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