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With a Third of the Season Done, Dallas Stars Back in Discovery Phase

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And discovering how good the Central Division is has been less than enjoyable.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders
Mike McKenna’s NHL debut was colorful.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A few years ago, I was brought onto a project team in charge of implementing a new inventory management system for our company’s warehouses across the country. As with any expansive piece of new software, the whole process took far longer than planned, cost more money than projected, and didn’t end up solving nearly as many issues as promised. It was basically every work project you’ve ever been on, in other words.

But about a year and a half in, I remember a meeting with the VP heading up the project, and after about 20 minutes of various managers discussing things, he finally quieted everyone down. In his view (correct, I think) we were stuck. He wanted things to start getting done, but our project team was still trying to figure out what would work. He began his rant with, “We’re still in the discovery phase!” It stuck with me, because Discovery sounds fun, usually! It was not fun to be in that conference room.

After taking three games from Chicago and Colorado (in Colorado!), the Stars had fans feeling good. After getting thwomped by Nashville and St. Louis, the team is back in a place of uncertainty, and it’s grown only more maddening as the season has worn on. The Stars, it appears, have a lot of discovering still to do.

Even as the Stars have been looking better in even-strength shot metrics lately, I’ve become more and more concerned. Beating Chicago feels good, but this isn’t the Chicago of three years ago. Dallas has largely failed to beat good teams this season, and that’s a pretty severe indictment.

The Stars are 16-12-1, and do you know how many of those wins have come against playoff teams, as of 12-8-17?

Three. Vancouver, Vegas, and the New York Islanders are the only teams currently in playoff contention to have lost to the Stars. The other 13 wins have been collected against teams out of the top 16.

In contrast, 8 of those 12 regulation losses have come against playoff teams. It’s sort of early, but it’s really not, anymore. The Stars simply don’t look like a team with big enough weapons to win a fight against the best teams. The Stars’ abysmal Central Division record is almost good news, in comparison. (It’s not, though.)

***

Last year was almost kind by virtue of its futility. It was clear relatively early on that the 2016-17 team was riddled with issues and injuries, and the Stars never really got into serious contention.

This year, the team’s great start (albeit with some unlucky losses) quickly devolved into a slog-fest of low-chance hockey and staccato scoring, and Ken Hitchcock started moving players around. Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza were Rumplestiltskinned with bottom-six wingers, while Radek Faksa and Jamie Benn have largely been stapled to at least one consistent linemate. Now Jamie Benn is slumping despite top teammates, and outside of one great rush up the ice last night, he looked like last year’s captain.

In Faksa’s case, he’s shown himself well-deserving of what may be an upcoming promotion, which has been in process since Martin Hanzal’s physical absence complemented his scoring.

So here the Stars sit, holding onto a wild card spot with no margin for error. They’ve become a team that tries to “hold the game’s head underwater” (shamelessly stolen from Razor), and while they’ve shown themselves to be capable of doing that, it’s also become clear that this tactic pins their hopes on opportunistic scoring. This is great when your special teams are lights-out (which was the case, but has not been for a while). This is great when you’re getting depth scoring, which has also been the case, just occasionally. But it’s not so great when Dallas is playing elite teams who poke enough holes in the Stars’ defensive shell to get ahead, since the Stars have shown themselves quite incapable of really cranking things up when they need to, both in terms of lineup construction and individual play.

Last night’s game was a perfect example. If that Stephen Johns goal gets in a half-second earlier, maybe the Stars force the Blues into taking some chances and opening themselves up. But it didn’t, and they didn’t, and Jake Allen and the Blues pretty much kept the Stars at bay for most of the night. Brett Ritchie had a couple of great chances, but since it’s This Year, they amounted to nothing. When you play a lower-risk game, you tend to generate fewer chances to score, too. The Stars can’t (or won’t) overwhelm teams in the offensive zone anymore. Some nights, they can barely even get into the zone to begin with.

The more you look at this team’s construction (and Hitch’s deployment), it becomes clear that this is a team built in the mold of a support group for people coming off an unsuccessful Lindy Ruff season. Martin Hanzal immediately got a lot of ice time because he was a new signee, sure; but Hitch pretty clearly wanted to spend a lot of minutes neutralizing the other team first and foremost, then creating offense in the gaps. The insistence on playing Greg Pateryn (himself the Hanzal of the Stars’ defensemen) every chance he’s gotten lately is only further evidence of this, though Pateryn has acquitted himself really well, all told. And when Marc Methot returns and displaces Esa Lindell on the top pairing, the risk-aversion will be full-blown. Hitch’s big love has always been the ability to stop the other team first and foremost, and while it feels a little safer—and the Stars’ mediocre success this season could be evidence of that?—it’s also a lot lower-ceiling of an approach than these Stars should be capable of, on paper.

