If there’s one thing that virtually every Dallas Stars fan, reporter, player, coach, and executive can agree on, it’s this: the Stars are mediocre.
I could bust out some fancy graphs or numbers to show you this, but I’m just going to go old school and point to the standings. As of writing this (January 1), the Stars (44 points) currently rank 17th in the league and sit in the second Wild Card spot with a little breathing room. In other words, average.
Optimists will point at the Central Division standings as a beacon of hope. The Stars just sit two points back on the Colorado Avalanche (46) for third place and four points back of Nashville (48) for second. And as we all know, the Central is the toughest division to play in, right?
Well, no, at least not currently. The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are downright bad, and after a hot start, the Minnesota Wild have been on a slow, downwards spiral in the past month or so. The Colorado Avalanche have cooled off a bit, and injuries have caught up to the Nashville Predators. Only the Winnipeg Jets seem to be a truly dominant team.
Consider this: if they were playing in any other division, the second place Predators would be a Wild Card team except for the Atlantic, where they would edge out Buffalo for third based on ROW. Meanwhile we love to joke about “East Coast bias,” but the truth is the Avalanche wouldn’t even be in a playoff spot if they were in the Eastern Conference.
So yeah, the Stars are a mediocre team playing in a (currently) mediocre division. So what’s the problem? If you ask ownership, the team’s star players (Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin) are holding them back. If you ask the writers or the common fan, management should be shouldering a good share of the blame.
But there’s one person who has a direct impact on the Stars’ performance, yet doesn’t seem to get brought up enough in these discussions, and that’s head coach Jim Montgomery. Throughout all of this chaos, not many people are pointing their fingers at — or even talking about — the Stars’ coaching staff. So let’s change that, shall we?
Let me preface this by saying this is going to be long, and I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you just hit the “back” button on your browser right now — or scroll to the conclusion at the bottom. But if you’re looking for reasons why the Stars aren’t at the top of the pack right now, go ahead and grab a cup of coffee, cancel your upcoming meetings, and start scrolling.
Terrible Puck Possession
“Our whole team identity is based on puck pressure and puck possession... We practice that way and we play that way.”
This is what Jim Montgomery had to say about his team at the University of Denver, and it’s a philosophy that he brought with him when he came to Dallas. It may not be one of the tenants of The Process, but it remains an import part of the modern NHL and something the new head coach emphasized in his initial interviews. This mindset was considered a breath of fresh air for Stars fans, who had just witnessed an entire season of slow, trap-style defensive hockey under previous head coach Ken Hitchcock.
Unfortunately, those words currently ring hollow, as the Stars are currently one of the worst possession teams in the NHL. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Stars have a 46.89% Corsi For at even strength, which is good for fourth worst in the NHL. In terms of Fenwick For, the Stars have a slightly better 47.52%, good for seventh worst in the league. Spoiler alert: when your name is lumped in with teams like the Ottawa Senators and the Detroit Red Wings, you’re probably not very good.
Here’s another soundbite from Montgomery shortly after taking the Dallas job:
“I want to have more clean entries and I want teams, it’s something we’re going to track, is how are we doing, especially within a game, clean entries compared to the other team’s clean entries.”
Newsflash: Dallas doesn’t enter the zone cleanly. I wish I had some stats to back me up, but it seems that the only Stars players who consistently enter the offensive zone are John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen, and Valeri Nichushkin. Even when they have the puck, the Stars seem to defer to dumping it in more often than not:
Benn, Seguin, and Radulov....possession of the puck in the neutal...dump it in and lose possession. Does "we've got to be better" apply to the coaching staff?— David Castillo (@DavidCastilloAC) January 1, 2019
The team is also tremendously bad at icing the puck. Sean Shapiro wrote about this in early December, citing More Hockey Stats to show that the Stars iced the puck more than any other NHL team. One month later and it’s still true, as the Stars lead the league with 215 icings and only 86.98% of them being “good,” which is eighth worst in the league. If you’re a team that scores goals left and right like the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can get away with that. When you’re the Stars? Not so much.
And that leads to my next point — despite having some top offensive players, the Stars have failed to put the puck on net enough. Their shots on net currently rank 18th in the league at even strength. Per my own research, they have been outshot in 26 games and only outshot their opponents 14 times, with eight of those having come in the team’s first 13 games. They have a -57 shot differential (ouch), and a large part of that is due to poor first periods. The Stars have been outshot in the first frame 21 times compared to 13 in their favor — seven of which were in the team’s first 10 games — for a first period shot differential of -40.
