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Dallas Stars End-of-Season Grades: For Bottom-Six Forwards, It’s Time to Put Up or Shut Down

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How much does a shutdown line really help?

Dallas Stars v St Louis Blues - Game Five Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

So I guess the fortune teller’s right

Should have seen what’s there and not some kind of holy light

***

First off, let’s just clarify something: the terms “top-six” and “bottom-six” are nebulous, and often applied arbitrarily. Surely you, gentle reader, followed many of the games this season, wherein the lines at morning skate (or warmups) would be listed in a certain order. Usually that order had the confusing tendency to list the Radek Faksa/Blake Comeau line third, despite the pair almost always seeing top-six time-on-ice in any given game.

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So let it be known that, for the purposes of this grade, we are evaluating the sum performance of the presumptive bottom six, defined herein as the following players, more or less:

Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, Mattias Janmark, Tyler Pitlick, Jason Spezza, Justin Dowling, and Andrew Cogliano.

Yes, that is a group of seven, not six. Yes, there are other forwards who played large chunks of the games, such as the dearly departed Devin Shore, the erstwhile Valeri Nichushkin, and the whiling away Brett Ritchie. I will leave those grades for you to decide, because look, the playoffs are still going and Boston and St. Louis are still not eliminated. These are dark times. Don’t complain about what you can’t control.

But enough about the parameters. We are here to hand out grades indiscriminately, so let’s being the indiscriminate grading already.

I’ll begin by stating what we all know: the Stars got very little scoring from their bottom-six this year. Really, they had a bottom-nine scoring problem until Roope Hintz and then Mats Zuccarello got the chance to shine up top, so perhaps we’re being generous by grading them after a 13-game playoff run that nearly didn’t get the chance to start.

But nonetheless, we’re looking at the overall contribution of those seven guys, so we’ll try to toe the line between breaking out individual performance and the group contribution as much as possible.

The third (again, really the second) line was used pretty emphatically by Jim Montgomery as a defensively oriented shutdown line. You can either look at the resultant dearth of scoring from the third line this year as a product of the heavy defensive assignments (both in terms of zone starts and line matchups), or you can say that Montgomery saw he wasn’t going to get scoring from that group, and skewed things to maximize the scoring opportunities for the top-six as much as possible.

The fourth-line guys, meanwhile, were largely just there this season at even-strength, and you could see Montgomery’s resignation to that fact by how many players in that graph above drew in at the bottom. Condra, Nichushkin, Gurianov, L’Esperance, and Ritchie all battled for time in that bottom-six role, with none of them contributing much scoring at all.

Of the players we are talking about, Radek Faksa led the group with 1.87 goals per 60 minutes at evens, which isn’t saying much. That’s somewhere around 380th among NHL forwards depending on your TOI cutoff, which is to say Vlad Namestnikov, Chris Wagner, and Darren Helm territory. You probably don’t want those guys playing the fifth-most minutes on your team when you are scoring at one of the lowest rates in the NHL. And again, Faksa led the bottom-six in scoring. Did you hear about the Dallas Stars’ offense this season? It wasn’t great.

By contrast, Justin Dowling was an interesting case. Of those bottom seven, he had far and away the highest expected GF% (58.12), but the results couldn’t have differed more, as Dowling got out-scored on the ice by a 3-to-1 ratio (25% GF) at evens. Some of that is just sample-size bad luck, and I think the underlying metrics help explain why Montgomery trusted Dowling so much into the playoffs. However, Dowling simply didn’t score much at all (one assist in 11 games of the season, two assists in the playoffs), and that was part of why the Stars had (and have) a bona fide scoring talent problem in their bottom six. Having players like Comeau and Cogliano signed for two more years at not-cheap rates on the wrong side of 30 doesn’t provide a lot of hope for positive change there.

In fact, the entire group had a much higher xGF/60 than any of them actually netted, which suggests they weren’t even burying the chances they did manage to generate at the rates you would hope for. Sure, it was probably a bit much to hope for that Pitlick would have another career year, or that Spezza could get better with another year’s wear on the tires (and while playing with perhaps the worst linemates of his Dallas career). But to get only seven goals in 77 games from Blake Comeau, or just six in 81 from Janmark? Well, maybe we can understand a bit more why Montgomery decided to skew the team’s strategy towards slot-defense-at-all-costs as things progressed.

