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Afterwords: Some General Success with Some Particular Concerns

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In the third playoff spot in the Central, the Stars stumble once again.

NHL: Dallas Stars at San Jose Sharks
The puck is secondary, sometimes.
Kiel Maddox-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was bad. Yes, there were some “fluky-[donkey] goals,” as Jake Allen called Dallas’s tallies against St. Louis, but this wasn’t just an “aw shucks” sort of hard luck outing, and we all know it. You can get the particulars from Ann’s recap, or perhaps from your visual memory, should you be so unlucky as to have witnessed that entire thing firsthand.

Either way, we’re not here to nitpick an implosion. The San Jose Sharks got some of the bounces (and all of the power plays) in this one, but the Stars were just absent for too much of this one, in too many ways, starting with Tyler Seguin’s ugly giveaway in the slot and ending with a classic “Kari never saw it” goal from distance.

Hitch says the team isn’t checking lately, as a good coach should say (and he’s not wrong), but they’re also not generating goals in the last 10 games, either. Ahem:

(We’ll talk about that spike in shots against in a second.)

The team shooting percentage in the last 10 games is back at the dire levels of First 20 Games Dallas Stars. Maybe that’s a direct result of not checking, as Hitch wants his system to reflect, but I can’t help but wonder if scoring more goals would make the checking a bit easier. When you’re constantly trailing right out of the gate, it makes your job a whole lot tougher—especially when you’re the Stars, who are not designed to create offense ex nihilo anyway. Is the dip just some bad luck? Well, Jamie Benn’s post-game press interview would certainly suggest that.

My memory tells me (and I haven’t verified this) that the Lindy Ruff Stars tended to have pretty good first periods but not great second frames, and Hitch’s squad has been almost the exact opposite this year. You could argue that it showed how other teams were forced to adjust to Ruff’s game plan when it worked, and how they were sometimes able to counter it pretty well later on.

Hitch’s teams, on the other hand, are content with biding their time, striking with some patient counterattacks in the middle frame, and then digging in for the defensive haul in the third.

Here are the Stars’ NHL ranks in goals scored, by period:

First Period: 17th (47 goals)

Second Period: 2nd! (76 goals)

Third Period: 28th (49 goals)

So, yeah. If your team is already a coin flip to score before the other team in the first, you’d darn well better have good second periods up your sleeves. The Stars have had that, but not as much lately. So, if your shooting percentage dips along with your team defense, then yeah. You’re probably asking your star players and your goalie to carry you more than is wise. We’ve seen that work out occasionally, as with Bishop against St. Louis, but this team just doesn’t have (or refuses to give ice time to) good scoring depth, so there you have it.

But the shots, yes. The team’s shot suppression has been bad lately, as you can see in the top graph up above. More particularly, Greg Pateryn and Dan Hamhuis have regressed seriously along with the team in the last 10 games, but Hitch is using them just as much as ever. Here is one of that pairing’s performance this season. You may notice a slight blip lately:

That’s Pateryn, but trust me, Hamhuis’s dip is almost identical. The pair is struggling defensively lately, and that’s really magnified when the offense completely evaporates as well.

Sunday was no exception, with the coaches again giving the team’s shutdown pairing top billing in a game where the Stars trailed for 59 minutes. And just to make this clear, we’ll disregard minutes on the penalty kill and power play (well, if there had been one) and just boil it down to even-strength. At evens, Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn led the team in ice time with a full minute and change over the John Klingberg and Esa Lindell pairing.

As we’ve said before, I wonder if this isn’t Hitch philosophically digging in his heels, asking his team to be responsible defensively in order to generate chances in line with the system. Jamie Benn played the majority of his shifts with the Hamhuis-Pateryn pairing, sure enough.

I don’t understand this tactic, and of course all shifts are not created equal. Perhaps Hitch simply wanted his shutdown pairing out against the top guys and preemptively matched them as well as he could as a coach on the road without much regard for shoehorning Klingberg into more opportunities as the game went along. However, with zero power plays to the Stars’ name (the officiating was perfunctory at best as this one wore on), those opportunities were few, with the Tyler Pitlick goal the only thing Klingberg could put his name on after 60 minutes. That seems like a wasted opportunity to me; the top-scoring defenseman in hockey might be a weapon you’d want to roll out more when you’re trailing, I’d think. As I see it, it looks like Hitch just didn’t trust Klingberg and Lindell enough to deal with what the Sharks could put out against them.

