Are Dallas Stars and Hitchcock worthy of the hype? (What We Learned)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

Sometimes it’s tough to project what’s going to happen under a new coach. And when it comes to Dallas this year, it’s very tough.

Last season under Lindy Ruff, the Stars were one of the worst defensive teams in hockey. Just about any per-60 stat at 5-on-5 you looked at, they were ugly-to-horrid. They finished 26th in shot attempts against, 20th unblocked attempts and goals. They were 28th in scoring chances, 24th in high-danger chances. Oddly, their shots-against number was middle of the pack, league-wide, but you see the overall trend.

They were also, not surprisingly, the least-successful penalty-killing team in the league not only last season, but the worst in more than two decades; you have to go back to the second season for the Ottawa Senators to find a lower penalty killing percentage.

Contrast that with what was clearly a well-oiled machine offensively. Fifth in attempts per 60, sixth in unblocked attempts, eighth in chances, 10th in high-danger opportunities. Weirdly mediocre in shots on net and goals.

Lump both of those issues in with some truly bad goaltending from two truly bad goalies, and you can see why this team missed the playoffs, fired the coach, and made a lot of changes this summer.

And if you feel like you need to shore up your team’s defensive game — which Jim Nill very clearly did and should have — probably the best guy on the face of the earth to hire is Ken Hitchcock. Lucky for the Stars, Hitchcock found himself out of a job after his act wore a bit thin in St. Louis. Even luckier, he was fired from a divisional rival.

All of which brings the Stars to a pivotal question on the overall position of their franchise: Did this team have a coaching problem, or was it about personnel?

The answer, one supposes, could be, “Both.”

But if the answer to the latter question is yes, regardless of the answer to the former, we could be looking at big changes.

Few would doubt this team’s ability to generate offense, at least based on the talent they bring to the table. But their power play was likewise well below league average, and their were only 18th in total goals last season. That, too, might be a personnel problem, specifically on the back end, because if guys can’t break the puck out effectively your offense is going to suffer no matter how many Jamie Benns and Tyler Seguins you have lying around.

So the question is, does this team (which by the way is currently over the cap limit) have the back end to turn its recent results around with a defensive genius like Hitchcock running the show? It’s pretty tough to say. After all, the loss of Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski in a single offseason seems to have really screwed up what was otherwise a relatively stable situation, dialed back whatever quality John Klingberg previously had, and forced a few defenders into situations for which they were in no way prepared.

Esa Lindell got the second-most minutes per game on the team last season and seemed in over his head for most of the season. Jordie Benn shouldn’t be your No. 4 defenseman. You can go on like this.

This summer they added Marc Methot, former sidekick to Erik Karlsson, potentially in an effort to stabilize whatever performance Klingberg was supposed to have delivered as the team’s No. 1 defender. They probably also hope Julius Honka is ready for prime time after a brief audition last season. Perhaps they also hope losing Jordie Benn to Montreal is addition by subtraction.

Say what you want about Hitchcock’s ability to turn a team’s defensive play around, but don’t doubt that he spent much of the last several years with a pretty good group in St. Louis. Alex Pietrangelo is pretty overrated but there’s no doubt he’s a talented player. Kevin Shattenkirk, for all his apparent faults, can move the puck like few players in the league. Colton Parayko is one of the great young defenders in the game today. A few years ago, even Jay Bouwmeester had his uses as a reliable-if-underwhelming No. 2.

Dallas has no such luxury, or at least no certainty of that luxury. Whether a couple guys evolve into better roles, or Methot in particular shepherds Klingberg back where he needs to be, is a big question. Did Karlsson have success with Methot because Methot did something Karlsson needed to succeed that his previous partners didn’t, or did Methot appear to do that because Karlsson is one of the best to ever play the position? The Stars better hope it’s the former.

Another good quality Hitchcock brings to the table, albeit less discussed than his defensive prowess, is that he’s likely to turn around the Stars’ weirdly bad power play; the Blues have been at least top-eight in the NHL in power play percentage since 2013-14, and they certainly have the talent — especially with Alex Radulov now aboard as well — to keep that trend going for their new coach. That is, of course, assuming Jason Spezza and newly-signed Martin Hanzal (who only had 39 points last season) can still play, and Radek Faksa takes a step forward offensively.

But on the other side of all these what-ifs is that the Stars might still be thin on defense. Might still have a good top-six of forwards and that’s about it. Might still be in trouble in net, because who knows what 31-year-old Ben Bishop, a massive goaltender coming off a bad year and his second major groin injury in as many seasons, actually provides them for a whole season.

