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Analysis: Between Radek Faksa, and Jason Dickinson, Who do the Dallas Stars Protect?

When Jim Nill gave Joe Pavelski his contract worth $7 million, it included an NMC, but only for the first two seasons. The third year had no such stipulation. It made sense at the time. Pavelski is in the twilight of his career. Even players who attack the game with calm intelligence over brute skill still need fresher legs and a more upright back to keep producing. Leaving out the NMC gave Jim Nill the flexibility of losing him to Seattle expansion. Of course, that all assumed Pavelski would end up being a mere broadsword of veteran leadership.

For most of his first season, Pavelski offered that broadsword of veteran leadership. That was, until he started to find his groove late in the 2019-2020 season, eventually exploding in the 2020 playoffs for 19 points in 27 games. He never let up either. His playoff performance ended up being a signal of things to come rather than a last gasp. Not only was he a key piece of Dallas’ most dominant line this year, paired with Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz, but he’s become Dallas’ most essential two-way forward.

With expansion coming up, Dallas would love nothing more than to have Seattle help their cap and goalie situation by taking Anton Khudobin, who had a forgettable year. The problem with that is Seattle is shaping up to be a very smart team, with fantastic hires like Eric Mathiasen, and Namita Nadakumar (formerly with the Philadelphia Eagles) for their quantitative analysis. Seattle will have access to plenty of goalies of similar quality with more good years left in them at half the price. Unless Dallas offers Seattle picks to have them take Khudobin, as Saad notes, that will likely leave Radek Faksa versus Jason Dickinson.

Both players are young, defensive centers, which is a more unique profile than a middle six scoring forward or depth defenseman. If Seattle is looking their way, then the Highlander Rule goes into full effect.

Wins Above Replacement, and Murder Mysteries

I normally don’t like to talk about WAR (or Wins Above Replacement) models. Not because they’re not interesting. But because I also want to respect my audience, and there’s no point in pretending to speak a language I don’t understand. So rather than explain a bunch of math, let’s start with a question: ever heard of Sally Clark? This is a grim story, so be warned. Sally Clark was an English solicitor. She had two sons, and in tragic fashion, her two sons died of sudden infant death syndrome less than 12 weeks after they were born. Pediatrician, Sir Roy Meadow, testified at the trial that this was ‘statistically significant.’ Two children from an affluent family dying of SIDS? The chances of that were 1 in 73 million, he argued. Without the cause of death being readily apparent, Clark would be arrested and charged with two counts of murder.

How did Roy Meadow arrive at that number? He was trying to estimate the raw probability of two well cared-for infants suddenly dying — as opposed to figuring out the raw probability of two well cared-for infants dying against the prior probability of a mother committing double infanticide. Had he weighed both probabilities against one another (healthy infants dying suddenly versus a mother killing both sons), Sally Clark might have avoided her horrific fate. I bring up this awful story because as fancy stats get fancier, they must come to terms with the nature of probability, and the nature of bias. This is not just a debate among hobbyists either. This is, or has been a genuine crisis within science itself.

So how do these new WAR models work? By doing what Roy Meadow didn’t do: accounting for prior probabilities. For example, if we want a better idea of Faksa’s performance this season, we might want to use a model that recognizes Faksa: his prior performances, and thus, his profile. Mark Pysyk led Dallas in expected even-strength goals-for per 60 this year. To cut through noise like that, it’s probably a good idea to weigh that performance against his previous years, his finishing ability, and more.

If we want a better idea of the shot quality a player generates, we can include details as explicit as whether or not a shooter excels on their strongside rather than their off-wing, or as subtle as whether or not team scorekeepers are marking correct shot locations (which they sometimes don’t).

And then on and on we go, with more and more variables. A lot goes into some of the latest WAR models. People might criticize these models for being reductionist: for trying to boil a player down into a number. But how is that any different than trying to boil a player down into their role (‘checking line forward, shutdown d-man’), or their reputation? WAR simply gives us more information, and with that information, perhaps more insight into whether a player’s role or reputation is justified, not justified, quietly dynamic, or quietly static. With that in mind, what does WAR say about Faksa and Dickinson?

Here’s how Faksa rates in terms of Wins Above Replacement over a three-year period.

And here’s Dickinson.

Dickinson is better than Faksa in almost every conceivable, well-thought out metric. His even-strength offense is roughly the same, but his even-strength defense is significantly better. Both have performed on the PK and faced tough competition. Dickinson’s offense has been trending down while Faksa has had two good years generating more residual offense than Dickinson, although his ability to finish has been gradually deteriorating.

