Dallas’ Blue Line Could be a Strength Next Season, Which Bodes Well for Secondary Scoring

Stars fans want optimism now that the Erik Karlsson rumors have died down. But maybe Dallas’ blue line will be enough to help their biggest problem from last season — secondary scoring.

When you think about the weakness of the 2017-2018 Dallas Stars, your first thought is probably secondary scoring (a cookie for each of you). Maybe you dislike goalies, and blame Kari Lehtonen. Maybe you’re on a different planet, and truly believe injuries sunk the team. I think of tiramisu.

My friend from Italy came over as part of her fellowship, and away from her academic work, she found time to make me and my family tiramisu. It’s not terribly complicated to make. However, its many layers, both literal and metaphorical, make it complex. It works on your taste buds for obvious reasons — coffee mixed with cocoa and ladyfingers is awesome. Yet it also works for subtle reasons — how you whip the mascarpone cheese into your egg mixture, and whether you add (like she did) freshly squeezed oranges.

When I think of offense in the NHL, I think of tiramisu; there are many ingredients that work to produce flavor. Lack any one ingredient, or get lazy buying expired products, and it’ll be the difference between beaming gumdrop smiles at everyone around you, or making the bathroom your hibernation pod for a day (read: not playing in April).

Here’s something I didn’t know until an astute commenter pointed it out the other day: in the half a season Dallas played with just one puck-moving defenseman they were on a 76-point pace. When they didn’t have just one puck-moving defenseman? They were on a 107-point pace.

The point here isn’t to name names. There are a number of reasons why that could have been the case. Maybe Dallas’ wingers besides Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov couldn’t break 40 points no matter what. Maybe the Stars were just unlucky during that stretch with just a single puck-moving defenseman. Personally, I think it’s a good but unfortunate example of a missing ingredient.

Consider the top 10 teams, in order, in goals-for last season: Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Vegas, Boston, Islanders, Nashville, Washington, and Colorado.

Here are 10 teams (out of 16) with a blue line scoring at least 100 points at even strength: Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Florida, Boston, Islanders, Nashville, Washington, Colorado.

Only one team missed the playoffs from the first list (the Islanders), and two from the second (Florida and the Islanders).

You could argue that there’s a chicken-or-egg dilemma going on here. Some of those teams had forwards that could finish. But going back to that 76-point split: how many of those teams rolled with only a single puck mover? Even Vegas — who wasn’t on the second list — had Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt, and Colin Miller on separate pairs.

You’ve probably seen this chart below. John Klingberg and Julius Honka were Dallas’ only defensemen who carried the puck out with possession at an above average rate. They were also much better at allowing opponents to enter the zone with possession despite their reputation as puck movers (and despite Marc Methot and Greg Pateryn’s reputations as “shutdown” defensemen).

But let’s go back to the right ingredients for offense. Consider the kind of plays that create offense. It’s not just the goals, and the assists, just like the flavor of tiramisu isn’t just the cocoa. It’s the pre-shot movement that leads to extended zone time: a rush, stretch pass, outlet breaks, release points, initiating or resetting a cycle, and all the tactics that allow teams to continue pressuring. Like the right way to whip the eggs and the mascarpone, a team’s blue line acts as the subtle but vital part of offense. It’s not often obvious the way a goal or an assist is, but it’s always essential.

Sure enough, not only do defensemen tend to make up a greater proportion of a team’s on-ice shot attempts, but their shot proportion has been trending up since 2007. In other words, the best defense is a good offense, and all that.

One of my (many) disagreements with Ken Hitchcock’s decision-making wasn’t just his system, but his unwillingness to address his blue line ingredients. It’s not a coincidence that many forwards underperformed in tangible ways compared to previous seasons. You could argue that some forwards simply aren’t 30-40 point players, and I wouldn’t offer much resistance. But it’s weird to see players like Antoine Roussel and Brett Ritchie take dramatic steps back, while more promising forwards like Radek Faksa and Devin Shore stagnated in terms of production.

Sean Shapiro’s film room analysis did a lot in noting the tangible predictability of their zone exits, and the lack of creativity on the whole. So does Corey Sznajder’s tracking data. What you’re looking at below is a comprehensive look at the shot contribution by the Stars’ blue line. It’s divided into four components looking at even-strength shot contribution rates: their individual shot attempts (Shots/60, in green), primary passes per shot (sA1/60, in navy blue), secondary passes per shot (sA2/60, in Crayola blue), and tertiary passes per shot (sA3/60, in powder blue).

Klingberg is wearing a three-stone infinity gauntlet like you’d expect. What jumps out at me isn’t that Stephen Johns actually has a better individual shot rate per hour than Klingberg, or that Honka is the second best passer on the team per hour, but that the three least active shot contributors were higher than both on Ken Hithcock’s depth chart (Pateryn even went so far as to get more ice time than Klingberg when Dallas was leading by two or more).

Sznajder’s passing data counted 197 defensemen with at least 150 minutes of ice time. Out of those, Klingberg ranked 15th, Johns was 93rd, Honka was 116th, Pateryn was 158th, Hamhuis was 175th, and Methot was 193th. Those rankings aren’t gospel. I’m sure there are system effects at work as well. But the point remains — not only was Dallas working with one puck mover, but for the bulk of the season, they were working with one puck passer and actively hobbled by others.

That doesn’t mean adding one puck mover will be the difference between making the playoffs or not. It’s not enough to contribute to shots. You have to prevent them too (although it’s worth noting here that Johns and Honka led the blue line in scoring chances against per hour).

I’ll save the defensive angle for another day. The point here is not that Dallas needs all six blue liners rushing up ice like an extra forward. The point is that when thinking about Dallas’ biggest problem — secondary scoring — they lacked the necessary ingredients. It’s silly to understate the domino effect a more creative blue line can have on a team. Faksa played nearly 80 percent of his ice time away from Klingberg. If that number increased with Klingberg, or a player profiling like Klingberg (like one that could pass), is it really that outlandish to think Faksa wouldn’t have tallied himself a few extra assists, or goals? Could Dallas get more out of Benn, Seguin, and Radulov too? When you look at the best teams in the league, it’s hard to argue otherwise. Every 2018 Stanley Cup contender had modern blue lines. Dallas did not.*

Dallas looks, at least on paper, like they’ll correct some of these issues. Pateryn is away from Ken Hitchcock’s googly eyes, and Hamhuis is probably fielding offers from other teams. Honka projects to upgrade the ingredients for scoring, and so do potential callups like Gavin Bayreuther, who looked excellent in Texas’ Calder Cup run.

But Dallas’ real secret weapon is Miro Heiskanen. You can ogle the impressive stats. You can watch the glorious tape. Whether he’s the real deal or not, he’s not a dead puck era pylon. There will be growing pains, but the Stars forwards will finally have a blue line that can potentially boost forward production instead of hand them 50/50 battles along the boards. The addition of these players has the potential to change the fundamental makeup of its blue line. To these amateur eyes, it looks like an upgrade with or without the mighty Erik Karlsson.

It helps that Jim Montgomery has a disposition for this kind of blue line hockey. Will he have the stomach for it? If it tastes like tiramisu, I can’t see why not.

*I could see someone saying “Yeah but New Jersey”, but their even strength blue line production (those with 500 minutes of TOI) totaled 92 points. Only one less than Dallas. And I’d argue that Sami Vatanen, Will Butcher, and Damon Severson can move the puck pretty well. Maybe that’s why despite a Devils forward group that looked inferior to Dallas, they still managed to score 12 more goals as a team.