So while Hitchcock is clearly, clearly, clearly an elite coach, no amount of eliteness may be enough to dredge this team out of where it’s been headed the past year-plus. They’re so thin in the lower half of their lineup and their goaltending has been bad for basically their entire recent history. And if that’s the case, Hitchcock might find himself coaching a team as it begins what would, unfortunately, be a necessary rebuild.

And especially in the cutthroat Central Division, the margin for error here is worryingly thin.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Poor Paul Kariya is gonna have to listen to a ton of MAGA nonsense right before Thanksgiving. Sad!

Arizona Coyotes: Fun to think about how Shane Doan retired after 21 years in the NHL and his new favorite players, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, are already 10 and 9 percent of the way to his career goal total after one season.

Boston Bruins: There’s this one youngster the Bruins have that they should be really excited about. He’s like 21, 22 years old, something in that area. Had a bunch of points last season playing on their top line. Really excited to see him once training camp opens. You know they are too. Oh yeah baby!

Buffalo Sabres: Yeah sure Jack Eichel is fine with starting the new season without a contract extension in hand. He’s going to push a point a game this year. Possibly exceed it. That’s more money in his pocket. Buffalo, on the other hand, should absolutely not not be fine with this scenario.

Calgary Flames: This is objectively good.

Carolina Hurricanes: This headline should have been true like four years ago.

Chicago: More teams should do this sort of thing where there are reasonably good rinks. Training camp should be for the kids to come see their favorite team or whatever, because it’s sure not necessary for the players anymore.

Colorado Avalanche: Yeah, ya think?

Columbus Blue Jackets: This is an extremely good deal for Alex Wennberg. Well, it’s an extremely good deal for the team. The player is likely to be a very good bargain for a long time.

Dallas Stars: Jason Spezza on the wing? Sure, okay.

Detroit Red Wings: Pretty surprising to see a Red Wings executive who got more money than he ever deserved from Ken Holland come out and say Andreas Athanasiou should just take the whatever Holland is offering.

Edmonton Oilers: As long as he keeps playing with Connor McDavid? Sure.

Florida Panthers: Aaron Ekblad is very good.

Los Angeles Kings: This is one of those ways teams are like, “Ah actually we’re very good corporate citizens because of the environment and so on,” but it’s just a fun new way to gouge fans.

Minnesota Wild: This is maybe the most shameless, flat-out attempt to skirt NHL-player requirements for preseason games.

Montreal Canadiens: Yeah this is a fact that has been a little mystifying to me all season. Better to avoid spending money than spending it on players who don’t deserve it, but it’s the Canadiens, sitting a mile below the cap. Strange.

Nashville Predators: Given the team’s blue line depth and the fact that their current No. 2 center is Nick Bonino, yeah, it makes sense to trade for Duchene.

New Jersey Devils: The thing is, maybe John Hynes is on the hot seat. Wouldn’t surprise me, just because rebuilding teams always swap out the coach. But he absolutely shouldn’t be. Like, what’s he supposed to do with this group?

New York Islanders: What could this possibly be based on?

New York Rangers: This is a great question. All depends on McDonagh and Lundqvist, honestly.

Ottawa Senators: The lede on this is what I’ve been saying for a long time. Thank you.

Philadelphia Flyers: Philly fans really aren’t going to like this.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Hey, sure.

San Jose Sharks: At that price, I wouldn’t be too worried about it.

St. Louis Blues: Well, uh, don’t hold your breath.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Tyler Johnson didn’t say he’s In The Best Shape Of His Life but it sure sounds to me like he’s In The Best Shape Of His Life.

Toronto Maple Leafs: How any guys focus on defense for the summer and then actually are measurably better at defense?

Vancouver Canucks: I mean, why not, right?

Vegas Golden Knights: People are so delighted. The Golden Knights are good at Twitter. Maybe the hockey will catch up one day. Congrats on the Twitter Stanley Cup.

Washington Capitals: Well, okay, have a good camp, I guess.

Winnipeg Jets: I want to shout out Mathieu Perreault as one of those elite middle-six guys who the “advanced” stats love but who gets consistently underrated in this league. We love you Mathieu!

Gold Star Award

With the summer ticking away, Jagr remains hopeful he’ll sign in the NHL

Sign Jagr.

Minus of the Weekend

Shane Doan

 

Discussions about whether Shane Doan is a Hall of Famer are maybe the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen from professional hockey journalists, and that’s saying something.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “Freedom” wants to make a quick change.

CBJ: Kessel + 1st round pick
PIT: Panarin

Signoff

We called that “The Stinger.” They don’t let you use that no more.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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