Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bag of Pucks - April 16 - Dead Cat Bounce Edition

The life-cycle of champion teams in sports is often limited to a very short number of years strung together where everything happened in concert to lead to greatness.  I say this only because as everyone looks at Chicago as the gold standard in the Western Conference, it was the spring of 2006 when I was at the United Center one spring day with roughly 5,000 die-hard Blackhawks' fans who decided that they still wished to witness hockey at the NHL level and decided to come see the Stars.

That is why whenever I hear people talk about Chicago Blackhawks hockey in reverent terms, it must be to marvel at their franchise makeover rather than their tradition of die-hard excellence.  As the teenage version of me would attest, there was no better place to fall in love with the game of hockey than Chicago Stadium, but since William Wirtz traded Ed Belfour, Jeremy Roenick, and finally, Chris Chelios from their team of the early 1990's, they had gone largely dormant for almost 15 years when people wondered how a great hockey town could turn its back on hockey.

Regardless, when the Stars lost to Chicago on Monday night, it was meaningful for a few reasons;  1) it ended their 5-game win streak that had them in a position to seize the final playoff spot if they can finish strong and 2) the likely matchup in the 1st round would be against these same Chicago Blackhawks.

As so many games happen in such a small stretch of time, let us recall that 2 weeks ago, this season was declared over by the Stars themselves - that is at least the decision makers who traded away Derek Roy, Jaromir Jagr, and Brenden Morrow within a week in an effort to start anew with picks and prospects for 2013-14.

I absolutely agreed with those moves and the decision the Stars made.  At some point, one must decide the upside of a move versus the downside of not making it.  For once, the Stars decided that risking a future gain for a small profit in the present wasn't worth it.  And they were right.

But, then what happened?  With many called up from the AHL, they went on a run at Anaheim and at San Jose where they finished the trip with an unlikely 4 points.  They returned home to take on a Kings team that had humiliated them the week before and beat them straight up for win #3 on the trot.  Last Friday, it was a very impressive win in Nashville and then a back-to-back win against those same Sharks on Saturday on home ice.  5 wins in a row - a season high - with the last 3 being with Richard Bachman between the pipes.

What the heck was going on?

How was a team that seemed in the mix to sink to the top of the draft lottery by season's end putting together a legitimate win streak against solid competition to the tune of a 5-game cumulative score of 20-9?  It is both proof that sports are difficult to predict and that gambling is a very bad idea.

Somehow, they were playing better hockey despite subtracting from their group.  Not just the players they traded away, mind you, but the best player in the organization for much of the recent past, Kari Lehtonen.  It truly made very little sense, if you dig deep and try to sort out what was going on.

It led me to a term that is seldom used but fun to discuss, the "dead cat bounce".  This, basically, tries to define the phenomenon of a stock that rises briefly after a sharp decline.  An uptick in performance can get some people to buy-in, only to realize (after it is too late) that they fell for the dead cat bounce.  It is named, quite appropriately, because a dead cat falling from a great height will bounce back up briefly.  It doesn't mean it is suddenly alive again.  It will be motionless on the pavement after that initial bounce.

Understandably, this does not sit well with many fans.  They want to believe that suddenly this team figured everything out and is ready to rise up the standings and maybe go on a long playoff run.  But, the entire time I watch this stretch, I look for indicators that they are suddenly fixed, and I don't see a ton of evidence that says this turn in play can last.

In the first 36 games, the Stars conceded 31 shots per game.  They were getting about 26.7, and if you talk to any analysts out there, they will tell you that puck possession and shots on goal are the best metrics that correlate to winning.   And all season long, despite their attempts to change this, the Stars have conceded more than they have created on a rather consistent basis.

In the 5-1 stretch since April 4, they have generated 24.1 shots per game and have conceded 30.3 for a differential that is actually worse than what it was.  This, by the way, would verify conventional wisdom that says if you lose some of your better players for a stretch of time, your performance will generally worsen.

They outshot just 1 opponent in those 6 games and were dismantled in the face-off circle (as per usual) 197-173.  They have received dynamite goaltending and have received some wonderful abnormalities on shot percentages (Alex Chiasson scoring on 50% of his shots after scoring on 10% in the AHL), but overall, it is the same team except without 4 veteran players who were all above-average contributors at their best.  We also shouldn't completely discount the idea that a few of those teams - especially early in the streak - may not have had their proper "game faces" on for a meeting with a Stars team that had just sold off much of its assets.  The longer this stretch goes and the bigger the sample size, we are seeing that equalize as well.  Chicago did not take the Stars lightly on Monday, nor did the Sharks on Saturday.

I know there is no room for nuance when we discuss our sports teams, but I think there needs to be room for plenty when talking about the Stars.  I think there are some very interesting pieces for moving forward, but I never thought that this brief bounce in performance meant anything long-term.  Could it save jobs?  Could it lead to a playoff-run?  It just didn't make logical sense.

They still have many holes in the way they play hockey.  They seldom appear to be capable of dominating an opponent - something good teams enjoy several times a season.  They rarely pin their opponents in the other end, but often - including last night - still get pinned in their own end.  They still have a tiny blue-line that can get over-powered in puck battles and now lack at least one play-making center to help their wingers to find scoring chances.

That doesn't mean that they can't make the playoffs this year, because obviously, they are close to the finish line and the smaller the number of games, the more possible a "hot team" or irregularity can come into play.

But, is this team closer to being a legitimate NHL contender than they were a month ago?  Yes, in terms of young assets on their way, but no, in terms of the 20 players that can take the ice each night at the .  This is a very long road and the Stars seem to have an idea how they want to get there.  Almost none of it revolves around anything that can be done before this summer.  So, in the meantime, allow your coach to see what he can get out of the resources he has available.  If that is enough to get them post-season hockey, there is almost no downside to that in terms of gaining experience in high-stakes environments.

They have some of the pieces in place and many talented kids on the way.  Unlike Chicago, it doesn't appear that any generational talent is in the system (Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane), but you don't know that for sure until they develop.

I guess the point to this little stretch is that I don't believe it is sustainable and I don't think it suggests that the Stars are a significantly better team than they were a month ago.  That doesn't necessarily matter because the standings are the standings and there is nothing subjective to where they stand.  They do have a very difficult finishing stretch ahead of them and I would love to see post-season hockey here for the 1st time since George W Bush was our president.

But, part of this rebuild is staying the course and staying patient.  Recognize the strides they are making while understanding the distance yet to cover.  Know that it takes time and that they are restlessly trying to get there.

There are short-term plays and long-term plays in life and in sports.  The Stars made a long-term play to make themselves better when they traded their expiring contracts for assets.  We won't know for years if they made sound decisions and we will never know if the team would have won 5 in a row if they didn't make any deals.  That is why sports is so intoxicating and maddening.  You just don't know so many things that would be useful to know.

But, seeing a kid like Chiasson with kids like Eakin and Dillon tell you that there are young trees replacing the old ones.  They don't grow up overnight, but they do grow fast.  And watching the growth in 2013 might be worthwhile when we look back in a few years.

Let's see what they can do in these final 6 games to earn more hockey this spring.

No comments: