Anatomy of a Loss: Grading the Dallas Stars Defensemen Against the St. Louis Blues

Kris Russell struggled more than anyone, but really the story of Dallas' series against the Blues was just how much better their defensemen were.

When all was said and done against the St. Louis Blues, the Dallas Stars could boast a good effort, but not a good victory. I took a look at the forwards yesterday, and the issues were varied: no presence on the 4th line, Cody Eakin not being fit for first line center duty, the veterans underperforming, an awful Power Play, and St. Louis just having too much checking line depth (if Benn wasn't dealing with Paul Stastny, he was dealing with David Backes).

However, when looking at Dallas' defense, I think the issue was a lot simpler. First the real shocker for some fans and media:

Alex Goligoski is Not Your Whipping Boy

So Goose was on the ice for far more positive events (shot attempts) than negative (shot attempts against). That's a massive margin for positive possession. Not only that, but you can't even really count Bortuzzo and Edmundson who logged hardly any minutes. For all intents and purposes, John Klingberg and Alex Goligoski were the best defensive pair of the series. This is significant since the next closest defensemen was Jay Bouwmeester, who is close to breaking even.

I know some fans wanted this pair broken up, but it's clear why Ruff kept them together: they generate more chances than they give up. For all the talk about their lack of size, it didn't affect their ability to generate far more offense than they gave up. The real story was how much a liability Jason Demers and Kris Russell were. I've already broken down their play elsewhere, so I won't rehash it except to look at a few more granular details below.

Kris Russell Regressed to the Mean, But Parayko was Unstoppable

First let's explain what this second graph is showing us. The following is a look at 'zone entry targets'. It's basically a stat looking at a strong side defensemen's ability to break up a rush, or disrupt it upon entry. As Jen Lute Costella notes:

Targeted defensemen are the defensemen responsible for the side of the ice where the opponent enters the offensive zone. These are usually the players pressuring the puck carrier either near the blue line or in cases where the defense has to play deeper in the zone, covering the puck carrier once they are in the zone.

What you want, ideally, is to be high and to the right. The higher on the y axis, the less likely the opponent carried the puck in. The farther to the right of the x axis, the more likely you were to break up a zone entry. As you can see, Parayko was good at disrupting Dallas' zone entries, and also didn't get the puck carried in on him much either. If you're wondering why this shouldn't go without saying, it's because dump ins are calculated as third percentage along with "carry ins" and "break ups" :

So Johnny Oduya was at the top because he was forced to deal with more dump ins which is likely a mixture of two things: opponents taking advantage of his slow feet, and Oduya playing the kind of good gap that forces players to dump it in. Russell, however, had his lunch money stolen. Opponents carried the puck in against him at a rate of 63 Percent: that was bottom 10 in the league among all playoff defensemen. Meanwhile, Johns and Klingberg were above average at disrupting zone entries on their side. It also looks like Demers had his own problems, but was saddled with Russell more than the other way around.

The Blues Top Four had Better Exits

When your defensemen can exit the zone, it puts less pressure on your forwards. People who think my love of Julius Honka is taxing even at 1400 words, feel free to look away: this is what makes Honka so essential to the future of Dallas' blueline.

To explain, the majority of St. Louis' defensemen are able to skate the puck out with possession. My own opinion is that this helps explain why St. Louis doesn't look as scrambly when they turn the puck over: their blueline can match the speed of their forwards. Without real puck rushers, Dallas looks sloppier than their system lets on because their transition isn't a pendulum like St. Louis; it's a hot potato. These board rims and outlet passes also telegraph zone exits.

Whereas with Dallas, the only blueliners really roping the exits are Klingberg and Goligoski, and even then, Goose is close to breaking even (credit to Johns since he's basically a small building).

The weird part about all of this is how much next season could change depending on what Nill does with his 'skateful eight'. I would argue that all of Dallas' best prospects are making strong cases to contribute sooner than expected. I've talked to death about Honka, and I have no problem singing his praises some more. But some diligent folks in the #fancystats community are looking at possession stats for the IIHF Worlds, and Esa Lindell is looking mighty possessiony, sandwiched between Barkov and Aho in shot attempt differential. I'll be doing a video heavy review of Mattias Backman soon, because he's worth mentioning as well.

Nill's job isn't easy. It's hard to take a chance on prospects who could find themselves in over their head while trying to compete for the Cup. But it's clear that Dallas' blueline will improve sooner rather than later, and likely without expensive rentals.

PS: As always, credit to Sean Tierney for these awesome graphs that I pretend to understand.