Analysis: Heiskanen Wasn’t His Usual Self, and Bowness Didn’t Ask Him To Be

Miro Heiskanen didn’t have a season up to his usual standards. How much of that was on the season’s struggles versus the struggles of Dallas’s system not creating offense?

When Miro Heiskanen first broke into the league, he was instantly regarded as Dallas’ great Finnish hope. It was like every single ‘reinforcements come to save the day’ scene you’ve ever seen, only better, because it was all practical FX. You probably even remember his first shift. Just months ago, hall-of-famers were talking about him alongside Paul Coffey and Brian Leetch. And for good reason: he set a Stars’ playoff record for points by a defenceman with sixteen. His twenty-six points through 27 playoff games last year was, and remains the fourth most of any defenceman in postseason history.

And yet? This season it took him twice the amount of games to score one more point than his playoff point total. What the heck happened?

It makes sense that a dramatic decrease in production might coincide with a dramatic increase in catastrophe. The compressed schedule wasn’t just the product of a shortened season following a global pandemic. It was a shortened season constricted tighter by the pandemic when it hit Dallas’ doorstep and postponed the season’s start. That’s not a small thing, especially in the context of COVID, and yes, even for athletes.

I could spend an entire article going through the checklist of obstacles Dallas, and by extension Heiskanen, had to battle through. But I think we can distinguish between things that would have happened if not for x, and things that actually happened because of y. For that reason, I want to analyze Heiskanen’s performance on its own terms. ‘But Tough Times’ doesn’t teach us much. After all, how would you harmonize ‘tough times’ with the seasons Joe Pavelski and Jason Robertson had? There’s enough evidence to show how certain things Dallas did — things done by design — likely contributed.

If we look beyond this season and take into account Miro’s career as a whole, we notice some concerning trends.

A Career At A Glance

Heiskanen’s value has always been based on a judicious approach, creating offense across all three zones without being exposed to the vulnerability that usually comes with managing such a high-wire dynamic. Dallas benefits in a major way. That was, until this season.

The pattern, right or wrong, is clear: Dallas contained shot attempts better without Heiskanen, and they generated more goals without him.

I know. Your gut reaction (like mine) is something along the lines of ‘well stats obviously don’t tell the whole story because Heiskanen is easily Dallas’ best defenceman.’ But this misses the point. The information is not meant to tell the whole story. The information is meant to give us a better dialogue with the facts in order to work towards understanding the expanding stories. Heiskanen may be Dallas’ best defenceman, but the impact and the expectation aren’t meeting each other halfway right now.

This is evident when we dig a little deeper into Heiskanen’s impact over time. These RAPM charts, or regularized adjusted plus-minus, from Evolving-Hockey may look a little basic but they’re highly detailed, taking into account each player’s shift, in isolation. Whatever we think of this season in a bubble, Heiskanen’s on-ice impact has been declining since both seasons under Bowness. He’s gone from a well-rounded shot-generator and shot-suppressor to a player whose edges have been dulled to break even when not on the power play.

‘So what is RAPM?’ The old plus-minus system has been a staple of talking head statistical analysis for decades. Even now you’ll hear announcers still refer to it. It’s not good, but it does draw us toward an intuition we tend to feel in our bones: the better the player, the more they’ll control how the points change from game to game, and thus season to season, right?

But how can that be true if Andrej Sekera was a plus-12 this year while Heiskanen was a -9? That’s where readjusted plus-minus, which originated in basketball, can help clarify player impact; by isolating Heiskanen’s impact from his teammates, the competition, score effects, and zone starts.

When those factors are adjusted for, you end up with a much different “plus/minus” picture between the two.

As you’d expect, Sekera makes a much smaller impact on shot attempt and shot quality generation. However, there’s still a major problem. Why are these two players even vaguely comparable to begin with? We know they’re not. So how can Heiskanen be someone the team generates more goals without than with? How can Heiskanen be merely average on defense?

Ice-Skating Uphill With The FCC Line

For Stars fans like myself with too much time on our hands, a common talking point is what Heiskanen would look like if Dallas drafted Makar instead, vice versa, and what both would look like for their respective teams. First off, if you’ve watched Makar at all, you know this is all somewhat moot. Makar is insanely gifted offensively. Compared to Heiskanen, he has a better variety of shooting skills, better vision, and even slightly better puck handling.

Heiskanen, on the other hand, is more mercurial. He can shoot, pass, and skate at an elite level. But what brings his talent home is his ability to process the play back to front — in an instant — and use it all for selective pressure rather than raw motion. In Dallas’ system, however, it’s hard to tell. Look at the massive difference in how Heiskanen is used versus Makar. Makar is tied to the hip of Colorado’s elite forwards; barely getting a minute without Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, or Mikko Rantanen.

