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Opinion: Ken Hitchcock’s Treatment of Julius Honka has Rhyme, but Questionable Reason

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Analyzing what Ken Hitchcock is seeing with the young, talented blueliner.

NHL: Preseason-St. Louis Blues at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When Dallas drafted Julius Honka in the 2014 draft, they were looking for a mobile, offensive minded blueliner - someone that could run a power play and transition the puck up ice.

It’s been almost four years since then. Has Honka become the player they drafted?

Through two and half seasons in the AHL, he amassed 106 points, eventually becoming an all situation defenseman. He got the requisite coffee and chicken fingers last year, beginning the preseason with some spicy moves, playing 16 games, registering 5 points, and our eyes more or less confirmed what Dallas was looking to draft.

The preseason rolled around for this year, and again Honka appeared ready to take the proverbial next step; as did the organization when you double check his screentime corsi.

Except with Ken Hitchcock as the new coach, he made it clear that through training camp, and the preseason, it was Jamie Oleksiak with top four potential, and who could play on the right side.

It was a head scratching move for a lot of fans. Had Oleksiak gone beastmode inside an entire training camp? Did Honka regress within that same, brief time frame? These weren’t the things Stars fans expected. But Hitchcock is an intelligent, and tenured, coach with a Stanley Cup to prove it. How could he be wrong?

Honka broke into the lineup October 10th. After a four game run in which Dallas was 3-1, Honka was benched for Oleksiak. Hitchcock believed “he (Oleksiak) didn’t deserve to come out in the first place”. Honka drew back into the next two games thanks in part to a disastrous game against Arizona on Oleksiak’s part. Unfortunately for Honka, he himself had a disastrous effort against Colorado.

Since then Honka has rotated in and out of the lineup, sometimes getting scratched for Greg Pateryn. After playing against Calgary and Vegas last week, both wins (the Vegas game in particular is worth noting since Honka appeared to play strong, even by some Dallas writers’ own admission, and without being sheltered), Honka was once again benched for Oleksiak. So is any of this justified?

Looking at Patterns

Since Honka has been benched for both Pateryn, and Oleksiak, let’s let look at them.

Below is each player’s expected goal differential at even strength (which I’ve explained here in a post that, not to toot my own horn, still seems relevant), shot attempt differential, scoring chances, high danger shot attempts, and a little something called game score.

Game score, like every other stat, is just an approximation. But it’s essentially an attempt to better measure single game productivity. Do the numbers align with what our eyes see within games? The math favors offense without taking into account special teams, and thus heavily favors forwards, so consider it a work in progress. Regardless, it does a good job of helping explain the statistical weather.

Source: Natural Stat Trick and Corsica Hockey

Whatever Hitchcock’s logic is for scratching Honka for Oleksiak, it’s not in the numbers. Oleksiak’s single game productivity is dreadful. Although to be fair, Honka and Pateryn are actually below league average for defensemen game scores. His decision to scratch Honka for Pateryn has some legs. Pateryn has better game score numbers, and a better high danger shot attempt differential. Whether or not that gap is large enough to offset everything else Honka provides is another question.

Another thing I wanted to consider is something Dallas hasn’t quite fixed: they struggle on the road. Most teams do - home field advantage has always been a thing, to the tune of a five percent boost in percentage points in hockey. As for why, the authors of Scorecasting famously found that home teams receive 20 percent fewer penalties across all major sports (a phenomenon that has roots in psychology). There’s that other thing in hockey too: last change.

To the extent that coaches can manage, maximize, and/or shelter certain players, it’s not something they can do as well on the road. And Dallas seems to be a dramatically different team on the road, where opponents can get the matchups they want. At even strength, Dallas is 1st in the league in goals against at home. Away, they are near the bottom, ranking 29th. The shot metrics confirm the difference (1st in total shot attempts against at home, and 22nd in raw shot attempts against); they’re getting inferior results on the road overall, and it has nothing to do with luck.

So is Honka struggling on the road when the rest of the team is?

Everyone’s single game productivity jumps right off the cliff with barbells attached at the feet. The same is true of Dallas’ roster in general. The average game score, or single game productivity, for Stars skaters is 7.2 overall. On the road, that average dips to 2.87 (!).

Honka’s shot attemps, high danger and otherwise, actually improve on the road, though everything else decreases (again, in keeping with the team in general). Oleksiak quietly does a bit better in the high danger category, while Pateryn’s expected goal differential drops pretty significantly. Still, there is no category where Honka isn’t better than both players on the road in terms of contributing to the team’s overall possession.

The reason I single out road performance is because so far, the criticism of Honka, other than his lack of points (though still just three less than Oleksiak and Pateryn combined), is that he needs to be sheltered. Exposing him to tougher competition is too risky. Yet when it’s beyond Hitchcock’s control over who he plays against, he has simply outperformed the two players Hitchcock apparently prefers.

Beyond the Numbers

Thus far, Hitchcock has an explicit philosophy: Dallas can’t win track meets, and therefore must play with structure and support. He’s correct on this point. Good coaches identify the profile of their teams and adjust accordingly. Dallas doesn’t have the fast wingers they had two seasons ago (Hemsky, Sharp, Eaves, Nichushkin, etc), and just can’t be the team they used to be.

