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.