3/27/18 – Should Marc Methot be in Over Julius Honka?

I didn’t intend to make this about Julius Honka, but somehow things always seem to be about him. I suppose that happens when your team has a bad record, you have consistently good numbers, and you can’t get in the lineup.

This is really more about Marc Methot. When he came back from his extended injury absence he re-entered the lineup in place of Honka. Honka and Stephen Johns had been going pretty well in his absence.

 

Derek brought this question up and it did get me thinking more about Methot. He got injured on January 6th. He came back on February 16th. In that span with him out of the lineup the Stars went 10-4-1. Since that time they are 3-11-2.

There is zero chance Methot is solely to blame for the dramatic swing, but the question of his impact on Johns made me curious what kind of impact he does have on the defense pairs.

I pulled the defense pair stats from Corsica and did 10 seconds of Excel Magic to pull up their expected goal rates per hour to see which pairs had been the most effective at maximizing potential goals for and limiting potential goals against at even strength for the full season.

DPairs

The top two pairs have barely been on the ice together so we’ll crown Esa Lindell and John Klingberg as the Stars best defense pairing. Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn have been really good too, with most of their value coming in the defensive end. We’ve seen that Pateryn does have some offensive value, so I do wonder if this pair could do better if Pateryn was allowed to be slightly more active.

The third most effective pairing has the duo of Julius Honka and Stephen Johns, which goes to the question Derek put out there. Methot has actually been a member of the two three least effective pairs the Stars have run. (And Jesus, Johns has had six different partners).

Is there a reason he is in the lineup over Honka? He isn’t one of the Stars top penalty killers so his value is going to have to come at even strength, and it’s pretty obvious the value is less than what Honka brings.

Does he give you a better chance of winning? I don’t think so, but does it really matter? They’re effectively out of the playoffs. I think Honka gives you a better chance of winning so #TeamTank might prefer Methot, but in the interest of next season you really need Honka to play the rest of the stretch unless you feel like you already know what he is.

Does Hitchcock even feel there is an issue? Methot is doing exactly what is being asked of him so asking Hitchcock to bench him seems like an unreasonable proposition. Why would he scratch a guy doing the job asked of him without an order from up high to get Honka more ice time? I don’t see it.

If the Stars did truly want to see Honka over Methot, they at least have to consider his trade value. He has five million dollars coming to him. Determining that Honka needs to play over him is a tacit admission that he’s the Stars 7th defenseman….making five million dollars. They gave up a 2nd round pick for him, and almost certainly aren’t recovering a pick that high in return for him. Would benching him over Honka the last two weeks hurt his value more?

tl;dr #FreeHonka

3/26/18 – The Stars Need a Collective Hug

The Dallas Stars have a media scrum after every game. Every team does. Players get to bask in the glory of wins in front of the media and feel like they’re in a firing squad after a loss. Imagine doing that after eight losses in a row and spiraling right out of the playoffs. No thanks.

I saw the John Klingberg portion on the post game show. The Stars send the quotes out after the game. This is the transcription, but the words don’t do what he said justice.

On difficult result and how it’s changed so quickly over last few weeks:

I don’t know. We don’t deserve to win right now. Like Meth [Methot] said, we were doing all the right things before games, coaches give us all the information, we just don’t execute enough. We don’t have any confidence at all the way we are playing right now, on d-zone, neutral zone and o-zone. We didn’t do anything right and you can tell there is no confidence now. It’s tough to play, then.

On the losing streak being surprising after resilience of the team all year:

I don’t know this. This is something that builds on for a while. Obviously we had a real good confidence in the team around Christmas, started with the homestand, then we won one game, lost one game and kept going like that for a while. Then we have been losing a lot of games here now. Obviously the confidence gets shaky and it’s tough to play.

How do you regain confidence after loses:

For sure. We have six more games. If we play perfect, then maybe we have a chance, it will be tough, but we have stay professional and try to do it.

I tried to find the video, but it doesn’t appear that the Stars posted it on the website. After watching it on the post game show I don’t blame them if they didn’t. I have never seen Klingberg so down.

You can read anything into that you want, but none of it is ideal. It is human though, and I think too often the human element is forgotten. Ken Hitchcock looks beaten down too, and he has the last two games.

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I mentioned this on Twitter, but when I look at them I think of my students around November. I work with the students who have never passed a state exam before. One class in particular was just completely mentally done before Thanksgiving. They exhibited many of the same traits you see from the Stars.

There is no amount of anything I can do to guarantee every single one of them will pass the STAAR exam. I had to realize that and adjust to do everything in my power to get the most out of them. So, I changed my approach. We stopped stressing about tests because, well, what did it matter? The class average was always a 30. We still did them and took them seriously, but we stopped stressing.

I started letting them see their own mistakes using a program called IXL. They started fixing them on their own so I didn’t have to seem like I was coming down hard on them – they did it to themselves. Our relationships improved, and the students who have bought in are improving. They listen to music and work most days without me having to say much to them after I teach a lesson or we go over a strategy.

Grown adults playing hockey will need specific approaches to their own situation, but no one performs at their highest level when they are stressed out. You can point to “clutch” performers who perform well in high stress situations, but I would argue that those players aren’t actually stressed. These Stars clearly are for whatever reason.

