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Repeating Last Year’s Defensive Play Will Be No Easy Task for the Dallas Stars, Unless It Is

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The offense wasn’t good, but the Stars nearly won the Jennings Trophy. Can they defend Big D that well again?

NHL: Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Drained

Spent

Determined

Intent

Now you’ve earned the right to be heard

We’ve been deceived by elegant speech

Whose only concern is mere distraction

***

With one preseason game to go, there are lots of things you can worry about when it comes to the 2019-20 Dallas Stars. The health of the goaltending is always a concern when your tandem is on my side of 30. The offense was bottom-five in the NHL last year, not to mention utterly silent in games six and seven against St. Louis. Joe Pavelski might not look like Mats Zuccarello outside of a lethal San Jose system (3rd in the league in xGF last year). And so on.

One of the things you probably shouldn’t worry about too much based on the preseason, however, is goal prevention.

Preseason results, 2019-20

2-0 L - STL

2-0 W (OT) - MIN

2-1 W - COL

6-0 L - FLA

2-1 W - STL

2-1 L - MIN

In six games, Dallas has gone 3-3, giving up 2.00 goals per game while scoring 1.17 goals per game. In the four games we have something like real data for, Dallas is getting massively out-shot, sporting the second-worst xGF% in the league. However, thanks to their quality stable of goaltending and great penalty kill (only one goal allowed), the Stars are still in the top tier of preseason teams in terms of actual goals against.

Oh, and by the way, the only team worse than the Stars in xGF% so far this preseason? The Tampa Bay Lightning. So, you know, maybe this isn’t exactly a cast iron template we’re working with. Meaningless games just don’t work the same way as the other 82 - 110 do.

The Florida debacle in Tulsa is really the only thing that makes you worry on its own, and I’d argue that a preseason tilt in a third-party rink with a veteran-heavy squad is not exactly the best situation to flash a team’s skill. It is the preseason, after all. If you listened to Owen and Sean’s Carcast last night, you were reminded that veterans really have no incentive to give 100% during the pretend games (unless you’re Alex Radulov, who I’m fairly certain gives 140% whether he’s playing playoff hockey or waiting in line at airport security). If you want to toss that Tulsa game away as an outlier, you can find plenty of reasons to do it.

But we’re not here to try and extract meaningful conclusions from the preseason so much as we are to figure out whether Dallas’s sturdy defensive identity (second in the NHL in goals-against last year) is going to hold true again this year. In the preseason, sure, it seems like that may well happen. But was Dallas’s sterling goals-allowed number last year just a result of Ben Bishop playing out of his mind and Anton Khudobin having a career year? Or was it something more repeatable on a team-wide level?

A quick word about the offense, though: it was not great. Third-worst in the league in all situations and second-worst at 5v5 in terms of goals scored. However, there is a modicum of hope for positive regression: First, having Joe Pavelski for a full season should boost the power play (which was decent at 11th in the league last year) a fair bit, not to mention Roope Hintz. The Stars will have better options this year than they did last year. Second, the Stars’ shooting percentage has the opportunity to improve after being around 9-10 goals below expected over the course of the season. Ten goals is roughly the difference between a 94-point season and a 100-point year. So, all things being equal, you can hope for a bit less nail-biting in terms of goal-scoring this season.

But all things are never equal when it comes to sports, and we are here to talk about the defense, anyway. What did Dallas’s games even look like last year, apart from the lack of goals-ing in both directions? If you don’t remember, well, I can’t say I really blame you. It wasn’t quite Hitchcockian, but let’s just say it was abundantly clear that Lindy Ruff was all the way on the east coast, far from Dallas:

Subscribe to HockeyViz.com to see the animations throughout the season.

So, yeah. You can see how, even without the offense we hoped for, Dallas still managed to be 14th in xGF% over the course of the season. It’s one way to skin a cat, but the playoffs showed both the good and the bad that comes with playing cat-and-mouse.

