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So, Are the Dallas Stars Good Now?

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The Stars are barely hanging on to a playoff spot. The Stars have been really good for a while! Both things, somehow, might be true.

Vegas Golden Knights v Dallas Stars

No two ways about it: the shootout loss in Columbus was disappointing—especially if you’re Ken Hitchcock—but a point on the road in the East is never something to sniff at. The Stars in particular have had a tough time forcing the issue to collect those sweet, sweet loser points, in fact. Josh Bogorad mentioned yesterday that this was the Stars’ first time forcing overtime all season. Yes, you read that right: every other overtime period this year had come as a result of the Stars’ losing a lead instead of coming back to force the extra frame.

That’s not surprising, the more you think about this. This team is far from an offensive juggernaut, and after Hitchcock’s defense-first (and that’s precisely what it is, no matter what you might have heard before the season) system became ingrained in this team’s hearts and minds, the idea of the old Stars who could open a game up and charge back (or give up three goals) died a not unexpected death.

The Stars are 17th in shots on goal per game, and 14th in goals per game. If you restrict things to even-strength, they’re also right there in the middle of the pack. They’re 13th in power play percentage, and 14th on the penalty kill. The team save percentage in all situations is 18th. So yeah, there really isn’t a sleeping dragon here, at least when it comes to impacting the puck going into the net.

In that context, crawling back to scratch a point was a huge victory against a John Tortorella team that had more or less neutralized Dallas in another 2-1 victory to start January. The Stars are still sitting tentatively in the first wild card spot in the West. All’s well, right?

I’m not sure about that, to be honest.

Right now, both Colorado and Los Angeles have three and two games in hand on Dallas, respectively. Both trail the Stars by only three points. That means Dallas is officially not in control of their own destiny, if we may employ such language with 35 games yet to play in the season.

Okay, here’s the good news: Dallas is, as it happens, not wholly middle-of-the-pack, as you surely know by now. They exceed in one area of the game, and that is the Area of Making Sure Nothing Happens, Ever.

No, let’s be clearer: per Natural Stat Trick, Dallas is a top-10 team in Goals For (GF%), Scoring Chance For (SCF%), and Shot Share (CF%), meaning they tend to win the shots, chances, and goals battle at even-strength.

If you drill down, it’s even better: Dallas is (and has been for a while now) the best team in the NHL in terms of winning the high-danger shots battle (HDCF%). They’re 5th in high-danger shots for, and 3rd in allowing such shots against (right behind Boston and Minnesota). And Corsica has them at #1 in the NHL in expected goal-differential per game (xGF%). These are really important metrics, and the Stars are great at them! This should be a great success story for Hitchcock and his Stars, right?

“Okay,” you say. “Great,” you say, already belaboring your point through sarcasm. “But if they’re only mid-pack in scoring and save percentage, then these high-danger stats don’t seem to be translating to overall dominance at all,” you say, anticipating my next paragraph with an accuracy that makes me realize you’re just a projection of my own consciousness.

The Stars do control games, in a sense. They have one of the lowest pace-of-play measurements in the league, and they can suppress shots while generating more. They aren’t dominating other teams on the fly so much as absolutely flat-lining other team’s offenses while surgically looking for chances themselves. And, much of the time, Dallas ends up out-chancing the other team. This should lead to wins! But the goals have been fickle, at both ends of the ice, and the special teams have regressed to average after being scorching hot to start the year. That’s frustrating, and that’s why they’re still clinging to playoff life.

(Well, that, and the fact that they’re in the best division in hockey by a country mile, as usual.)

So, the titular question: are the Stars really “good,” or are they just skilled at game cosmetics? Hitchcock’s system was supposed to make goalies look good and make the defensemen’s games simpler. With the Stars’ elite scoring in Benn, Seguin and Radulov, the offense should consistently be enough to win. Why hasn’t it been enough to separate them from the pack?

If you drive to work regularly, you probably know the quickest route. If you’ve been doing it for a while, you probably have a contingency route or two—ways to go if the freeway is slow, or if there’s an accident somewhere else. And those contingency routes are great, if everything breaks right. “As long as I don’t hit any stupid lights,” you might say, “it’s a really quick route.” And, assuming no random cars are pulling out of weird side streets at seven in the morning, that alternate route is great.

Here’s the thing: Hitch’s low-event system is like one such route, but with a ton of stoplights along the way. Yes, I really believe Hitch is a brilliant coach whose system gives his teams an advantage. But by constricting the game so much, he also doesn’t allow his team to really pull away. If the 2015-16 Stars were a Nissan GT-R on an open freeway (that occasionally got derailed by a car crash in net), the 2017-18 Stars are a Subaru WRX on a parkway with tons of stoplights. When everything lines up, you can see how great that car is—but there are a lot of variables that have to line up for the car to be able to win any race outright in that environment. Too many times, the Stars have to hit the brakes, and they aren’t always able to beat other teams off the line when the light goes green again.

I probably indulged myself too much there, but you don’t really need analogies to parse that data anyway, right? Hitch wants certainty and observable control, and that’s what Greg Pateryn, Martin Hanzal and the like do for him. He puts those players out there, and they do their thing, and he moves on to the next step in his coaching playbook. The Stars have a winning record this season, and they have been better lately, which has only reassured Hitchcock that his methods are as sound as they’ve ever been. Stay the course, and wait for results to follow the process.

