Systems analysis: ‘Attention to detail’ can’t just apply to defense if the Dallas Stars want to improve

The Dallas Stars have some serious problems on offense under interim head coach Rick Bowness, but the problems run even deeper.

The Dallas Stars don’t score much. With a goals-for rate of 1.45 at even-strength (30th in the NHL), the breaks just aren’t there. Obviously, Dallas wants to score more, but they just don’t. “Well, if Benn and Seguin would live up to their contracts!”

Relying on single players to create offense is not what most teams actually do. Obviously, you can get lucky and draft Alexander Ovechkin. But like chess pieces, each five-man unit has to be coordinated into an efficient attack that leads to offense. After all, good players won’t always score, and bad players won’t always miss. To bridge this divide, coaches rely on various systems, and the most prevalent tactic within each system is the forecheck.

So what intentions does interim head coach Rick Bowness’ system have to score? That’s the question. It was the question posed by DBD’s own Taylor Baird after a second straight shutout by the Nashville Predators, a question Bowness didn’t seem to understand. (I’m fine with the charitable interpretation that Bowness, like all coaches, have to be tight-lipped, and a question like that digs too deep into their strategy.) So why does offense feel generated by the parts (individual efforts) rather than the sum (a system designed to put players in a position to score)?

Goal-scoring should be intentional. That’s obvious enough, but then you look at a team like Dallas, whose offense seems to occur ex nihilo (which is Latin for “Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz skate fast”), and suddenly you’re not so sure.

Other teams have set plays. Some are explicit: just check out the double swing left exit from the Toronto Maple Leafs that was used to beat Ben Bishop. Some are implicit: like the St. Louis Blues, with their relentlessly relentless forecheck. It’s the forecheck part I want to focus on today, because Dallas is a really strange team when you break it down. Since the Hitchcock-Montgomery/Bowness era, Dallas has not been good at pressuring the opponents in their own zone.

My suspicion is that under Bowness, Dallas’ attention to detail applies to their defensive structure, but less so to their offensive structure. This is most notable on the forecheck where they have some super conservative habits. The forecheck is key to a lot of things, but the idea is simple: nobody’s going to give you the puck... you have to take it (laugh those Patrik Stefan jokes up, fuzzballs). And once you take it, you have to do something with it. Granted, as you can see above, a bad team can be good at forechecking just as easily as a good team can be bad at it. The point here is whether the forecheck (or lack thereof) is contributing to Dallas’ offense (and lack thereof).

Take the St. Louis Blues. Let’s watch the brutish masters in action. The most notable thing about St. Louis’ pressure inside Dallas’ zone is that all hands are on deck — literally. Multiple players are being used for one side of the ice at a time in order to keep passing options available.

They also open up multiple lanes, starting their pressure on the left, and eventually shifting to the right. Also notice how (and this will be crucial in comparing St. Louis to Dallas) the forwards stay low.

When this play “ends” (the air quotes are because this shift goes on for another punishing 15 seconds and I wasn’t about to destroy the site’s bandwidth on one play) there are three players below the dots and the defensemen have all touched the puck. And that’s despite the fact that the game is currently tied. St. Louis’ plan is clear: set up a killbox in the offensive zone with all five players and don’t stop.

The Blues are unique as a pressure team. They’re not the Pittsburgh Penguins, who rely on subverting the static roles common to forwards and defensemen. St. Louis is more interested in cycling the puck, and sliding the team to the strongside. But let’s look at another team. This is the Carolina Hurricanes’ forecheck, which I’ve stolen completely from Ryan Stimson, who points out what makes them unique:

A good forecheck doesn’t have to be a mosh pit. Nor does it have to be the Jackie Chan kerfuffle that is like Pittsburgh’s. It can be elegant, as Carolina’s is, with pressure against the proper lane to set up a bad exit, which can then turn into a counter entry. The forecheck, to borrow some boxing analogies, can either be a well-placed uppercut (an end unto itself), or work more like a jab (a means to an end). And that brings us to Dallas, who use the forecheck like a rope-a-dope. Let’s just watch. As you respond, use your inside voice.

