4/15/18 – Candidate Jim Montgomery

Apparently the net is going to be cast wide for a replacement for Ken Hitchcock. At this point just about anyone with a viable claim to an NHL job has been mentioned as a candidate. It’s going to be overwhelming for anyone trying to reasonably get a handle on where the Dallas Stars might go.

The plan here is to profile as many of the leading candidates as possible. In Sean Shapiro’s story for The Athletic Jim Nill laid out a little bit of what he wants in a coach. It sounds like he wants what he wanted when he hired Lindy Ruff: tempo, speed, and puck possession. At this point it should be clear that Hitchcock wasn’t a Nill hire so it should come as no surprise to see the pendulum swinging back to what Nill ideally wants.

Enter Jim Montgomery, the first candidate to be featured at Mooterati.

Montgomery had a 122 game NHL career that concluded with one game with the Stars in the 2003 season. His Wikipedia page has a few fun notes about him. He was once traded for Guy Carbonneau then released by the Montreal Canadiens after playing five games. He is also credited as the man who dubbed John LeClair, Eric Lindros, and Mikael Renberg the “Legion of Doom”.

Neat.

What sticks out to me about Montgomery’s playing career is that he could really score. A lot. But, not in the NHL.

For the University of Maine, Montgomery registered 301 points in 170 games. That’s just absurd. In his final college season at age 23 (older, yes) he played with a rookie named Paul Kariya who had 100 points. Montgomery had 95.

(Garth Snow and Mike Dunham were also teammates, for what that’s worth.)

Every year Montgomery played in the AHL or IHL he was a dominant offensive force. In 530 career games he scored 554 points. He strikes me as a guy who would have gotten more of a shot to produce in the modern era with eye popping minor league numbers like that. He isn’t a big guy either, listed at 5’10 and 170 pounds. Time on ice data is scarce until the last little bit of his NHL career, but it’s safe to say he never got much of a shot to produce.

His first head coaching job after his playing career ended was leading the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL In his first year he got his hands on Johnny Gaudreau, the under-sized star of the Calgary Flames and 2018 Team USA Olympian.

In 2015 Gaudreau was quoted by Terry Frei of the Denver Post in a story about Montgomery heading into the NCAA Tournament:

“He really, really helped me out because he’s a smaller guy, too. He’s a great guy. He taught me about things you have to do in the game as a smaller player, and really helped me to get ready for the NCAA and then eventually to come on to the NHL. I think he was one of the coaches who helped me out the most.”

Gaudreau said Montgomery, who played 122 games in the NHL, “played back when it was a lot tougher for smaller guys in the league. He just taught me to down low, make sure I’m moving my feet and stuff, and keep my head up and make plays. He was really good for me there.”

Vice Sports did a feature on Gaudreau during his rookie season too. Montgomery was featured in it significantly. The focus is Gaudreau, but Montgomery is such a big part of the story that it works for our purposes here.

Gaudreau landed in the perfect spot when he left home before his senior year of high school and joined the USHL. Montgomery, his coach, had been an undersized player, too, playing parts of six seasons in the NHL despite being just 5’10”.

Guy Gaudreau believes it was the right fortune for his son.

“There’s coaches out there that would never have given him a chance,” he said. “He’s too small—there’s no need for him.”

Montgomery would go on to discuss what makes Gaudreau special.

“Johnny’s greatness—and it holds true at every level he’s been, including the NHL—is creativity and the ability to create time and space. The way he can read opponents’ sticks, hips and knees, to be able to go the other way on them allows him to do things that people didn’t think were humanly possible at his size in the NHL.”[…]
“He thinks the game and does things on the ice that not many players maybe outside of Patrick Kane and Pavel Datsyuk have the ability to do,” Montgomery said. “To say he’s a genius—and I’m talking just his creativity—people don’t understand how he keeps people back off. Because he doesn’t look like he’s a great skater but he’s almost like an aeronautical engineering genius on the ice because he understands triangles and he understands cutbacks.”

It seems pretty clear that Montgomery “gets it” offensively. Put your skilled players in a position to succeed and let them do their thing.

I just thought this was funny.

Montgomery coached Zemgus Girgensons with Dubuque also. I found this interesting from a USA Today piece as Girgensons was getting fan love for the All Star game a couple years back.

“What I said was, ‘Well if he is a third-line player, then you are going to win four Stanley Cups in a row,” Montgomery said. “His offensive game will evolve as his game matures.”

