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What If It’s Not the System?

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Things might not be as simple as we’d wish them to be.

Minnesota Wild v Dallas Stars

What if the Stars are Kevin McAllister?

***

In Home Alone, a young boy named Kevin courageously outsmarts a pair of burglars—at least, for a little while.

The movie is a classic, in part because it plays on the edge of childhood fears. I remember that feeling of being alone, as a kid. I remember one night, home alone with my older sister when my parents were out of town, hearing noises outside our front door, and dialing 911 because we thought some drunk people were trying to break in. A deputy showed up soon after, and said he didn’t see anyone. We were still terrified. Nothing ever happened that night, but it could have, you know?

Home Alone doesn’t let you off that easy. Kevin does get caught, and the bad guys do prepare to harm him. Kevin made the most of the tools at his disposal, but at the end of the day, the bad grown-ups have the upper hand until another grown-up shows up to save the day.

The Stars, this year, have eked out a 4-8-1 record on the backs of players like Roope Hintz, Denis Gurianov, and Nicholas Caamano. They’ve beaten three dreadful teams and blown a lead against Washington to grab an overtime win. They have used some ingenious tricks to win four games, but the third period against Pittsburgh Saturday night sure felt like Kevin, running through the snow in legs too small, running from bandits too accustomed to tracking him down.

Sure, Kevin could have done some things differently. Maybe he should have asked for more help earlier, or maybe he should have used a different implement here or there. But ultimately, he needed the grown-ups to do their jobs vis-a-vis keeping him safe. Thankfully, one did. Spoiler alert for all of that, by the way.

The Stars, this year, have looked like they’re struggling to tromp through snowdrifts, to come up with unlikely machinations against superior-but-flawed opponents. Things have been close, here and there; one goal could have given them wins in their first games of the season. But they’re staring yet another on-again, off-again cycle of missing the playoffs in the face, and the adults have yet to really show up.

On their Carcast the other night, Owen Newkirk and Sean Shapiro mentioned the old adage, “Coaches lose games, players win them.” When times are good, we watch highlights, laud the players, and maybe give the coach a little nod for letting the players be amazing. The instant things turn? Well, then it’s all about a stubborn coach afraid of mistakes, set in their ways, too blind to address the real issues. The players would be amazing, if only they were allowed. I’ve heard this critique of every Dallas Stars coach since Marc Crawford at one point or another after a playoff-less season—though the Glen Gulutzan criticism was slightly different, as you’d expect—and Jim Montgomery is getting a taste of it now, too.

There’s nothing wrong with questioning a system, absolutely. It’s an interesting exercise at the least, and a revealing indictment at best. But given where the Stars are, I think it’s fair to say that, when it comes to most of the players, the adults really haven’t done their duty with due diligence. Critique the usage of the tools if you want, but the head of a hammer isn’t supposed to unscrew and pour maple syrup right when you try to hit a nail.

Only one player is over 0.5 points per game, and only barely; Roope Hintz is sitting at 6-1=7 on the year, and he’s slowed down a bit (in scoring and in pace) since his blistering start. Say what you will about Jim Montgomery or his coaching staff, but there’s no way on earth this talent should be sitting nearly eight percentage points below their expected goals-for at even-strength. The Stars have the second-worst shooting percentage in the league at 5v5 and the 4th-worst shooting percentage on the power play despite a veritable murderer’s row of goal-scoring talent on their top end.

The argument I’ve heard and seen is that Montgomery’s system somehow doesn’t produce enough chances to put the players in positions to score. Maybe that’s true to an extent—the Stars were 15th in the NHL in 5v5 xGF last year—but you don’t wind up in the basement of the league by design, not with this talent. Even Ken Hitchcock, the unapologetic grind-it-out coach of grind-it-out coaches, still got better offense from this team without Pavelski or Zuccarello, thanks to a half-decent power play.

Sure, Jamie Benn probably isn’t going to top 65 points consistently at this point in his career; I think that’s fair to acknowledge. Alex Radulov can’t be expected to sustain elite offensive production every year of his contract as he approaches 35. Joe Pavelski won’t score 40 goals most years. These are all things we can accept, in a vacuum.

But this level of offensive recession is icebergian. Tyler Seguin has one regulation goal in 13 games, and his underlyings are even more disturbing, with an on-ice ixG/60 of 0.71. John Klingberg doesn’t have a single primary assist in all situations this year after averaging nearly an entire point per hour at 5v5 last year.

For context, Seguin ended last year averaging 0.86 expected goals per hour, and Jamie Benn put up 0.73 last year in probably his worst full season. This year, Benn is leading the entire team (even Hintz!) in expected goals added per hour with 0.86.

Seguin, of course, is still 4th on the team in ixG/60. His shooting percentage is in the tank—whose isn’t?—but even he hasn’t fallen off the cliff to the extent of Alex “0.45 ixG/60” Radulov. The Stars’ “big three” aren’t creating enough scoring chances, and they aren’t finishing the ones that do get created. Joe Pavelski is hardly the biggest disappointment on this team, when you look at what Montgomery got out of this group last year.

The Stars are effectively playing with three of their best players injured, in terms of production. When Tyler Seguin is on the ice, the Stars don’t become a better team in any meaningful sense. If Jim Montgomery is doing that, then he’s the most perversely powerful coach of all time. Elite players are paid to score, and they’re given plenty of latitude to take risks in order to do so, even by this coaching staff.

Yes, Montgomery preaches a level of discipline and structure that limits offensive opportunities to an extent for the sake of better goal differentials overall (in theory), but so does almost every coach, nowadays. Say you throw out the one thing the Stars are still doing well and take the harness off their defensive-zone structure: how sure are you that this team won’t look a lot more like 2017 than 2015?

Dallas is maybe the second-stingiest defensive team when you boil it all down. Is that fun to watch? Of course not, but the ethos of this franchise right now is to be playoff-ready as opposed to President’s Trophy Prepared, and this sort of structure if where that line of thinking gets you. Even if you think that’s the worst idea in the world, the fact is that you’re not going to have a good season when your top-paid guys are on pace to score like third-liners. If their details are this slipshod when it comes to finishing offensive opportunities, one can easily envision how bad things could look if they tone down the focus on defensive structure. I’m not saying I wouldn’t take that, as a fan paying for entertainment, but you can see how most hockey people in this league are going to scoff at the suggestion, especially those who witnessed the end of Lindy Ruff’s time here. If the Stars are controlling any aspect of the game right now, they’re going to cling to that process for dear life. It’s hard to blame them.

The power play is the biggest thing killing them right now, though. Even the biggest Monty skeptic wouldn’t dare blame him for that, so what’s the obvious solution? To blame Todd Nelson, power play coach. Again, it’s part of the coach’s job description, so we have the prerogative to ask him some tough questions, certainly. But players are acting like rogue agents on the man-advantage, and entries have gotten so bad that Joe Pavelski hardly has a chance to get to the front of the net after the all-out scramble to recover pucks dumped in as a result of failed controlled-entry attempts. The coaches are not telling them to dump the puck in on the power play, I promise you that. The players simply aren’t finding ways to beat the PK in the neutral zone.

Again, Nelson needs to find some better schemes to help the players weather this drought. That’s fair. But if you watched the Stars’ setup against Pittsburgh on both their chances like I did, you surely saw the way they telegraphed their entry routes and failed to come all the way back to Klingberg as he was skating it up the ice. Once the PK knows where Klingberg will have to send the puck, the entry is toast. Spezza and the drop pass were so useful because they only needed one half-decent move at pace on a slowed-down forechecker to generate an easy triangle the Stars could use to enter the zone. But the Stars simply aren’t finding ways to get those numerical advantages in the neutral zone, and it’s leading to a frustrated group of power play skaters who end up trying to be difference makers instead of collaborative construction workers. Frustration breeds impatience, from ownership to management, and all the way down to Alex Radulov’s decisions on the ice. Players don’t know where people are going to be after solo efforts, and so the passing can’t work well enough to get the penalty killers out of sorts, leading to low-danger prayers from the point or bad-angle one-timers almost from the red line (remember the Gurianov one-timer off the outside of the net?) because the Czech press is covering everything else with ease.

I’m not giving Montgomery a pass, absolutely. It’s his job to figure things out, and you can see how frustrated he is at the team’s effort and results right now. Maybe the point will come when a new voice and its own accompanying growing pains will be worth the disruption, but I’m not sure what that looks like in terms of available coaching candidates right now. The players aren’t revolting against him or anything like that, but a few of them are putting up pretty revolting results. At some point, I think it’s fair to wonder if the players simply need to be better.

That goes back to that feeling of being home alone, though. A flawed coach means you can fix the problem with one simple move, easy peasy. A group of players who can’t get it done, for mental or physical reasons (or both)? That’s a much, much messier problem. I can understand why we don’t want that to be the case. Trust me, I do. There are extremely painful decisions to be made if the players aren’t willing or able to get the job done. Any fanbase, any management group would prefer not to have to address the possibility of underperforming superstars signed for tens of millions of dollars and a whole lot of years.

Sometimes players just don’t work out the way you think they should. Hopefully that’s not the case. In a sense, the Stars almost have to hope the issue is just some bad luck and a flawed system that needs tweaking, because bigger problems mean more intensive surgery, with longer recovery periods and a different group of doctors.

I’d love it if the Stars could just change their system and turn on the Goal Faucet. Maybe that’s all they need to do; the Blues just needed to punt on Mike Yeo and find the Director’s Extended Version of Andrew Hammond for six months, and bam.

The Stars are a team with a positive expected goals differential this season. The reality has been much different than the expectations, both for their goal-scoring and for the team as a whole. It is still early, statistically, but if the Stars only manage a single win over a playoff team over the entire course of October, I think it’s fair to say that a whole lot of people need to answer for it—and not just the ones standing behind the bench.

So if you want to keep pointing to “the system” and saying that it’s some sort of cockeyed gasket throwing off their timing, I have plenty of time for that theory. There is some Hitch in Montgomery’s philosophy, for sure. But at some point, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about the failings taking place on the ice. Because there are a lot worse coaches in this league who have gotten a lot better results from the guys paid to execute.

Maybe the Stars can turn it around, but they would need three more of these 3-1 stretches before they’re even back in the playoff conversation, and it’s tough to have confidence that they can do that. But one thing’s for sure: if the guys on the ice don’t start scoring for their coach, they will eventually be doing so for a different one, regardless of what jersey they’re wearing when that time comes.

All numbers from Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted.