1/15/19 – Jamie Benn and Player Valuation

In any business you have to trust your people to make decisions that will push your business forward. At some point every business needs outside input and fresh blood to keep the decision making process evolving. The idea that Stars management needs some fresh blood is one I floated this past off season. This recent note about Jamie Benn’s Art Ross Trophy being a catalyst and excuse for his large contract extension only strengthens that thought.

Sean Shapiro is cranking out a large amount of high quality interesting pieces on the regular for The Athletic that makes my five bucks a month to The Athletic worth it.I get not wanting to spend money on too many things. Believe me, I do. When I upgraded this place to Business out of pocket to work on making it look a little nicer I winced. I don’t think twice about that five bucks though.

I don’t know how much of it is Sean or the aftermath of Jim Lites embarrassing the franchise lately, but it seems like the stream of stories worth writing about doesn’t end. Sean’s latest Shap Shots column has so many little details in it like this stunning admission from a team source about Jamie Benn:

Last month a team source told me that in hindsight, Benn winning the Art Ross could have been the worst thing to ever happen to this franchise. It was an award that helped Benn demand his massive contract and set unfair expectations for a player about to exit his prime. In hindsight, that was the moment this source said the Stars should have traded Benn for the king’s ransom that he would have been worth at the time.

[…]

As Benn has aged — just a season and a half into the life of his eight-year contract — the Stars haven’t just gotten angry with the player, but with aging itself. They bet big that Benn would either find the fountain of youth or a time machine, and he’s yet to make those particular discoveries.

Posting this to r/dating_advice as a relationship scenario is going to make commenters tell OP to run away. This is Not Good.

Let’s start with the patently absurd idea that Jamie Benn winning the Art Ross Trophy could have been the worst thing to ever happen to this franchise.

Stop it.

Jamie Benn winning the Art Ross was a blessing for a franchise that recently had otherwise had little worth celebrating. Between this and Mike Modano hitting his milestones as his career wound down how much else was there?

Benn winning the Art Ross Trophy did not force the Stars to sign a contract they believed was too expensive. The Stars were within their rights to attempt to trade Benn if they felt he wasn’t worth the money. They signed the contract the same as he did.

If the Stars decided to trade Benn after he won the Art Ross do they make the playoffs in 2016? What would the reaction have been as Benn improved to 89 points from 87 in 2017? What would they have traded him for? Teams trading the good player for futures rarely win the deal (as evidenced by Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza). What good would it have done the franchise to deal Benn?

The Stars would have gotten prospects and/or picks in return. What about their recent track record of drafting and developing players suggests that they would have turned those assets into actual NHL talent? Trading Jamie Benn never would have been a realistic option for a team that desperately needed to hold on to key players.

The biggest red flag here is the Stars not grasping the aging curve of an NHL player. It was never reasonable to assume that Benn was going to score 80+ points a year during this contract. He’s still on a 60 point pace this year so he’s hardly a bad player.

Expectations versus results are the biggest problem here. The Stars expected superstar Jamie Benn to always be here. Instead they’re getting really good Jamie Benn at a superstar cost. Then they’re blaming the aging player for the team not getting what they expected.

The team set unrealistic expectations and the team has to deal with it. It isn’t Benn’s fault that he is aging or that his personality doesn’t match what the team wants from a captain. By all accounts he’s a great guy who is busting his ass to be the best player he can be. He isn’t a vocal leader, but he never has been.

His play is saying that he’s a good, albeit aging, player. That isn’t what the Stars wanted. The Stars need to re-evaluate the thought process that led them to sign a contract they no longer seem to like less than two years later so that they can avoid “mistakes” like this in the future.

What they shouldn’t do is continue to dump all over Jamie Benn for their own player valuation “mistakes”.

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1/15/19 – Free of Ryan Kesler, Andrew Cogliano is a Good Value Buy

Devin Shore grew to become a fan favorite over time. He was everyone’s kid brother running around with his tongue out getting extra hyped when he finally scored a goal. Yesterday the Dallas Stars sent him to the Anaheim Ducks for Andrew Cogliano and made a significant upgrade to the roster.

I can’t stress enough that Cogliano doesn’t solve the Stars problems. He isn’t the scorer they need. He’s a speedy winger with a respected defensive reputation, and presumably he is being brought in just as much for his leadership ability as the Stars try to find players capable of dragging teammates into the battle.

He is an interesting value pickup though. Cogliano hasn’t had a particularly great season. His three goals and eight assists aren’t going to wow anyone. His steady string of awful shooting percentages over a four year period isn’t inspiring either. He is however markedly better than Shore while only costing Shore plus an extra million in cap hit.

Cogliano has been skating with Ryan Kesler and Jakub Silfverberg mostly this season. The Ducks have used them in a heavy defensive role where they get only 36 to 37% offensive zone starts. They’re still putting up an impressive 47% Corsi % given the tough minutes, but the heavy defensive zone starts are a new development.

Join me for a deep dive of Natural Stat Trick‘s numbers, won’t you?

Going back to the 2014 season, Cogliano’s most consistent linemates were Saku Koivu and Daniel Winnik. They got close to 50/50 offensive zone starts. In 2015 he began his run of playing with Silfverberg, but they were joined by Nate Thompson. This time they got 60% offensive zone starts.

During the Cogliano/Kesler/Silfverberg era they had a top notch three year stretch from 2016 through last season where they averaged 46% offensive zone starts and a 50-51% Corsi % while garnering Selke Trophy votes. This season the Ducks have pushed them into a heavy defensive role that has had a predictable impact on their numbers.

One thing that stands out, at least the last two years, is that the other two (and Kesler in particular) get a lot of support from Cogliano. Without him on the ice Kesler’s numbers take a noticeable hit. The chart below has Time on Ice, Time Without, and Corsi %’s with Cogliano, without Cogliano, and Cogliano without the player.

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Cogliano and his speed can still make an impact when he isn’t with Kesler. Kesler missed half of last season then had offseason hip surgery. There was at one point some thought that he might miss all of the 2019 campaign too.

“As of right now, there is no timeline whatsoever,” general manager Bob Murray told the Ducks website Friday. “He couldn’t skate [during the second half of the season]. No push-off on his right leg. He has to rebuild his glutes and quads. That’s what we’re in the process of doing right now. I’m hopeful to have him back before Christmas, but that’s all I’m going to say right now.”

Is it any surprise then, that with Kesler and Cogliano on the ice the Ducks have virtually no drive to the net? These are the shot heat maps from Hockeyviz with Cogliano on the ice in 2019 and 2017 (the last full year Kesler was healthy).

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That trio opened up a can against the opposition in 2017. 2019 has been a much different story. Kesler is essentially what Martin Hanzal has been for the Stars when healthy. Kesler was a possibility to miss games until Christmas this year, but as of January 14th he has 44 games played. There is no way he’s healthy, and at 34 even if he is he isn’t close to the Kesler of old.

Even when healthy, Kesler’s playmaking ability began taking a hit in the 2017 season. Using the passing data tracked by Corey Sznajder and visualized by CJ Turturo it’s pretty apparent that his playmaking was in decline when you check out his pass quality stats.

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Looking at the Ducks 2019 tracked data, albeit only ten or so games, shows this even more clearly. Kesler appears done. Turturo updated the viz with the 2019 data. This is the Ducks shot contributions per hour for their forwards. The green bar is shots per hour. Each color after green refers to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd shot assists, or passes that lead to shot attempts. Notice the top and bottom of the chart.

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Cogliano has been setting up a lot of potential offense in his minutes despite heavy defensive responsibilities and playing with a broken Kesler. Reportedly the Stars are going to use him with Jason Spezza.

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Say what you will about Spezza, but his ability to generate offense with his passing is still significantly better than Kesler. Playing with Spezza will put Cogliano in more of an offensive role, but expecting him to start producing at a high level offensively would be foolish. He’s a utility guy – the kind of guy all successful offenses need down the lineup. But that line is still going to need a trigger man.

At the end of the day, no matter where Cogliano fits, the Stars turned a young player who has demonstrated little ability to be a consistently successful NHL player into a significantly better player who fits their immediate window, and who could perform significantly better with a new center.

Going back to the data tracked by Sznajder, check out 2014-18 Cogliano side by side with Shore.

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Yes, Cogliano is 31. Yes, Shore should be improving. Here’s 2018.

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Cogliano is unquestionably better, He doesn’t cost much more. He should help with the leadership issue. Offensively he makes the team better, even if he doesn’t fix the issue. Defensively he’s at least as good as Shore. He will continue to be an excellent penalty killer.

I see no downside to adding this kind of value.

Good on the Stars for pulling the trigger as long as they understand that this doesn’t fix the problems. It’s a good value play, but legitimately competing is going to require at least one top six scoring forward added to the mix.

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1/14/19 – Dallas Stars Swap Devin Shore for Andrew Cogliano

The Dallas Stars have swapped 24 year old Devin Shore in exchange for 31 year old Andrew Cogliano of the Anaheim Ducks. Cogliano is signed for two more years at a hair over three million dollars.

If you look at this trade in a vacuum it looks like the Stars turned a 24 year old into a 31 year old locked into a three year contract while producing not much more than the 24 year old. The points here don’t really matter. This trade isn’t about points. This trade is about finding guys who can drag the entire team into the fight.

Andrew Cogliano is fast. At one point he was among the fastest in the league. He is known for being an excellent penalty killer. He is valued around the league for being a great guy and a leader who never takes a night off. The addition of Cogliano helps this team in a number of ways, and it may even improve the offense if he frees Radek Faksa up from some of his defensive responsibilities.

After the loss to the St. Louis Blues Jim Montgomery discussed the culture of mediocrity around the team. I wrote more about that situation here. The main idea there was that listening to Stars management continue to clutch pearls about how bad the culture is without changing the players out would have been obnoxious and pointless. This trade in isolation isn’t going to fix all of the issues, but it’s a start.

Sean Shapiro hit the nail on the head this morning. In his Shap Shots column he talked extensively about how the mediocre culture took root. This is a blurb from his thoughts:

Benn has also been allowed to define what leadership means for the Stars. He leads by his play rather than his words, making his captaincy less impactful when he’s not playing at a high level.

While Benn takes the lumps because of certain things he represents, he’s also provided the shield that stops other leaders on this team from being exposed. When Benn was out recently, the bench was silent; no one stepped up. When players that wore a letter were asked after Saturday’s loss to St. Louis about how they could impact the team as leaders, they responded by essentially saying they had done their jobs, that the loss was not their fault.

No one is asking John Klingberg to babysit other players while they get ready for a game, but there is a responsibility that comes with wearing an “A” which means you actually work to help make sure those following you are prepared. You need leaders to be part of the solution, not the problem.

This is where mediocrity takes hold. There is an expectation that others will be better, but no one is taking responsibility for the problems. They go all the way to the top and trickle down.

You aren’t going to change Jamie Benn’s personality, and changing a culture from within is hard. Bringing new respected voices in from the outside is one way to make it start to happen.  Make no mistake though, it’s a start.

Cogliano doesn’t fix the offense. He doesn’t fix the transition game or make the team have a consistent productive second line, but if he can help guide the younger guys on the bottom lines to being better more consistent professionals he will make an impact whether he does anything on the ice or not. And if he can be that guy in the bottom six working to rally the troops during in tense moments even better.

Leadership is important. It’s always going to be virtually impossible to quantify. Clearly Stars management and the coaches think there is a leadership void. Without being in the room it is almost impossible to fairly say, but the coaches aren’t just making the concerns they see with leadership up.

This is a team that desperately needs secondary scoring, and that isn’t coming from Cogliano (or Shore). We’ll see what else they have planned, if anything, but if they think they are a legitimate contender they need more.

There will be a full write up about what Cogliano is and can provide later. In the meantime, I guess the Stars decided to try to fix it eh?

Good.

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1/13/19 – The Culture of Mediocrity

When Jim Lites publicly embarrassed the franchise on behalf of Tom Gaglardi and the rest of Dallas Stars management by going after Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin they made several severe miscalculations.

  • They had a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem.
  • They had a fundamental misunderstanding of how to deal with the incorrectly diagnosed problem.
  • They dropped their biggest bomb, seemingly out of nowhere, with apparently no exit strategy should the message not produce results to their liking because they offered nothing in the way of consequences.

What the franchise keeps communicating with the fan base is that they have lost their way. By putting their two best players on blast without covering all of their bases to eliminate any potential excuses the organization opened themselves up to a significant amount of unwanted, but warranted, criticism. Once they dropped that bomb the time for words was over.

And yet…still they talk.

Jim Montgomery’s comments after the Stars lost to the St. Louis Blues further drove the point home that the Stars have lost their focus as an organization.

I am very frustrated that I have not been able to gain consistency in our performance and I haven’t been able to change the culture of mediocrity.

He opined about the effort against the Blues specifically.

“I thought there was no rhyme or reason to some of the decisions we made out there tonight. Our game plan wasn’t executed and that’s my fault for not getting the message through. The last two games have been a real gut punch for me, personally, because I just don’t think I am being able to get across how we are supposed to execute. The more important part is, never mind the execution, the effort can overcome a lot of the mistakes, but there is not the effort there right now to overcome mistakes.”

He was asked what he can do to get the message across.

I don’t know. My job is to keep trying. That’s my job.”

He was asked if he considered using a timeout during the first period to get a message across too.

“You get a lot of timeouts. In other games, I have done that approach on a timeout. I can think of the two Colorado [Avalanche] games, in particular, and Madison Square Garden, and sometimes you feel like that is the appropriate message, and sometimes you tell the captains. There have been sometimes, after a horrible period, where it’s [the captains’] room. You guys need to bring it forth. Unfortunately, there have been too many times where we have to think about how to motivate these guys. That’s a problem in and of itself that we have had to do that so many times this year already.”

In summation

  • I’m frustrated.
  • I haven’t communicated the game plan well enough.
  • I don’t know what to do.
  • The captains need to motivate people, but they often do a bad job of it.

Montgomery deserves more credit than the rest of the front office for publicly accepting responsibility for his perceived sins, but none of that makes an outside observer comfortable that this ship is being navigated coherently.

You don’t know what to do?

You haven’t communicated the game plan well enough?

You haven’t gotten rid of a culture of mediocrity, which inadvertently implies that this culture was blossoming under the 3rd winningest coach in NHL history?

It’s January 13th.

It has barely been two weeks since the Stars as an organization verbally, publicly, and loudly dropped the hammer on Benn and Seguin (mind you, they aren’t the only captains Montgomery would be referencing in his remarks), and the head coach is throwing his hands in the air essentially telling the world that the players aren’t executing what he and his staff are telling them to execute?

I don’t know what to do, but it’s my job to keep trying. This is not inspiring. At all.

By dropping their biggest bomb so early and inappropriately the Stars have set up a scenario where the only productive path they can follow without looking 100% impotent  is to alter the core of the roster. That doesn’t necessarily mean subtract from it, but it does at the least mean add to it. You simply can’t drop that bomb then continue to publicly complain about the same things.

In any leadership scenario if the leadership throws down the gauntlet they simply have to back up their words with actions if results don’t follow lest they run the risk of losing every shred of credibility.

How about an example?

On several occasions this year I have been told this same general idea by different students.

“Just give me a 70.”

“I’m trying really hard, but I don’t know this stuff. I would like to get at least a 75.”

“You can’t fail me.” (My personal favorite.)

This group of students wordlessly tells me on the regular that they have never learned accountability. They expect to pass regardless of any work they do. They tell me they’ve done their work – then I see 10 assignments with no attempt made. No homework is turned in. Virtually no one is in tutorials. Few ask questions in class. The expectation is that I am going to capitulate to give them what they want.

I’m stubborn.

I spent weeks trying to figure out the biggest appropriate bomb I could drop on them to get their attention. I decided to let them fail. They would get whatever grade they got put on their report card then, given that they need to learn, I would give them four days to recover credit despite that grade going home to mom and dad.

I sent home a form letter to every parent three weeks before Christmas detailing all the missing assignments for each student, listing tutorial dates, giving my email, providing login information for our online work program, and showing grades. I made as many calls as I could to people who didn’t return my letter signed. I covered all of my bases prior to dropping that bomb to give any stragglers a chance to get it together and to cover myself so no one can reasonably say I didn’t do everything in my power to help.

In the end, I know I have gone above and beyond to help these kids do what they need to do to be successful. I have removed every possible excuse these kids could have to the point that the only possible conclusion any reasonable person can make is that these kids failed themselves. If I don’t stick to my guns now it will all be for nothing.

Could Stars management honestly say they did everything possible to make this team competitive at a high level in 2019, given their offseason, prior to dragging Seguin and Benn? The same offseason which saw them add a decent backup goalie, promote a 19 year old defenseman, sign Blake Comeau, and sign Roman Polak? Really?

Of course not.

Now the Stars are still not happy with their roster. They publicly blamed Benn and Seguin for the mess so now the only logical next step is to find them some help. They can’t move either guy without their consent, and doing so would be stupid. They only have enough cap space to add a player making about $4,000,000 for the season at the deadline (though that could have been significantly higher had they put Stephen Johns on LTIR after training camp, something they inexplicably didn’t do).

How much of an impact is $4,000,000 going to buy you right now?

Unless they get very creative the answer is coming from within. Erik Condra needs to stay in the bottom six. Denis Gurianov needs to be given a chance even if he struggles. Roope Hintz keeps improving. Joel L’Esperance is the 2nd highest scorer in the AHL. Let him have a go.

As a general rule I never support those who call for full rebuilds of teams with a lot of talent. The Stars have it. If you think this roster is good enough to win and you want to infuse this roster with passion then the most obvious option is to bring players in who haven’t been tainted by this culture of mediocrity.

Give the kids ice time at the expense of veterans. Let them bring youthful exuberance and excitement into the lineup. Put them in leadership roles and see what happens. Empower them to push veterans even if they make some mistakes. From day one the message has been that mistakes aren’t as important as effort. Am I to believe kids fighting for their NHL lives won’t put that level of effort out there? Of course they will.

Barring a massive reorganization of the roster on a shoestring remaining budget the only way forward for 2019 is to let the kids play prominent minutes if the Stars still aren’t satisfied with the product on the ice. They have to do something to if they still aren’t satisfied. I think I speak for many of us when I say that I can’t listen to Stars management complain anymore.

Stop clutching your pearls, take the reins, and do something about it. Lead the organization the way you want the players to lead on the ice.

Accept responsibility and fix this.

Edit: apparently the Stars can make up to about $12,000,000 in cap space by retroactively LTIRing Johns, Martin Hanzal, and Marc Methot. Would’ve sworn that wasn’t possible, but apparently the Stars can add anyone available should they choose. The point remains: do something.

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1/8/19 – The Case for Erik Condra

The Dallas Stars often make it hard to defend their ability to develop players. The swapping of Denis Gurianov with Erik Condra appears to be another in a string of head scratching moves, but I’m not sure questioning it is fair to either player.

I genuinely believe that Gurianov should be on the NHL roster because I do believe he is one of the Stars top 12 forwards. He brings an offensive spark they’ve needed all season when he is at his best. I get sending him down temporarily if they think he isn’t consistently demonstrating that ability.

I think you can very easily make an argument that Condra is among the Stars top 12 forwards also, and that he should also be up and playing. Whether that should be in place of Gurianov or not is debatable, but over his career he has demonstrated significantly more value in terms of Goals Above Replacement than many of his Stars contemporaries.

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I pulled the GAR totals from Evolving-Hockey and put them over a 60 minute pace to even out the ice time discrepancies. Val Nichushkin’s rookie season gave him enough of a head start to stay ahead of Condra on a rate basis, but many of the others can’t touch the value he has brought in his NHL career on an hourly basis.

Hell, he has almost the same cumulative GAR total as Blake Comeau in less than half of the minutes.

It’s important to point out that GAR is descriptive, not prescriptive. There is no guarantee that since Condra has put these totals on the board in the past that he can continue to do it after a couple years absence from the NHL. On the other hand, he has 34 points in 32 games for the Texas Stars this year. When you combine that with his defensive reputation it isn’t hard to see why the Trying To Win Now Stars would prefer him on the roster over Gurianov at the moment.

What are some things we know about what Condra has done in the NHL? Evolving-Hockey breaks GAR down into Even Strength, Power Play, Penalty Killing, and Penalty Differential components.

condra

Across the board Condra either breaks even or provides above replacement level value historically. He is historically the best penalty killer of the group, and he draws as many penalties as he takes.

The problem here is that Condra is making $750,000. The rest of those guys combined are making $12,700,000 to not be discernibly better than the guy coming off the street. If you lump Pitlick in with him you have arguably two of the three best players on this list combining to make less than half of what Nichushkin, Shore, Comeau, or Janmark each make individually.

That isn’t a particularly good indicator that the front office is moving in the right direction. Roster decisions with the bottom nine forwards have been sketchy at best for several reasons. This doesn’t even touch the bag of money they handed the injury-prone Martin Hanzal. Poor talent identification on the bottom of the roster is the key reason the Stars aren’t at the top of the conference right now.

Calling up Condra appears like it could definitely help that group. Bringing Gurianov back when he rounds back into form should too. The Stars have the horses to play in the bottom six. Now they need to do a better job of identifying them to allow them to spend more appropriately to fill other holes.

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1/6/19 -Radek Faksa, Not Julius Honka, Screwed up That Play Against New Jersey

When Jim Lites embarrassed the Dallas Stars organization at the behest of owner Tom Gaglardi he mentioned that he’s tired of “bloggers talking about Honka” among other players. The Dallas Stars organization should go full earmuffs for the rest of this post.

I could sit here and bitch about the nuance of developing people for another 1000 words easily. I almost did it. I deleted about 100 words when I started once I realized most of what I was saying was already written here. I’m not sure if that makes me a blowhard or redundant or some combination thereof, or if it even matters. The points still remain the same, and the ideas as they relate to the development of Julius Honka remain the same.

In the Stars 5-4 win over the New Jersey Devils Honka made a couple of plays that ended up with poor results. This play in particular, and the response to it, bothered me.

HonkaFaksa.gif

The general consensus has been to blame Honka for the goal against for a turnover in traffic. Full bias disclaimer, I still very much believe in Honka. What I see is Honka reading that Radek Faksa was going to take the puck to the blueline so he jumped into the play with the intent of going to the boards to give Faksa puck support.

Four Devils skaters are right there squeezing Faksa off. He got himself completely isolated, and from my view Faksa’s only play with the puck is to put it in deep where Tyler Pitlick could have engaged in a one on one puck battle if Honka himself didn’t retrieve it. Instead, Faksa tried a suicide pass into Honka’s skates with no defensive support behind him.

The only other thing Honka could have reasonably done here is to back out of the zone as Faksa skated towards him with virtually all of the Devils giving pressure. From my view this is exactly the type of play the Stars have been saying they want from Honka. They want aggressive in the name of creating offense. This was it. He didn’t make the bad pass. Faksa did.

On day one of training camp, the first under Jim Montgomery, Mark Stepneski had a bunch of quotes from players and coaches that dealt with being aggressive.

Let’s start with Montgomery:

“Be aggressive, make mistakes out of being aggressive,” Montgomery told the first group of players as they practiced. “Attack pucks in your area.”

Devin Shore:

“We were given the green light to be aggressive as long as you are working hard back over the puck. That’s the way the game is played now. Mistakes are going to happen, but make sure they are hard mistakes, that way you can recover.

A soft mistake definitely happened here on this play. Again though, I think it was Faksa.

John Klingberg:

“Every team wants to pressure, but the reads are going to be a little different as to when we want to go or when we don’t want to go. And when the defensemen are breaking out, they are expected to be really jumping and be up on the attack.”

Attack. Be Aggressive. This is exactly what Honka did here. The reaction to immediately blame him for this play is somewhat understandable if you buy into the idea that Honka is constantly making egregious mistakes that are detrimental to the team. He isn’t, though he is far from perfect.

The message here to Honka should be an acknowledgement that this was good aggressiveness. This is what they need from Honka even if ultimately the play ended poorly. When Honka is making these reads he’s playing the game that is going to keep him in the NHL for years to come.

Most of the time he isn’t going to get a pass into the skates with four opposing players around. Take your pitchforks to Faksa and save your ire for the next turnover credited to Honka.

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The Fucking Horseshit Dallas Stars: A Hockey Franchise in Dangerous Denial

The_Atlantic

I’m pissed. Let’s do this.

It’s tough to know where to even start with this one. This may get long.

I’ve been a hardcore fan of the Dallas Stars ever since their arrival in Texas back in 1993, and I’ve covered the NHL and the Stars in some form or fashion for the better part of the last decade. In all those years I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like team CEO Jim Lites’ profanity-laced, on-the-record tirade directly pointedly at the team’s two superstar players. It was a bizarre moment not just in hockey but in all of sports, leaving many questioning not only the tone but the message itself.

What they hell were they thinking?

It’s clear that there is an incredible amount of frustration within the Dallas Stars organization, and perhaps tension between the hockey ops and the business side. One side feels it’s held up it’s end of the bargain while the other is failing to deliver on expensive promises.

Lites was the first person hired by Gaglardi, brought on to steer the franchise out of bankruptcy and to restore the revenue-generating enterprises that helped make the Stars so big in Dallas twenty years ago.

He definitely had an impact, as the season-ticket holder base increased, the Stars unveiled a very successful new logo and color scheme, and the Stars have worked once more to increase their business footprint in the market and expand on opportunities around the AAC. Yet what also made the Stars so successful as an organization back in the heyday of the late 90’s and early 2000’s has less to do with Lites’ business acumen and almost everything to do with one thing – the Dallas Stars were one of the most successful teams in the NHL from 1993 to 2005.

The Stars won – a lot – and they did so with star power in Modano, Nieuwendyk, Hull, Hatcher, Belfour, Turco, Morrow, etc, etc. For a while there, the perfect storm brewed to put hockey fever in Texas.

For a hockey team in Dallas – a hotbed of football where the rise of the baseball and basketball teams coincided with the Stars’ demise – the only way to rise out of the shadows was simple. Just win. Make the postseason on a regular basis, win a playoff series every now and then and at least flirt with making it to the Stanley Cup.

Gaglardi and Lites understood this. They hired Jim Nill and brought in an expensive veteran coach, and Gaglardi instantly showed the willingness to open up the checkbook and spend to the cap. And for a few years there it seemed to work. The Stars were one of the highest-scoring and most exciting teams in hockey. They made it to the playoffs in 2 of three seasons. Won a division title. It all seemed to be going rather well.

Until it wasn’t. Until the seams in how the team was built started to show, until years of bad drafting and poor prospect development caught up to them. Until the inability to find a reliable backup goaltending fried Kari Lehtonen. Until the Stars seemingly shied away from the style of hockey that earned them so many wins, so many new fans and so much attention from around the NHL.

Jim Nill was handed an organization light on top-end prospects and with only Jamie Benn and an unknown John Klingberg to really build around. He was aggressive early on – trading for Seguin and Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp and hitting early on a key veteran pickup like Patrick Eaves. His teams were built around veterans that complimented a young core but as those veterans left, or retired, or were too injured – more and more never quite lived up to the what the team so obviously needed and what the hype promised

So now we’re in the present, with the Stars on their third head coach in three seasons and once again fighting for a playoff position while battling through key injuries, underperforming (or absent) veterans and a team that’s devoid of offensive skill at forward outside of the top line.

The team is scratching and clawing and surviving, and while frustrating at times it’s clear that Jim Montgomery is coaching with all he’s got in his first NHL season, that the team is inconsistent but considering the injuries — the Stars have gone through 12 defensemen this season! — that, honestly, fighting for a wild card spot is actually a pretty good place to be in.

There’s room for improvement. Benn and Seguin aren’t exactly scoring like we’re used to, but it’s clear a key addition on the second line could really help balance the forwards and if the defense is actually healthy the Stars could maybe – perhaps – be a playoff team in April.

But, see, that’s not good enough. No sir. The time of excuses is over.

The Stars have one of the highest payrolls in the NHL, are right up against the cap and next season will be paying their two superstars a combined $26 million in salary. So for the owner to look up, see those two players not even in the top 50 in scoring and his team again fighting for a playoff spot, it’s understandable he’s going to be upset. He wants results for the investment he’s made.

Gaglardi is a passionate hockey fan. He’s a passionate owner with money to spend on his team. Those two have not coincided well the past few years as it’s become clear Gaglardi has started to get a bit too involved with a few questionable directives – with Lites becoming the apparent fall guy for this latest outburst.

Hire Hitchcock – get the defense fixed.

Get Benn and Seguin’s ass back in line, now.

At this point it’s clear that Lites was not acting alone, launching into some rogue ranting at the nearest reporter with a microphone. Instead this was calculated, supported by the owner Tom Gaglardi himself, with the apparent intention of lighting a fire under the butts of their top paid players in the middle of another rather frustrating season. The language was brash, the tone was insanely harsh, and it was wholly unprofessional on so many levels it’s hard to even put into words.

There are invariably some out there (and I’ve definitely heard from them) that believe this rant was needed, that Benn and Seguin aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain and it was about time someone yelled at the Spoiled Millionaire Millennials who so obviously weren’t putting in the effort needed and were being content with playing through their newly minted contracts and not much more.

“THEY’RE JUST LAZY!” cries the older generation at the younger. It’s a tale as old as time – especially now that the cultural divide between those 55+ and those under 30 gets wider and wider.

Frankly, Lites comes across as nothing more than the front office personification of that most annoying commenter on any fan site, or that guy constantly yelling “shoot!” from the upper bowl every single time a player has the puck in the offensive zone. It screams of using a sledgehammer to put a thumbtack in a wall, and reeks of a nasty notion that has been building regarding this hockey franchise the past few years:

The Dallas Stars are lost in mediocrity, and are in denial of not just how they got there – but how to get out of the mess they created.

Story time.

Before Lindy Ruff and Tyler Seguin arrived to set the Dallas hockey world on fire, the Stars were in trouble. The team had just come out of a bankruptcy, they had a new owner but the team just wasn’t that good. Fan interest in Dallas had waned considerably, and the Stars roster was just a bit of a mess.

There also wasn’t much local coverage. There was Mike Heika at the DMN, one radio show that regularly acknowledged the team, some team writers, Mark Stepneski and us folks at Defending Big D. I won’t lie, we took advantage of the sparse coverage and did our best to fill a gaping hole in advanced coverage of the Stars. We were good friends with the regular beat writers, we earned press credentials and a permanent spot in the press box, and we built a very strong readership.

We were also brutally honest.

Twice I was pulled aside by players imploring us for some more positive coverage, that they were trying hard to build the fanbase again but it’s tough with so critical coverage.

Several times I was contacted directly by Jim Lites’ office regarding articles we’d written, critical of not just the on-ice coverage but also our coverage of other questionable aspects of the Stars organization (anyone remember the Ice Girls lake day video?)

It’s a tough spot to be in. We had earned credentials and valued our access as an independent blog, and were careful not to rock the boat too much at times. It was clear though that the team was a bit sensitive to overly critical coverage in a market where they were struggling to get recognized along with the big boys.

So that’s why Jim Lites’ comments just ring so hollow, and why they came across as so cheap and personal. Lites lambasted the local media (the bloggers!) for not being hard enough on Benn and Seguin, while coming down too much and writing too many negative articles about Shore or Ritchie or Nichushkin. Where was the outrage? This would never happen in a real hockey market like Montreal or Boston or New York, he claims. So if the media won’t destroy the two best players on the Dallas Stars who are actually one of the very few contributing positively to the team this season, then by damn Jim Lites is up to the task.

I’ve heard this a lot the past week:

“Look, I don’t agree with the language or the tone. But don’t you agree this was needed in a way, that something needed to be said about Benn and Seguin?”

This is where this whole debacle really and truly falls apart.

See, no one is denying that Benn and Seguin are having a down year compared to past seasons. There’s no one that hasn’t acknowledged that the rest of the big NHL scorers have picked up the pace, while they have regressed in point production.

The issue is with the underlying message that Lites apparently really needed to send: This would all be just fine if only those two were scoring more. It was right there in his comments. In what the owner had to say in his follow ups – that this is “the most talented” and the “deepest” team since Gaglardi purchased the Stars.

It’s laughable. And it shows that at least publicly, this is a front office and management that has no intention of truly owning their own mistakes and shortcomings that also led to this point – and instead has chosen to lay it all on the only two forwards actually dragging this thing along on a night to night basis.

Lites and management want absolutely brutal honesty when it comes it their two star players – players who are unable to even come close to firing back and responding with the same level of animosity and vitriol that was directed towards them. Players who are now put in an impossible position and must appear as absolute professionals, and who so far have handled this situation far, far better than the older gentlemen that sign their paychecks.

What they don’t want is brutal honesty when it comes to their own decisions, their own mismanagement of this team over years. Like I said, I’ve had a few interesting phone calls over opinion pieces I’ve written. Bob Sturm mentioned this week upper management with the Stars contacted him privately, upset about his reaction on Twitter and how he should be supporting the hockey team.

It’s absolutely ridiculous that the Stars get to drag Seguin and Benn through the mud yet lash out at any criticism directed toward the decision makers.

Well – I can tell you this. Their actions have probably had the exact opposite effect of what was intended.

Almost immediately every hockey analyst around the web jumped to check the actual numbers behind what was going on with this team this season. Surprise – it turns out the Stars aren’t nearly as deep as they think they are and in fact, Benn and Seguin are not only the two best forwards on the team but they’re the best by a mile in almost every category.

If anyone with the Stars wants to send the message of “if only Benn and Seguin were scoring more then we’d be fine” then they are nothing but delusional about the reality of the current roster and the issues leading to its construction.

Let’s break it down. You want to hear some critical, no punches pulled analysis? Let’s do it.

Benn isn’t scoring as his usual pace.

Well, sort of.

It’s true that Benn isn’t shooting as much and he’s shooting from much closer to the net than he used to. It’s also true that it’s clear he isn’t as capable of extended dominant play like he used to.

Perhaps he’s just not trying as hard as he used to, now that he’s getting paid.

It’s one of the oldest cliches in pro sports: athlete does their best in a contract year, scores a huge payday and then doesn’t put up the same numbers that won him that contract, leading everyone to believe they’re just cashing a paycheck without the will to compete like they once had.

Nevermind that those huge contracts are won based on past performances, and generally are earned near the end of a player’s prime (or at least right in the midst of) meaning a natural dropoff in production due to age coincides with the years they just so happen to be getting paid the most.

Which is exactly what has happened with Jamie Benn.

Benn has missed just 13 games the past seven season combined, and has played in every single game four of the past five seasons. He’s one of the last few true power forwards, combining a punishing physicality with deft puck skills and brute force. That takes a toll over time, and Benn has dealt with several injuries over the years and is now approaching 30.

I don’t know what the Stars expected, but there’s going to be a bit of a dropoff over time. I know there’s concern that perhaps the raw emotion isn’t there as much as it used to be – but let’s not begin to pretend that we can just lay it all at his feet.

Yes, we wonder where Beast Mode has gone. Perhaps making Benn angry is what they wanted, to get him pissed off and taking it out on the opposition. Perhaps this was intended to get the team to galvanize around him.

By all accounts Benn is as much of an upstanding citizen as you could want from your young superstar. There’s never been any hint of an off-ice issue, and he’s the face of the franchise. He’s given everything he has to the team the past ten seasons, when he was pretty much the only reason to even watch the team at times and why there were even competitive – and the moment things start to regress even a little bit we just rake him over the coals in a public flogging?

“Well, the rest of the team follows his lead! As captain it’s his job to motivate his teammates to play better around him!”

Actually….no. That’s the coach’s job. The captain in hockey is way overblown by fans and by media to some extent, but you can’t put an entire hockey team’s performance – especially when he’s only on the ice for 1/3 of the game – on the shoulders of one singular player.

Which brings us to…

The Stars have a massive issue with scoring depth on the NHL roster and in the system.

This has been building for a while, and this is why this whole narrative of “if only they were playing better” sounds so damn idiotic.

The Stars had good depth for a while there. Then players got older, and left. Nill tried and failed to find cheaper veterans to plug those holes or overpaid the wrong veterans to fill others. Cody Eakin was replaced with Martin Hanzal; we know how that’s turning out.