Montgomery always made his players fill out a goal sheet before the season and Girgensons always wrote that he would never “give up” or be “outworked.”

“And it’s true,” Montgomery said. “I saw him score a hat trick on a high-ankle sprain. When we won a championship, he was 16 and on the first shift of the game, his line started, and the way he skated, I said, ‘Oh, we are winning tonight.'”

With Dubuque he was finding the talent as the GM as well as coaching. Gaudreau and Girgensons fit the level of work ethic he pretty clearly wants. I like the goal sheet he had them fill out. I doubt that’s something that is done with professionals, but I like that effort he took to help his teenage players grow as adults. That’s the type of thing someone truly interested in teaching and developing would do.

At the University of Denver those attributes seem to be on display even more. The one consistent thing you hear about him and his Denver clubs is about how good the locker room is and how much the players love each other.

Two of the prominent players from his Denver teams were Will Butcher and Danton Heinen. Butcher refused to sign with the Colorado Avalanche after completing his college career, then promptly had 44 points as a rookie defenseman with New Jersey. Heinen has been great for the Boston Bruins, registering 47 points of his own while being good defensively.

Denver still has Henrik Borgstrom producing. He was the Florida Panthers first round draft pick last year. Anaheim Ducks pick Troy Terry produced at a similar level on his wing. I think the point is pretty clear by now. Montgomery develops and nurtures offensive talent on top of the locker room stuff you hear so much about.

If you’re the Stars isn’t that exactly what you want? Don’t you want someone like Montgomery to work with Jason Dickinson, Val Nichushkin, Roope Hintz, and Denis Gurianov? How about Julius Honka and Miro Heiskanen?

The anecdotal stuff is fine, but how does he do it? What does he do that would translate to the Stars?

I pulled these gifs from Denver’s NCAA Tournament matchup with Ohio State in late March. The entire game is on Youtube. I planned to sit down to watch the entire game, track it, and make gifs throughout. I watched half of the first period and realized I’ve seen this before.

Denver is in the dark uniform. Notice how they circle back to look for a good opening to create an offensive opportunity. Puck. Possession.

Possession1.gif

They control their own blueline. In the 14 minutes or so I watched Denver forced 15 dump ins by Ohio State. They never allowed Ohio State to enter the zone with a pass, and only allowed them to carry the puck in three times.

TransitionCarry1.gif

Defensemen are key to what Montgomery does. They skate. They pass. They get the puck out of the zone, usually with possession. They exited the zone 22 times in the stretch I tracked. They only dumped it out four times. Nine times they carried it out and another nine times they exited with a pass.

Transition2.gif

More of the same:

EasyExit

I don’t know who this is, but watch the Denver player confidently skate the puck out of the zone through two Ohio State attackers.

EasyExit2

Ohio State does adjust later and start generating more chances, but Denver hockey is pretty straightforward. Their previous game against Penn State is online too. It’s more of the same, but a quicker pace given that they are playing a weaker opponent.

Denver hockey is about keeping possession of the puck. Denver had a 56.5% Corsi For percentage in the 2018 season. The defensemen drive the play away from their own end. Butcher won the Hobey Baker under this system. How do you think John Klingberg would look? Or Julius Honka?

I can’t help but watch the Denver defensemen and think of Heiskanen.

CoastToCoast

Montgomery has been successful at every level. He was a dominant offensive player everywhere except the NHL. He has a proven track record of developing high end offensive talent and maintaining a close-knit locker room. His system looks like what you see in the modern NHL, and the Stars projected defense corps fits very well with it. Anything can happen in an interview process. There’s no guarantee he would be interested in the job or that the Stars are pursuing him, but you could do a lot worse than Jim Montgomery.

4/2/18 – The Dallas Stars Have an Internal Promotion Problem

I was dating someone for a while who thinks I have bad taste in music, or at the absolute least hates what I listen to on a regular basis. That irritates me on a number of levels. This Dallas Stars season has been such a beating, and that situation has been too. In the interest of soothing both of those ego nut-punches I’m putting a YouTube video of a different song with every post for the forseeable future.

The Pina Colada song is pretty bad, but who isn’t amused by Rupert Holmes’ other hit “Him” ? (Bad taste my ass.)

I’ve been thinking more about how safe the Stars are. We know how safe they are on the ice. We think we know how safe they are in the trade market. I can’t get over how safe the hiring of Ken Hitchcock is, and how safe the hiring of Lindy Ruff was before him.

