Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Problems With The Stars

I have my own unique views of the game of hockey, and I am not asking you to necessarily adopt mine to be yours.

Many of my views are traditional and non controversial; special teams and goaltending, right?

Others, that I have grown to feel strongly about with each season that I study this sport are perhaps open for debate amongst the masses, and that is why I am happy to present them to you to see what you think.

They are:

1) - Faceoffs are vital, and you must win your share. If you do not, you start the majority of each sequence chasing the game. Faceoff wins lead to possession. Possession leads to opportunity. Opportunity leads to scoring chances. And scoring chances lead to goals. Of course, those are just the offensive applications - on defense it helps you kill off a game with some defensive zone wins that lead to clears. I am sure there are exceptions to this rule of mine, but I always feel that the best teams in the NHL are really good on the dot. The Red Wings, the Penguins (last year, at least), the Sharks, the Blackhawks and the '99 Stars are all good examples of good teams that had that special ability to win the draw.

2) - Great teams have a great group of defensemen. Again, I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, but show me a Stanley Cup contender, and there seems to generally be a Norris Trophy candidate somewhere nearby. And, even if there is not an exceptional #1 D-man, there always must be a very dependable group of 4-6 guys back there that you can count on.

Guys who can handle the cycle (and beat it), guys who can move bodies from the crease, and most importantly sometimes, guys who can make that 1st pass to get out of the zone.

Consider it a starting pitching rotation or an offensive line. It is not always going to find its way to a cover of a magazine or a tv promo for an upcoming game: "Come see Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals against the fundamentally-sound-lock-it-down-and-get-it-out Dallas Stars defensemen!" But it is what wins in this league on the most consistent basis.

So, why am I bringing these two items up? Well, as I watch both legs of a very forgettable trip through NJ and NYC this week, it again occurs to me that while there are many components of the 2009-10 Dallas Stars that I do like, these two particular components are not something the Stars can do.

They don't win faceoffs; 27th in the NHL this year. They simply have a group of centers that do a number of things very, very well - but winning faceoffs will never be one of them.

And this blueline just simply does not possess the quality to win in the National Hockey League.

Now, this is where I am going to generate hate mail and argument so let me be clear: I think the Stars have some guys who are fine NHL defensemen. Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley can certainly help any team win. Karlis Skrastins has been quite a find for $1.1m and serves as some sort of Craig Ludwig shot blocking grit guy that every blue-line needs. Jeff Woywitka is an ideal #6/#7 insurance policy that every team needs.

And then there is a group of kids that show different levels of promise. The best is Nik Grossman who I have very high hopes for and generally demonstrates consistency and quality from night to night. Matt Niskanen and Mark Fistric could not be more different players in their styles, but they both together suffer from the growing pains of finding out how difficult it is to play on the blueline in the NHL.

It is not that individually they are not interesting parts. To me, it is that as a group, they do not constitute a group that demands fear and respect at this collective points in their careers. Instead of a pair of studs (#1 and #2 D-men), a pair of solids (#3 and #4), and a pair of dependables (#5 and #6), because of how the Stars have built their team, I estimate that they have a group that may have a group that has a 3 #3-#4 types (Robidas, Daley and Grossman), 3 #5-#6 types (Niskanen, Fistric, and Skrastins).

I think Robidas in particular plays his tail off and squeezes every drop of effort and ability out of his resilient frame - but I personally wonder if the Stars ask too much of him and exhaust the poor fellow by St Patrick's Day. Wouldn't he be an ideal #3 instead of an over-taxed #1?

So, where am I going with all of this? Allow me to show you what I have been looking at recently. I have to ask myself if Stars management (past and present) agree with me, since they have so little of their resources dedicated to the defensemen group. As Razor pointed out in the 1st period, the Stars are well below the salary cap. Given the Stars are spending, according to Razor, $46m (including almost $2m to Sean Avery) we see that the Stars are ranked 27th in the NHL in payroll. I use the website NHL Numbers who suggest the Stars are closer to $49m, but there is no dispute about the Stars being $9.85 million dollars under the salary cap. Razor also suggested the Stars are merely $4m above the salary floor.

Now, the amount they have to spend is not the decision of the personnel department (I am reasonably sure that they would be happy to add $10m in players). That, obviously, is an ownership issue that is tied to things like the economy, the Texas Rangers sale, the Liverpool stadium and debt, and many, many other things that I don't care to speculate about - partially because these are the types of things that get me in trouble.

But, given that they are spending $49m, let's at least work off of that internal budget to see how the money is distributed:

PositionTotal% of Payroll

HTML Tables

Obviously, this is an eye-opening way to look at the payroll. Considering that there are as many as 20 different forwards who share in that amount, 10 different defensemen, and 3 goalies, you have to account for averaging each department to get a true feel for things.

Also, we must remember that contract size does not always tell the story. However, it usually does. There is a good reason a Porsche cost more than a Hyundai. But, in the NHL, if you buy a Hyundai, it is still going to have to race Porsches every night, so it is important that you are careful with your budget.

With that in mind, I put the following chart together to show what Western Conference teams have chosen to spend on their defense corps. I believe this will show that the Stars must strongly consider a reallocation of funds at their earliest opportunity.

RankTeamMoney on Dmen
8.St Louis$18.7m
9.San Jose$17.9m
12.Los Angeles$14.9m

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Dead last in money allocated to the blue-line, and it isn't even close. So, my logical conclusion when watching a Dallas team that struggles with getting the puck out and dealing with size and the cycle, is that the Stars must upgrade this portion of the squad.