In the middle of last season, with the Stars all the way up to the 3rd in the conference, it was clear that the Stars needed help with scoring depth. Instead the team started to struggle and Jim Nill chose to do nothing at the trade deadline, and the Stars suffered one of the worst regular season collapses in Dallas sports history.

Then Nill shot for the moon with Tavares and Karlsson over the summer, but apparently had not much of a backup plan or intention at truly chasing other names that could really help the team. It was frustrating as hell to keep hearing about these insane attempts at getting the very best in the NHL, yet hear almost nothing about adding anything else of substance.

Well, the Stars added Blake Comeau. That was something. It was like all of their energy was in making these huge splash moves, but no energy for anything else.

Perhaps those ventures were also being pushed by ownership.

After all, knowing what we know now, having one of those two names on board sure would make selling the Winter Classic in Dallas that much easier. Right?

But why such an issue with depth, aside from some questionable free agency signings?

Jim Nill has become too conservative.

First off – kudos for not trading Miro Heiskanen.

Yet suddenly Nill has grown afraid to part with prospects or draft picks, holding on to these assets as if they were absolutely vital to the future of the franchise. Since 2016, Nill’s only significant trades are for Marc Methot and maybe the trade for Reece Scarlett. The Stars GM will mention how valuable draft pick assets are and how important it is that teams build from within.

Maybe it has to do with now these are his prospects that he’s drafted, and he’s not playing with inherited assets. Perhaps it’s a few too acquisitions not quite working out as intended, and perhaps it’s suddenly being too concerned with taking a big risk despite the high reward.

And he’s right – the teams that have the most depth in the NHL and are consistently successful are those that find players to stack their roster with through the draft. So he wants to be sure to hold on to those assets, to not part with those 1st or 2nd round picks because by darn – they are valuable to the future of a franchise.

Except…

The Stars are way too conservative with prospects and are paying the price for some really poor drafting the past ten years.

Remember that aversion to high risk? That apparently applies to the NHL draft.

The Stars for the most seem to have been following the same script for drafting for the past 15 years, with some rare exceptions sprinkled throughout. Go for high-character players, that can play good two-way hockey that may not have the highest ceiling but definitely have very safe floors.

And if that prospect is really, really big – even better. Get a lot of really, really big and raw hockey players as the risk to take because if they do get some skill – hot dang if they won’t be big and tall as hell.

Imagine how different this whole conversation would be if the Stars had just grabbed Barzal instead of Gurianov. If they had grabbed Tolvanen instead of Oettinger. Veleno or Farabee instead of Dellandrea. Or if they took any sort of chance on raw offensive talent on a player that might not fit their ideal size, but puts up a lot of numbers.

In fact, outside of Jason Robertson the Stars really have not picked any prospects the past ten years that absolutely blew anyone away with stats.

The Stars aren’t adapting to a changing NHL.

The Stars seem to be stuck drafting players for 1997, when the rest of the NHL – at least many teams that seem to want to be really exciting and successful – is embracing the speed and increased skill and scoring of the young players taking the league by storm.

Instead the Stars decide the destroy their two best players for not keeping up. “Why are you so low in scoring!?!?!?”

Well, yes – they’ve regressed a bit. A bit.

The rest of the NHL is just scoring that much more. Is that Seguin and Benn’s fault? Is it their fault the rest of the team can’t score consistently?

The Stars have grown stale in management and front office.

I’m so happy the Stars have Jim Montgomery and a new young coaching staff.

I’m so sad the Stars have basically not changed anything else about hockey operations during all this time.

…and I don’t have the energy for this exercise any longer.

************************

Here’s the reality – none of these involve easy fixes. The rest of the NHL is moving on to faster, younger, more skilled – the Stars are so lucky they won the draft lottery and were basically forced to draft Miro Heiskanen. Otherwise the prospect pool outside Jason Robertson isn’t really offering much in the way of a light at the end of the tunnel.

Maybe Nill has some trading tricks up his sleeve. Perhaps the Stars do use this as a jumping off point to come together as a team and start to improve and get into the playoffs and maybe shock a team in the first round.

Perhaps they would have done that anyway without the public shaming – what with Klingberg returning and a rookie head coach adjusting and adapting as the season moves on.

Whatever the case – the long term prognosis of this franchise is starting to look rather worrisome. We’ve been saying that for a while now, the alarms slowly getting louder and louder but see – the Stars don’t want to hear that sort of criticism.

This is exhausting.

Here’s the cold hard truth that all of this rambling boils down to: the long and short term issues with the Dallas Stars have to do with so much more than Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin that’s it’s absolute insanity to even try and suggest otherwise.

That it was the owner and the team’s CEO, who — without even talking to the players personally – decided to adorn the Dallas Stars franchise with the “fucking horseshit” moniker from now until the internet dies, makes it just infuriating.

It’s bizarre. It shows a franchise with a very real issue with self-assessment and an organization that is abhorrent to any criticism but apparently wants the media to burn their two best players at the stake daily until morale improves on and off the ice.

It’s infuriating. It’s embarrassing.

I hate that this is why the Stars are being talked about, and I hate how this was apparently consciously timed with the announcement of the Winter Classic. I don’t know what they were thinking with that timing – or if they were even thinking at all in that regard – but it only adds to the bafflement over what this was all supposed to accomplish.

The Stars were already on the upswing when this happened. Seguin will start scoring more. Benn is who he is at this point.

Take a look at the collective mirror and admit your own mistakes first. Address those – do all you absolutely can, without question, to build a winning hockey team. Then perhaps you have the capital to go after your most-loved players.

“Fucking horseshit.”

It’s sad. It’s shameful.

I hope I never have to write anything even close to resembling this again.

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1/1/19 – The Fucking Horseshit Dallas Stars: Management Attacks the Media

December 30th, 2018:

“I think I want you to be honest with the team. I want you to be honest with everybody. That’s what we all want. You have your job to do; I have my job to do. You watch games. You analyze games. Just be honest. That’s all that matters to me.”

– Jim Nill to Sean Shapiro

December 28th, 2018:

“We are a stars-driven league, and our stars aren’t getting it done,” Lites said. “It’s embarrassing, and no one writes it. Write it!”