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. — Benjamin Franklin

The problem with both hires is that they’re both backwards leaning. Neither hire looks to the future or tries to bring in any fresh ideas.

At this point virtually all of the Dallas Stars entire front office and coaching staff is made up of “establishment” guys.

Jim Nill is in his 5th season in Dallas. Previously he spent nineteen in Detroit with the Red Wings.

This is Les Jackson’s twenty-ninth season with the Stars.

Scott White is in his thirteenth year in the organization. He has been the Texas Stars General Manager, and given how little talent the Stars have sent to Austin he might deserve a raise with how many former Baby Stars are on the roster.

Mark Janko is in his seventeenth season with the franchise.

J.J. McQueen is in his twenty-second year with the Stars. He was the strength and conditioning coach before being promoted to Player Development Coordinator.

Rich Peverley is there and has the same title was McQueen.

Mike Valley, who took a beating from fans as the Stars goaltending coach, is on the Masthead too.

Ignoring the last two, the two furthest down the list, the least experienced person in the front office has been in professional hockey for 13 years which seems reasonable. Outside of Nill, the least tenured person with the organization is White at 13 years. That…that sounds like corporate inbreeding.

Every member of the Tampa Bay Lightning front office has been with the organization less than nine years. Toronto has a relatively new group, newer than in Tampa at least. I would wager that story is similar across the league. These staffs aren’t full of inexperienced guys off the streets, but they aren’t constantly hiring and promoting from within either. They find who they think are the best people (well, white males) for the jobs and put them in charge.

Fear is the foundation of safety.  –Tertullian

One of the consistent themes of Nill’s tenure has been loyalty and trust. He trusts his coach to make the best of the lineup given to him despite the coach (Ruff or Hitchcock) refusing to integrate young guys more regularly. They promote heavily from within. Nill even tries to promote trust with players on the way out the door.

I go back to what Nill said when he traded Stephane Robidas to the Anaheim Ducks in 2014.

“It’s important to have trust and a good relationship with your players, and that’s what I want to do with our organization,” Nill said. “I could have waited for tomorrow or tried to make a different trade, but in the end this was the deal that made the most sense.”

In retrospect, the idea that the Stars needed to build up trust and a good relationship with a guy they were trading away makes zero sense in this context. Mike Heika went on further to explain why it made even less sense:

…why send him to an Anaheim team that not only has the best record in the NHL (potentially giving the Stars a lower draft pick) but could be your opponent in the first round of the playoffs?

“You take that into consideration, but the move was designed to give Stephane a chance to get on a good team, and this was the best option,” Nill said. “I could have traded him to the East, but more to a fringe team and not a top contender.”

If you’re that loyal to everyone, how does the organization get better? How does the organization keep up with new ideas being brought in across the league? I can’t help but note that the team trying to focus on defense first, second, and third with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg doesn’t have anyone high up in the organization who has joined it within the last 13 years as the hockey analytics community has grown rapidly.

Maybe that’s unfair, but then again look at the recent track record of success. All of these guys save Nill have been here for the last decade of futility. Leaning on experienced executives has value, but sometimes being comfortable can be problematic too.

I also openly admit that I’m in no position to critique the individual jobs any of these guys have done. I can’t stress that enough. But, at some point you need some fresh ideas and perspectives from around the league. At some point the front office has to be pushed out of their comfort zone. At some point it makes sense to get an outside perspective on the league’s honest perceptions of the players and prospects in the Stars system.

Hitchcock was brought in to instill discipline and structure for the players. He was brought in to make the players get out of their comfort zone and play “winning” hockey, the hockey that won the Dallas Stars a Stanley Cup 20 years ago.

Yet, Hitchcock was the safest hire possible. Ruff was a safe hire. If either guy didn’t work out it would be easy to point to their NHL resumes as the reasons for hiring them. Pointing back to the past and resting on ideas that have proven in recent years to not work is a big part of the problem with the current Stars.

Loyalty and trust is only going to get you so far. At some point fresh new ideas need to find their way into an organization that appears to have insulated itself from the outside hockey world by a lot of internal promotion and very little external hiring.

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3/25/18: Correlation is Not Causation: The Dallas Stars Catastrophic Moment

The STAAR test for Freshmen taking it for the first time is rapidly approaching. I’ve been working to get my particular group of students ready since, I don’t know, August 24th. One of the things we do is go over released exams from previous years.