More than raw chemistry, Hitchcock wants strong balance. That’s, presumably, the idea behind running Martin Hanzal and Jason Spezza together, giving Radek Faksa 4th line minutes early in the season, and starting Oleksiak in the top four; it gave Dallas a balanced lineup. Oleksiak, unlike Honka, is someone Hitchcock trusts on the penalty kill. He never has to shelter Oleksiak (or Pateryn for that matter) in the offensive zone. Oleksiak has registered over 30 minutes on the penalty kill versus Honka, who has less than two.

So Hitchcock now has a balanced blueline. But does balance automatically mean ‘more effective’?

I’m not questioning Hitchcock’s obviously qualified hockey mind. But speaking for myself, I do question some of Hitchcock’s philosophy. It’s not just that I have personal biases (wanting to see Honka succeed, or believing that Dallas isn’t dynamic enough to sacrifice chemistry for balance), but that Honka’s treatment leads to blindspots. How is Dallas supposed to learn how well Honka can play on the PK if he’s not given the opportunity in the first place? Do Rick Wilson and Hitchcock not like what they see in practice? Surely you can’t make that kind of analysis without giving him the necessary ice time. Esa Lindell struggled last season, but playing him payed off. Imagine Honka starting next season twice the player he is (!).

Hitchcock might want to get Oleksiak going. Honka has plenty of time to make the team, while Oleksiak’s future with the organization is unclear. This is one way to explain Honka’s treatment. The counter to this is simple. Who would you rather see trusted to get Benn, Seguin, and Radulov the puck? The only decisions that should be made about a roster for win now teams is who best maximizes it. It’s strange that every young defensemen has received the benefit of the doubt when being paired with a veteran blueliner (Methot and Hamhuis with Klingberg and Johns, for example) - everyone except Dallas’ youngest defenseman. Once Methot is healthy again, it’s hard to imagine Hitchcock rolling with anything but Lindell with Klingberg, Methot with Johns, and Hamhuis with Pateryn. Even when the numbers suggest something different should, at minimum, be tried.

You’re not telling Hitchcock anything he doesn’t already know twice over. Stats are just tools, and he has more than you.

Touche!

The truth is, I don’t see fancy stats as the ultimate stick of truth. I use them in my writing because analyzing sports is not a full time job for me. They help me see patterns I otherwise can’t if I miss a game, and watching the games help me either confirm or question those patterns.

But let’s go a step further. Take these bizarre examples in actual science: social psychologist Daryl Bem called into question the entire scientific peer review process by scientifically validating ESP (none other than intellectual heavyweight, Daniel Kahneman, admitted that the implications of Bem’s study scared the hell out of him). Neuroscientist Craig Bennett famously stumbled upon a live fMRI reading of a dead salmon. Even the most rigorous scientific materials and tools are subject to abject weirdness. Statistics are no different.

But fMRI is not irrelevant just because the tool may not be as effective at proving Malcolm Gladwell’s insight of the week. Doctors can still use them to identify tumors, strokes, and help surgeons prep a subject. The same is true of corsi. Just because its predictive value has waned doesn’t suddenly make it useless.

My point in all of this?

The stats are important not because they tell the truth, but because it’s only with enough use and application that we find how close to the truth they really are. Some coaches don’t describe analytics pejoratively as “tools”. Instead they treat them as potential insight, utilizing them because your eyes can only do so much work in the same way you can’t lift a heavy object with just your arms. Some close their minds to them, even in the face of seeming annihilation (sorry Edmonton). Others just flat out misunderstand the fundamental difference between climate (the way patterns play out over time to help predict the future) versus the weather (the immediate results). Good teams build good climates - not good weather.

Just ask Jeff Luhnow and the Houston Astros. There will always be ways to maximize performance, and anyone deliberately ignoring information that could lead to more effective application just ain’t long for this sports world. Baseball’s different? That goes without saying. But that’s a stronger argument for, not against. How well can a team apply them if not with research? The reigning two-time Stanley Cup champs would agree.

Where Hitchcock falls into this spectrum is anyone’s guess. Honka appears to be building the profile of who was drafted as; something he started last season in more games played in less sheltered minutes.

As of this writing, Honka has drawn back in the lineup for his birthday, but it doesn’t change my point. I know, I know. I’m being too negative, and what awful timing too! How could anyone write such a thing in the middle of yellow laces fever? First off, yellow laces are awesome, and I’m in the middle of buying some for myself. Second, this is simply what writers do - we watch, we react, and we respond to the things that excite or concern us. If Dallas loses every game in the month of March, I’ll write 2000 words about the gem that is Radek Faksa, I swear.

For now, this is about figuring why Honka isn’t playing more when every indicator says otherwise. Even if Hitchcock is playing ‘the long game’ with Honka, Dallas isn’t. With their superstar duo, Russian mean machine, and an emerging Klingberg, they’re making a push to win now, and that means having an experienced, efficient, well prepared roster when the postseason rolls around. They’re doing a pretty good job too (or at least trending that way). But it’s not unfair to ask if they could be doing an even better one, whether yesterday or tomorrow. This general discussion doesn’t revolve around one player, and won’t end with Honka. But given the importance of defense, it’s a pretty good start.