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Game 18 Afterwords: Elite Scoring Talent, in Theory

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Two goals aren’t often enough to get two points, and they weren’t

Dallas Stars v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

There’s more than one answer to these questions

Pointing me in crooked line

The less I seek my source for some definitive

The closer I am to fine

***

The Stars started the season by going 1-7-1, so I guess it’s only fitting that they followed that up by going 7-1-1, right?

No matter how long the Stars’ points streak lasts, you can count on this fanbase to abandon hope at the first opportunity. That’s not an insult, for the record; that’s just how we’re trained to deal with the pain that comes from unmet expectations. The Stars have hurt you in the past, so it makes sense that you’d be slow to start trusting them again given how they started the year. Once the signs of disrepair start appearing, it’s back to the shelter of cynicism for us.

That said, there are some people meeting expectations more ineffectively than others. And Jim Montgomery isn’t one to mince words when it comes to, say, cultures of mediocrity. Or, more directly, when it comes to insufficient production from his leaders:

Any time a coach calls out the top players, it’s going to have legs. And this is a unique sort of calling out—at least as far as the Stars go—coming as it did on the heels of a season-saving (we hope) run by Dallas that began with personnel very probably on the brink of being relocated just a couple weeks ago.

Montgomery was clearly frustrated when talking about Benn and Seguin’s lack of production in this game and most of the season, as you can see below:

The last part of his criticism regarding Benn and Seguin’s “not driving pucks to hard areas enough” is reminiscent of that Herald of Gaglardi’s rant about Seguin last year, which was shown to be fairly inaccurate from all the shot location data available.

This year, however? Well, you be the judge:

Sure, Benn and Seguin will eventually start getting some power play points, and their shooting percentages will rebound from “terrible” to “average,” or maybe even better. But nearly a quarter into the season, you can sense the frustration up and down the organization with the players who are supposed to be leading the way, and are not.

Now, I’ll say this: Jamie Benn looked the better player of the two on Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg. In fact, he’s probably been the better player of the two over the balance of the season, warts and all. His individual xG/60 is 3rd on the team, behind Hintz and Gurianov(!), but one power play goal in 18 games is not something these Stars can afford. Art Ross winners tend to be judged on their actuals.

Watch the postgame player scrums and you’ll hear a common refrain, explicitly and more subtly: they are accepting the fact that their team just doesn’t score. That’s a scary thing to hear them talk about in such a sanguine tone, but it’s where they are. Maybe it’s partly the system (which prioritizes certain things in the defensive zone above other sorts of transition plays with higher risk, i.e. they aren’t usually stretching the neutral zone much), but Jamie Benn can talk about how you get one grade-A chance a night all he wants; until he starts putting in more than 3% of them, everyone is going to keep on baking their grumblecakes.

Seguin’s play is, as I said, perhaps the more worrisome of the two, partly because Benn’s decline started a few years ago, and we’ve had more time to accept it. But if we’re going to talk about Benn scraping the bottom of the barrel relative to his peak, then surely Seguin can’t be happy that he’s generating fewer quality looks per minute this season than his fellow nine-million dollar forward—who, by the way, Montgomery gave 4th-line minutes to on Sunday. (Benn, that is.)

Seguin’s three goals this season? A nice top-shelf goal against Detroit way back when, that overtime goal against Washington, and that tally in the third period against Minnesota where Benn set up a dunk on the back door. Seguin hasn’t been generating enough quality looks for himself, even if he hasn’t been “that bad” overall. Goal-scorers are paid because they know how to score when other players don’t, but this year, Seguin has looked largely dependent for his points, no matter his linemates.

I think the power play struggles are a bigger part of this than we might guess. Scoring is about confidence, and the power play creates a softer environment in which to bolster that mojo. With Jim Montgomery defragging the 5v4 hard drive a few games ago, we can hope that things will begin to run a bit more smoothly, for Seguin and everyone else. The Stars have four power play goals in their last five games, and that’s a whole lot better than one in your first nine to start the season.

Overall, I don’t buy that the players will just sort this out naturally. Seguin has looked disconnected from his line far too often this year, and that would have been unthinkable even a year ago given the synergy we were seeing from 47-91-14. But in this one, Montgomery only gave them a brief moment together, and then went back to the regular lines. I suppose there’s some sort of cold beauty in the fact that so many fans have been crying for linemate consistency, and now that the lines are finding it for at least a game at a time, that consistency hasn’t helped the two premier forwards score any more than they were earlier in the season. Beauty is perhaps a misnomer, I suppose.

In any case, the Stars’ coaches and Benn and Seguin all have to take a long, hard look in the mirror, because you can only go so far above .500 when your top guys aren’t getting it done. It’s a long season, and you need disproportionate contributions to even out the bumps. Maybe you can say that the coaching staff was trying to fit the players to the system at times rather than molding the system around the pillars of the roster, and I’m still sorting out what I think about that. But for the umpteenth time, I will say this: Tyler Seguin should be scoring more than one goal in his last 14 games, regardless of the system, and Jamie Benn more than one in 18. Unless Seguin is more banged up than we know—and he was mentioned as being somewhat bruised in the preceding four days—this is genuinely something that could keep the Stars’ rebound into relevance from getting much further than a dead cat bounce. Roope Hintz has taken over the top left-wing spot, and that has been the primary reason the Stars’ season isn’t already a total loss. But it’s a bit much to ask Hintz to fill the number one center void, too.