Even if we use white out for this season’s report card because of Faksa’s lingering wrist issues, Dickinson has been steadily improving off a stronger foundation. In fact, Dickinson’s defense was especially notable this season, as he was one of the NHL’s top defensive forwards, period.

The inevitable refrain is that ‘well Faksa plays the top lines.’ As we’ve seen, it’s only a marginal difference when it comes to quality of competition. Even so, if you’re tasked with playing tough competition, and you’re getting dominated by tough competition, why should that continue to be your task? The whole point of giving a player the tough assignments is knowing they can handle it. Faksa has struggled over the last three seasons playing the role Dallas wants him to.

More to the point, I think it’s better to think of how players are leveraged rather than arguing over something as binary as ‘plays tough competition or not. ’ Faksa is asked to hold leads. Good or bad, he has the certainty of knowing why he’s on the ice, and what his purpose is. Dickinson, however, has had less purpose from a leverage standpoint, which I think deserves special marks.

I assume it’s easier to play within a defined role than to have to create one for yourself. To that end, Dickinson has done well figuring out the defensive side largely on his own. It’s worth noting that Dickinson was 5th in icetime (EV) per game this year. That’s more than Faksa, who was 8th. Rather than tasked with shutting down one scoring line, Dickinson was effective at shutting down multiple lines, night in and night out.

The choice of a new generation

I can see why it would be tough to accept. Dickinson, better than Faksa? Faksa has been a staple of Dallas’ third line since he first broke into the league. Plenty of fans will feel argue that Faksa is worth keeping because he’s the more familiar commodity. Fans remember. They remember when Faksa deserved a spot next to Benn instead of Cody Eakin because Faksa was clearly the superior player. They remember the Fak’Em line (not particularly clever but I still want my trademark). And they remember how good they were against St. Louis in 2016.

At the other end, Dickinson still feels like a mystery box for Stars fans. Ken Hitchcock refused to play him early on in his Dallas tenure, to the point where you had to wonder what incriminating photos Dickinson might have had on Hitch. Dickinson was always a stout two-way player, even going back to his AHL days, so he didn’t profile like the kind of player you’d expect Hitchcock to be biased against. Other than being target practice for random acts of violence, he’s been treated like something on a Harbor Freight receipt, just victory green spackle. Why trust that Dickinson has another gear over Faksa’s potential to rebound?

I think there’s a lot of truth to their respective WAR numbers. Follow me on social media, and you know I get Sports Mad about everything. That includes Dickinson, who I’ve long considered a man without a country. His skills aren’t bad enough to be paired with bottom six players, but his instincts aren’t good enough to be paired with top six talent. But as I take to re-watching games, the closer I watch him, the more I appreciate his ability to cover ice defensively, even if he’s not the best at figuring out the optimal counterpunch. Conversely, Faksa might have the counterpunching part — knowing when and where to fire shots on the crackback —figured out, but over the years I’ve seen a fighter maybe losing some of his attention to detail when it comes to absorbing punches, whether it’s simply losing his man, or making the wrong defensive reads. It makes sense if you think about it: Faksa’s ‘defensive’ role started with two fairly talented wingers in an offensive system that allowed him to focus on maintaining pressure rather than constantly trying to reverse it.

This isn’t to single out Faksa as the clearly inferior player. How differently would they perform if they were given bottom six minutes instead of the top six minutes they’ve received over the last three seasons? It’s more to recognize what Dickinson offers. And also, maybe to recognize the future of the checking line itself. They’re not extinct like goons, or even endangered, but teams have grown more interested in teaching talented players to play defense rather than teaching defensive players to produce like talented players in key situations. Even the ‘defensive’ teams of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs have players like Kyle Palmieri, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Josh Anderson in their bottom six.

Does that clarify who to pick? Not really. But that’s expansion for you: facing hard truths, and paying costs you would never otherwise pay. In which case, I think there’s a clear verdict. Not only does Dickinson profile like a player who can contribute to more wins with above average defense, but his game seems to be trending up while Faksa’s has been trending down. Throw in the fact that Dickinson is slightly younger, and making less per year*, and the choice is — while difficult — crystal clear.

*I know Dickinson is an RFA, but this still holds true. $2.8M for 3 years is his expected contract according to Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections.

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