Being competitive is natural, but so is being human. Professional sports takes the “professional” aspect way too literally. Hockey is the worst about it. This season is over. There is no longer any real external pressure. These guys seriously need to relax and make the best of the next couple weeks before vacation. No matter how much pressure they put on themselves right now it isn’t going to change reality.

Real life sucks sometimes, and accepting inevitability can be really tough. They need a collective hug and a pat on the back. I know I probably sound like an asshole half the time, but I am 100% serious.

3/25/18: Correlation is Not Causation: The Dallas Stars Catastrophic Moment

The STAAR test for Freshmen taking it for the first time is rapidly approaching. I’ve been working to get my particular group of students ready since, I don’t know, August 24th. One of the things we do is go over released exams from previous years.

Question 9 from last year turned into 20 minutes of discussion when we hit it recently.

Causation

Kids hate the word causation, but as soon as you tell them “cause and effect” they lose their minds trying to eliminate answers that don’t make any sense. Obviously B is bullshit. A and C caused them a lot of difficulty because those can be argued.

You can make an argument in favor of a causation relationship between an increase in bus stops and a decrease in car sales. People are buying less cars because they have more access to buses. Duh. Ice cream sales increase, so sunburn does too? Well, sure. People eat ice cream when it’s hot outside so they’re getting sunburned.

What they have a hard time realizing initially is that ice cream didn’t directly cause the sunburn and that the number of bus stops didn’t directly cause a decrease in car sales. When it rains the water level increases. An increase in rain (water falling from the air) leads to an increase in water levels (fallen water, now on the ground). D is the answer.

Yesterday Bob Sturm threw this out on Twitter:

Bob isn’t wrong. These things did happen after that even took place. Did the Dallas Stars collapse because Ben Bishop got injured, or did the a collapse merely happen around the time Bishop got injured?

Bob mentioned the save percentage over that ten game span so let’s look a little closer at that. I took out the empty net goals, which bumps the save percentage up to 89.7%. It may not seem like much to us, but it probably is to Kari Lehtonen.

I pulled the expected goal totals from the last ten games and the Corsi % to see what has been going on.

Last10

In the last six games in particular the goaltending has been rough. Lehtonen has allowed an extra goal per game over the expected total in each. Over this 10 game stretch Stars goaltending (Bishop did play some) allowed five more goals than they were expected to allow.

Over an 82 game schedule that would be giving up 41 more goals than expected which will get a lot of people fired and/or released.

Here’s the rub though: the goal scoring has been worse. The skaters have scored six goals less than they were expected to by expected goals for.

When you throw those six together with the five extra goals the goaltenders have allowed….yikes. We’re talking a swing of eleven goals in a ten game span. If the games were played just by expected goals the Stars would have gone 6-4 over that stretch.

Our old friend PDO tells the same story.

PDO

Over a long enough timeline PDO tends to 100 because all shots either go in the net or they don’t. The Stars have been trailing 100 during this ten day period on the shooting and goaltending end.

And it isn’t for lack of trying by the top guys. Game Score attempts to quantify the contributions of each player to the outcome of each game. Over the ten game period in question these are the cumulative Game Scores of the big four and the rest of the roster.

GS

Notice Current Whipping Boy Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are both at 13. The big four cumulatively dropped a 41 game score over these games compared to 23 from the rest of the roster combined. Those four accounted for 64% of the Game Score contributions during this stretch!

Spoiler alert: the Stars are paper thin. This isn’t just the last ten games obviously. Part of the problem is they do have players who have shown they can play who don’t get much of an opportunity. This chart shows expected goal plus minus per 60 minutes at even strength.

xGF601

I know it’s “hip” to hate on Brett Ritchie, but he isn’t nearly as bad as he’s made out to be and his delta per 60 minutes is double second place. Gemel “Fucking” Smith has been criminally underused and ya boy is at number four (looks for Marc Methot). Jason Spezza has the same expected goal differential per sixty minutes as Tyler Seguin.

I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: ” JASON SPEZZA HAS THE SAME EXPECTED GOAL DIFFERENTIAL PER SIXTY MINUTES AS TYLER SEGUIN.”

I think it’s fair to blame goaltending for this stretch. It’s also fair to say the goal scoring has let them down severely and coaching decisions all season have kept the optimal lineup from ever being utilized.

Either the Stars are getting unlucky, they’re tired, or the chickens are finally coming home to roost at the most inopportune time possible. Ben Bishop did get hurt, and the Stars haven’t been producing over that stretch.

I’m about to dig into some ice cream, but I’m pretty sure I don’t need suntan lotion to do it.

All info pulled from Corsica.

3/23/18 – What the Hell Part 4: Ken Hitchcock’s Impact on the Defensemen

I sat down to write more on the rapidly declining 2018 season. As I did it I realized this was quickly turning into something larger than just one post. Given the nature of the site as constructed I felt like cramming 2000 or so words into one post was absurd. I have no idea how long this series will be.

I handled the forwards yesterday. You can find them here. Plenty of data exists on the defensemen too. Coming into the season my expectations for the defensemen were higher than the forwards. Hitchcock should make them look a lot more…appropriate? Typical? Competent? Defensive? Something.

Overall I think that has happened. I’m not sure it’s necessarily a good thing, but it indeed has happened. Again we’re using data tracked by Corey Sznajder and visualized by CJ Turtoro.

Remember: bigger numbers on the left is good.. Bigger numbers on the right is bad.

John Klingberg

Klingberg

One of the successes of this season that has been touted is the development of Klingberg defensively. This chart isn’t going to show us specifically how he plays in the defensive zone, but it does show that he is a hell of a lot better at defending his own blueline.

Despite the uptick in points, his rate of offensive contributions has dropped quite a bit. He’s getting a ton of minutes and playing well, but he put out a consistently higher quality offensive performance when he had fewer minutes.

Esa Lindell

Lindell

Lindell is probably the most improved of the Stars defensemen, and he needed to be. He’s an absolute rock at his own blueline, providing the defensive anchor the Stars wanted from another member of our list further down.

Lindell has been better offensively too. The next step, if he can take it, would see him be better at exiting the defensive zone.

Is this improvement because of Hitchcock and his staff? Maybe, but as a young developing player you would expect him to take steps forward too.

Greg Pateryn

Pateryn

Pateryn is an interesting case. Hitchcock fell in love with him quickly and continued to feed him ice time after sticking him into a “defensive/stay at home” type role, but Pateryn did much more than that for the Canadiens. 

Pushing him into more of a defensive frame of mind naturally , sadly, would have limited his offensive output, and limit how well he would be entering the offensive zone with the puck. What did surprise me is how much worse Pateryn got at defending his own blueline this year. Opposing forwards are stepping around him like he isn’t even there.

Dan Hamhuis

Hamhuis

Same story, different player. Hitchcock has pushed Hamhuis into a more defensive role. Every aspect of his game is worse, and some aspects are significantly worse.

Hamhuis is older so it’s entirely possible he is just falling off a bit with age. Could it be because of the role Hitchcock has him playing? Perhaps, but like with the improvement with Lindell, age could be playing in here too.

Stephen Johns

Johns

I really thought Stephen Johns would take a major step under Hitchcock. He has taken hold of a consistent place in the lineup by playing the way Hitchcock wants him to. The familiar marker is there: John is breaking up a lot more plays at his own blueline at the expense of every other aspect of his game.

Marc Methot

Methot

The Stars gave up a 2nd round pick for a defenseman who was probably, at the time, their 7th or 8th best. He’s also making $4,900,000 and has nine and a half fingers. The idea was to bring him in as a stabilizing defensive force to play with Klingberg, like he allegedly did with Erik Karlsson.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

A familiar trend continues. Methot has tried to be more of an active shooter and has broken up more offensive plays at his own blueline under Hitchcock than he did in 2017. In the case of Methot teams apparently started passing around him to get into the zone. You can see a big drop in his success at minimizing entries of the pass.

Julius Honka

Honka

We have no data from 2017 for Honka, but I see something here that immediately makes me think “this is why Hitchcock doesn’t use him”. Honka has been the Stars worst defenseman at breaking up plays at his own blueline.

Now, he easily has been the Stars best at exiting the zone with possession and one of the top in the league, but the taint of visibly below par defense has stuck with him. The question I have from looking at the Honka data is how poor and infrequently he enters the offensive zone with the puck and how little he does with it when he has it.

Is Honka really this bad offensively, or is he trying to make his way in the NHL with regular playing time by playing a more conservative style to make his coach happy? It happened with Pateryn, why not Honka too?

Jamie Oleksiak

Oleksiak

I included this one just for fun. Oleksiak was terrible with the Stars this year in all respects except entering the zone, but look at last year. He had a little usefulness over there.

My biggest complaint with Oleksiak is something that only marginally shows up here. This isn’t going to measure how well he played defense in his own zone, but it was pretty hit and miss. It does show that in 2017 he had no idea what to do with the puck in the offensive zone to set up offense despite bringing the puck into the zone at an elite level.

Yeah, that sounds about right. Oleksiak getting trapped up ice then scrambling back to get into the play happened enough for it to stick in my brain.

Is this all because of Hitchcock?

I don’t know, but it sure fits what he wants. The defensemen are less offensive, they’re stepping up at the blueline to stop opposition attacks, chipping the puck out of the zone to reset, and letting the forwards handle almost all of the offensive play. The data seems to show exactly that.

 

3/22/18 – What the Hell Part 3: Ken Hitchcock’s Impact on the Forwards

I sat down to write more on the rapidly declining 2018 season. As I did it I realized this was quickly turning into something larger than just one post. Given the nature of the site as constructed I felt like cramming 2000 or so words into one post was absurd. I have no idea how long this series will be. 

Several weeks ago I tried to optimize the lineup using expected goal predictions based on player styles observed by Ryan Stimson. If you missed it, this article is a good starting point for what I’m going to get into here.

What came out of the 2016-17 data was essentially that the Stars had five players who fit the playmaker mold: Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Alexander Radulov, and Martin Hanzal. A team full of playmakers, were it possible anywhere but the Olympics (in years when the NHL doesn’t destroy the tournament) would dominate most, if not all, games. Players who fit the shooter and balanced molds are perfectly fine too.

Really, as long as you avoid too many dependent players you’re going to be doing alright.

Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) threw the data into a blender to determine and visualize player styles for the 2018 season based on the data tracked so far.

I thought it would be interesting for many reasons, chief among them was to see how much of an impact playing under Ken Hitchcock had on the individual Dallas Stars forwards. And, well, there’s a noticeable change from 2017 to 2018. This image is from a Tableau Tierney put together.

Styles

….where did all of the playmakers go?