And hey, make no mistake: John Klingberg had a rough night, and hoo boy, so did Ben Bishop, for that matter. But I sincerely hope that this team, in the playoffs, won’t ask its top forward line to create offense for the majority of the game with a couple of offensive boat anchors (in both directions, as designed) tied to them. Yes, you have to be cognizant of the other team’s attackers and match with them as needed, but when I look at the disturbing amount of shots allowed over the last chunk of games, I can’t help but pine for a team that wasn’t afraid to load up its big guns when it needed them.

Yet again, there are some messages being sent here, and there’s no denying that some players certainly do need to take a look in the mirror, as Tyler Seguin said. “Just play better” isn’t that helpful a thing to say, but it’s not altogether incorrect in its implicit diagnosis either.

In happier news, Gemel Smith drew into the lineup for consecutive games, and he did what he’s done all season when he’s gotten the chance. Despite averaging less TOI per game than everyone but Jason Dickinson this year, Smith has put up solidly positive possession numbers while contributing scoring at a ridiculous pace, relative to how little the coaches seem to trust him. How ridiculous? Per Corsica, Smith is the Stars’ top scorer in terms of primary points per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time. Yes, of course that doesn’t mean Smith would just keep the same legendary level of production up if you gave him 20 minutes a night. My goodness though, how do you keep burying that production in favor of Brett Ritchie if you’re trying to win games?

If nothing else, it means that the Stars might be wise to take a look at whether Smith would be better suited to ride alongside a playmaker like Jason Spezza in place of Devin Shore. Again, it’s not like Smith is just putting up some small sample apples in cotton-soft minutes. Smith is right with Shore in terms of defensive zone starts, and his quality of teammates has been markedly worse — and yet, he’s just been a better player in every measurable facet of the game.

In fact, forget rate stats for a minute. Smith has more goals and primary assists at even-strength than Shore outright. He’s also had more goals than Ritchie in all situations (who we must say had a nice dish to Smith for the goal), despite playing in 26 fewer games than Shore. This is not a meritocracy, clearly.

It’s almost droll by now, but I can’t help but give a wry smile whenever I hear “check for your chances” from Ken Hitchcock or the broadcast these days. It’s clear that Hitch loves players like Martin Hanzal and Devin Shore for their hard work in difficult, little-rewarded areas off the scoresheet. He values their work a lot, and he knows the players won’t get a lot of praise for that hard, sometimes painful effort. Praising players like that is good coaching, absolutely. But what more does Smith need to do to earn a consistent chance to outperform the Stars’ woeful secondary scorers this year? Unless Smith is just totally flying the zone when I’m not looking, it seems like he’s earned a fair bit more ice than he’s gotten so far.

It’s weird to think that Smith is the same age as Devin Shore, because if you didn’t know who he was and only saw his stats and minimal ice time, you’d swear he was either in that Adam Cracknell territory of “Yeah, that’s nice, but we doubt you’re worth investing in long-term at this point,” or else in that “You’re so young still; you’ll get your chance sooner or later.” But he’s not. He’s in his scoring prime, and his speed is something the Stars dearly need to aid their transition play.

It will be interesting to see if Hitch starts to re-evaluate his opinion on Smith down the stretch, particularly given the Stars’ need for speed and scoring down the lineup. One depth forward isn’t going to make a huge difference all on his own, of course, but doesn’t a team have an obligation to improve itself wherever it can when it’s battling for a playoff spot?

As a final note on Smith, allow me to point you to Sean Shapiro’s great interview with Smith on how racism is still alive and well in the NHL, and how Smith has had to live with that reality throughout his career. This is something that we all must remember and reckon with. It’s not just a few willfully tone deaf fans in Chicago; it’s the air we breathe. What are we going to do about it?

Anyway, that’s enough railing for now. This game was a bummer, but beating Anaheim is always good for what ails you. While I won’t be in California this year to watch either Los Angeles or Anaheim set in person, I will be enjoying not having to hear either of those terrible goal horns, not having to see Dustin Brown and Corey Perry in person, and getting to hold out hope that Dallas can build on what they’ve done instead of continuing to hover in the second tier of teams in the league. This is the fun part, but it’s also the really stressful part. Before the other really stressful part comes, I mean. I hope.