When Andrew Cogliano gets to the puck, it’s 2-on-4 (!). The defensemen are nowhere in sight. Even when Jason Dickinson has possession, Blake Comeau tries to pressure but it’s kind of too late. To further emphasize this ultra-conservative approach, Cogliano flies the zone when Comeau enters, presumably to prepare against the counter rush. Dallas, despite possession of the puck and time to assume a formation, is content to spin their wheels, hope for something from nothing, and start defending.

Instead of generating offense from good defense, they just generate defense from more defense. Shifts like these, especially in tied situations, are fairly common from line to line. I won’t play favorites either. Let’s look at everyone’s favorite trio.

Here Dickinson gets stood up, but still chips the puck to Hintz. However, here again it’s an odd-man situation. Hintz has two guys bearing down on him. Dickinson has made no effort to become an option except to start tracking back if Nashville regains possession. Gurianov doesn’t waste time, despite having some, and passes to Stephen Johns, who fumbles the puck at the blue line. Nobody’s making obvious mistakes, but they’re making vague actions. It feels a lot like “get pucks to the net.” Which is a strategy for offense in the same way a fortune cookie is a syllabus.

Just to emphasize this once more, again, let’s look at Dallas’ puck pursuit (with the game tied)...

Versus St. Louis’ puck pursuit (with the game tied)...

Let’s look at another play, this time with Dallas pressuring.

Part of successful pressure, as we see with St. Louis, is making sure that there is support; that everyone with the puck has a passing option to prevent the puck carrier from being easily defended. In this clip, Dallas loses the face-off, but gains possession. So Dallas is on the right track. Multiple players are touching the puck, from Jamie Benn to Miro Heiskanen to Jamie Oleksiak, and back to Tyler Seguin.

Except watch how Corey Perry begins floating up high (in case the Blues regain possession?) without anyone to take his place. This leaves Seguin and Benn below the dots against four baby-blue shirts. They somehow regain possession briefly thanks to the fact that Brayden Schenn botches an easy pass back to the blueliners. To make matters worse, Seguin and Benn start coagulating as soon as Oleksiak tries to pinch. Some might say this is good defense by St. Louis, but Dallas makes it too easy. There doesn’t seem to be any communication (or intention to communicate), and everyone seems rushed to pass too quickly in proportion to the position of everyone involved. The fact that Benn recovers the puck feels like an afterthought, which probably explains why he dishes the puck to the slot without even looking for options. This play doesn’t even feel rehearsed — it just feels random.

At no point is Dallas trying to overload one side of the ice (nobody’s in position to do so). At no point are they trying to cycle down low (they don’t have numbers), and at no point are they trying to open up new lanes (they’re too spread out, and always outnumbered). When the blue line gets the puck, the three forwards form what amounts to a katamari ball made of carbon fiber and face fuzz around the net. When the blueliners don’t have the puck, they use the walls to spin their wheels around the perimeter, and ultimately just seem overly concerned with not giving up an odd-man rush.

Again, I go back to this:

Dallas has possession. Where is the structure for offense, in this picture? If Dallas scored on this play, would the goal have been intentional? If they scored, with two Stars able to beat four Blues, could they say, “Well that’s how we drew it up”?

“A goal’s a goal. What does it matter if they intended to score or not so long as they score? This is why I hated philosophy. Stop trying to confuse me over whether water’s wet.”

Well, a burglar who intends to steal money from an old lady by breaking into her house only to find her passed out from a carbon monoxide leak, and thus responds by calling an ambulance might turn into the hero of the day, but you wouldn’t say that the burglar suddenly has a recipe for heroism.

This is what a recipe for offense can look like (gif courtesy of Prishanth Iyer).

It’s rarely the intention of Dallas’ system to create this kind of pressure in the offensive zone. With dump and chase back in fashion under Bowness, there’s never time to control the puck like this. For the hopeful who want to reference the Los Angeles Kings as a clue that Dallas can contend, Dallas doesn’t look anything like that team. Los Angeles didn’t score much, but they were an elite possession team, constantly controlling the pace of the game.

Now, Dallas obviously knows how to pressure under Bowness. Just look:

They’re a far cry from Lindy Ruff’s Shot Out of a Cannon approach (if you miss what those days looked like, the Ruff era has been broken down beautifully here), but that’s meat-and-potatoes puck pressure. The play doesn’t turn into anything because Klingberg doesn’t get enough on the puck, but still, their positioning was on point. Of course, there’s one big caveat: it’s over five minutes into the final period, and Dallas needs a goal just to tie it. That’s my real issue. Is everyone developing the right offensive habits, consistently? Some forwards are asked to carry the puck in, while others are asked to recover the puck, but rarely do the twain meet.

