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How Will Ken Hitchcock Improve the Stars Power Play?

The Stars weren’t a good team on the man advantage last season. Will that change under Ken Hitchcock?

Washington Capitals v St Louis Blues Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Ken Hitchcock has a lot of things to figure out; line formations, defense pairings, personalities (Radulov vs. Roussel should be fun at practice*), the depth jenga tower Jim Nill has assembled for him on the 4th line, and where to eat a good burger.

And of course, Dallas’ power play.

Dallas has formed a reputation over the years of being an offensive powerhouse. This reputation, however, wasn’t valid last season. They’ve lost modest puck movers on the blueline since letting Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers go, and while Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky, and (to a lesser extent) Patrick Eaves were past their primes, they produced at a respectable clip when they weren’t injured.

The Stars have brought in a lot of new faces that project to make the team better. But there’s a reasonable skepticism over whether or not the team will have an offensive punch even close to what Dallas managed in the 2015-2016 season.

Lindy Ruff received a lot of criticism for his philosophy of “outscoring your problems”. I get the deeper concern - the lack of emphasis on structure, and team defense - but that sounds suspiciously like “winning games”. Nobody plays the perfect game after all. Connor McDavid and Austin Matthews are “problems” if you’re not on their team, but I’d wager good cryptocurrency that they won’t be shutdown for the entire 60 minutes.

Obviously one of the best opportunities to outscore your problems is by taking advantage of where 20 percent of the game takes place; on special teams.

During Hitchcock’s tenure with St. Louis, the Blues were ranked (not counting the lockout season or the season he was fired) 6th, 4th, 9th, and 19th on the man advantage. Overall, that’s very good.

His power play went cold in 2015 for a bit, and it was a real issue in the 2014 playoffs. But there’s no question Hitchcock knows his special teams, and he never had the roster Dallas had two season ago.

Granted, neither does Dallas. But there’s plenty to be optimistic about.

In 2015-2016, Hitchcock used what all fans are expecting him to use, which is the four forward setup. There he deployed a first unit of Kevin Shattenkirk, Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny, Alex Steen, and David Backes.

The four forward setup is statistically superior to the three forward by every measure. Simply put, teams score more goals with more forwards on the first unit.

The assumption then, is that Hitchcock will likely have a first unit of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Alexander Radulov, and John Klingberg.

It’s possible there will be some discussion about whether or not Martin Hanzal should be a ‘net front presence’ on the first unit. Hanzal does have some power play experience, but it was mostly on the second unit in Arizona. Is Dallas better off stacking the top unit with its most experienced, and historically productive players, or should they ‘spread the wealth’?

Dallas’ second unit was - in words I struggle to use diplomatically - an issue. Armed with Antoine Roussel, Devin Shore, Brett Ritchie, Dan Hamhuis, and Jordie Benn (for most of its tenure), they ended up being as dangerous as a checkout line squeeze toy filled with balloons. Wait. Those were dangerous. Well, bad analogies aside, the second unit had a shooting percentage of 3 percent at one point, and were just generally unacceptable, as I discussed back in February.

There may be pressure on Hitchcock, given the tape that will undoubtedly give him headaches, to improve the second unit. Matt Cane isn’t shy about the answer to the second unit.

If a team that had been using 3 forwards on their second unit exclusively were to switch to a 4 forward setup, on average they’d earn an additional 35 entries. Given the differences in scoring rates between 4 forward carry-in entries and 3 forward dump-in entries, that works out to 1.1 goals over the course of a full season.

That’s not a huge amount, but it’s not nothing either. At around 6 goals per win, that’s 0.37 extra points per year, just by switching the setup of your second unit.

However, Dallas will have two good blueline shooters in Julius Honka, and Esa Lindell. So even if Hitchcock doesn’t roll with a second four forward unit, there’s no reason to think the second unit won’t improve just on sheer principle.

Hitchcock gets a reputation as a ‘defensive mind’. But he’s shown some real savvy in making a power play work in concert with his assistant coaches and players. Now it’s just a question of degree.

*He seems prone to them let them play it out school of thought.


What power play formation do you like?

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