Four of the playmakers dropped down a notch into the shooter category and Hanzal dropped all the way down to being dependent. I guess what sticks out to me the most here is that it looks like all of the Stars forwards drifted up or down away from more extreme positions (except Hanzal) to a middle of the road path.

Hasn’t that kind of been the point though? This is what Hitchcock wanted. He wanted a more responsible game at even strength. Well, he got it. It isn’t going to be fair to blame or credit playing under Hitchcock for all of those changes. Players age and regress and improve all of the time, but the trajectory the bulk of the Stars forwards took certainly matches what Hitchcock wanted: bland.

What does that look like on an individual level? CJ Turtoro put together a tool that allows players to be compared across the two seasons where there exists significant data. What I did for these images is put the 2018 season data on the left from the tool and the 2017 data on the right.

In English: bigger numbers on the right equals good.

Jamie Benn

Benn

The 2017 version of Benn was an elite shot generator. He made plays. This year? He’s merely good. All of his zone entry and exit numbers plus his offensive contributions are down.

I still have a hunch that it partially has to do with too much ice time with Alexander Radulov. Benn’s numbers go down with Radulov on the ice at even strength. Benn is entering the zone with the puck significantly less than he was last year. How often do you see Radulov skating the length of the rink with the puck? He always has it.

Pet theory: Benn isn’t crossing the blueline with the puck on his stick so he isn’t creating as many opportunities for Tyler Seguin or whoever is with them (mostly Radulov) and the focus on being more careful with the puck and not turning it over has made these numbers come down.

Jason Spezza

Spezza

If you’re under a certain age and grew up with bad cartoons this reference may not mean much to you, but do you remember that old cartoon shtick where the character’s eyes would bug out when an absurd situation popped up? Then some little smart ass character would walk up through the chaos with a giant pistol, pull the trigger, and a little flag saying bang would come out?

Yeah, that’s what the Spezza image is.

Jason Spezza, the guy generating more offense than Jamie Benn but getting buried on the depth chart, is going to go somewhere like Pittsburgh or Toronto next year and win a Stanley Cup as a dominant second line center.

Tyler Seguin

Seguin

He’s still Seguin, but enters the zone with the puck more frequently (again, pet theory: because Benn isn’t giving it to him so he’s getting it earlier from Radulov or taking it himself from the defensive zone).

Alexander Radulov

Radulov

This season Radulov’s playmaking ability has been neutered at even strength. He was a high level set up guy with the Canadiens who didn’t generate much in the way of his own shots. In his first year in Dallas he’s shooting the puck more and doing quite a bit less to generate shots for his linemates.

The entries and exits stick out like a sore thumb here too. Radulov still enters the zone with about the same frequency, but his success rate has dropped by 25%. That’s almost certainly because of the Stars insistence on dumping the puck into the offensive zone, but I’ll check the numbers later when I have a chance.

Let’s extend the pet theory a little further here. If Radulov is dumping the puck in, and Seguin is playing deep in the defensive zone to support the breakout, take a guess who is being expected to skate his ass off doing grunt work in the corners to retrieve the puck?

Yep. 14.

Martin Hanzal

Hanzal

You can say what you want about the Hanzal signing, or his injury history, or his prospects for the future given the spinal fusion surgery he just had, but it wouldn’t be fair to say he was a bad player in 2017.

Hitchcock has stated that the injuries he has dealt with have really limited him all year. They certainly have to play in here to some degree. He exited the defensive zone so infrequently prior to his injury, and the times he did he was so unsuccessful, that it almost seems like he was never in the defensive zone at all.

We know he was though. Hitchcock made sure of it. When he did get out I’m not convinced he could make it up the ice to even join the offense with his injuries. This was a good player who, through injuries and system, was able to bring virtually nothing this year outside of some faceoff wins and penalty killing.

Tyler Pitlick

Pitlick

Pitlick has seen his offensive game grow significantly with the Stars as his entry numbers have collapsed. With the Oilers, Pitlick entered the offensive zone with possession 75% of the time and entered with the puck often.

He’s doing exactly what Hitchcock wants him to do. You can see it in his success percentages of exits and entries. Dump it in, chip it out, retrieve it. It makes you wonder how much more value he could contribute if he were able to combine this years offense with the zone entry efficiency of 2017.

Radek Faksa

Faksa

Again: all of the offensive contributions and zone entry success shrunk. Dump it in, chip it out, retrieve.

Devin Shore

Shore

He’s about the same offensively, less effective at entering the zone, but more successfully exits the zone with possession. The fact that he can exit the zone effectively makes me believe he could just as easily enter the offensive zone with the puck instead of dumping it and killing the offense.

Well, that and the fact that he was really good at entering the zone with the puck last year under Lindy Ruff.

Brett Ritchie

Ritchie

Ritchie was an elite shot volume generator in 2017. Under Hitchcock he has evolved into a more well rounded player offensively who helps set up teammates for offense.

Visually we’ve seen how bad the Stars have gotten offensively, and it isn’t just one player regressing. Damn near every forward is worse offensively, some significantly, and many by their own doing from not gaining the offensive zone with the puck. One thing all of the forwards have in common is the system under which they play.

Maybe blaming Jamie Benn or Jason Spezza doesn’t make any sense? Or, if it does, maybe it’s really far down the list.

I guess in summation, maybe wait for the water level to fall before plugging one tiny potential hole in the over-worked dam. Whether you plug that tiny hole or not the dam is going to collapse and wipe out the town anyway.