These lack of shots — combined with a 9% shooting percentage that ranks eighth worst — directly translate into only 108 goals for, good for sixth worst in the NHL. Only one current playoff team has less goals for than Dallas, and that’s the Anaheim Ducks. And before you get your hopes up, those Ducks are actually very similar to the Stars: both currently sit in a Wild Card spot while ranking near the bottom of the league in possession stats. They also have another key similarity that we’ll talk about later, but I digress.
One last quote from Montgomery from when he joined the team (same source):
“I don’t care if we block a lot of shots. I hope we have the puck so the other team has to block them.”
For what it’s worth, the Stars have blocked 632 shots this year per the NHL Stats. That’s not quite enough for first — that distinction belongs to Ottawa and their shocking 695 shots blocked — but it’s enough for a distant second. Not saying that blocking shots is bad, just found it interesting considering the above quote.
Injuries and the Roster Makeup
“Alright, smarty-pants, the Stars have bad stats. We get it. But don’t you know that the Stars’ blue line has been destroyed for half of the year? What more do you expect from a guy who has to rely on Joel Hanley and Ben Gleason for tough minutes?”
It’s easy to tell that this team’s offense took a big hit when John Klingberg went down. As noted above, most of the team’s games and/or first periods where they outshot the opponent came at the beginning of the season. They were slightly outshooting and outscoring their opponents up until that first San Jose Sharks game, and it’s hard to keep that up after losing one of your top offensive players.
Here’s the thing, though; I personally believe that injuries are never an excuse for a team’s poor play. Last year, I wrote about how Ben Bishop’s injury was not the cause for the Stars’ historic losing streak. And while I wasn’t writing for this site two years ago, I also held that opinion about the 2016-17 squad. Despite being decimated with injuries thanks to the World Cup, the Stars started okay before ultimately collapsing:
2016-17 Stars through 33 games? Well, guess what: 13-14-6— Robert Tiffin (@RobertTiffin) December 16, 2018
They climbed all the way up to 16-14-7 before dropping out of the race more or less for good.
In this regard, I actually applaud Jim Montgomery for being able to fight through the blue line injuries and keep the Stars in the same play as they were before Armageddon hit — fighting for a Wild Card spot. It’s very easy for teams to take a big hit in the standings when not operating at 100%; see the Anaheim Ducks and Vegas Golden Knights at the start of the season, the Boston Bruins mid-season, and the Nashville Predators as of late. So the fact that the Stars more or less stayed the course is impressive.
But let me counter that with this — is that continued “success” really due to Montgomery and the coaching staff adapting, or is it because Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin are playing at an incredibly high level right now? Consider this, the Stars have a save percentage of .916%, which is currently third in the NHL. Bishop ranks fourth out of goalies with at least 15 games played with a .925%, and Khudobin is tied with reigning Vezina winner Pekka Rinne for eighth with a .920%. Only the New York Islanders have a comparable duo, with Robin Lehner (.930%, first) and Thomas Greiss (.917%, T-12th), and thus it shouldn’t shock you that they’re tied for first in the league with a save percentage of .917%.
Who’s the other team tied for first? Why, it’s the Anaheim Ducks, which brings us back to that final similarity alluded to earlier. Both the Ducks and the Stars have their record inflated by stellar goaltending. In the Ducks’ case, it’s John Gibson and his .925%, which is fifth in the NHL right behind Ben Bishop. And had the Ducks not been decimated with injuries to start the season, Gibson’s numbers would probably be even better — remember that second period at the beginning of the season?
So yes, give some credit to Montgomery and the coaching staff for holding down a Wild Card spot despite all of the injury troubles. But the people you should really be thanking are Bishop and Khudobin for playing out of their minds during that stretch. And while you’re at it, maybe give GM Jim Nill a pat on the back for bringing Khudobin aboard in the first place.
“Ugh, don’t even get me started on Nill. He’s the one who hasn’t added any reliable scoring threat beyond Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov. Can’t blame Montgomery for that, can you?”
