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Roope Hintz, Jason Dickinson, and the Stars’ Indefensible Defensive Trajectory

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That was not the best homestand I have ever seen

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The promise of a new day is more than enough exhilaration for me!

We’ll try ‘em once more. If they don’t laugh, we’ll try ‘em again.

***

This isn’t going to be much of a review of last night’s game. Sure, you watched it. You read Merrin’s recap. But somehow, I don’t have much of an appetite to talk about how the Stars let us all down last night when we could, instead, talk about how they might let everyone down tomorrow.

This little nugget comes, of course, on the heels of Jim Montgomery’s postgame call-out of the top players and the power play for the Stars’ perpetual inability to score.

Honestly, I don’t have a huge problem with these comments, in a vacuum. It’s fine to ask good players to score goals. They are the most qualified to do so, after all. The problem really comes from Matt’s first stat up there: no one else is scoring, Andrew Cogliano’s great shot off the stick of Erik Gudbranson last night notwithstanding.

Roope Hintz is a noteworthy name in that stat. It’s crazy how quickly we’ve all just accepted Hintz as a top-six player. It’s even crazier how Hintz just seems to have magically established himself as a go-to option after spending half of the first 40 games of the season in the AHL after making the team out of training camp.

Except, it’s not magic. Hintz has been looking like a top-six player because he’s been playing with top-six players. Look at his scoring log, and you might come to the conclusion that Hintz didn’t, in fact, need “extra seasoning” in the minors after making the team on day one. Rather, Hintz needed to be trusted to play the most advantageous minutes, which is to say minutes with the only linemates on the team conducive to scoring.

It’s mind-boggling, really. A team desperate for scoring never wavered from its second line of Comeau, Faksa, and Janmark. Not because these players were particularly good at goal-prevention, mind. Radek Faksa has the second-worst GA/60 of any forward on the team other than Val Nichushkin—who, incidentally, has actually been on the ice for more goals-for than Faksa at 5v5 this season.

Take Jason Dickinson for example. Dickinson has started slightly more of his shifts in the defensive zone than Veteran Defensive Forward Blake Comeau, and he’s performed much better, too.

numbers from NaturalStatTrick.com

The reason the Stars have given more ice time to a checking line that can’t score than to promising young players who can score and defend is, well, somewhat mysterious. A lot of it smacks of self-justification, like how the team put a hobbled Martin Hanzal on the top power play the instant he was even moderately ambulatory this year. Hanzal was signed to be a net-front presence on the power play and a good defensive forward, so danged if they weren’t going to deploy him like that, results be damned.

Roope Hintz got a chance to play with the top guys because the team was out of options, and it turns out the player who won a spot out of camp and forced them to lose Remi Elie on waivers was actually, you know, good. But this is an impatient group of men running the team, and when Hintz wasn’t independently dominant to start his first NHL season, he was gone. Three games on a line with Brett Ritchie, two games on the bench, then two more games before being punted back from whence he came. Another nine-game stint was more promising, but after five games without a point, he was gone again.

His most recent recall saw him earn two assists in his first four games, but then he went scoreless for the rest of January before potting a goal on February 4th, kicking of his current stretch of 12 points in 23 games, which is enough to cement a top-six spot on this roster.

(Though, again, we must emphasize that “top-six” is more related to scoring deployment than to actual ice time. Comeau, Faksa and Janmark were this team’s top six for virtually the whole year in terms of playing time, with Hintz only recently surpassing them, thanks in large part to the team’s trailing 1-0 in all five of its recent games.)

Put it another way: Brett Ritchie has played 50 games for Dallas this season. Hintz has now played 51. I’m not sure which is more remarkable: that Hintz has overtaken Ritchie in games played after spending a couple stints in the AHL, or that the Stars, with a straight face, recently scratched Jason Spezza for being unproductive at 5v5, then later playing Brett Ritchie for like seven minutes on the right wing because of his keen ability to be physical and emotional or somesuch.

Even if you grant that Spezza’s completely lost his fastball at 5v5 and is serving up batting practice to his opponents (which the data don’t support—Spezza has a better GF% than Radek Faksa at evens this year), any sane business would run a simple cost-benefit analysis and say that Spezza’s team-leading contributions on the power play in terms of his setup ability are worth having in the lineup, even if you have to shelter the dickens (with Dickinson!) out of him at evens.

Look, if the team wants to run its lineups based on nothing other than GA/60, then more power to them. I’m not in charge, and I don’t suffer the consequences if they fail. (Well, not counting the emotional and psychological consequences of being a Dallas Stars fan in the 21st century.) But what this team looks like to someone who has diligently followed them under Jim Nill and Tom Gaglardi and many years prior is...well, it looks like a group of men who are using some outstanding goaltending to justify the lineup decisions that make them feel better about the recent trades and signings they’ve made.

