The Defensive Dallas Stars’ System Might Tell Us More about the Players than the Coaches
Or at least, what the coaches think about the players
You took some photographs
And everything overlapped
And all those images of people and
Places and faces they were just floating past
First, I’ll start with this: I’m not here to break down the Stars’ system. You surely know, by now, what it is. The Stars don’t press as hard as they used to, because they’re more interested in disrupting the other team’s transition game than in establishing their own. To wit:
I found this article on zone entries and exits by playoff teams to be fantastic. Check it out here: https://t.co/ZeJUWGGxUd pic.twitter.com/aFjmm7FU7w— Robert Tiffin (@RobertTiffin) July 31, 2020
In hockey, everything’s related. That doesn’t mean a team won’t have a specific skill they excel at without its impacting their other areas—take a look at early 2010s Carolina and their shot differentials vs. wins, for example—but it does mean that, particularly when it comes to handling the neutral zone, the butterfly effect flaps its wings particularly hard.
Again, I’m not here to break things down all that much. The fake playoffs are here, and we’re all so ready for them that we are voluntarily watching Nashville and Arizona play hockey in an empty Canadian arena on a briliant Sunday afternoon. That’s a particularly pitiful sort of desperation, to be sure.
The Stars are heading into the playoffs riding the utter crest of a six-game losing streak, and a three-game bunch of shutouts (the bad kind) against the Predators, who are as likely a Real Playoffs opponent as any, as it stands right now.
After the most recent 2-0 loss to the Perds, it became tres chic to bemoan Rick Bowness, the deployment of Hintz and Gurianov, and basically everything about the Stars over the last four years. One exhibition game usually won’t have that effect, but of course things are different right now.
As the Stars prepare for their round robin seeding games, it’s hard to be optimistic about the Stars. Everyone who suffered through games six and seven against St. Louis last year knows just how bad this team can look when its poor transition game becomes nonexistent. And while the Stars do some things quite well—important things, like goaltending and defense—there’s a prevailing sense of a low ceiling for this team.
My theory, however, is that this ceiling is not as much a result of Rick Bowness (or even Jim Montgomery or Ken Hitchcock) as we would like to think. Yes, it’s quite a lark to conclude that one need only to trade out the current coach for another in order to fix things, and certainly that has been the case in some other situations. But let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?
The power play, this season, was quite good. Or at least, it ought to have been.
In reality, the Stars were 12th in goals per minute of power play time, just a tick above average. A dominant expression of high-danger attempts, it would seem, but only a moderate amount of goals to show for it. In fact, the Minnesota Wild had more goals per minute on the power play (7.7 to the Stars’ 7.5) despite a far worse-looking power play:
The Wild have, one would probably conclude, less elite scoring talent on their roster than the Stars do on theirs. And yet, the Wild’s power play was more successful, with a lower-percentage approach of shooting from the blue line, than the Stars were with a high-danger approach. Does this invalidate the importance of shooting the puck from closer to the net, he posited, like a total rube? Of course not. Teams always want to shoot from the areas where you are more likely to score from, because goals.
No, I’m leading up to one simple point: the Stars’ scoring talent just might not be as talented as it used to be.
Much has been said about the Stars’ different shooting percentages this year, and I have little doubt that the success of Roope Hintz initially and Denis Gurianov subsequently was due to their individual talents, not systemic help. These are players whose speed and shooting talent gave them the gamebreaking ability to, well, break games open. They both shot over 15% this year, while no other Stars player even hit 12%. Truly, these are the players that will be winning games for the Stars in tight playoff environments, if anyone can.
On the other end of things, we can look at the hideous numbers for players like Benn (his worst shooting percentage since the shortened 2013 season) and Radulov (his worst shooting percentage of his career) and marvel that they came away from this season with as many goals as they did. Even Joe Pavelski had his second-worst shooting percenatage since 2011.
By the numbers, this team got nearly career-worst years from their four most highly paid players, and yet they ended up in a better position than Toronto and Pittsburgh at the end of the season. Found money, to be sure.
The question reamins, though: how much has the system been causing the players’ downturn, and how much is due to the players themselves generally just not being able to do the things that lead to goals as much as they used to?
Everyone has a different answer. It’s all connected, of course, and there’s no denying that a trap system is going to be less lucrative for the point coffers than a high-and-fly system like Lindy Ruff’s was—until everyone got hurt, the penalty kill collapsed into a historical sort of black hole, and Ruff changed his system into a hybrid trap partway through his final year.
But the thing I keep coming back to is that Seguin has always been a volume shooter more than a sniper. His shooting talent, in fact, is a far cry from that of an Auston Matthews, so even if you get him those good & tasty shots from the dangerous areas, he’s not going to be that much more lethal—in fact, he’s going to be less so than a Hintz or a Gurianov, who, you may recall, were getting markedly fewer minutes during the season. Seguin also, this year, had a worse shooting percentage than Mattias Janmark. There’s some perspective for you.
