Three Things the Dallas Stars Can Learn from the Stanley Cup Winning Penguins
With the Pittsburgh Penguins' Stanley Cup party parade still on the horizon, Dallas might do well to take some notes.
Despite going to game 6, I'm not sure the finals resembled a competitive matchup. It looked more like San Jose unwrapped a nice shiny Red Ryder, and ended up shooting their eye out just as they had been warned. Less a matchup of two professional sports teams, and more like an unfortunate series of events. Not a single Shark didn't have the F-dash-dash-dash on their lips after Game 1.
The final shot total was 353 to 267 in favor of Pittsburgh. They dominated the first period of every game, outshooting the Sharks in the first period 70 to 35 (!). Martin Jones was the only reason the Sharks held on for as long as they did; a claim that doesn't even qualify as a warm take.
The Penguins are a good team for Dallas to emulate. Not because imitation is a sincere form of flattery, but because Dallas already has a lot of pieces to replicate their rhythm. Fans and even some media may lament the loss to the St. Louis Blues as a problem of "size", and not being big enough for the brutish Western Conference. But Don Cherryisms are outdated intellectual capital. Size had nothing to do with why Dallas lost. The best Western Conference representative got their lunch money stolen from the track star. Not the Varsity linebacker.
How to Spread Scoring Depth
Not anyone can do it. The Penguins were fortunate enough to have Phil Kessel, Sydney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin each anchor their own lines. Two of those are generational talents, and the other is hockey's most talented hot dog thief. Line chemistry is about more than just adding up each player's Corsi. But as I discussed in my Jason Spezza at 3C argument, there's already chemistry among Dallas' three offensive Stars.
Jason Spezza and Mattias Janmark. Tyler Seguin and Patrick Sharp. Jamie Benn and any of Dallas' quality 3C's like Radek Faksa. Each man is more than capable of anchoring their own line. Pittsburgh found success, or dominance rather, by foregoing the notion of "checking lines". You could argue that Bonino played that role, but a great checking line center plays defense by forcing opponents to play in their zone more than their own when they're on the ice. This makes having a blue chip scorer on a checking line the way the Penguins did with Kessel all the more potent: rather than optimize a line to not lose, the lines have been optimized to outright win.
No Such Thing as Stay-At-Home in the Victory Loam
Having a big offensive threat on each line also ensures that the opponent can't shelter their third pair of defensemen. Even third pairing blueliners log big minutes compared to the rest of the team. The most significant element of the Penguins win is that they won without giving two fudges over whether or not their defensemen could "clear the crease", block shots, instead opting to rid themselves of outdated notions of what it means to be "good in your own zone".
Just to clarify for the jump to conclusions crowd, none of this means that hits, blocked shots, and defensive zone play are unimportant. Anyone recall that Radek Faksa "catcher's mitt" shot block? Critical. Johns leveling Max Domi, preventing him from entering the offensive zone? Critical. It's when these elements happen by design that they become problematic. Sometimes this design is explicit: think John Tortorella's defensive schemes and the tangible corrosion they bring to the teams he coaches. But most of the time, they're implicit: handing out ice time to players who can theoretically protect against aggressive forechecks and limit chances with size, and physicality.
This was the idea behind San Jose's Brenden Dillon, and Roman Polak pairing. Except they got absolutely crushed in their series against the Pens. And weren't very effective, possession wise, throughout the playoffs in general. The point here isn't to pick on "defensive defensemen", as if anyone who can't do an okay Karlsson impression is inherently less effective. Rather, it's to challenge what it means to be "good in your own zone". There are probably some Dallas fans who would be more comfortable with Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak on the third pair than say, Mattias Backman and Julius Honka. Which begs the question: why? Assuming all four are NHL ready, it would be ludicrous to avoid playing certain players just because they provide an illusory "dimensionality".
When you go back to Dallas' loss to St. Louis, they didn't miss the size and physicality of Nemeth, Ritchie, Oleksiak, and Co. They missed the speed and skill of Tyler Seguin. Dallas doesn't have a whole lot of speed and skill on the blueline. Luckily, I think they have that skill in Honka, Lindell, and Backman in Cedar Park.
Too Late to Draft a Quality Goaltender, But Not Too Late to Sign One
Dallas has a serious draft and development problem when it comes to goaltending. Nill brought in Jeff Reese, whose influence will likely show in time. But for now, they can't bank on Lagace, or Campbell to pull a Matt Murray.* I believe Nill is very political when it comes to language. He can't just come out and say it. But no matter how many wins Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen accrued over the 2015-2016 season, their save percentages would agree with the notion that they were benefactors of correlation rather than Finnish harbingers of causation.
As much as I'd love to see Nill be aggressive and go after one of goaltending's best kept secret in Michal Neuvirth, or sign James Reimer without even figuring what should be done with the Finn twins, there won't be an easy way to get a quality goaltender without renovating a very hard to move duo.
*All due respect to Philippe Desrosiers, of course. Not only is he fairly promising, but I've loved his attitude since the day he was drafted and claimed emphatically that he "will" play for Dallas, and the other day when he tweeted this.