3/21/18 – Unloading the Clip and Firing Blanks

Old

On May 19th, 2008 I was already on summer vacation heading into my last semester of college. I was halfway through my 22nd year on this giant blue orb and had no idea how anything worked.

Brad Richards was a 27 year old trade deadline acquisition. Things were looking up. I remember sitting in my girlfriend’s parents apartment watching the game in the afternoon because they had cable, with her shithead brother sitting near me rooting for Detroit because…he was a shithead, I guess. I don’t know.

This was Sergei Zubov’s last playoff game. James Neal would debut next season. Jamie Benn would debut the next season after that. Jason Spezza was 24. Tyler Seguin was 16. The Stars franchise had never missed the playoffs more than three years in a row, and never more than once in a row (???) in Dallas.

I had no idea what was in store for me personally in a number of respects, but I never in a million years would have guessed that the Stars would win one playoff round over the next decade and only make the playoffs twice. It’s such an unfathomable stretch of mediocrity from a once proud franchise that I don’t know of a combination of words to throw together to express how disappointing it is.

Many years of that stretch were consumed with Tom Hicks Bankruptcy Hell, but even that was a long time ago. Tom Gaglardi bought the Stars on November 22, 2011. The partial lockout hit the next season, and we’re five years removed from that. When the Vegas Golden Knights are fielding a team fighting for the top seed in the Western Conference as an expansion team it’s hard to have much sympathy for the little hockey team in Dallas.

Over the last decade only four teams have had two or fewer playoff appearances. Only 11 franchises have one or less playoff series wins. 15 teams have more points over that span. The Stars have been a mediocre regular season team that prays it can get into the playoffs, and has done very little when they’ve gotten there.

They dropped a close game to the Washington Capitals last night 4-3 and it’s increasingly difficult to envision them as a playoff team this year. Even if they do make it they’re probably going to get wasted quickly.

Many postmortems will be written about this dumpster fire of a season. Some already have been. Robert Tiffin of DefendingBigD wrote his after the Capitals game and it, as always, is worth your time. This part in particular struck a chord with me:

RobertHitch

The kids call this a “subtweet”, but Robert and I are old school so we’ll call this an “editorial response”. On some level this is a semantic argument, but the difference between being forced to adapt out of desperation and being willing to be flexible is a wide gulf here.

Hitchcock will put someone in the lineup, like Greg Pateryn, because he has to. When players are dropping like flies someone does have to come into the lineup. The key to him, or anyone else, staying in the lineup is playing exactly the way Hitchcock wants them to. I wrote about this when I wrote about Jason Spezza recently.

Spezza

Hitchcock has his guys and he rides them into the ground when they meet his standards of what successful hockey is. He knows what he wants to see and no matter what happens if he doesn’t see it he isn’t going to do much of anything to change personnel or tactics whether what he wants wins games now or not.

The story of the 2018 season, and particularly since the calendar flipped to 2018, is that in the face of what Hitchcock wants to do failing he unceasingly stuck with it until it was too late. Defense over everything has reigned supreme all year even as the offense has completely dried up until it was too late.

Against the Capitals the Stars unloaded the clip. They came out firing and dominated the game at even strength on the Corsi sheet, but for what? They waited until they went up against arguably the greatest goal scorer in NHL history, the only team to crack 1000 points over the last decade, and until they dropped out of a playoff spot  to do it. They waited until it was too late.

For all of this nonsense about leadership, grit, spirit, or whatever other cliche synonym you want to use for “the things Hitchcock wants” the Dallas Stars are probably going to miss the playoffs because they doubled down on defense when the times got tough. They spent all of their focus on preventing goals with a roster featuring Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Jason Spezza, and John Klingberg.

The Stars players gave everything they had offensively against the Capitals and failed. We’ll never know if things would have been different if this change had taken place at some time in the past three months, but by not trying to do anything different for three months the full blame for the results of the 2018 Dallas Stars lays at the feet of management and the coaching staff.

And I’m still waiting as a 32 year old man for a chance to watch a Western Conference Finals game featuring the Stars without a shithead brother in law around, like I have been since I was 22.

3/21/18 – Answering a Mike Heika Chat Question for the Morning News

Answering reader chat questions seems like a beating, but weekly Mike Heika does it anyway. Then the Dallas Morning News overlords turn it into an article (blog post? entry?) to collect those #ValuablePageViews as fast as they crank out those blogger-in-a-basement memes. Inject it into my veins. That isn’t Heika’s fault, and it really has nothing to do with this story either other than the fact that I like to occasionally indiscriminately throw slugs.

Anyhow…in Heika’s chat today he was asked a question at or near the end that didn’t really get answered.

Zone Exits

I have no idea if the Dallas Stars do Question-Asker, though based on empirical evidence I could guess if they do it doesn’t matter, but I do know someone who does. Corey Sznajder does the yeoman work of tracking every single NHL game. One of the things he tracks are zone exits for each team.

(As an aside, I’m going to reference his work often. He does great work that is very valuable. The information is available for people who support his work to use in their own work, whatever that may be. I’ve sent my tiny donation monthly from very early on, and if you think his work helps you watch hockey through a more refined lens I would highly recommend that you chip in too. Go to his Patreon and give him money.)

As of this writing he has 25 Stars games tracked. He tracks so much more than just zone exits, but since that is the question being asked that’s all the information I’ll put out there in the sake of brevity.