That’s a problem if Dallas wants to roll into the playoffs as a well-oiled machine.

The end result of this is that they’re a weak transition prevention team. And there’s a slight connection between more aggressive forechecking, and scoring goals. Sure the fancy math around very preliminary data argues that it amounts to just one extra goal every 10 games, but if you’re Dallas, this is more practical than praying to the hockey gods.

This isn’t a doomsday clock, though. Some good teams can’t prevent transitions. Some bad teams can. But if Dallas wants to improve their offense, it has to start by being a better possession team. The fixes aren’t magic either. Calling on Gurianov and Hintz to receive more ice time is not an example of “second guessing” — it’s a matter of Dallas grooming its own future, and not sticking a muzzle on their most efficient attack dogs (and they really are, especially when you break down their offense beyond goals). Maybe there’s a broader plan in place. Or maybe the Great Ice Time Debate is just a consequence of a coaching staff that values good defense more than they value good offense. How else to explain why Roman Polak is still considered a viable option on the blue line, or Comeau’s ice time in situations where it’s clearly not deserved?

There’s a reasonable debate about which identity best serves the roster. Is this roster best served by playing to its strengths, which is its goaltending? Or is it best served trying to fix its weaknesses, which is its offense? I think the better question is can Dallas manage the gamestates where they’re weak to decrease the margin for error where they’re strong?

I was pretty harsh on former head coach Jim Montgomery early on. Even when his adjustments were staring me in the face. And boy, did he ever adjust. Dallas wasn’t just a hot team in November. They weren’t just a “bounce back” team. And they weren’t just a “resilient” team. These buzzwords do zero justice to whom Dallas was after their infamous start: they were a great team. Let’s look at Montgomery’s month of November (all numbers taken at 5-on-5):

  • Seventh in shot attempts-for/60
  • First in scoring chances-for/60
  • First in expected goals-for/60/

They moved back to establishing a strong and aggressive forecheck, and they were possessing the puck like an elite unit. Being tethered too closely to a defensive identity is something Montgomery himself even admitted to. Dallas didn’t just score more, and win more — they had an actual recipe to score more, and win more. Now let’s compare Montgomery’s hottest month to Rick Bowness’ “hot” month of February:

  • 29th in shot attempts-for/60
  • 25th in scoring chances-for/60
  • 26th in expected goals-for/60/

Dallas was awful at maintaining offensive possession of the puck, thanks in part to an extremely conservative forecheck, but they racked up wins anyway. How? Simple. Their shooting percentage on the power play during the month of Feburary was 21 percent — good for first in the NHL.

Backing away from Dallas for a second, Scott Wheeler wrote a really good deep dive into the Leafs, and how teams are starting to wise up to their unflinching desire to carry the puck in at all times. The concerning trend is that the Leafs get worse as the game wears on. It’s an ironic twist for Dallas fans who have only known dump-and-chase as the bane of their existence. While Toronto is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, the same principle applies to Dallas: being predictable is one thing, failing to adjust is another.

Dallas, like Toronto, has its own concerning trends too. Without anything resembling offense at even-strength, opposing teams seem content to win the special teams battles. This aside on the penalty kill is not a small thing. Bowness’ most trusted players are also some of the more undisciplined. Conversely, the players Bowness has struggled to trust are also the ones more likely to put Dallas on the man-advantage. As a result, under Bowness, Dallas ranks 29th in power play goals against, 24th in amount of times shorthanded, and 28th in overall penalty kill percentage.

Perhaps teams are spending more time scouting Dallas’ penalty kill, knowing that’s where they’re more likely to score? Isn’t that what you would do?

I’m not worried Dallas will make the playoffs. Dallas’ style is still incredibly effective. It’s a question of attention to detail. Can they turn that attention onto their offensive schemes too? Or... come playoff time, will they be the boiling frog experiment: unable/unwilling to adjust once the temperature starts rising?*

*Luckily for Bowness and the Stars, frogs aren’t actually that dumb.

All numbers and stats taken from Natural Stat Trick.