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When Coaches Have No Answers

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Regardless of your gameplan, you’re going to lose if you can’t figure out how to score.

Chicago Blackhawks v Dallas Stars Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images

I want to lead off this piece with something that should be obvious: the Dallas Stars’ scoring struggles are not solely on the coaching staff’s shoulders.

Currently, not a single veteran is on pace to match their expected career outputs this season. The only players currently meeting or exceeding point expectations are Miro Heiskanen, Roope Hintz, and Jason Dickinson, each of whom has roughly as many points as they did last year with 14 games remaining.

Add in Denis Gurianov (who, as a rookie, has no prior point of comparison), and that’s just four skaters who aren’t under-performing offensively. And at risk of sounding like an old school hockey fan, it’s easy to watch the Stars and draw the conclusion that the team’s top players simply need to “play better”.

That all being said, there is a reason that these top players are all headed towards career-worst point totals. This falls back on interim head coach Rick Bowness and the coaching staff, whose job it is to come up with a system and strategy that will help their players score more often, and then help them improve when they fall short of expectations. In other words, coaching.

Now, according to Bowness, the coaches have been doing precisely that. After the first shutout loss to the Nashville Predators last Thursday (March 5), Bowness said the following:

To summarize, Bowness told reporters that his players are taught to drive to the net and to get shots off, but they’re just not doing it come game time. Instead, they keep trying to make “extra plays” (that is, passing the puck around), and that hesitation ends up preventing them from generating more scoring opportunities.

We don’t need to bother looking at the tape to know this is true. How many times have you seen the Stars fail to even shoot the puck on an odd-man rush? Or go an entire power play with just a single shot on goal? Just thinking about the number of missed opportunities makes my head hurt.

So yes, the Stars have a problem with holding onto the puck for too long. But I don’t believe Bowness’ claim that his coaching staff doesn’t teach the players to do this. And who better to illustrate my point than Bowness himself?

This clip is from after the Stars’ second shutout loss to the Predators on March 7. At the 1:23 mark, our own Taylor Baird asks Bowness the following question:

“A lot of those chances seem to be from individual efforts, so what are you guys doing to add that creativity as a five-man unit when you actually are in the zone for an extended period of time?”

Bowness first responds by stating he doesn’t understand the question (which is both comical and frustrating), and Taylor elaborates that the Stars’ best scoring chances seem to come off of the rush or in similar situations, and that things come to a grinding halt when they try to set up in the offensive zone. Bowness answered thus:

“If it’s not there, they’re not going to throw the puck away. So we’ll have to look at that. It’s a five-man unit, and if they’re controlling the puck, then eventually you hope you get an opening at a lane, and if it’s not there, it’s not there.”

Here, Bowness implies that the Stars are supposed to focus on maintaining puck possession (that is, pass the puck around) until they find a high-quality scoring opportunity. They’re not supposed to just drive to the net and generate shots — they have to wait patiently and focus on creating those openings. Perhaps by making “extra plays” if you will.

Of course, these two offensive concepts are not mutually exclusive. The best teams are able to find a blend between aggression and patience in order to maximize their offensive production. My issue here is that Bowness seems to directly contradict himself as to what his players are supposed to do to try to score.

Now, my first instinct is that we’re probably better chalking this off to classic “coach speak.” NHL head coaches (well, really everyone in the NHL) are notorious for not being completely candid when it comes to their team’s shortcomings. The Stars failed to generate enough 5-on-5 scoring chances against Nashville the first time around, so Bowness says they need to shoot more. Then when they do shoot more, suddenly their focus is more so on quality, not quantity.

However, there is an underlying concern here. Namely, I think Bowness gave conflicting answers as to how his players can fix their scoring issues because I’m not sure he knows what to do either.

Throughout his career, Bowness has been a defensive-minded coach. Even though he took over coaching the forwards/offense when he was promoted to interim head coach (a decision as confusing then and it is now), his focus is still on making the Stars a “defense first” team that focuses on slowing the game down and winning tight, low-scoring games.

So far, the Stars have succeeded in doing that. It’s why they’re the third best team in the Western Conference right now in terms of point percentage. But it relies on your team’s offensive players being able to score in a more limited number of opportunities, typically through “individual efforts.” When those players hit a dry spell (or face a goaltender standing on his head), you get results like the past five games.

There are primarily three ways to fix this midseason. The first is to simply get more offensive talent, namely by making a trade. Ultimately, General Manager Jim Nill decided not to go this route, instead standing pat at the deadline. Given his lack of draft picks this year and the underwhelming talent available, I’m inclined to agree with his decision. But it is starting to look rough in hindsight.

The second option is for the coaches to change up their strategy, at least in the offensive zone. David Castillo broke this down excellently earlier today, and it’s well worth your time if you haven’t read it already. But then the question becomes whether the Stars coaching staff A) recognizes their shortcomings and b) knows how to go about fixing them.

I’m not a betting man, but I’d wager the Stars fail at least the second point if not both. Which means we’re down to the final option and where we began: simply hoping that players “step up” and “play better.” And forgive me for being overtly pessimistic, but it’s hard to expect much when the team’s (current) best offensive players, Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov, are being used extremely ineffectively.

Still, this seems to be the solution the Stars are banking on. I just wish it was the second choice, because, to quote the great Herb Brooks, I don’t believe this team has “enough talent to win on talent alone.”