There was a definite shift in Jim Montgomery’s approach from what you might remember from his days in Denver, particularly after John Klingberg got hurt in early November. The “Relentless” philosophy turned into more of a “don’t give up good chances against” approach, which ended with the Stars facing about 250 more shots than they generated at 5v5. and a disparity of over 300 in all situations combined. (You may recall that they did not draw a ton of penalties last year.)

That said, the Monty approach turned into a quality-vs-quantity tactic in the Stars’ favor, as they ended up being just barely positive in scoring chances for (per NST) and radically positive (52.5%, or almost 100 more chances for than against) in terms of high-danger shots. Those are all-situations numbers, but the 5v5 numbers are pretty similar, too. As you can see in the heat maps above, the Stars may have allowed more shots overall, but they tended to win the battle for the front of the net in the long run.

This is an organization that reacts strongly (as most teams and their fans do) to what happens in the playoffs. And while the 2016 collapse against St. Louis in a game seven saw the Stars’ fortunes undone by goaltending and and injuries and the arrival of Ken “The Fixer” Hitchock, the 2019 loss was tantalizingly close to being an affirmation of their newfound (rediscovered?) defensive identity. One inch further on the puck in that Jamie Benn wraparound, a tad cleaner backhand in front of the net for Andrew Cogliano, one easy penalty call on the most blatant of inference on Zuccarello in front of the Wild net as the third period wound down...that’s all it would have taken.

Of course, it could have gone the other way, too. One injury to Ben Bishop, one or two fewer goals, a slightly worse injury to Zuccarello that he couldn’t have played through—any of those or something else, and they’re not even sniffing the second round. Heck, they could have missed the playoffs altogether if Ben Bishop had looked more like 2017-18 Ben Bishop. It really is a fine margin for error.

That’s what Micah Blake McCurdy emphasized this week in his season preview, too. But before we get to that, I’ll let him explain how he comes up with these exquisite tools for seeing how teams do what they do (and are most likely to do in the future):

I estimate the likely rosters for each team, starting from their contract list on September 25, 2019, and then weighting by past playing time. Injuries and suspensions are taken into account.

I estimate the individual impact of each player and head coach on:

Shot generation and suppression, at even-strength and special teams, taking account of teammates, competition, and the effects of score, zone, coaching, and home-ice deployment;

Rates of taking and drawing penalties

Individual tendencies towards shooting or passing; and

Ability to shoot or stop the puck, as appropriate.

So yeah. This process isn’t just tossing some corsi ping-pong balls in a hopper and hoping Taylor Hall is on your team when they pop out.

Goaltending might be one of the less-understood areas of the game in some ways, but one thing we do know is that it is critically important. Devotees of the Dallas Stars have perchance learned this already. Just as the mid-2010s Stars could steamroll opponents in shots and chances only to be undone by frail goaltending, so also could the early 2010s teams hang around the playoffs primarily because of excellent goaltending. (The cruelest part of that comparison is that it was largely the same goaltender in both cases.)

The more stable elements in your foundation, the less susceptible it is to crumbling. We know this intuitively as well as architecturally, and I’ll quote Micah once more just for grins:

The Leafs are alone in generating volume of offence, though Carolina, Vegas, and San Jose are not far behind. Teams like Dallas and Toronto both have a similar net shot rate, but “fun” teams like Toronto are more insulated from randomness by their high volume.

The only way Dallas could possibly project to have a similar net shot rate as Toronto is, of course, to strangle defensive chances to an absurd degree. And this, in fact, is precisely what Dallas looks like they are preparing to do again.

It makes sense, after all. Most of the personnel are returning, and Rick Bowness isn’t beloved by Ben Bishop for nothing. Jamie Benn is still the best person on the top line at shutting things down in his own zone, and while the Stars’ third line couldn’t score to save their playoffs lives last year, they still shut things down to such an absurd degree that if they score at even a slightly less abysmal rate on the chances they do get (read: score on just, like, one out of ten breakaways), they should be able to hold their own.

