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Putting The Defense Back In Dallas

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The results are in as the Dallas Stars have turned from offense to defense this season.

NHL: New York Rangers at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back on the 2015-16 and 2016-2017 seasons, this season’s output comes into focus and two questions crop up. First, did the Dallas Stars merely over-perform in 2015-2016 and come back down to earth in 2016-2017? And second, should we have expected this type of a recovery season from a team that outscored their opponents in 2015-2016? The answer to both questions, I believe, are yes and yes.

In 2015-2016, the Stars won the Central Division, scored 267 goals, and finished at the top of the league. However, they also gave up 230 goals against - the worst of all playoff-qualifying teams in that season. The Stars essentially outscored their opponents all season and this tactic worked until it didn’t in the second round against the St. Louis Blues. In retrospect, this approach almost worked against St.Louis as well. That Stars team blitzed the league with an offense more prolific than the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, which is a feat in itself. Plus, when the team wins 50 games and comes within a win of the conference finals, the negatives in their game are easy to overlook. However, the problems were evident through the season and the playoffs in 2016 and came abruptly into focus only a few months later.

We don’t need to dive into what happened last season, as most of us remember it vividly. Bad defense, bad goaltending, historically bad special teams, lack of structure, multiple injuries, and the goals just weren’t there. All said, this led to a season where the team gave up 262 goals, which put them just above the Colorado Avalanche (who finished last in the league). Overall, Dallas finished second to last in the division and eleventh (out of fourteen) in the conference.

When Ken Hitchcock arrived in April of 2017, everyone around the team knew change was coming with him. The style of hockey Hitchcock brought with him is known around the league and his results tend to happen quickly. Each team Hitchcock has worked with has improved by leaps and bounds defensively after his arrival. Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill knew this fact and brought Hitchcock back into the fold (Hitchcock coached the Stars to their first Stanley Cup in 1999).

NHL: Dallas Stars at Chicago Blackhawks Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Stars went right to work with Hitchcock onboard and retooled each key position on the ice. Ben Bishop, Marc Methot, Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal, and others were all added to the team by Nill in the weeks following Hitchcock’s arrival in Dallas. Two of the four signings have had a dramatic impact on the Stars to date (Bishop and Radulov) and the other two (Methot and Hanzal) have been battling injuries since their arrival. However, Hitchcock’s arrival, along with the addition of Bishop and Radulov, have boosted the output by the Stars this season.

The most important position on the ice has seen a dramatic improvement from last season. We’re talking, of course, about the goaltender. With Antti Niemi and his 3.30 goals against average and .892 save percentage no longer on the roster, the Stars have seen a return to deft goaltending once more. Bishop currently sports a 2.50 goals against average and .919 save percentage. He appears to have shaken off the early season rust and adjusted well to Hitchcock’s unique approach to the game.

There is simply no understating how important Bishop has been to the team this season, as he has made save after dazzling save to keep the Stars in the game time and again. He is an elite NHL goaltender on most nights for the Stars and currently ranks sixth out of the top ten goaltenders in the league. Bishop’s performance with the rebound year Kari Lehtonen has enjoyed in his new role as the backup (2.22 goals against and .919 save percentage) demonstrate that the Stars finally have the high-level goaltenders they so desperately needed last season.

Vancouver Canucks v Dallas Stars
Bishop and Lehtonen have proved their mettle in the net for the Stars this season.

On the blue line, the Stars have been equally as impressive as the season has rolled along. John Klingberg has paced all NHL defensemen in scoring with 52 points. Esa Lindell has turned into a solid defender with a plus/minus rating of +19. Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn are the teams go-to shutdown pair, and Stephen Johns has been terrific in the new defensive system and coaching by Rick Wilson. Julius Honka has also shown flashes of his potential, and has developed a fanbase with the “Free Honka” movement due to his stints with the Texas Stars.

If you look closely enough, this reenergized defensive unit from the Stars are essentially the same players from a year ago. With Marc Methot missing all but 16 games this season and Jamie Oleksiak being traded to Pittsburgh, Hitchcock and Wilson have had to trust the much-maligned group from a year ago. The results are in and this unit has performed and then some. Yes, Hitchcock has done it again and the Stars are once again a solid defensive hockey team.

The impressive part of this transformation for the Stars comes down to the fact that they are doing this with essentially the same players. It goes to show that the system they are playing works. The team forces their opponents to the outside of the rink in their own zone and attacks loose pucks with speed and physicality. The Stars also display stoic calm in their end and make the easy first pass to get out and use their team speed to attack up ice. The Stars have also demonstrated an ability to pursue loose pucks in the attack zone. In most game wins this season, they have recorded extended attack time that has worn down their opponents.

In essence, the Stars are spending more time attacking with the puck than chasing it. This links back to Hitchcock’s belief that in order to play effective defense you have to have the puck to win. Even when the Stars don’t have the puck, they track back as a five-man defensive unit and fight relentlessly to win the puck back. This frustrates teams and these small wins in all areas of the ice most often result in the win on the scoreboard at the end of the night.

The Stars’ defensive output is not one hundred percent all the time, but evolving into a solid defensive team in the NHL is never an easy task. Hitchcock and his staff were handed a roster that needed to be molded into a smart, accountable, and strong unit, but with that process comes expected setbacks and some of them aren’t pretty. The Stars have given up the first goal in six of the last seven games, and recently gave up six to the Vancouver Canucks, who are second to last in their division. Breakaways have become a bad habit in the Stars game, and odd man rushes have proved fatal in several games. The Stars, when they win, are playing within their system. When they lose, they’re playing outside of that system. The stark reality for skeptical Stars fan out there is the reminder of the loss-heavy team of past years when they lose in a big way this season.

Stars fans should take pride in knowing that even with these setbacks, the Stars still have complete buy-in on the system Hitchcock has built. They have seen the results and when they are sticking to the system, they more often than not come out with a victory. The Stars defense is by no means at a championship level yet, but the team has given themselves a chance to stay close in the standings and win every time out.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars
Stars defense has shown a dramatic improvement over last season.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The team statistics are beginning the show that the Stars are quickly becoming one of the best defensive teams in the league. They rank sixth in goals against with 151 and are currently ranked 11th for penalty kill after finishing dead last a year ago. The team is also allowing below the league average in shots against with 1589. More than the goaltenders and the defense corp, Dallas ranks first in face-off percentage at 53.0%, which allows the team to start with the puck in all areas of the ice. The team has also proved capable of holding a lead in the game through two periods for a record of 26-1-1, and when scoring first, the team is 23-5-1. The best teams in the league get the lead and hold it while the defense works to keep the opposition from equalizing. The Stars have displayed improvement in this regard over the course of this season.

The Dallas Stars have reinvented themselves this season and have the results to show for their work. The dedication from the players is evident and the knowledge that the team has improved defensively with an unchanged core is very impressive. After the adjustment period for coaches and players back in October and November, the team has taken off and is on track for a real chance at a top-three spot in the Central Division. As the final stretch for the playoffs begins for the team, Stars fans should head into each game with the knowledge that Dallas has a good chance to win due to commitment to their new culture and new defensive system. It’s unclear if the Stars are ready to win a championship this season, but with the results from their transformation, they are certainly moving closer. After all, in the NHL, just giving the team a chance to win is half the battle.