The Stars’ Awful Road Performance Reveals A Lot About the System’s Inability to Adjust

Dallas is good at home, but bad on the road. Is it because of Ken Hitchcock’s roster decisions? Maybe.

When I considered what the Stars system would probably look like under Ken Hitchcock, my general impression was positive.

The way Hitchcock teams stack their forecheck, and the collective support he demands from zone coverage looked like the necessary injection of teach-them-defense-pretty-please hockey that Dallas wasn’t receiving from Lindy Ruff and James Patrick during their tenure.

Despite their recent string of games, there have been positives. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and John Klingberg are producing (overall). Special teams were doing great at first, but have since regressed (my point being that there’s at least hope). They’re also a positive possession team; ranking 9th in shot attempt differential, buoyed by strong shot attempt suppression, where they rank 4th.

But something’s gotta be rotten in Denmark when the team just lost to their former AHL backup (himself backing up the backup of the backup) on the second night of their back-to-back for a loss that now puts Dallas 6 points away from a lock in the Central (making their wild card spot that much more tenuous).

Dallas is 10-4 at home. They are 6-9-1 on the road. NHL teams typically get a point percentage boost at home by a difference of five percent. Dallas is getting a point percentage boost of twelve percent. That might sound good, but it’s not.

The literature is pretty scarce on why hockey teams struggle on the road other than penalty differential. The closest I got to something legitimately interesting was Hannah Goldman’s abstract -  an analysis on college hockey revealing a correlation between success at home and crowd density (!). As fun as it would be to study, that’s not the road I’m going down.

What about quality of competition? Seems like a good explanatory candidate. Data is hard to come by though. Even the titles for attempts to understand quality of competition look hopelessly confusing (no disrespect to the wonderful writers who exhaustively research these things, mind you).

Still, my general feeling is that there is a team level factor somewhere in there. On the road, opponents are more likely to get good matchups (where LA can decide who has the unenviable task of facing off against Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty), they’re more likely to win the penalty differential, and coaches are on record as really hating the ammonia refrigeration systems of some arenas that lead to bad ice conditions. Away games just seem more dynamic, don’t they?

I’ll overuse that word a lot: dynamic. My personal theory is that Dallas isn’t dynamic enough to offset chemistry for balance. The latter is what Hitchcock prefers. He wants the balance of rolling with four lines, which is why Faksa got buried on the 4th line early on. He wants the balance of having defensemen on the penalty kill, which is why Julius Honka gets scratched for Jamie Oleksiak and Greg Pateryn. He wants the balance of having a defensive forward in the top six, which is why Devin Shore gets prime minutes, even though nothing indicates he belongs there.

Hockey is a dynamic game. There are too many game states that require adjustment. If you’re trailing, suddenly that guy that plays “risk free” isn’t as useful, because offense is built on risk. If you’re leading, suddenly that guy who “takes too many chances” isn’t as useful either, because one mistake can prove costly. If the game is close, then say your prayers because the hockey gods love to pick on goaltenders without warning.

A good team finds the right balance. A great team tilts the balance completely.

How does Hitchcock’s balance fare in dynamic situations? Below is a look at how Dallas performs on the road versus at home in various game states (the yellow line, not particularly important but something I wanted to catalog for myself, is league average for home and away).

This visual amoeba is telling for a lot of reasons. The first thing is that for all of this talk of Dallas improving their defensive play - none of that is true on the road. When leading, or up by a goal, they’re below average at controlling the puck. The second but most obvious takeaway is just how much worse they are at controlling possession on the road overall. The only thing they do well (away) is control the shot rates when the game is within one goal through the first two periods.

At home, when Hitchcock gets the matchups and the minutes he wants, the team responds well to the system. However, when Hitchcock is on the road, and the system is vulnerable to matchups and the minutes they want to avoid, there’s no structure.

The same is true of their goal rates.

The difference between systems and structure is sort of like the difference between strategy and tactics. Where strategies account for planned purpose, tactics account for planned action. For Dallas, the twain have yet to really meet.

Hitchcock has his strategy; balance the lineup across the forwards trios and defense pairs, keep the chances down, and let special teams be the dynamic game state needed to ultimately win. It’s there in the numbers too.

This idea of systems versus structure was introduced to me by scout, and all around insightful hockey mind Gus Katsaros. In this lengthy twitter thread (pre-280 characters, so it won’t take you long), Gus illustrates, step by step, how rigid positioning (systems) could actually be harmful when substituted for dynamic managing (structure). If you click on the link you’ll notice something fortuitous (at least as far as my argument goes) - Katsaros is critiquing the Blues team Hitchcock coached against the Stars team Ruff mentored for four years in the 2015-2016 playoffs.

Tactics might seem like a minor thing; just the consonants and vowels to the Plato’s Republic of strategy. But we’ve already seen how specific actions can have important ripple effects. Do you want to collapse your opponent’s defensive zone coverage? Get forecheckers in deep to feed the point men, and hopefully grab rebounds. Want to increase the probability of scoring off rebounds? Get behind the net. To execute these tactics, it starts with roster decisions.

To the surprise of no one unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter, I’ll tie this back to Julius Honka (who actually gets better on the road when it comes to contributing to shot attempts, and high danger shot attempts). Why? Because it’s not just about one player. It’s about identifying the right philosophy; how certain players can better manage in-game tactics to reconcile systems with structure. Who is dynamic enough to execute across multiple game states, as opposed to just one?

If player A performs well when leading, or up by a goal - is it worth losing player B, who performs better when tied, trailing, within a goal, and down a goal?

Through this lens, it is about about Honka (even disregarding the need for his continued development into next season). But it’s also about Jason Dickinson, who has 13 goals in 20 AHL games, yet somehow can’t replace Curtis McKenzie, or Brett Ritchie. It’s also about Radek Faksa not having less average time on ice than Devin Shore, and Martin Hanzal (who have less points than Faksa combined). Losing the balance of having a blueliner you can trust on the penalty kill doesn’t mean you’re automatically in a worse position to win the battle of different game states. Symmetry is not enough in the modern NHL. Like in prizefighting, sometimes the better fighter is just the better athlete. 20th century thinking taught us the body was primitive, and dumb. But now we know it has a powerful, intelligent autopilot. Sometimes it’s okay to trust that a player’s instincts and talent can stabilize, and take over. Pundits like to say that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Is this an argument for coaches being out to lunch? A good coach will work hard to get talent working. A bad coach will just work hard to reward hard work.

It’s important to have confidence in your vision, and philosophy. But you can’t be so uncompromising that change becomes an obstacle. Self awareness goes a long way in knowing how quickly changes must be made. Right now, Dallas can play dull hockey. Dull hockey can be good (entertainment aspect notwithstanding). But efficiency and balance are merely components of one another. They’re not synonymous, and we see this in the their road performance where balance is not creating the stability Hitchcock’s looking for. My theory is that tactics are more important on the road - where Hitchcock’s structure will tremble - while strategy is more important at home - where Hitchcock’s system will preserve.

Hitchcock is said to be an avid fan of military history. Hopefully he remembers the lesson of the Battle on the Ice, when the heavily armored, Teutonic Knights attacked the Novgorad Republic; a militia already withered by Mongol and Swedish invasions. The Knights had the right strategy - go in swinging against a humbled opponent with better armor. Except the battle demanded special tactics, even against the steel held by farmers and beekeepers. The Knights lost. Why? For all of the balance their armor gave them, they found themselves fighting on a frozen lake. I guess not every battle is won with a plan. Sometimes all you need is the ability to skate.