Brandon asked yesterday about the difference between Dallas’s points pace through their first 20 games and since. It’s a good split to point out, so I’ll put it here:

Dallas through 20 games: 10-9-1 = a 86-point pace over 82 games. That is bad. That misses the playoffs, basically always. Through a quarter of the season, Dallas was essentially just one spot better than last year’s disaster, and still solidly out of the playoffs.

Dallas through game 21 - 47: 16-8-3 = a 106-point pace over 82 games. This would have tied with Minnesota last year for 2nd in the Central, and been good for 3rd in the Central in 2015-16. So, the Stars are playing well lately, but “well” basically equates to “no home-ice advantage against one of top-two teams in the Central in the first round” at best.

It’s a bit of an arbitrary line of demarcation, but it serves to drive the point home: Dallas spent a quarter of the season playing well (by many metrics), but the results weren’t coming. As Hitch inculcated His System into his players, the games slowed down further, and the results also improved. The car has never really broken any speed records, but they’re hitting fewer lights lately.

Dallas is 6-3-1 in their last ten. That looks great, but it’s really not much more than “just enough to tread water.” 6-3-1 is that same 106-point pace they’ve had for 27 games now. If they keep at it for their final 35 games, they’ll end up with 101 points. That’s probably good for 3rd in the Central or the first wild card spot in the West.

So, if you’re worried about the Stars, you can take heart: they’re playing well enough to make the playoffs, albeit just barely. And considering how slowly they started (in terms of points, at least), crawling back to a 100-point pace is something to be proud of. The Stars have done some really good, hard work since their rough start.

On the other hand, if you’re not worried about the Stars, I’d caution you with this: what kind of a system can’t get this offense, in front of a world-class season from John Klingberg, into the top-ten in goals? What kind of system can’t get this goalie into the top-ten in save percentage, despite a defense pair that makes all manner of offensive hockey disappear the minute they hit the ice? That seems concerning.

And make no mistake: Hitch takes pride in that, as Mike Heika’s great piece this morning shows:

“No matter how long I coach here, my job is to set the table for years,” Hitchcock said. “My job is to set a foundation where the players have a clear understanding that this is how you play to be successful. That’s my job.”

He continued.

”In the middle of this thing, I want to win hockey games, I want the team to make the playoffs, but I have to set a foundation,” he said. “That’s the duty of a coach, that’s looking beyond yourself. You are the custodian of the conscience of your team, and you better have that in your heart. Because if you don’t have that in your heart, you make a mess for everybody. The manager can’t evaluate players properly, the players don’t play to their potential, because you are constantly counting on the wow factor winning hockey games. And you might get a season where the wow factor wins, but there is no foundation to draw from.”“No matter how long I coach here, my job is to set the table for years,” Hitchcock said. “My job is to set a foundation where the players have a clear understanding that this is how you play to be successful. That’s my job.”

He continued.

”In the middle of this thing, I want to win hockey games, I want the team to make the playoffs, but I have to set a foundation,” he said. “That’s the duty of a coach, that’s looking beyond yourself. You are the custodian of the conscience of your team, and you better have that in your heart. Because if you don’t have that in your heart, you make a mess for everybody. The manager can’t evaluate players properly, the players don’t play to their potential, because you are constantly counting on the wow factor winning hockey games. And you might get a season where the wow factor wins, but there is no foundation to draw from.”

You have to give Hitch this: he means what he says. The Stars have had very little “wow factor” this year, and that’s by design. He returned to Dallas with a long-term vision of making this team back into a perennial contender, and he knows one way to do that: his way. There have been growing pains this year, and there will probably be some more red lights along the way to game 82. And he’s okay with that.

So, are the Stars good now? Well, they’re better than they were earlier this season, and certainly better than last year. And if The Plan works as the coaches design it to, the Stars will be a team to be reckoned with from year to year, even if that means no “wow factor” leading the way. In a perfect world, there will be seasons where things break right for Dallas, and maybe they win the division or even the conference. But make no mistake: Hitch did not and does not see the recipe for 2015-16 as remotely repeatable, and he has acted accordingly in remaking this team. That feels like a loss, somehow, but the Stars are getting exactly what they should have expected the day they signed Ken Hitchcock. The floor is a lot higher, even if the ceiling might have been lowered in the process.

And really, if you can turn a team that blew the doors off the NHL the way the 2015-16 Stars did into an effective shutdown force in only half a season, maybe that’s a “wow factor” right there. It’s just not the one most of us were hoping to see. But winning has a way of helping everything, and Ken Hitchcock believes this team can do that consistently, even after he’s moved on. This is how the sausage gets made.

I’ll end with this: Dallas can talk about process and long-term success all they want, but in this league, you have to maximize your ability to win when your window opens. That’s the whole idea behind the trade deadline, for goodness’ sake. Dallas has Tyler Seguin this year and at least next year. Jamie Benn is 29 this summer. Radulov, Bishop and Hanzal are all over 30. Growing pains are fine and dandy, but if the Stars end up sacrificing one of the most precious years in the sweet spot of their Cup window in order to prove a point about dedication to the process, I’m not sure that’s ever going to be forgivable. At some point, you need to realize that your team is primed to deliver results, and you need to cash in on that fact. This coaching staff believes the playoffs will vindicate that process—and the acquisitions of a few players acquired to implement it.

As we’ve said many times, Ken Hitchcock’s “safe” system is a gamble, too; if the Stars don’t see a playoff payoff this season, it might be a really long time before they find themselves in this good of a position to compete again, no matter what philosophy undergirds their game. These last 35 games should be interesting.