Conversely, Heiskanen gets the bulk of his icetime with Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, and Andrew Cogliano. Dallas also has an even spread of player ice time, with the Stars top nine forwards creating a homogenized group the staff trusts instead of the core phalanx Colorado’s staff likes to spearhead against opponents. Makar is a governing element of Colorado’s rolling attack, whereas Heiskanen is a brick in the wall of Dallas’ stonewall method. That Heiskanen plays with a group that can’t score is certainly one way to stifle his offense. But Dallas has somehow managed to undercut his offensive acumen in explicit and implicit ways.

As you can see below, Heiskanen is tasked with exiting the zone and carrying the puck. But the distinction between who carries the puck and how often isn’t as clear between Heiskanen and Oleksiak as it is with, say, John Klingberg and Esa Lindell.

Keep in mind, this is not a criticism against Oleksiak. It’s a criticism of usage, and what should be a distinct separation of strengths. Why is Oleksiak given the green light to activate as much as he does when their offensive skills are so unequal? Why is Heiskanen forced on his offside to accommodate this, no less?

What makes this so bizarre is that Dallas either agrees with this analysis of Oleksiak or doesn’t know how to be consistent with their analysis of Oleksiak because it’s Lindell they choose for the second PP unit.

Attack Of The Clones

I’ve talked a lot about my issues with Rick Bowness’ system. I think it’s broadly effective, and their shot attempt share attests to this. The system helps them control the pace of play, so they generate more shots than they give up. However, they seem to score goals in spite of the system rather than because of it with their focus on single-action pursuits. Stars passing data makes a good case for this. What’s interesting is that Dallas doesn’t generate shot assists towards the type — point shots — they’re supposed to be good at.

Bowness’ system was part of an intense debate last March when it seemed like Bowness could be on the hot seat. It might look silly in retrospect, after taking Dallas to the Stanley Cup Finals and all, but less so now. Obviously not in terms of whether Bowness is on the hot seat, but in terms of his methods. Given the strict emphasis on passing and multi-touch movement in overtime, one wonders whether Dallas’ overtime record wasn’t simply a reflection of what happens when you’re only taught that offense comes from defense, and never the other way around.

This general attitude is where the system and player usage converge to suppress what makes Heiskanen special. Below I’ve assembled a collection of various clips, from zone exits and zone entries to shot attempts and cycles, showing just how much Heiskanen is treated like a complete passenger with Bowness’ current setup.

It’s jarring, if not downright scary. If you weren’t a Stars fan, it’d be impossible to point him out. Heck, even with the knowledge of who he is, he’s hard to spot. Being on his offside means there’s less for him to do when he gets the puck, and it neuters a lot of his transition game. There are times when he’s robotically chipping the puck back, or making derivative  rims along the board. And because Dallas treats Heiskanen and Oleksiak as equal, there are a lot of possessions where Oleksiak is the one activating (often without hesitation, or awareness). Oleksiak is generating possession and pressure, which is good, but without Heiskanen’s skillset, he looks like a freelancer without a cause.

It’s a feather in Oleksiak’s cap that he led the blueline in individual expected goals and rush attempts. But for a team needing every goal, this feels like a misallocation of resources at best. At worst, it’s offense left on the table for a team that can’t afford to do so.

In none of above clips do we get to see the player Dallas drafted. There’s very little of Heiskanen’s surveying of options as he accelerates along the wall, cross-ice passes, or neutral zone flow. That little chip-release following a quick swing behind the net that he loved in the Liiga? Gone.

What’s more is that even some of the NHL’s most defensive-minded coaches respect the inequality of player skillsets, and look to exploit them. Consider what Tortorella said about Zach Werenski when Werenski joked that Tortorella ‘doesn’t consider him a defenceman.’

“It’s staying involved even more on the offense. It’s having enough guts when we’re rotating a puck offensively in the corner to go sneak down to the other corner so we can make an east-west play and spread the offensive zone. ‌‌‌It’s not just waiting it out at the blue line and waiting for something to come to you. It’s jumping down to the middle, maybe jumping for a hole, lingering a little bit even when the puck is up for grabs. (emphasis mine)”

Werenski is used specifically for Columbus’ offensive funnel. Nobody’s gonna call Columbus under Tortorella a progressive, creative system either. Between the system, the ice time, and his partner, there’s little separating Heiskanen and his unique skillset from just another rung in Bowness’ dump and chase ladder. This reactive offense has been a feature of Dallas’ system since Hitchcock, Montgomery (himself a student of Hithcock), and now Bowness.

This criticism might seem combative, if not one-sided. ‘It’s all Bowness’ fault!’ people might think I’m saying. And sure, I have strong opinions about Dallas’ system. I think any good system in the modern NHL starts with an offensive system, and then uses a defensive structure to act as the bulwark for it rather than the engine. But it’s also fair to hold off definitive conclusions given a) the challenges the team went through this season and b) whether the system can further develop and potentially evolve with a healthier roster, more practice, and less deadly viruses.

But then, that’s the whole point of criticism: knowing where to draw the line between the mere disapproval of things, and a comprehensive recognition of something wrong.

Did injuries sink the season? That’s up for discussion. Was the system the problem? That’s also up for discussion. Can Dallas afford to fail at not making the most of Miro Heiskanen’s talents? That’s not.