You are likely saying, "Bob, what about the forwards? All of that money, and they score 2 goals on a 2 game road-trip?". Fair question, but when I watch the Stars, I see a few things that I trace directly back to defense.

1) - Marty Turco's erratic performance. So, with Boucher, Zubov, and Norstrom on his blue-line, he plays some of the best goal of his career in the '07 and '08 playoffs. Then, when those three guys are subtracted at the exact same time, he forgets how to play? I don't totally buy it. He needs to be better, but you don't think Hatcher, Matvichuk, and Zubov made Belfour better?

2) - The Territorial War - I don't have stats to back this up, because to my knowledge, nobody keeps these numbers, but, I would love to know how much time the puck is in the Stars defensive zone versus the offensive zone. I feel like in most games, the puck is around Marty far more than it is in the other end. To me, that speaks to your group in the back struggling to win the puck battles and to distribute the puck up the ice like they have in past years. Of course, this has plenty to do with forwards supporting, too, but in the end, I just don't see enough quality on the blue-line in the Stars' defensive end.

Anyway, I know this sounds like I am being critical of the Stars current group. I am not. I think everyone is doing everything they can. I am just not sure the Stars are built with a quality blue-line in mind. Now, in fairness to the current Joe Nieuwendyk/Marc Crawford Stars, they have not had a chance to address this. They took over a team that had this team built this way, and the easiest solution is if the ownership tell Joe to go spend that extra $10m on a #1 and #2 defense pair. But, assuming that is not realistic, the Stars may have to trade pieces to make this puzzle fit a bit better.

What do you think?


Phil K. said...

You're probably closer to right than wrong on the "spending money on DMen" theory. I heard you espouse this on the post-game show after the Canucks loss, Saturday. I ga-gree. It may be a product of a strategy that shifted back when they couldn't score a goal to save their lives, several years ago and they shifted a lot of money to getting Richards and Ribiero. An aging Mo's contract is still hefty as is Lehtinen's. I guess the thing is, I can't remember being excited about any Dmen on this team since Zubov. There's no one to "quarterback" the offense and no one to "take out the trash" at the net. I contend that you guy two guys in here who do those two things "respectively" as #1 and #2.

As for face-offs, you'll recall that the 1999/2000 Stars utilized a face-off wizard by the name of Guy Carbonneau. I don't remember anyone else on that team being particularly good at it (Mo, maybe). Is it too sports-simpleton to say, get an ace in here to take 80% of the face-offs. If it's that important, as you say, it will be worth the roster spot.

Lastly, there's got to be something to this from a money perspective, behind the scenes. It's a topic that requires an intern to do some research for you such as: what will the 2010/11 cap be? which players have expiring contracts to free up cash? what's the gap between cap-salary and the cap ceiling? for the Stars, this year, I think it was around $6m. So, there's some money that could be spent. If it's truly a need, spend $3-$5m per Dman and get a couple in here. Of course, nothing is ever that simple. There are always other positions that need to get paid.

Matt said...

Bob -

I think your points are well taken. The Stars' defensive talent isn't the only problem here (I still notice quite a bit of "clumping" in all zones), but it is significant enough to affect the other phases of the game. I agree the loss of Zubov and Norstrom are a little more telling than we realize.

If there were leaks with the defensemen, Turco might do one of two things. 1) He might trust the kids to do their thing, and leave the backdoor open when someone is poorly positioned. 2) He might try to account for the fact that they're going to be poorly positioned, and give up a softy because he's overthinking everything.

In either case, you have a goalie that looks like he has no idea what he's doing, and the hockey neophyte ends up second guessing the Mike Smith trade.

There's also this glut of talent on the forward lines. And not just a bunch of talent in their prime, but guys like Loui Eriksson, James Neal, Tom Wandell, and Jamie Benn who have their entire future ahead of them. I can't help but wonder if you couldn't get a #1 or #2 for a few of these younger guys and maybe a draft pick.

Truman said...

Thanks for finally making sense out of this topsy-turvy year. Local media with hockey smarts are rare in this fair burg!

Davidm3286 said...

Bob, I've been making that exact d-man argument since last season. The $ allocated to D throughout the Western Conf chart really drives that point home. Then throw on top of all of that the new push it up system that places even more pressure on our d-corps and you have the makings of ... well, this season. Note I'm not saying Crawfords system won't work, but I do feel there are a lot of square pegs trying to fit round holes in our roster.

If we can't free up any additional budget it's clear we need to reallocate $ from forwards or goalie to the blue line. Either by trade or by letting some free agents walk. I would hate to see us lose some of the talented young forwards we have. Ideally an increase in budget to get a couple of top tier blue liners, coupled with some savings with identified players who don't fit the new system would get us there. I really believe that modest increase would be covered by increased attendance due to the better product on the ice, not to mention some playoff revenue. But if we are truely handcuffed at the current total payroll there isn't much choice but to move $ from the other areas to the blue line.

TRXTR said...

So how do we find out what is available to management? Or do we ever find out? Is this one of those situations that we will only get info on 2 years down the road? I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that more needs to be done on the blue line and I desperately want to believe that something will get done sooner rather than later. With your specific, market based, behind the scenes knowledge, how do you see the money thing playing out for Hicks regarding the Stars payroll?

Also, how do we get this type of hockey analysis as a semi regular segment on the show? Yeah I know we have the five minute major, but we, the Stars fans, would like a little more inside and insight.