It’s true that the Stars have a huge secondary scoring problem, something Cody talked about this morning and which was noticeable as early as week one. A large part of the scoring troubles come from a roster that lacks solid offensive talent beyond the top line, and that’s something that the coaching staff can’t control.
But you know what the coaches can control? Player deployment, which brings me to this (courtesy of HockeyViz):
Since this is a piece about Jim Montgomery and not the players, let me sum up some quick thoughts I have about various Stars players: Blake Comeau is below average, Mattias Janmark has been struggling all season, Devin Shore is a streaky scorer at best, Jason Dickinson is underrated offensively, and Denis Gurianov has the highest offensive potential out of all forwards not named Benn, Seguin, or Radulov.
Not that we’ve gotten this out of the way, can someone please explain to me why Blake Comeau, a player who’s not exactly known for his offensive capabilities and has been a possession blackhole the majority of his career, is getting the fifth most time on ice on the team? And explain why Dickinson, who was starting to break out earlier this year, suddenly had his extra ice time taken away? And finally, why Janmark continues to get around 14 minutes of play while Roope Hintz and Gurianov are on a constant roller coaster?
Forget about debates centering around why Brett Ritchie isn’t a constant healthy scratch or why Gemel Smith could never crack the lineup. What really concerns me about Montgomery’s player selection is who’s getting the most ice time. And newsflash, if your second most used line tends to be some combination of Radek Faksa, Comeau, and Janmark, you probably don’t have to think long and hard about why you’re in the league basement when it comes to goals for and possession stats.
Again, a large part of that has to do with Montgomery not having many better options, and it’s not his fault that Jason Spezza is aging and that Valeri Nichushkin can’t score a goal to save his life. And it’s easy to armchair GM and say, “Just give Hintz and Gurianov top-six minutes and see what happens,” when the truth is neither player is good enough to shoulder those minutes without some strong support on their line.
But then Montgomery turns around and says stuff like this:
I look at a guy like Blake Comeau, I trust him... he has so much value to our team and the success we have, despite the fact that everybody might look at he’s minus 11. To me, if we need to kill off 30 seconds and we’re up by a goal and we’re trying to win the Stanley Cup, Comeau’s out on the ice.”
Comeau is a strong penalty killer and defensive player, and I’m not trying to turn him into a scapegoat or anything like that. But this quote sums up a large problem with Montgomery’s system — one of his most trusted players is a defensive forward who’s not going to score goals, and his mindset when he’s up by one is to try and prevent a game-tying goal instead of extending the lead. Suddenly, I’m reminded of Ken Hitchcock’s “defense first” mentality from last season.
I could go on, but I don’t want to rag on Montgomery too much. Despite what you might think by now, I actually like him as a coach. I like how straightforward he is when it comes to why players are getting scratched, his “player’s coach” approach to the locker room, and that he ultimately seems to realize that he and his coaching staff need to be better.
What I have to wonder is what Montgomery considers “better.” As a rookie head coach with no prior NHL experience, there is a huge learning curve that everyone expected heading into this season. And perhaps my biggest worry is that in trying to adapt to the NHL, Montgomery adapts the “wrong way.”
Consider this — after preaching a possession-heavy, offensive-based system heading into the year, Montgomery was suddenly faced with a blue line operating at maybe 33% capacity about 20 games into the year. Let’s say that as a response, he decided to abandon his ideal system momentarily and coach what was familiar to his players from the previous season: shutdown defensive hockey that tries to edge out 2-1 victories by “turtling” every time they have a lead in the third period.
Now the Stars have two of their defenders back in John Klingberg and Connor Carrick, and the team is still holding down a Wild Card spot. Maybe he starts to think that puck possession and a high-octane offense isn’t necessary to win in the NHL after all. If the top line plus Klingberg and Heiskanen can score enough, then perhaps all he needs to do is employ the likes of Comeau, Faksa, and Roman Polak to bunker down and preserve a one-goal lead to get the W.
To be honest, I don’t believe this to be the case, and attribute that “worst case scenario” to my typically pessimistic approach to sports. I have faith that Montgomery recognizes the shortcomings of his system thus far, and that by comparing the Stars with the top teams in the NHL, he’ll identify how to improve it.
But Montgomery needs to get started on those improvements soon. Otherwise, the Stars might be just one losing streak away from missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season. And if that happens, then rookie head coach or not, Montgomery will have to shoulder his fair share of the blame.