Some definitions:

Touches: how often the player had an opportunity to exit the zone

Exits: how often the player exited the zone

Possession Exits: how often the team kept possession of the puck on the player’s exits

Exit%: the percent of times the team successfully exited the zone on the player’s touches

Possession Exit%: ditto, but for possession exits

Fail%: how often the team failed to exit on a player’s touches

Forwards

I sorted these charts by Possession Exit%. I’m also screening my words and thoughts here, intentionally refusing to interpret anything until later. I would point out where Gemel Smith, Remi Elie, Devin Shore, and Brett Ritchie are though.

FExits

We’ll deal with Martin Hanzal and Radek Faksa later. Just, let it go. I don’t think it’s really their fault.

Defensemen

This will mostly be presented without comment too other than “look at ya boy”.

DExits

Snark I can’t contain: now we know why Hitchcock loves Dillon Heatherington so much more than Julius Honka.

So, random Question-Asker. I hope that answers your question.

Admit it though, you thought I was going to hit that leadership bit about Jamie Benn. Don’t worry, dear reader. We’ll get there, but not now.

3/20/18 – What the Hell Part 2: Max Pacioretty Trade Scenarios and First Round Picks

I sat down to write more on the rapidly declining 2018 season. As I did it I realized this was quickly turning into something larger than just one post. Given the nature of the site as constructed I felt like cramming 2000 or so words into one post was absurd. I have no idea how long this series will be. 

I’ve never had any aspirations to be some insider, but I do hear things. Sometimes those things get confirmed publicly by another writer, or at least partially confirmed. Many times they don’t. I do want to discuss Max Pacioretty because I have now heard several different trade scenarios, and they all revolve around the same preposterous idea.

Pacioretty wasn’t going to be cheap because he wasn’t going to be a rental. He’s a consistent American 30 goal scorer who turns 30 next season when he is set to make $4,500,000.

Pacioretty

Pulling from the same All 3 Zones project data Corey Sznajder has tracked and CJ Turtoro has visualized you can see that Pacioretty is solid at both bluelines and really good offensively even if the counting totals aren’t exactly where you would like them to be this year. He’s an easy top six winger and the kind of player a good team builds around.

Adding to his appeal is that second year of control. Any team who would have paid to pick up Pacioretty would have been getting an early jump on the 2019 season by securing a trial run with a talented goal scorer. Two playoff runs with a quality inexpensive goal scorer is valuable.

I’ve heard three different pricing options for what it would have cost. Most recently I heard two first round picks, a good prospect, and a roster player (probably Brett Ritchie for money reasons).

Closer to the deadline I heard two potential deals. A 1st round pick, Roope Hintz, a roster player (Ritchie), and maybe a prospect – or a 2nd round pick, Julius Honka, a roster player (Ritchie), and maybe a prospect. Sean Shapiro put the first one out there more or less publicly in a tweet, though he emphasized he wasn’t reporting it. I’m not either, but I did hear that secondhand.

All three of those deals look somewhat similar. The Stars would either be giving up two top picks or a top pick and a good prospect plus other stuff to get their guy. That seems like fair value for a year and a half of an inexpensive goal scorer. Given their reluctance to play Honka and the coming of Miro Heiskanen, I think that last option was a real winner if available.

I do think the Stars value Honka as an organization, thus making that deal less palatable. I also know for as close to a fact as you can get that they don’t want to trade any first round picks. That’s a fine strategy because it is important to stock the cupboard with young cheap potentially good talent. The problem is when that isn’t fully the motivation for keeping the picks.

I’ve heard from no less than three different people that the Stars were adamant about having a first round pick for the upcoming draft in Dallas. This is one of the single most insane things I have ever heard and I want to flat out reject it, but I’ve heard it from so many people I trust that I can’t.

The logic goes that you want to have news to announce to your fans at the big gathering. A first round pick at the draft in your hometown gives you the opportunity to do that. In the past the Stars have planned offseason moves to coincide with those rally-type events they do in Victory Plaza so it isn’t like the logic leading to this conclusion is foreign to them.

But those events didn’t potentially impact the on ice product in a negative way immediately. An organizational philosophy of being unwilling to trade a first round pick during the season because you want to be able to make an announcement for your fans at the draft is the most competitively backwards thing (tanking excluded) I have ever heard. It’s so Jerry Jones it hurts.

The kicker to all of this is that, as of now per the beat guys, there are no plans to release general admission tickets for the public. The only fans who will be in attendance are a few season ticket holders who decide they want to go. So who are they making this announcement for anyway? Is the goal to parade the kid around since he will already be in town? Is that worth more than potentially improving a rapidly cratering team and getting a jump on building the 2019 roster?

90% of the fanbase, conservatively, would prefer a deep playoff run over a mid-first round pick who might make an impact four years from now. The decisions about what to do at the deadline have to be challenging for any franchise, but the Stars reluctance to just go for it when they have a window with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn is absolutely perplexing.

Pacioretty, or any trade acquisition, wouldn’t have immediately fixed all that ails this team, but they sure would have helped. Even in the worst case scenario had Pacioretty not worked out the Stars easily could have picked up a 1st round pick plus for him in the offseason.

I simply don’t get it.

3/20/18 – What the Hell Part 1: Donde Esta Jason Spezza?