John Klingberg is scoring like crazy, but most of that offense is coming through assists, because he’s kinda the only defenseman who can create offense on the team right now. Esa Lindell is sorta chipping in, but he’s also tied with Jason Spezza in scoring, which is bad this year, by the way. The Stars simply can’t generate any consistent offense without John Klingberg on the ice. I am not joking about this.

This is Very Good.
This is not good!

A note: That bright red dot in the “without Klingberg” graph sure seems to suggest that Johns and Pateryn are staying high, only shooting from a safe position up high (while Hamhuis, Methot and Oleksiak are hardly shooting at all). Shots are always good, but the middle of the ice is the danger zone, and that’s what Klingberg generates—dangerous shots, I mean. No other defender can do this.^

On the one hand, that’s typical for an elite defender; of course a team will be worse without him. But the Stars in the offensive zone turn into Arizona when John Klingberg is off the ice. As much as the Stars early this season were a one-line team at forward, they’ve forced themselves to be a one-pairing team at defense when it comes to any sort of offense. And when you’re winning games by slim margins—a +2 goal differential says as much—that means one rough night for Klingberg usually means the same for the team.

Here’s some specious proof of this concept: Dallas is 10-6 when Klingberg scores a point; they are 6-6-1 when he does not. Yes, Klingberg has had some errors at times, but just remember that we did not have to live through Early Sergei Zubov; by the time the Stars got him, he was 26, and his growing pains had turned into a fairly measured “you’re gonna get some of this, but with a little of that” equation. John Klingberg is already there in one sense, but he’s had some blips this season that you’d really prefer not to see.

Oh, but Jason Spezza, ah yes. There’s another great example of the costs of Hitch’s system. From the outset, Spezza has been a bottom-six forward, and that hasn’t changed this year, even when the Stars were starved for secondary scoring. Yes, of course Spezza needs to earn his chances (last night had a good one that he missed), but isn’t demoting a player to bottom-six duty from the outset a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Scoring peaks early in a player’s career, as Radek Faksa seems to be proving, but Jason Spezza is still generating good chances, when he’s given the chance. He is getting far fewer minutes this year than ever before, including his mysterious supplanting on the top power play by Devin Shore.

What I’ve come to conclude so far is this: Ken Hitchcock’s system is just as much a gamble as Lindy Ruff’s, but in a different way. Hitch is betting on playing a conservative, third-guy-high style that flees from turnovers by embracing more chip-and-chase plays. Hitch is betting on giving the lion’s share of minutes to his top line and top pairing, then doling out another big chunk to a “shutdown” pairing (Pateryn/Hamhus) and line (Hanzal etc. earlier, and lately a whole mess o’ guys)—Hitch is betting all of this will see the Stars’ come out ahead.

Ruff’s system, on the other hand, forced the issue. It pushed offense from everywhere, at all times. In 2015-16, the Stars just wore teams down by overwhelming them with numbers in the slot, consistent defensive pinching, and quick, efficient zone exits that occasionally saw passes get picked off in dangerous places. It was a fun style when it worked, and boy did it ever work two years ago. But when the personnel who made it really sing were let go (or got hurt), the Stars found themselves a bit too slow, a bit too well-scouted, a bit too intransigent with certain lines and defense combos, and a bit too unprepared to face teams ready to exploit their sudden vulnerabilities last year. You know how it ended.

So now, after 29 games of Hitchcock 2.0, the Stars are talking about going back to the drawing board again to come up with different line combinations, or different approaches, or maybe just “hold your stick better” coaching, I don’t know. Ken Hitchcock has outright refused to use Julius Honka in any meaningful way—can you imagine how good the 15-16 Stars would have been with Honka, had he been a couple years older?—so the options on defense are slim to none until Marc Methot returns.

I’m left wondering whether it’s too extreme to break out the deck chair analogy while the Stars aren’t really sinking so much as treading water. The Stars are pretty capped out, so any move means salary has to go out, and no, Jason Spezza isn’t going anywhere until at least the summer. The Stars’ moves at this point are limited, to say the least.

It comes down to this, I think: if you’re Jim Nill and Ken Hitchcock, are you willing to bet that your team will play better, score more, and draw more penalties as the schedule gets tougher? Do you just tinker with some relatively minor changes within the lineup as-is, like finally giving Radek Faksa the 2nd-line center spot he earned last year and putting some scorers on his wings? Do you finally give someone else (not that there’s anyone other than Spezza who’s earned them) Devin Shore’s top minutes, he sporting a -15 alongside abysmal possession numbers? Are you willing to swallow your pride and admit that offseason signing Martin Hanzal, barring some serious rebound after getting healthy (or healthier), was always a glorified bottom-six center who deserved at least as few (or as many) minutes as Jason Spezza?

In other words, if the status quo is as unacceptable as it’s seemed to be the last two games, then at what point will Hitchcock give minutes to the players who have earned them instead of the players he hoped would earn them before the season started? If the safety-first system is here to stay, then great; but you can still starve aboard a life raft.

***

^Well, almost no other defender:

This is elite.