***

Another odd move before this game was the decision to go with Anton Khudobin over Ben Bishop for reasons not shared with the public. While it may have had something to do with afternoon games, or how the team plays a bit more defensively stout in front of Khudobin vs. Bishop, or just how Khudobin has been slightly less likely to give up a goal on his first shot, nobody knows. But I do wonder if Montgomery is starting to push buttons more and more aggressively, given how close this team may have come to a nuclear meltdown just a few games ago. Ben Bishop hasn’t quite been himself this year either, and this team can only afford so many slow starts (if they can afford any at all). Khudobin didn’t have his best game by a long shot, but he still had some solid stops mixed in with the blunders, and holding the home team to two goals through 60 minutes is something you would take every time—unless you’re a team that struggles to score two goals per 60 minutes yourself, I guess.

Overall though, you can look at this OTL as a successful road game, given the absences of Klingberg and Hintz along with the Stars’ comeback from being down 1-0 in a barn where they’ve had some struggles. If you can play .500 points-percentage hockey on the road and better than that at home, you’re going to see the playoffs a good bit of the time. Given that the season started with the Stars falling down the proverbial well then splashing around for nearly 10 games before Lassie found help...yeah, a point in Winnipeg is perfectly fine, whatever, move along.

But again, it’s the how that stings, in a couple of ways. Tyler Seguin finally won a faceoff after being below 50% for the day (along with everyone except Pavelski), then he skated the puck into no-man’s land at 3v3, and Heiskanen was sort of caught in a spot where he was too close to provide a safe defensive outlet and too far away to help prevent the turnover. As much as Razor was right in saying the Jets should never have let Radek Faksa go full Hero Mode on them for that tying goal in the second period, so also would you be right in saying that Seguin never should have turned a 3v3 possession into that with only one player pressuring him. He needs to be better than that.

The other teams score for a reason, though. The Stars had chances (though not many) to extend their lead in the second, but when you only pressure enough to draw a single power play (and a rather speciously called one at that) all game, then spend that one power play looking like you’re trying to fix a toaster with nothing but a broken pair of scissors and an old instruction manual written in an ancient Atlantean script? Well, then you kind of deserve whatever fate overtime brings you.

Andrej Sekera looked good in his return, and that’s something the Stars desperately needed, with Klingberg out for another couple of weeks (I’m taking the over on his absence). Jamie Oleksiak had some solid moments too, and Miro Heiskanen continues to give off the vibe of a fighter pilot operating a Cessna. In a good way, I mean.

Taylor Fedun and Justin Dowling failed to sort out their coverage on the Jets’ second goal, but that wasn’t a great rebound from a more-entertaining-than-desired Khudobin, either. I have seen a lot of vitriol for both of those players (not Khudobin) this year, and I suppose that’s the nature of being the 13th forward and 7th defenseman: you’re at that spot on the depth chart for a reason. But honestly, sometimes your fourth line and third defense pairing are just going to end up eating a minus in road games, and that’s the way it is. If it’s any consolation, I don’t see Justin Dowling getting many more games in the NHL if he can’t find another gear soon. The Stars have too many better options not to risk him on waivers if they continue to tread water and pine for more cap space.

Props to Jason Dickinson, by the way, who muscled up and created a goal out of nothing. Which, you know, is kind of something you would hope your elite players would do, but you’re never going to complain when a squad missing two of its best players grabs a point on the road thanks to depth scoring. I mean, come on: Depth Scoring!

(Neal Pionk, by the way, does not appear to be a fantastic NHL defenseman. Small sample size, but still.)

Patrik Laine’s power play goal was more of what we’ve already harped on: a great player making a great play. Laine is a fabulously unique player, someone I truly love to watch as much for his game’s obvious holes as for his otherworldly shot. Once the Stars gave him time and space to rip a puck, he ripped a puck, and they were playing from behind. It’s nice when your good players play well, at least for a brief moment.

***

If I had to critique the Stars’ approach to games from what I’ve seen so far this year, I think I would start with this: they play the sort of game that relies upon near-perfect consistency to eke out wins. When they get some success, it can rattle teams (as Minnesota found out) and open up more chances. But when they don’t, you’re stuck with this sort of persistent grinding that, while admirable, also seems like it has a penchant for frustrating your players who aren’t scoring as much as they’d like. In an ideal world, the players would have the mental fortitude to push through dry spells and do their jobs, spending their energy on positioning and lane-closing instead of saving that extra burst for the just-in-case situations where they might get a chance to score, as scorers tend to do. But you can see how it would be tough for a Tyler Seguin to grind it out for game after game instead of taking risks to score, only to get called out for not scoring more. It’s a bit of a Hobson’s choice if you can’t find a way to convert the chances you do get.

Now, most teams would say the same thing about consistency. Surely the Lightning, for example, would love to be steadier in their approach, but they are sort of stuck with what they’ve got, right now. Teams are going to win when things click, and winning begets winning most of the time. But coaching is like managing any workplace: when everything is going well, it barely looks like you’re doing anything. It’s the struggles where everyone can see what you’re made of. Or what you aren’t.

So far, the Stars have shown a certain level of resilience and dedication that has brought them back into the thick of things despite the roughest of starts. That’s no small feat, and the entire team deserves some credit for that. But in a very real way, the meat of the season starts now. They’ve put the past behind them, and they’re now dealing with the same ebbs and flows that every team hits after the morning October glow fades into winter. Winning streaks are fun, but the losses will come again, as they always do. And how a team handles adversity is nothing short of its entire identity.

I suppose the same goes for a player, or a coach, or even a GM. Maybe it’s true for every single one of us. Maybe how we respond to the team’s underperformance relative to our expectations defines how good of a fan I am. Well, I don’t know what the ideal response to adversity looks like for you any more than you know what it ought to be for me, but one thing I do know: we bought a ton of jerseys. That has to count for something more than an overtime loss to these Winnipeg Jets.