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The Stars have lost more games than they’ve won this season. Merry Christmas.

NHL: New York Islanders at Dallas Stars Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Stars could probably use more help getting their feet off the ground.

***

There are only so many ways to express disappointment. The five stages of grief are great and all, but how many times can you externalize a long emotional sigh before your friends start treating you the way the Stars treat first periods, which is to say with a very reluctant sort of association.

When you don’t shoot, you don’t score. When you can’t figure out the neutral zone, you allow teams to get in and wear you down on the cycle, and eventually get some lucky goals, as happened in this one. The zone entry preceding the Islanders’ first goal was so easy, it’s hard to even give New York credit for it.

At times this year, Dallas has had a noticeable gap between their forecheckers (F1/F2) and their defense. More than once—and we’re getting anecdotal all up in here, so beware—the opposing team will attempt a pass up the ice, and F3 (Dallas) will somewhat break up the pass, only to have the loose puck still collected by the opponent and taken into the offensive zone.

I liked a lot of Dallas’s coverage in their own zone against the Isles, but it was easy to study because there was a whole lot of coverage necessitated. The Stars are not a great cycling team, they are an abysmal rush team, and their special teams aren’t carrying them anymore, as they did at different times earlier (the long PK streak) and much earlier (the dominant power play in October) this year.

I mean, whaddaya want from this one, hm? A power play goal that ping-pongs into the net is gonna happen every now and then when pucks get through from the high slot. It’s gonna happen even more when you’re constantly giving the other team more power play time than you’re earning. That, of course, is related to the Stars’ bad puck possession game these days, which is related to the fluctuating personnel and system. When you don’t generate shots, you won’t score a lot of goals.

That’s not a team who showed up. That’s not a team attacking the middle of the ice, or even capable of getting to the middle of the ice.

Alex Radulov was dangerous in spurts, but you can’t ask your oldest winger to Be The Offense two nights in a row, guys. Especially when he’s more interested in winning a wrestling match with a bottom-six player than seeing the ice for eight minutes of this one.

John Klingberg is insanely good at exiting the defensive zone, but he’s also the Stars’ fourth-best player at entering the offensive zone with possession of the puck (per Corey Sznajder), behind only Tyler Seguin, Mattias Janmark, and Jason Spezza. That’s great that Klingberg is so good at jumping up and starting the attack, but good gravy, you begin to understand just how lost this team’s attack really is without him. He’s basically a top-line forward with regard to getting the team into the attacking zone with possession.

Without Klingberg, it was noticeable (in my opinion, of course) that the Stars were emphasizing more of a “get pucks deep” approach, which is to say they were trying to hit the line with speed and get the puck in behind the opposing defensemen, then working hard to win the puck battles down low, dig the puck free and get it back up to the points for shots to the net with traffic.

If that’s your main (read: only, far too many times) method of creating offense, it’s no wonder Martin Hanzal looked like a savior of sorts. Here was someone who excelled at winning puck battles along the boards (and faceoffs, sure), and who, to hear some tell it, could singlehandedly reignite a gurgling power play just by virtue of channeling Too Tall from the Berestain Bears books.

In this one, unfortunately, Hanzal had a really awkward collision with Cal Clutterbuck, where Clutterbuck turns a bit at the last second to protect the puck. There was a little bit of Tyler Pitlick’s elbow from the other night in this move by Clutterbuck, I thought, and the consequences were likewise unfortunate.

Neither Hanzal nor Clutterbuck finished the game (after Hanzal’s one subsequent shift), and that along with Jason Dickinson’s scratch with back spasms meant the Stars had to lean on their already-tired centers even further, in the second game in as many nights, after traveling home from Minnesota the night before.

It meant, for instance, that Seguin had to play over 22 minutes. And that Spezza had to take a faceoff on the penalty kill (which he won—then Dallas cleared, and he changed again). It even meant that the Stars had at least one shift with three wingers playing together, and possibly more.

In short, it was the sort of game that asks a lot of its players, and the Stars made no bones about what they had to give: Tyler Pitlick, scoring a goal.

I don’t know what to make of Pitlick’s clipped responses after the game, but I wouldn’t read much into this other than a player being short after a loss and making it clear that he wants to play:

“I wasn’t very happy [with the scratches], obviously,” Pitlick said. “So I came in and showed that I wasn’t happy.”

