1/16/19 – Spezza Needs Finishers

After the Dallas Stars lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning last night Bob Sturm posted this question about Jason Spezza and Valeri Nichushkin:

I don’t really remember when this was. Maybe it was prior to this season? Some people thought (not necessarily Bob) that Nichushkin would return from Russia to magically score at a significantly higher rate than he ever did on either continent. Oddly enough that hasn’t been the case.

Komrade Val aside, Spezza has been fine I think. He isn’t the dominant Spezza of yesteryear, but he can still be a valuable player. The problem is that he needs players with him who can finish after he gets the puck in the zone.

The data collected by Corey Sznajder is invaluable. He gets everything from zone entries and exits to shot contributions. He has about ten percent of the season done so this isn’t complete data yet. However, the data he has does show Spezza to be a competent player.

Let’s start with shot contributions. These were visualized by a CJ Turturo Tableau. We’re looking at these on a per hour basis. The green bar is shots taken. Spezza is clearly behind most of the Stars forwards in shot generation, but he’s high on this list from Shot Assists, or shots his passes set up.

In 2017 Spezza was in the 90th percentile of shots per hour. Last year he dropped to the 55th percentile. This year he’s at the 22nd percentile. This tells me that Spezza, at this stage of his career, needs players on his wings who can finish to be productive. He’s still setting shots up, but he either isn’t or can’t get his shot off at a high level anymore.

His three most consistent linemates have been Devin Shore, Mattias Janmark, and Jamie Benn. Based on the image above Janmark should be the kind of shooter to do well with Spezza, but I wonder if he is being too selective.

Janmark’s heat map from Hockeyviz shows that when he is on the ice the Stars get in real close on the right side for attempts. Just about everywhere else is a disaster. If you’re being selective and the team can’t score then maybe throw a few more shots on net.

Another note with Janmark is that he has 6.33 Individual Expected Goals (ixG) at even strength. That’s good for 5th on the team out of the forwards, and basically tied with Alexander Radulov. Janmark is only shooting 4.5% though after shooting 14.5% through two seasons. He’s due for a little bit of puck luck eventually you’d think.

Benn also definitely seems like the kind of shooter who needs to be with a playmaker like Spezza, but if neither can drive the play anymore how do they get into scoring position? The roster has some poor fits at this stage due to not being really prepared for the natural aging curve.

Janmark enters the offensive zone with possession as well as any forward on the roster. Spezza and Shore are both also in the top five. Shoot the puck guys.

Benn sits at 8th on this list. I still wonder how much of that is Seguin and Radulov always having the puck, but regardless he’s low on the list. At this point he probably needs to stay with them to maximize his production. Janmark with Spezza is a good fit, but they have to get someone who can put some pucks in the net on the line.

Andrew Cogliano improved the roster, but he isn’t that guy. This line’s problem isn’t getting into the offensive zone. The problem is getting pucks on net and finishing. I don’t think Spezza is done. I think he may be done scoring many goals at even strength, but his time as a useful NHL player isn’t over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Styles

….where did all of the playmakers go?

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

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

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

In English: bigger numbers on the right equals good.

Jamie Benn

Benn

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

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

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

Jason Spezza

Spezza

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

Yeah, that’s what the Spezza image is.

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

Tyler Seguin

Seguin

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

Alexander Radulov

Radulov

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

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

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

Yep. 14.

Martin Hanzal

Hanzal

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

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

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

Tyler Pitlick

Pitlick

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

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

Radek Faksa

Faksa

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

Devin Shore

Shore

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

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

Brett Ritchie

Ritchie

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

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

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

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

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

Old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RobertHitch

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

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

Spezza

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/20/18 – 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.