Seguin thrives when he’s shooting a lot on the power play—his one-timer is a dangerous skill, to be sure—and creating great chances. And this year, Seguin not only shot less often on the power play (and shot a paltry 5% when he did so) than every year of the last half-decade, but he also shot less often in general. In fact, at all strengths, Seguin shot less often than he did in every other one of his years in Dallas. Was that the system, or was it Seguin?
Again, let that sink in: Seguin shot five percent on the power play. Do you know how dreadful that is, particularly for someone like Seguin? Here is an ugly chart, in multiple senses, showing some of Seguin’s numbers on the power play, historically:
I am beginning to understand how the Stars’ power play lagged behind Minnesota’s, I think.
Moving on, it seems that even winners of accuracy contests aren’t immune to decline. Jamie Benn’s shooting is at its career worst, according to some adjusted metrics. I’m not convinced this is true of his talent overall, or at least not yet—but it does seem like Benn has been deferring more often on opportunities to unleash his lethal snap shot over the past couple of years. In fact, Benn was averaging 200+ shots on goal per season every year from 2011 through 2018, but he’s taken a marked dip since the departure of Ken Hitchcock in terms of volume, becoming a bit choosier in his shot selection and/or less able to create good shots in the first place.
Joe Pavelski took fewer shots this season than he did in 48 games in 2013, and fewer than half as many as he did in a full season just a few years ago. It was a stunning bit of incompatability, but you surely can’t put that all on Rick Bowness, can you? These players want to score goals, and they know how to do it. Or, they did. But Joe Pavelski couldn’t find a rhythm this year, and the Stars couldn’t get him the puck where he needed it. We’ll see if the playoffs see a radical turnaround, but his game really shouldn’t be so complicated that a slower transition would affect it that much, right? This isn’t a former speedster we’re talking about here, but someone who thrives from deliberate zone time and structure.
Alex Radulov is the one player I’m most curious about (in a lot of ways). He hasn’t had a much of a dip in his underlying numbers this year, but his ice time had over two minutes slashed off it from previous seasons in Dallas. Nonetheless, he’s still able to create dangerous chances, even at 34 years of age. The coaches might not like what it costs the team in order for him to do so, though. You have to draw a line somewhere.
So, you can understand Jim Nill’s sentiments a while back about how the Stars aren’t going to go any farther than their top guys will take them. The system may be cautious and defensive, but neither can you be thrilled with elite or formerly elite players turning into second-liners just because the system asks them to play some semblance of defense.
Rick Bowness said all the right things during they layoff about getting the kids more minutes, about needing to create more offense. But when these guys—and we haven’t even talked about John Klingberg’s weird struggles this year—can’t get the job done, you realize just how much the system relies on the gamebreakers breaking the opponent’s gameplan. Right now, the Stars have three or four skaters who showed an ability to really turn the tide of a game this year with anything approaching consistency: Hintz, Gurianov, Miro Heiskanen, and sometimes Radulov. (I guess “sometimes” means it wasn’t consistent, but you know what I mean, I trust.)
So, especially given how the Stars’ scoring has been declining for years now, you can understand how the team might decide to lean into the skid post-Hitch instead of trying to pretend like they could keep scoring forever. I don’t know. I think we all would have preferred a high-flying style (except for those of you who perpetually wish Klingberg would turn into Richard Matvichuk) because it’s just more fun to watch, but coaches (and GMs) have to work with what they’ve got. And whether the team turned the players into this year’s versions of themselves, or whether the players dictated that the team play more cautiously, this is where they are now. It’s tough to play coaches for being cautious at this point when your top scorers are proving your skepticism right.
This is all predicated on the notion that these players aren’t all just taking a huge hit solely because of the system, of course. They’re surely taking a hit in playing a trap system, as most players would. But I guess I’m just less convinced now, after this whole insane season, that they need only to switch coaches to turn back the clock. Seguin doesn’t have the speed he used to in order to get to the places to shoot the shots. Benn doesn’t shoot the shots, for whatever reason, quite as much either. Radulov is going to probably still go full bananas, but he’s also going to break half the team rules in the process. Joe Pavelski might be a boon in these Unprecen-REDACTED. Er, Pavelski might just need to acclimate, as Spezza and Hemský did before him. Who knows? The point is, if you’re looking for reasons to change the system, you have to go off of negative evidence a lot more than positive evidence, and that’s something that few, if any, coaches are going to do—and particularly on the eve of the playoffs.
The Stars can either continue to hope that Pavelski, Benn, Seguin, and even Radulov will bounce back when things get real this week, or else they will need to reorganize their plan of, ahem, ‘attack’ around the players who can really do the most damage. Either the big guys will step up and remind us that they still know how to do the most important things when it matters most, or else the team will need to change some dance cards in a hurry.
To that end, the hardest job is and remains Rick Bowness’s. And he has just as much to prove as anyone else.