[When asked what the coaching staff asked him to work on after being scratched]

“Nothing. I didn’t hear anything.”

By the way, it isn’t mind-blowing, but the Stars’ worst players at exiting the defensive zone successfully are Roman Polák and Blake Comeau, while Comeau and Ritchie are the two forwards least likely to enter the attacking zone with the puck. You really should subscribe to Corey’s Patreon, if I haven’t said it before. There’s a lot there to pore over, but as the season progresses, I’m circling around a couple of ideas about what effect the Stars’ approach with dump-ins or clearances (and icings) has had on their overall offense. It doesn’t appear to be good, but in the interest of not rushing to judgment, I’ll save it for another time. Suffice it to say, this is not just a matter of blaming some depth players for not being elite at both ends of the ice.

Mat Barzal and Denis Gurianov played in the same game, and because they were drafted so close to each other (you may not have heard about this!), here:

Gurianov: 11:30 TOI, one shot on goal, two hits. 0:43 of power play time.

Barzal: 19:21 TOI, two shots on goal, 3:35 of power play time.

I say this not to enrage the mob, but more to point out that Barzal is playing on what I would have thought would be a much-worse team back in October, so of course he’s going to be leaned on more, etc. Instead of doing the whole “You know, I think Barzal would have been a better draft pick, now that I think about it” thing, I’d rather just marvel at how the Islanders are performing better than the Stars by leaning on a 21-year-old to drive the offense in front of Such Players As Matt Martin, Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov, Cal Clutterbuck, Luca Sbisa, and one Devon Toews, who was drafted in the fourth round of the Julius Honka draft. Honka, you may recall, was a healthy scratch for this, Toews’s first NHL match. The rookie played over 18 minutes and had three shots on goal, for the record.

I think we can officially go from saying “all things considered, it’s not too bad” to “it’s kind of bad” now, right? Jim Montgomery’s honesty about the team’s struggles is refreshing, but honesty is only refreshing in the long term if it’s a healthy relationship. This team, and its relationship with itself, is clearly no healthier than Marc Methot’s knee right now.

The Stars were in a playoff spot at Thanksgiving, and that is said to be a good indicator of a team’s ultimate fortunes for the season. Well, if there’s one thing I know about prediction (and there are, in fact, four things I know about prediction) it is that more data lead to a more accurate prediction. The Stars, as they approach the halfway point of the season, cannot score, cannot control games, and do not seem to have any answers.

They might luck their way into another four-game winning streak, but they also might hit another four-game skid, too. This season has proven that all things are possible, but it’s hard to hope that the good thing are more likely at this point.

If the Stars are better than their record, you’d expect to see it against teams like the Islanders and Blackhawks, who really oughtn’t be any good this season. You’d expect to see it against another struggling team like Minnesota, but despite Dallas winning a heart-attack overtime, I don’t know that you can count that game as a massive positive all the way ‘round. Dallas is phoning in far too much of their game nowadays for them to expect consistent success. The effort is there, at times, but it’s not directed productively. If your system isn’t dialed in, and if your players aren’t on the same page (let alone the same line for more than a period at a time), you’re going to get mixed results. Dallas faced a team sitting back a bit, and they just didn’t have any kind of weapons to really penetrate the trap. It’s hard to understand why a team with Benn, Seguin, Klingberg, Radulov, and Heiskanen lacks weapons, but if you watched that power play, my goodness, it makes way more sense all of a sudden. Even a sword stops being deadly when it’s wielded like a pool noodle.

With no clear future, the Stars are consigned to the same vacuous waiting room the fans have been idling in for two-plus years. All you can do now is play the games, and it seems like Dallas has, too often, tried to abstain from doing even that.

You have to fix the ineffective neutral zone play, either through personnel or systemic alterations. Any team is going to get run around its own defensive zone at times if it continually lets the other team get into it.

Dallas needs to figure out its passing game from their end to the far blue line, and passing starts with skating. If you’re not spreading out the other team, their structure is going to suffocate you, unless you have players like Klingberg and Heiskanen who can sift through the seams and still keep the puck moving north, and enough good forwards to keep the puck from immediately coming back the other way.

It’s good to have John Klingberg back. It will be better to have the entire team show up. We really sort of have to hope that the team hasn’t shown up yet, because if this is the main act, it’s really not hard to predict the finale.