Question 9 from last year turned into 20 minutes of discussion when we hit it recently.

Causation

Kids hate the word causation, but as soon as you tell them “cause and effect” they lose their minds trying to eliminate answers that don’t make any sense. Obviously B is bullshit. A and C caused them a lot of difficulty because those can be argued.

You can make an argument in favor of a causation relationship between an increase in bus stops and a decrease in car sales. People are buying less cars because they have more access to buses. Duh. Ice cream sales increase, so sunburn does too? Well, sure. People eat ice cream when it’s hot outside so they’re getting sunburned.

What they have a hard time realizing initially is that ice cream didn’t directly cause the sunburn and that the number of bus stops didn’t directly cause a decrease in car sales. When it rains the water level increases. An increase in rain (water falling from the air) leads to an increase in water levels (fallen water, now on the ground). D is the answer.

Yesterday Bob Sturm threw this out on Twitter:

Bob isn’t wrong. These things did happen after that even took place. Did the Dallas Stars collapse because Ben Bishop got injured, or did the a collapse merely happen around the time Bishop got injured?

Bob mentioned the save percentage over that ten game span so let’s look a little closer at that. I took out the empty net goals, which bumps the save percentage up to 89.7%. It may not seem like much to us, but it probably is to Kari Lehtonen.

I pulled the expected goal totals from the last ten games and the Corsi % to see what has been going on.

Last10

In the last six games in particular the goaltending has been rough. Lehtonen has allowed an extra goal per game over the expected total in each. Over this 10 game stretch Stars goaltending (Bishop did play some) allowed five more goals than they were expected to allow.

Over an 82 game schedule that would be giving up 41 more goals than expected which will get a lot of people fired and/or released.

Here’s the rub though: the goal scoring has been worse. The skaters have scored six goals less than they were expected to by expected goals for.

When you throw those six together with the five extra goals the goaltenders have allowed….yikes. We’re talking a swing of eleven goals in a ten game span. If the games were played just by expected goals the Stars would have gone 6-4 over that stretch.

Our old friend PDO tells the same story.

PDO

Over a long enough timeline PDO tends to 100 because all shots either go in the net or they don’t. The Stars have been trailing 100 during this ten day period on the shooting and goaltending end.

And it isn’t for lack of trying by the top guys. Game Score attempts to quantify the contributions of each player to the outcome of each game. Over the ten game period in question these are the cumulative Game Scores of the big four and the rest of the roster.

GS

Notice Current Whipping Boy Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are both at 13. The big four cumulatively dropped a 41 game score over these games compared to 23 from the rest of the roster combined. Those four accounted for 64% of the Game Score contributions during this stretch!

Spoiler alert: the Stars are paper thin. This isn’t just the last ten games obviously. Part of the problem is they do have players who have shown they can play who don’t get much of an opportunity. This chart shows expected goal plus minus per 60 minutes at even strength.

xGF601

I know it’s “hip” to hate on Brett Ritchie, but he isn’t nearly as bad as he’s made out to be and his delta per 60 minutes is double second place. Gemel “Fucking” Smith has been criminally underused and ya boy is at number four (looks for Marc Methot). Jason Spezza has the same expected goal differential per sixty minutes as Tyler Seguin.

I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: ” JASON SPEZZA HAS THE SAME EXPECTED GOAL DIFFERENTIAL PER SIXTY MINUTES AS TYLER SEGUIN.”

I think it’s fair to blame goaltending for this stretch. It’s also fair to say the goal scoring has let them down severely and coaching decisions all season have kept the optimal lineup from ever being utilized.

Either the Stars are getting unlucky, they’re tired, or the chickens are finally coming home to roost at the most inopportune time possible. Ben Bishop did get hurt, and the Stars haven’t been producing over that stretch.

I’m about to dig into some ice cream, but I’m pretty sure I don’t need suntan lotion to do it.

All info pulled from Corsica.

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 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.

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.

2/16/18 – Jeep’s Blues

Thematically the St. Louis Blues team shares a lot with the musical genre from which they requisitioned their symbols and identity. You don’t want to get the blues. The blues represent being at your lowest point and depression. Pretty fitting for a 50 year old franchise with no Stanley Cups, eh?

Musically the blues are about creativity, improvisation, and setting a mood. Within the structure of a song the artists are encouraged to add their own personal touches to make it their own. That couldn’t be further from an appropriate description of the franchise. As a team they are tantalizingly boring.