I sat down to write more on the rapidly declining 2018 season. As I did it I realized this was quickly turning into something larger than just one post. Given the nature of the site as constructed I felt like cramming 2000 or so words into one post was absurd. I have no idea how long this series will be. 

Jason Spezza might be the best value acquisition of the Jim Nill era. Tyler Seguin is the best acquisition. Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns and Mattias Janmark were more or less free. Alexander Radulov only cost money. Spezza was picked up from the Ottawa Senators after 12 calendar years of living in the Canadian capital for “guys”. The value was off the charts.

Alex Chiasson, Alex Guptill, Nick Paul, and a 2nd round pick became “property” of the cheapest franchise in hockey in return for their star and leader. You make that trade eleven times out of ten and use it constantly as a shining example of why you make these moves to improve your club when you can. More often than not, the team acquiring the established producer wins out. In this case they came out way ahead.

Spezza was a stabilizing force on the second, and occasionally first, line. This year it just hasn’t worked. If you’re looking for reasons why this season has tanked faster than the Oilers shamelessly hoping to acquire then waste the prime years of another good prospect, the collapse of Spezza would be a good place to start.

I tweeted this image out earlier. It comes from the data tracked by Corey Sznajder for the 2018 season and visualized by CJ Turtoro, which is about 16 Stars games. The numbers in the bar graphs are league-wide percentiles, the darker the blue the better.

We’re looking at how much offense the player generates, how he enters the zone, and how he exits.

Spezza

This has easily been the most trying season of Spezza’s career. It’s easy to chalk it up to age because it’s the most readily apparent reason for the decline in his numbers. You could also easily point to his 5.4% shooting percentage, which is miles below his career mark and half of his average rate in Dallas.

You could also point to his ice time (13 minutes per game) and the linemates he routinely plays with in those minutes as reasons for the decline in production. If you want you can even point out the awful time he has had working in the system Hitchcock has implemented.

I think the point is that there are a million reasons you can point to for why Spezza has seen a drop in production that have nothing to do with age. If the Stars move on from him after this season some smart team is going to pick him up for a song and laugh their way to the bank with Spezza anchoring their second line on the way to a Stanley Cup.

What the data show is that Spezza is still really good at generating shots for himself and, particularly, his linemates when given the opportunity. That clause is key and the hinge that this entire problem swings on. How does one get an opportunity under Hitchcock?

I think this is a nuanced question that all too often is brushed off by people who have never been required to set expectations or lead people. As a leader you have to set expectations and hold everyone accountable to meet those expectations. You make the people under you know that you care about them individually and care about the success of the group as a whole so they buy in and help push them to meet those expectations.

There can be no question that Hitchcock understands this concept fully. He does. It’s the backbone of everything he does in hockey. He makes his players unequivocally know how he wants them to play and pushes them to meet those standards. When they do they get rewarded with his confidence and more responsibility.

The consistency of the message is key. When people know “if I do this, I know this will happen” it makes it really easy to buy in. We’ll get to him later, but there’s a reason why you’ve never heard Hitchcock say a negative word about Tyler Pitlick and why he keeps gobbling up responsibility. Ditto Martin Hanzal. They do exactly what Hitchcock wants them to do.

What you didn’t notice me mention was flexibility or adaptability. Nowhere in there is any hint of adjusting to the situation at hand to make the most of what is in front of you. Prior to the season Fox Sports Southwest aired a special called Hitchcock Full Circle (hosted by Julie Dobbs). I wrote about it, but I’m not sure it ever got published. Who knows what happened. I want to highlight this piece of info from the special:

HitchFullCircle

If you’re grading the job performance of Ken Hitchcock this excerpt alone should be the basis of the rubric used, and the role of Jason Spezza is the key situation that should be focused on.

Spezza is a leader of the team. Hitchcock needed to get him to buy in and to successfully play the game he wanted him to play. For most of the season Hitchcock failed at this task. Spezza seemed to be a mess, but he was always one of those guys you would be able to point to for the depth players to get them to fall in line, if successful.

(At this point you may be asking yourself if what Hitchcock is expecting from his players is reasonable, or if it leads to winning hockey in the modern NHL. Hitchcock certainly believes it does, and maybe it does under some circumstances. We’ll get to that eventually.)

He was still an offensive threat, but he needs triggermen with him. Someone has to put the puck in the net off of his quality passes. The Stars lack of depth on the wings limits those opportunities.

Hitchcock demands that his centers play deep in the zone defensively to maintain structure, which inevitably means they will be involved in transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone often. As you can see on the previous chart, Spezza has been terribly unsuccessful doing that which makes moving him to a wing seem somewhat reasonable.

Spezza needs the puck put on his stick in the offensive zone and people to get the puck to. If you make these things happen you have an exceptionally useful player. What Hitchcock has asked him to do hasn’t worked. Once this became an obvious failure Hitchcock had two options. He could either value the skills Spezza brings and make it work, or shit all over him.

Guess which route he took? It’s so strong you can smell it all over the Metroplex.

If Spezza were a marginal player then not yielding at all would be more defensible. Crushing the offensive game of Spezza while the rest of the team has been unable to score since fucking 2017 is inexcusable and it’s very On Brand for Hitchcock. This is exactly what people warned about when he came back. He said the right things, but he hasn’t followed through on them. That inability to be flexible is another key reason why this franchise is staring squarely at the possibility of missing the playoffs once again and continuing a decade of almost utter futility.

