May 17 2012 12:00PM
The Dallas Stars are a franchise that has been in flux for several years now. After making the deep playoff run on the heels of acquiring Brad Richards the Stars were looking up when Murphy's Law took over. The defense collapsed, the remaining core players from the 1999 Cup lost several steps, and Marty Turco fell off a cliff. Adding to the chaos was the fact that the Stars traded their premium draft picks in 2007 and 2008 for Ladislav Nagy and Mattias Norstrom (while drafting goalies Jack Campbell and Tyler Beskorowany high also).
Then, after refusing to waive his no trade clause at the 2011 trade deadline, Richards left for New York. The holes his departure left in the Stars lineup were huge. Richards manned a point on the powerplay, centered the top line, and took 70 more shots than anyone else on the roster. The Stars plan under new coach Glen Gulutzan was to rely on Mike Ribeiro and Jamie Benn (converting to center) as the top two centers.
That somewhat-brief-yet-long-enough-to-be-slightly-annoying back story brings us to the start of the 2011-12 season. The Stars entered camp under a rookie head coach preaching structure. They left camp with very little discernable tactical structure. Featured to the left is the first OZQoC chart I ever made. It's difficult to read partially due to the fact that I was feeling my way through the formatting as a noob, but also because the Stars routinely rolled three lines and all six defensemen which cluttered the center of the chart to the point of making the Corsi bubbles a nuisance.
The left of the chart shows the protected fourth line and rookie Philip Larsen. Everyone else was thrown on the ice regardless of starting position or on ice matchup.
This might have a chance of working in a utopian world where all three lines are equal in ability and skill, but that definitely isn't the case with the 2012 edition of the Stars. Let's play a word association game. When I mention the name Mike Ribeiro what is the first word that comes to you? I can only imagine what some of the responses are, but I know for a fact that no one being honest had any word related to defensive responsibility come to their minds. Yet, Ribeiro (with Michael Ryder on his wing sporadically) was taking on more defensive responsibility than either Steve Ott or Benn while not getting the offensive zone time he needs to generate the highest value for the Stars.
At the All Star Break something changed for the Stars coaching staff. I doubt that they suddenly recognized the defensive deficiencies of Ribeiro and Ryder, but after the team scored seven goals total in the six games leading to the break the coaching staff said to hell with it. They began actively trying to put players in appropriate roles to maximize their production down the stretch.
After the break the Stars Fenwick% rose by a point, and as a team their OZ% rose by almost 5%. This also wasn't some coincidental shift. Two ice time decisions stick out. Trevor Daley switched roles with Philip Larsen and the top three lines settled into defined roles.
The defensive shift is particularly interesting. Daley is a lightning rod in Dallas. He can make some incredibly boneheaded plays in his own end then glide from one end of the rink to the other to set up a breathtaking goal on the same shift. The Stars tried to maximize his offensive production after the break while thrusting more defensive responsibility on his shoulders. Both players benefited from the changes.
The table on the left is offensive zone start percentage for the Stars defensemen, and on the right is Fenwick percentage:
Larsen gets very little mention in the hockey media, but he probably should. The kid can play as evidenced by the fact that he was able to help the Stars poor transition game while developing as a rookie in increasingly tough minutes. As a group the Stars defenders weren't particularly specialized at any point in the season.
The forward shift is significant almost across the board though. Again Fenwick is on the right with offensive zone start percentage on the left:
Nystrom, Fiddler, Burish, and Dvorak were shifted significantly toward the defensive end of the ice with Ribeiro, Ryder, and Eriksson pushed into the offensive zone as much as possible. The specific roles for these particular players aren't necessarily ideal under perfect circumstances, but midseason tactical changes after four years of stagnant roster movement aren't always going to look pretty.
Swing and a Miss
The surprising outcome of these changes is that they didn't really work. Burish was much better after the break, but that's probably more of a function of playing with Benn than anything. Both Nystrom and Dvorak improved, but these moves were clearly aimed at generating more offense. Unfortnately, Eriksson, Ryder, and Ribeiro saw their Fenwick percentages remain flat or drop despite favorable ice time.
The failure of the changes overshadows the fact that the Stars took an analytical approach to solving a roster dilemma. Dallas isn't known as trailblazers by any stretch of the imagination. This is the first clear outward evidence of the Stars organization trying to use analytics to improve the on ice product, and it reflects favorably on the personality of Glen Gulutzan that he was willing to undertake such a dramatic shift midseason when he saw that things clearly weren't working.
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