Tonight’s game was more thematically blues than musically. It was depressing for the most part and most of the night I wondered why I was suffering through it and what I needed to change about my life to make things better. It’s great that the Stars won, but boy that was awful.

How about some thoughts? Everybody likes thoughts.

1. I kept thinking the Stars could use another dynamic skating defenseman. Julius Honka does a lot of that, but I think I’m officially spoiled on Miro Heiskanen after watching one game. His skill set so perfectly fits the Stars.

2. Stephen Johns is an adult. I expected Ken Hitchcock, Rick Wilson, and a more structured system to have a big impact on him. This is ridiculous though.

3. St. Louis collapses SO HARD defensively. Early in the game Gemel Smith set up Jason Spezza in tight on an odd man rush. I thought if he stopped the Stars would’ve had a ton of room to work.

A few shifts later Spezza carries it in. He did stop. He immediately had a 15 foot radius of space and a ton of time. The Stars got a few other chances from it later. The John Klingberg power play shot off the post comes to mind.

4. A two goal lead with 4:18 to go in a February divisional game with the team right ahead of you and the worst thing you can possibly do is take a double minor. Klingberg accidentally did it.

The Stars gave up only one goal, but the chances were coming. Tyler Pitlick in particular made a great save. Ben Bishop was great. It was nice to not be terrified of the inevitable coming goal.

5. The boring Hitchcock memes write themselves when his two most recent teams play, don’t they?

Hey, click these:

2/14/18 – An Evening With Miro Heiskanen, Day 1
2/13/18 – Quote or Content: What Drives a Story?
2/12/18 – Jamie Goligoski
2/8/18 – Team USA Men Would Have Been Really Good
2/6/18 – Jaromir Jagr and Tom Brady

2/4/2018 – A Hockey Rink is a Hockey Rink and a Game is a Game

I think that quote might be the perfect way to describe the Dallas Stars under Ken Hitchcock. Kari Lehtonen is a poet.

The Stars flicked a cigarette out the window of their T-bird going 30 miles an hour early in the 2nd period and quickly sped up to 70 and got the hell away from the scene of the crime as the rapidly spreading fire they started made the entire Minnesota Wild forest submit to the inevitable quickly in a 6-1 win.

Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov are simply too much for any team to defend. I wrote about this earlier in the year at WFAA.com, but watching the Pittsburgh Penguins still makes you wonder if splitting all three of them up would be beneficial long term. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are all on different lines and dominating. They pose matchup threats that the Stars can’t recreate with all three guys on the same line.

Then again I don’t think it’s possible to defend them. Here is Seguin’s 2nd period goal off a feed from Benn. Look at how open Seguin gets.

Seguin

Two Wild defenders attach themselves to Radulov and Benn. Mike Reilly is the defenseman in the same county as Seguin. If you watch that video closely you’ll notice that at no point does he even look at Seguin. The entire time he’s watching the puck, then sticks his stick out to block the pass, and finally watches the puck go in his net.

It’s hard to complain when things are working, but I do wonder if they would be a better playoff team with one alpha on each of the top three lines. Either way, a 6-1 win is good.

***
https://twitter.com/SportsSturm/status/960004855606792192

I mentioned this on Twitter, but I would have been more surprised to not see Jason Spezza anywhere near this list than to see John Klingberg or Alexander Radulov leading it.  Of those top seven guys five were either drafted by the Stars or made their NHL debut with the club. Only Radulov was a free agent signing. Tyler Seguin was picked up in a trade using players drafted and developed by the team.

Mattias Janmark is playing at a 45 point pace. Radek Faksa is on a 38 point 82 game pace. Since the lockout the only Stars who have been drafted and/or developed by the Stars to eclipse 45 are Benn, Klingberg, and Loui Eriksson. 38 has been eclipsed by Steve Ott and Trevor Daley also.

***

Ken Hitchcock On Retro Night:

“I love those sweaters. The part I like is that when we wear those sweaters our team looks really big. We looked like a football team in warm-ups which, to me, is intimidating. It just reminds you of the good old days. It’s good to reminisce but I really like those sweaters.”

Fortunately that football team looked more like the New England Patriots than the oddly Cleveland Brown-looking Wild. Dallas Stars Poet Laureate Lehtonen put it best. A game is a game, but beating the hell out of a division mate is pretty choice.

Hey, click these
2/3/18 – The Conservative NHL and Mooterus Culture
2/2/18 – A New Hope