Dallas was horrendous defensively and particularly odious in net in 2016-17, after the World Cup of Hockey Disaster and a training camp injury to Cody Eakin combined with the offseason losses of Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers to gut the team’s transition play. It was awful, embarrassing, and scarring. Lindy Ruff didn’t get the extension he wanted, the owner ponied up and bought out Antti Niemi, and the leaders of the organization decided to bring in Ken Hitchcock to show that they had changed their irresponsible, high-risk ways. Like a slacker boyfriend flooding his ex’s Instagram with pictures of him getting ready for his new job, Dallas was desperate to show the league that they were Serious About Goal Prevention.

And, you know, it worked. Dallas has the third-lowest GA in the NHL over the last two seasons. Unfortunately, they also have the sixth-worst GF in that same timeframe. As ever, Jim Nill showed us his ability to acquire discrete pieces to shore up the team’s perceived needs while continuing to struggle to put all the ingredients together, even if they might have some of them in the minors (or the press box) the whole time.

This team’s approach under Jim Nill (and Tom Gaglardi, who has had input as well) has been marked, more than anything, by imbalance. First, by acquiring a glut of centers to solve what was seen as their biggest weakness. Some of those players, like Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza (for three years), were grand successes. Others, like Shawn Horcoff or (almost) Vincent Lecavalier were pretty clear missteps soon after the fact, but Dallas never really paid too dearly for them in isolation.

Goaltending was the next issue, as Kari Lehtonen’s decline came faster and more precipitously than it might have if the Stars had been able to relegate him with a solid backup or even 1B sooner than 2017-18. Unfortunately, a parade of failures (with Antti Niemi’s outstanding first half of the ‘15-16 season a notable exception) led to the eventual solution arriving along with Certain Types of Players like Martin Hanzal and Marc Methot, three years after the Stars’ scoring talent was peaking. Alex Radulov was the expensive defibrillator that year that has kept the Stars’ forward scoring from being complete equine excrement (not my words), but the Stars’ last two years of transactions have been primarily geared toward making their defensive corps bigger, stronger, and more PK-ier. Roman Polák, Marc Methot, Ben Lovejoy and Jamie Oleksiak are not players meant for Transition Hockey anymore than Blake Comeau is meant for goal-scoring. The message is clear: Dallas is willing to eat their lunch at even-strength in order to justify role-players to help the PK. They will not, however, countenance the same strategy to help a scuffling power play. Interesting, that.

Jim Nill has spent most of his time in Dallas playing whack-a-mole with the Stars’ various issues. And when your team’s drafting is as poor as this one’s has been, that means you’re always going to be playing catch-up because far too little help is coming for cheap from within your system. That means playing catch-up in your roster construction, in your coaching tactics, and finally, in the scores of the games themselves.

There are seven games left for the Stars to find just enough success in a really bad conference to justify their approach to themselves. Just as Ken Hitchcock famously faulted Bishop’s injury last year for the entire team’s collapse, so also does Jim Montgomery appear to be leaning on his top guys in every respect. In these last five games, Alex Radulov has played 20:48 to 23:06 minutes a night, well-above his season average of 19 minutes and change.

You can pile on the players for not getting it done. Certainly John Klingberg’s misplay on the shorthanded goal was ugly, but no moreso than Roman Polák’s unforced giveaway to Phil Kessel to set up Jared McCann on the Pens’ second goal. That goal was a highlight-reel tally primarily because of how absurd the shot was, a backhand from an angle after spinning ‘round. But remember this as you listen to everybody pile on Klingberg for his relative struggles since returning to the lineup after a broken hand (that won’t fully heal until the summer): The Stars’ power play is 2-for-22 in its last ten games. Klingberg has scored one of those goals and recorded the primary assist (to Hintz) on the other.

Shorthanded goals are embarrassing, and embarrassment makes us angry, hungry to do something. But Klingberg is no more the problem with this team than Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were when Jim Lites unloaded on them through the media. And if Montgomery wants to call out the power play and his top players, he’d better have an answer for why a struggling power play is better off with Spezza on the bench, for why Faksa is still playing minutes Dickinson has earned, and for why Roman Polák is so indispensable despite everything about his play this season.

It’s gut-check time for Dallas, and they are still extremely likely to make the playoffs. Failure is as unlikely as a candid and introspective re-evaluation of this team’s missteps. You just have to wonder if the organization will be willing to point the fingers at themselves if The Process falls short the way their drafting, roster and lineup decisions already have. As usual, that will be determined by nothing more or less than the team’s confidence in its results.