To put things in perspective: the Stars got double-digit goals from Janmark, Shore and Pitlick last season. They got 10 goals from Adam Cracknell two years ago. This year, the Stars had nobody step up in the bottom of the lineup until Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson got a shot with the skills guys down the stretch (and into the playoffs). There are larger points to be made there about how to handle young players with scoring ability, but when you look at the Stars’ scoring woes, screaming at Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin is probably not the place to start.

In 2017-18, the Stars got double-digit goals from seven players—the same as this year. However, six of those guys last year were forwards. This year? Only four, as Heiskanen and Lindell stepped up their games to out-goal every Stars forward other than the top three and Radek Faksa. That’s simply not enough goals-ing from your forwards, who are, by definition, the players closer to the opposing goal most of the time. Just some inside hockey knowledge for you there.

Yes, Janmark was battling a broken foot later in the season. And yes, Pitlick had a tough injury as well that took him out of things for a while. But Jason Spezza was just flat-out bad at even-strength for most of the year (though he was fantastic on the power play, and don’t you forget it), and Comeau and Cogliano failed to bury too many chances to really give them credit for being merely responsible defensively. You have to have a counterpunch capability if you’re going to tire out your team in the defensive zone, and the Stars’ bottom-six just never had it.

Still, let’s not forget about the defensive side. After all, with the top-six forwards getting the bulk of the scoring assignments, one would at least hope that the bottom-six would be breaking even and punting the possession without eating too many minuses, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not really how it worked out. Dowling and Janmark were the only guys in this group with an xGF% above 50%, meaning the other five forwards were forcing the top-six forwards to dig the team out of a hole more often than not. In fact, if not for Ben Bishop’s Vezina-caliber season, it’s altogether likely that you would have seen the Stars with a whopping six players ending the season with a -10 or worse in the ol’ plus/minus category instead of the three they did have.

Yes, the Stars’ bottom six did suppress the other teams’ expected goals a bit relative to league-average, but the end results (again, despite Ben Bishop’s heroic work in net) were not good: At 5v5, these forwards were a combined -36. For context, the Stars only had four players with a positive goal-differential: Radulov and Seguin (+24 each), Benn (+20), and Dickinson (+8).

The question then is really this: do you credit the Stars’ bottom-six for eating tough minutes and only getting outscored, like, “somewhat badly”? I can’t really find my way to doing so. There is room for a couple of players to add more defensive than offensive value, certainly; but when you can’t find a goal when half your forwards are on the ice, even the best defensive play in the world isn’t going to prevent goals 100% of the time. The best defense is, and always has been, the one that results in more goals being scored than allowed. Goal-scoring is sort of the whole danged point of being on the ice. The very best players will control maybe 60% of play when they’re on the ice over the course of a season. That’s phenomenal, but it’s still a reminder than there will be 40% of the game where the other team has the puck. If you aren’t scoring while you have the puck, you will eventually get burned when you don’t, Ben Bishop or no. What I’m saying is, games six and seven against St. Louis were basically like watching the Stars’ bottom-six this season: not immediately disastrous all the time, but also generally trending the wrong direction, slowly but surely.

For the Stars’ bottom-six forwards, they were tasked with plugging leaks or at least breaking even, and the best you can really say for them is that they failed, uh, only a little bit at both. The Stars’ bottom six needs an injection of scoring and speed (ideally speed that can also stay upright), and with Roope Hintz being catapulted deservedly into the top-six, it only remains to be seen whether Jason Dickinson (who earned Radek Faksa’s minutes this year, in my opinion) can help out the depth, or whether he will be the Stars’ best option to round out the second line. Personally, I’d hope Dallas has some better scorers in the pipeline to use up top—why not put Gurianov on the right side with Zuccarello and Hintz?—which would allow them to use Dickinson to shore up the third line. But anyway, we’re talking about last year, not the next one.

Initially, I waffled around a C in grading this group, but the playoffs revealed the real problem with this Stars team: they can’t score without their top-six on the ice. If the lower lines were defensive beasts that at least managed to tread water without getting too overwhelmed, perhaps we could give them a pass for eating a few minuses. But the fact is that St. Louis got some key goals from veterans and rookies alike down the lineup, and the Stars as constructed only very rarely got the same contributions. That was just one series, but it pretty accurately reflected the Stars’ weakness as a team when it came to their forward depth this year: namely, they didn’t really have any.

Bottom-Six Forwards, End-of-Season Grade: D-

All numbers via Corsica.hockey, HockeyViz.com, and Hockey-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.