— Jim Lites to Sean Shapiro

I tend to not read much written about the Dallas Stars. Some of that is due to the scarcity of quality work to read. Some of that used to be because I wanted to give my honest thoughts clear of as many outside influences as possible which is something I realized eventually is ridiculous. The motivation was good, but the execution was silly.

The motivation was that I wanted to give my own personal honesty as best as I could. I wanted to look at data, watch games, and get lost in my own mind before sitting down to write about whatever rabbit hole I followed at that given moment to produce, hopefully, some useful nugget of truth.

I’m sure I haven’t always been successful at that, but my motivation has always been to provide my truth, and to be as honest as possible to help paint the picture of whatever is going on with the Stars.

It gets harder when you know people are reading. You have to take yourself seriously on some level, though some take themselves too seriously. For myself, I can joke around and flirt with the line of being obnoxious, but at the end of the day I’m always coming from my own place of truth based on observations and data; shit posting about the Minnesota Wild aside.

One thing that has stuck with me in almost a decade of doing this was when Brandon Worley told me he’d be able to back up anything I wrote for Defending Big D if I was honest and supported my ideas with data.

The Stars weren’t (and aren’t) shy about calling or sending an email if they feel something isn’t fair. That pressure added an extra check to anything I wrote. I was going to make damn sure I was willing to stand behind anything I wrote no matter who had anything to say, even if I rarely had any interest in using my press pass thus making sure I never really have to see anyone.

If the Stars are getting anything from the media, they’re getting truth. They simply don’t like what the truth is so they’re lashing out. Jim Lites and the rest of the management team don’t get it.

“I am sick and tired and listening to bloggers and others talking about Brett Ritchie, Julius Honka, or Gavin Bayreuther, or Taylor Fedun, pick a guy,” Lites said. “We’re just too good. The fans deserve more and the owner deserves more. And I share that opinion with the owner, the fans deserve better and Benn and Seguin aren’t getting it done. Until they do we aren’t going to be good enough.”

At the end of the day, you are what your record says you are. Bill Parcells may get quoted for that often, but for as simple as that quote sounds the wisdom in it is sound. If the Stars were as good as they seem to think they are their record would reflect that. This belief that they are too good after a decade of futility is the type of severe lack of self awareness that breeds failure.

It’s the level of foolishness that lets a franchise believe Val Nichushkin was going to come back to the NHL and be an offensive weapon after showing no evidence of it in Russia.

Or to say this with a straight face:

“Hanzal has had a series of injuries, but remember we spent that money on Hanzal to replace (Cody) Eakin after Eakin was gone (in the expansion draft). We really signed Hanzal to take his spot, and while he had a history of injuries we didn’t think it would be this dramatic.

Or to move Jamie Oleksiak and Jordie Benn for middling draft picks. They’re currently 19th and 20th in Goals Above Replacement out of all defensemen in the NHL according to Evolving-Hockey. For the record, Brenden Dillon is 41st. Alex Goligoski is 44th. Miro Heiskanen, the top Stars defenseman this season with John Klingberg injured, is 47th.

Oleksiak is kind of the point of all of this. Oleksiak was objectively bad as a Star. As an amateur he didn’t show much to suggest he would be the offensive player some in the organization thought. He did things that suggested he had talent, but the mental side of the game was always an issue.

Pittsburgh made him fit. They took the raw ability, minimized or fixed the mental issues holding him back, and made him into a very productive player. He and the Penguins deserve all the credit in the world for getting legitimate value out of him.

For that to happen the Stars had to fail in their ability to pull value out of him. They failed in their evaluations of all of these defensemen. They’ve failed to bring in the next wave of scoring talent. They’ve failed in their efforts to develop secondary talent.  They failed at evaluating goaltenders for five years. They failed to identify that this team isn’t good enough to essentially stand pat this past offseason.

The front office has failed every step of the way, and their failures overshadow any perceived shortcomings of Benn and Seguin. People aren’t writing about them being the problem because people don’t feel like they are. Sure they can be better, but their production is far down the list of reasons why the Stars aren’t very good.

If the Stars truly wanted truth then that is what they want. Instead what they really want is this:

Benn and Seguin needed to be pushed more by outside sources, in team executives’ minds. It wasn’t happening nearly enough, so they decided to unleash Lites.

They want the veneer of an interested and independent press, but in reality they’re acting like they want the media to react the way they want them to.

“I’ve been in Montreal before. I’m in this business for 40 years,” Nill said. “In Montreal, I think I’d be probably doing the damage control with you guys because you guys would be talking about the players, and this is something that we just thought we’re going to make sure it’s time to put an end to it, and we’ve had multiple meetings and the ownership isn’t happy, and so it came out. This happens in other markets. It’s just happening in reverse order.”

They. Just. Don’t. Get. It. The idea that their assessment of the roster isn’t what everyone else on Earth sees doesn’t compute. The media are talking about the players. They just aren’t focusing on the players the Stars incomprehensibly want them to focus on.

I’m now going to go back to enjoying the last half of my vacation from my actual job. Myself, and many others like me, do this for free because for whatever reason we gravitated towards hockey when we were exposed to it.

I’ve written for WFAA and the Dallas Morning News online plus flirted with doing it more regularly for actual money. I know I will never have a future writing about hockey, and as a card carrying old I made peace with that. At the end of the day I’m still paying out of pocket to give myself a place to write whatever I want for the maybe one to two hundred people who will see it on a normal active day.

When those people click on this absurd site they’re going to get my truth and honesty. The same is true when they click on Defending Big D, or hear Bob Sturm on The Ticket, or read Sean Shapiro or Matt DeFranks. They’ll get honesty when they find a story by Mark Stepneski or Mike Heika on the Stars website, even if there are natural limitations to what they can say given their employers.

At the end of the day we’re all going to maintain professionalism too, whether we’re paid or not. The fact that blindsided media members and unpaid zealots can easily do this while management of a team who desperately needs our coverage stoops to using blogger as an insult says a lot about the state of the franchise.

The truth is that, right now, it’s an embarrassment.

The quotes come from The Athletic articles by Sean Shapiro linked at the top of the post unless otherwise noted.

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