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Stars Find Center(s) in Win Versus Islanders

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Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Martin Hanzal, and Radek Faksa are all going to have to share the center position. If the Stars can figure out the right balance (as they did last night) it might just work out.

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Dallas Stars
With Martin Hanzal back in the lineup, the Dallas Stars are going to have to get creative with playing time.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, the Dallas Stars rode goals up and down the lineup all the way to a comfortable 5-2 victory over the New York Islanders. The win was their second in a row, and their second since a three game mini-skid to start December. That, in and of itself, is a story, as is the fact that Kari Lehtonen has held the crease for both wins. Still, I found myself much more interested in Martin Hanzal who returned after a six game absence.

Since his arrival from Arizona, Hanzal has found himself at the middle of a bit of a lineup brouhaha. The Stars, you see, were heavy in the middle. The summer Hanzal signed was the same summer new coach Ken Hitchcock announced an end to Tyler Seguin moonlighting on the wing. It was also the summer after a quasi-breakout season from former first-round pick Radek Faksa,, and Jason Spezza’s third (of three) consecutive 50+ point season in Dallas. Where, the second-guessers guessed, was the need?

The early season certainly seemed to validate such concerns. Faksa, as covered previously started the season fighting for minutes. Spezza, meanwhile, has seen his time on ice drop nearly three minutes versus last season (13:34 ATOI in 2017 vs. 16:10 in 2016). Things are a bit tougher to discern with Hanzal. While with the moribund Arizona Coyotes, he averaged 18:35, but once the center was acquired by a much better Minnesota Wild squad it dropped to 15:31. So far this season it’s down even further to 14:19 each night.

The Stars reduced the ice-time of all three players versus historical norms and all three (along with the team overall) have struggled. To be fair, performance is a factor here. Spezza has 12 points in 32 games after 50 in 68 last season. Faksa needed six games to register his first point of any kind, and Hanzal last put the puck into an empty net against the Red Wings on October 10th. It’s a classic hockey problem. I’m sure the coaching staff wants the trio to earn their ice-time, but at some point it’s fair to ask if an opportunity to earn that time actually exists.

For one night, at least, coach Ken Hitchcock was able to find the right balance. Faksa saw the most ice time of the trio (15:45) playing partially on a line with Tyler Pitlick and Jamie Benn. Though pointless as an individual, Faksa’s line tallied three times and was not scored upon. The young Czech did not play much of a factor on special teams (0:26 on the PK).

Next up was Jason Spezza, who played 14:57. In that time he picked up an assist (on Radulov’s tally), and was on the ice for Remi Elie’s goal. Anecdotally, Razor and Ludwig both mentioned several times how well Spezza was moving, though that’s hardly a hard metric. Spezza saw 0:47 on the power play, which looks like a paltry number until you consider the fact the Stars only generated two penalties. More calls might have pushed his time on ice even higher.

Finally, in his first game back, Hanzal got 13:47. Of the trio, he saw the most varied usage. Hanzal played 0:53 on the power play and 1:13 on the penalty kill. He had a shot on goal, and was not scored upon, though his lines did not generate any offense. That’s not a bad game for a player busy shaking off rust.

If we look at line combinations, it at least feels like the coaching staff is trying to get something going. The Benn-Faksa-Pitlick trio was demonstrably successful, as was the Janmark-Spezza-Radulov grouping. If we look at the scoreline (5-0 until score effect started to creep in) and role, it’s fair to claim Gemel Smith, Hanzal, and Brett Ritchie did the job expected of them as well.

Lest we go crazy, it was still one game. You also have to think the Stars will not be comfortable, long term, running Tyler Seguin between Devin Shore and Remi Elie, and that Hanzal’s usage was at least somewhat limited by his recent injury. The Stars also avoided a large number of penalties, which usually impacts Spezza fairly severely. Oh by the way, Radulov is banged up, which is going to require further tweaking in the top six.

To be successful, this team is going to need contributions from Faksa, Spezza, and Hanzal. To get those contributions, coach Ken Hitchcock is going to have to find ways to keep his pieces on the board. Last night he did, and the Stars won handily. Here’s hoping 32 games has given the team at least some insight, and that this is the start of another successful stretch of play.