Combine that with the upgraded second line, Jason Dickinson’s continued emergence as a middle-six force, and a fourth line that is extremely solid in their own end if Mattias Janmark and Justin Dowling continue to hold their spots down. and you can see how Dallas really could challenge for the Jennings again, or at least finish around the top-five.

As for the blue line, Dallas looks like they will replace Ben Lovejoy (who retired) with Andrej Sekera (pronounced “SEK-er-uh”), and that will be a huge win for Dallas if he stays healthy, as Sekera’s skating and hockey IQ and “not being in Edmonton, finally” should easily put him in the top four for Dallas in terms of quality if not necessarily ice time.

Esa Lindell will also continue to play the hardest of minutes for Dallas, including the final minute (or two!) of any game in which Dallas is leading by fewer than four goals. Lindell may not be a transition beast, but he definitely thrives defensively when it comes to locking down his own zone, as you may recall from Lindell’s stellar season under Ken Hitchock.

The John Klingberg-Esa Lindell pairing is notoriously complementary in a way that both works for Dallas and perhaps earned Lindell a few more dollars than he might have gotten paired with, say, Roman Polák or Taylor Fedun.

Klingberg and Heiskanen are the sort of nuclear weapon I remember seeing over a decade ago in the days of Niedermayer-Pronger back in Anaheim, and like that pair, Dallas will continue to deploy it selectively. Given how good Heiskanen can be even with a below-average partner, it makes sense to spread the wealth a bit.

Roman Polák is also a member of the Dallas Stars’ defense, and his value can best be described as indescribable. Polák continues to look every bit the 33 year-old hulk who can punish opponents physically when play slows down, but who struggles to cover his side of the ice defensively. This leads to, by far, the worst effect on the blue line in terms of shots and chances given up, which pairs rather unfortunately with his own lack of puck-moving ability and propensity to take penalties. We have talked about the Stars’ third pairing already this month, however, so I will not go into further detail about what the Stars’ options are for figuring out the bottom end of the blue line. It is, after all, the area of least concern in terms of minutes in which to affect the game, thanks to the Stars’ stellar options atop the defense corps. Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg are helpful to have, in that way. Also in every way.

So, was the Jennings runner-up year just a fluke? Well, at risk of quoting Kevin Malone, the fluke is one of the most common fish in the sea—go fishing for one, and you just might catch it. If the Stars’ overall system continues to look a lot like sitting in a leaky boat next to your opponent’s leaky boat while hoping your goalie can bail you out quicker than theirs, the Stars might well be in for another good, long year on the frozen water. If that doesn’t sound satisfying, well, maybe try screaming at your best players halfway through the season. That seems to be the go-to tactic around here.

Goaltending isn’t defense, but it is the most important position on the ice. The Stars have a strong shot at being strong in net again, and that can turn a perfectly good defense into a great chance at winning games if the offense can, at minimum, continue to improve incrementally. That shouldn’t be asking too much, but then again, we’re all a bunch of greedy fans. Nothing is too much to demand.

Dallas does not have the depth of a St. Louis or the deadly scoring talent of Toronto or Tampa Bay. And while opening games up favors the team with the better goalie in a vacuum, Jim Montgomery doesn’t seem to trust that their top-six can outscore worse goalies faster than their bottom six can protect their better netminders. Thus, you have the 2019-20 Dallas Stars. If they can dictate games and create enough chances to be getting on with while continuing to break even (or better) in the special teams battle, they could be pretty great, actually.

So scream away if you’re bored. The Stars, meanwhile, will be daring you to beat them from outside the prime scoring areas while they bide their time, looking for quality chances. Odds are, it’ll take you more than three periods to do it. As long as their boat weathers the storm, they’ll probably emerge from the clouds first. What could go wrong?