2023 NHL Playoffs Zone to Zone Preview: Stars vs. Kraken

2023 NHL Playoffs Zone to Zone Preview: Stars vs. Kraken
Max Domi punches Matt Dumba after hitting Joe Pavelski at American Airlines Center. Photo by Tim Heitman. 

I hate to hook readers with a rant, but hockey has me in a vendetta kind of mood. The Dallas Stars were supposed to play the Colorado Avalanche. I’m sure the NHL would have liked that too. It’s a lot easier to sell. "Defending Stanley Cup champs versus Team Trying to Beat Defending Stanley Cup Champs.” It means the NHL doesn’t have to do its job because the matchup sells itself. The NHL is fine with that. They’re fine with not doing a lot of jobs, in point of fact. Sometimes fans and media groove along with it, which is why so many wanted Edmonton vs. Calgary last year when Dallas threatened to beat the Flames; because the Battle of Alberta sells itself. And as everyone knows: what good is a well-earned, diverse matchup when you can have more of the same instead?

Stars fans know a rhetorical question when they see one, but maybe not the NHL. After all, how do you promote a team that has the playoff’s league leading scorer? How do you sell a team with the league’s best rookie? (Sorry Wyatt Johnston.) How can you promote this matchup to casual fans when one team has the face of American hockey, while the other team is a bladed reminder of how bad hockey GMs can be at their jobs? See now that’s a rhetorical question. And that’s what makes this matchup so damn fun.

I never understood that logic; not a lick of it. “Let’s see the matchups we grew up on instead of seeing matchups that have yet to grow." It’s the circular logic of rivalries: we only get to know who hates who until afterwards. Edmonton and L.A. don’t have a ton of recent history, but look how much fun they’ve been these past two years. With all that subterfuge out of the way, what should we expect out of Dallas vs. Seattle? Might this be a fresh matchup that becomes an old rivalry in ten years?

The Stars are the favorite in this one, and rightfully so. But like against Minnesota, nothing will come easy. The Kraken are the inverse of the Wild: where Minnesota challenged Dallas with strong goaltending and defensive depth, Seattle will challenge Dallas with strong shooting, and offensive depth. It's another great test for the Stars that promises to threaten what Minnesota could not: their blueline.  

Seattle vs. Dallas: Offense

Did you know that Seattle was the best goal scoring team in the league this year? Yep. I know it's "cheating" to ignore special teams, but that kind of performance deserves special emphasis. The Kraken were better than Boston and Florida this year at EV goal-scoring thanks to getting nectar from the shooting percentage gods. A lot of credit goes to what might be the most balanced attack, pound for pound, in the NHL. If Matty Beniers and Jordan Eberle don't beat you, then it's Oliver Bjorkstrand (who scored two goals and hit three posts in Game 7 versus Colorado) and and Yanni Gourde; followed by Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Wennberg. Daniel Sprong and Brandon Tanev are on their fourth line (!) for goodness sake.

Dallas' offense, on the other hand, is something of a mixed bag. The top line is obviously great. And there are some great contributors, between Johnston, Jamie Benn, and apparently — Evgenii Dadonov. But they're not a high volume team, or a team all that good at generating high quality. (They save that for the power play.) They are, on the other hand, one of the very best teams right now at capitalizing on misdeeds. Dallas was able to fall asleep at even strength for six games, and still beat the Wild thanks to a power play that was fourth in the playoffs with a 37 percent success rate. (They were also third in expected goals per 60, and second in shots on net per 60; so even though there's no such thing as a PP shooting 37 percent over the long haul, they are at least earning some of that luck.)  

I do think there's an interesting potential for both teams to regress: Seattle getting a little less lucky, with Dallas getting a little luckier. The Kraken were actually below average at generating shot quality per game, so it's hard to see that trend continuing; especially against Jake Oettinger. The offensive matchup is gonna come down to Seattle's shooters versus Oettinger, and Dallas' non-Heiskanen defensive pairs versus Seattle's depth. That's gonna be a tall task for the Esa Lindell-Jani Hakanpaa pair especially. They were good at keeping Minnesota's shot quality down, ranking 12th in expected goals against out of 42 playoff defense pairs. But that could easily be a symptom of Minnesota's anemic offense, as the Lindell-Hakanpaa pair ranked 35th of those 42 pairs in unblocked shot attempts allowed per 60.    