I can’t imagine why Spezza wouldn’t be pushing hard to get moved to get as far away from here as possible. Someone like the Penguins or Maple Leafs is going to pick him up for nothing after an offseason of a certain portion of this fanbase rooting for him to be shipped out. He’s going to make the Stars look foolish in another uniform while they scramble to find a player who can bring what Spezza is capable of bringing.

3/19/18 – The Job Security of Jim Nill and Ken Hitchcock

Every relationship, family or personal, ends.  On a long enough timeline everything ends. Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to remind his followers on Twitter that even the sun will eventually explode, mercilessly killing everything living thing that it currently supports.

At this point of the story we have two paths we can choose to follow. Either we work ourselves into a collective existential crisis trying to figure out what the point of doing anything is if we’re ultimately all doomed anyway, or we consider how much time is left in the relationship between the Dallas Stars and general manager Jim Nill.

You know what, Spring Break is ending. I see no need to open an existential whirl pool. Instead let us focus on the immediate futures of Nill and by default Ken Hitchcock.

Nill has made waves with his moves in the summer. Twitter loves to dump on him for being the Off-season Champion over the course of several seasons. Five years into his tenure the jokes get harder and harder to counterattack.

The jokes work because the implication is that the Stars have nothing else to point to except off-season success. Eventually the point of all of this is a Stanley Cup championship right? At some point success has to happen during the regular season. Under Nill, five years in, the Stars have overall been mediocre.

I compiled the points percentage of all 31 franchises over the last five years.

PTSper

Dallas is solidly mediocre. That mediocre ranking includes one really good season. Remove that, and, yeah, it isn’t pretty. Adding to the problem is that four of their division rivals are ahead of them with the now superior Winnipeg Jets behind them. Colorado is coming on strong too. Being mediocre in the Central means you’re fighting for the 8th seed as a wild card.

The most frustrating aspect of all of it is that the Stars have as much top end talent as any team in front of them. They either haven’t been able to develop middle nine forwards or acquire them. Trying to acquire them consistently saps a franchise of trade capital and potential cheap talent, but the Stars have been reluctant to make those trades too.

What they’ve created is a top heavy team with not much secondary scoring. Jason Spezza is 34 and whether through his own fault, divine providence, or Hitch crushing him, he hasn’t done much. Mattias Janmark is closing in on 20 goals. We all love Radek Faksa, but a scoring option he is not. Martin Hanzal has his uses, but when he’s shouldering a heavy defensive load he isn’t scoring.

Maybe Jason Dickinson can do it. Gemel Smith shows signs. Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov could provide something. At this point expecting any of them to develop into big contributors is iffy, and honestly if any of them are good we’ll never know because they’ll never get minutes to prove they belong.

If you refuse to let the kids play and refuse to trade the kids you won’t play for players you will play you’re shooting yourself in the foot repeatedly. If you only try to get those guys through free agency you’re going to overpay in cash and given the age of the usual free agent you’re more likely to sign someone reaching a cliff of their production quickly. Someone has to play those minutes though and, God love him, 23 Tyler Pitlicks aren’t winning a Stanley Cup.

What the Stars under Nill have shown repeatedly is that they will pay in prospect capital for a star-level talent, but anything perceived to be less than that isn’t happening. Patience is a virtue, but patience is also crippling. At some point bold moves have to be taken if you expect bold results.

If you see that your team can’t score, and you know that you don’t have scorers hurt waiting to come back, how on earth do you justify not paying the price to acquire a scorer? If you see that your team has no secondary scoring how do you not try to find ANYONE to bring in for depth? How do you not work in kids who are producing even a little in the AHL? The Stars are afraid to make a mistake and now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Lindy Ruff is a perfect example. He should have been fired last November when the Stars were a laughing stock around the league. Instead he and the Stars toiled around for all of 2016/2017 aimlessly when the season could’ve possibly been saved. Patience killed the Stars.

The response came this past offseason when the Stars brought Ken Hitchcock back into the fold. He brought structure back to the roster and made them respectable in all facets of the game. They’re still bad, but at least no one is laughing at them now I guess.

At what point does the Nill-led management group reach the end of their rope? New management would be reasonably expected to be allowed to find their own coaching staff so Hitch seems like he would be out the door with Nill. At what point do the scouting department decision-makers take more blame? You can’t really blame scouts since they just evaluate players, but at some point the decision-makers above the scouts have to take some heat for the utter lack of top end talent coming into the organization.

It is simply inexcusable to waste this much prime of the careers of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and now John Klingberg. The Stars need more serious retooling after this season. They need to give Tyler Seguin a reason to commit his future to the franchise.

If I were him I wouldn’t even consider re-signing until I saw more being done to upgrade the bottom of the roster. Why would he? He wants to win. This franchise can spiral out of control so quickly if the Stars don’t get it together. Nill has shown such a reluctance to pay the price to get in on prime talent since stealing Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns from the cap-strapped Blackhawks that I’m not sure you can reasonably trust him or his administration to take the next steps forward.

This team was pretty solid for a long time this year and has completely cratered. I’m not sure what the players on the ice have to do at this point to save the jobs of their superiors. At this point I don’t know how the administration can come back in tact. This is now ten years of mediocrity with one (maybe two) shining light of a good season snuck in there that ended with an ass-whipping at the hands of the Blues in the second round of the playoffs.

Enough is enough. It’s time for sustained results.