a giant stumble off the high dive punctuated with a belly flop. It’s not so much that I have any legitimate grounds to disagree with the minute-by-minute decisions that the chaotic world of NHL coaching or manging requires—I don’t, manifestly. I am sure I would feel like a total hockey moron if I talked to Jim Nill, Ken Hitchcock, or even Craig Ludwig about hockey for five minutes. Humility is important, even in the midst of frustration. I don’t write this out of arrogance, but out of the utter befuddlement that gets poisoned with frustration when the team continues to struggle. They should not be this mediocre.
No, what really gets us right now is that we don’t understand what the team is doing to fix the problems that seem so obvious. This team bought out one old goalie who got worse quickly and signed another 30-year-old goalie for twice Niemi’s term. Some things happen that we never see. Others, we see only the final result. But just like with any statistical analysis, the amateur public are forced to use the information and tools they have at hand, and those seem to indicate that the Stars’ decision-making has been lacking. Their system has reduced their goal-scoring to depressingly low levels. The goaltending is not benefiting from Hitch’s defensive system in any corresponding uptick in goals prevented. You don’t want to know this, but Kari Lehtonen has a better Sv% and GAA than Ben Bishop this year.
Julius Honka was promoted last season, surely in hopes of seeing whether he was ready to play this year. He seemed to be, but then he wasn’t, and the Stars have been bad while their (now second-best) defense prospect idles in the minors on an even worse hockey team. It’s funny: Honka hasn’t scored since being assigned to Cedar Park, but clearly creating offense is not a prerequisite for being an NHL defenseman on this team, so I’m not sure what they’re waiting for anymore. I find it incredibly tough to believe that the team would really continue to play Oleksiak and/or Pateryn while waiting for the magic moment when Honka finally “gets it” defensively and, like, makes a few less risky plays against the Ontario Reign or something. Can you imagine playing under that sort of pressure? All the talk of Stephen Johns being afraid to make a mistake under Lindy Ruff last year for fear of being scratched for five games must be that much more emphasized when you’re a waiver-exempt Julius Honka. It’s essentially demanding perfection from a young, skilled player. Even if this is a reasonable expectation, I don’t see how the Stars can afford to wait long enough for this (assuredly lengthy) process to mature in the minors, if it ever would. Sean Shapiro’s point from the end of last year has continued to haunt me: Can Honka really learn about greater defensive responsibility in a league where he can afford to be far more risky? What is the upside, here?
The logic doesn’t make quite make sense to me, so I’m hoping there’s something we don’t know. For now, all we see is a struggling team too cap-strapped to make a move outside the organization and too laser-focused on inscrutable line and defense combinations to get their offense going. That’s great if the team thinks Tyler Seguin is going to re-sign based on the hope that his own personal Modano Defensive Game Story will have a happy ending in the near future, but this team simply can’t afford to make that bet; to waste this season by putting Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin, and Julius Honka on offensive desert islands until they pull themselves up by their bootstraps just doesn’t make any kind of sense that we can see. Again, this admits to a level of blindness, but ignorance and powerlessness can feel a lot alike.
The power play was never going to run at 30% all year long, and the penalty kill’s failures on the road have only highlighted the team’s weaknesses. Yes, each game has had individual mistakes that are preventable, and maybe the team will also just learn themselves out of those big ol’ messups if they get made enough. But the Stars clearly can’t match up against the best team in the league as their roster and lineup is currently devised. That has to be concerning. I’m sure there are many things we don’t know, and I’m sure the folks whose jobs are more intimately tied to these decisions are working tirelessly to find solutions. It’s just maddening that they so persistently avoid the solutions we wish they would try.
Also, the players do need to be better, and that’s a fact. Stephen Johns on the PK couldn’t quite get into his lane in time, and it was 1-0. Sometimes it’s just dumb mistakes, or dumb luck. But after watching the Stars lose their ninth game in regulation on November 16th, it’s starting to just feel dumb. Even last year’s injury-plagued, Radulov-less, Bishop-less squad didn’t lose their ninth regulation game until November 29th, which was 24 games into the season. If the Stars can’t create offense, it’d at least be nice to see their defense dolefully march its way into a few more overtime losses or something.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the Tampa Bay Lightning are really, really good. I’m sure a couple of teams felt roughly this demoralized after the Stars stomped them back in 2015-16, so maybe this is just a reality check moment, and maybe the Stars are going to have an uptick later in the season. That’s probably a good thing to hope for, as long as you can muster the strength. Hope is costly, though.