Here's another kicker: you know who the least penalized team in the league was this year? Yep: Seattle. Dallas will have to score at even strength.  

Seattle vs. Dallas: Defense

Neither team stands out when you think of great defensive teams: the Stars are Miro Heiskanen + 5, while Seattle has no real stars, but both teams were strong in the aggregate at preventing quality shots from getting through. The difference is that Dallas had the goaltending to make less shots look like no shots, whereas Philipp Grubauer was a sieve.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Grubauer is starting to return to form. His career save percentage is .912, which is actually lower than his career postseason save percentage. Whether Grubauer was always gonna bounce back is beside the point: he's absolutely dialed in right now. So while I'd still argue that Oettinger might have already faced his toughest test in Gustavsson, Grubauer is stepping up his game. The defenses are evenly matched, with the goaltending as the x-factor. (Especially when you factor in the Kraken's atypical approach to rebounds.)        

However, Dallas can't just get into shooting lanes to block shots, or allow low danger shots to come through to properly defend Seattle's attack. They have to defend Seattle's pre-shot movement, and that's where the Kraken have the definitive edge.

Seattle vs. Dallas: Playdriving

"What's playdriving got to do with it?"

This isn't a stupid question, and it's something that rarely gets clarified in numbers-focused analysis. If you don't know much about Seattle, so far you might have a better sense of who they are.

  • They shoot well as a group.
  • They defend well as a group.
  • They don't generate volume as a group.
  • Their goaltending is not good at stopping the volume they allow.

Dallas has had the edge up until this point. Here, styles make fights. And it's within that process — how Seattle gains or loses territory from zone to zone — where the Stars are gonna struggle. Unlike Minnesota, who couldn't put together chances on the rush, Seattle had one of the better rush attacks all year. There's an old maxim in boxing: timing beats speed. The Kraken aren't just a high volume of quick opportunities. A lot of their opportunities come from watchful waiting, and capitalizing on defensive breakdowns. Aside from Heiskanen and Thomas Harley, the Stars don't get out of their zone with possession.

Seattle runs what's called a skinny 1-2-2 forecheck. It's not a natural foil to Dallas' strong side breakouts, per se. Under DeBoer, breakouts are all about getting the puck out of the zone as quickly as possible, even if it means a dump out, which will theoretically gum up the Kraken's speed. But it does mean Seattle will be well-positioned at all times on their forecheck.    

If Dallas makes mistakes getting out of their zone, Seattle will pounce. One thing the Stars' blueline doesn't have is speed, so their timing will have to be near-perfect. Seattle was the best team in the league in terms of scoring more goals than they were expected to allow. That speaks to a strong, sustainable process. And the reason why they ended beating the defending Cup champs.

Seattle vs. Dallas: The Bottom Line

Above are the playoff teams rated by goal components. The last five columns are worth noting. Dallas ranked (from left to right):

  • 5th in shot rate plus/minus per 60 minutes of EV play.
  • 4th in shot quality rate plus/minus per 60 minutes of EV play.
  • 6th in shooting above expected plus/minus per 60 minutes of EV play.
  • 5th in saves above expected plus/minus per 60 minutes of EV play.

And thus first overall in goal differential at even strength per 60 minutes of even strength play. Does that mean Dallas will win?

I'm getting late 90s/early 2000s Dallas vs. Edmonton vibes with this one. Some of those series were over quick, but the games were red in tooth and claw. The other thing those Oilers teams had that remind me of Seattle is the speed up and down the lineup. The Kraken can scoot. Colorado was a good defensive team this year, and even with Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Bowne Byram, and Samuel Girard to break out of the zone — Seattle's depth still wore them down. That's worth keeping into perspective, expansion team or not.

Still, I expect Dallas to prevail. The Stars' flaws were on full display against Minnesota. They'll be on display against Seattle too. In fact, Dallas may even have a few stinkers; games where they get badly outplayed. But as Dallas has shown, exploiting weaknesses is only one way to win a game. I'll take Oettinger over Seattle's shooters, and Dallas' top line, which will be healthy again, over Grubauer every day of the week and twice on domingo.  

Prediction: Dallas Stars in 6.