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.

3/20/18 – 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.