The job of a sportswriter is to report what they see and to leave their ego out of that process. When the team plays poorly, the job is to explain how and why they played poorly. When the team plays well, it’s important to describe how and why they played well.
The nuance that surrounds this discussion can be hard to bend around, especially considering if the team is actually “good” or not.
The Dallas Stars certainly walk that line.
They beat the great teams and turn around and lose to the bad teams. A few days ago, we discussed the dichotomy this team seems to experience on a weekly basis with the end conclusion that no matter what performance the Stars roll out on any given night, it is important to recognize where they are in the standings.
Dallas still controls its own fate and sits tied with the Nashville Predators for the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.
The Los Angeles Kings, Vegas Golden Knights and now the Vancouver Canucks still have the potential to crush the Stars’ playoff aspirations, so as good of a season as the Stars have had, it’s possible that it could still all blow up in their faces.
With six games to go, the jury is still out on just how good this team really is.
Defense struggles in loss to Vancouver
Monday night didn’t do much to cement this team’s legacy after a 6-2 road loss to Vancouver. It’s important for any sportswriter to hold players and coaches accountable when they don’t perform, especially when it’s not up to the standards the team has set this season.
It’s clear the Stars have the talent to be a good team, but criticism is absolutely deserved after the performance against the Canucks.
Dallas blew a crucial opportunity to separate from Vegas, which dropped a 3-2 loss at the hands of the lowly New Jersey Devils.
If you look at the box score, it may seem that offense was the problem. The Stars average 2.86 goals per game and two goals against a surging Vancouver team is not going to cut it.
But if you watched the game, it was clear this team’s problem was defense and puck management.
Dallas didn’t value the puck and turned it over in high-danger areas that the Canucks capitalized on and Jake Oettinger did not look like himself as he looked like he was swimming in net at times and did not have a good read on where the puck was headed. Oettinger’s play isn’t as much of a concern as the Stars’ defense — which like it or not, is the Stars’ identity.
The Stars struggle to score as they have the 20th-ranked offense in the NHL at 2.86 goals scored per game. Conversely, Dallas is tied with Vegas in 17th place in the NHL in goals allowed, yielding 2.96 goals per game.
While the Stars’ defense is clearly not what it has been in years past, this team is still entrenched with a defensive mindset.
Last season, when Dallas missed the playoffs by four points, it was still ranked seventh in the NHL, allowing 2.64 goals per game. And that was with a comparatively shakier tandem of Anton Khudobin and the fresh-faced Oettinger.
Two seasons ago, when the Stars made their run to the Stanley Cup Final, Dallas was second in the NHL, allowing 2.52 goals per game.
Jumping back to this season, Dallas has had some absences in its defensive core and the move away from Jamie Oleksiak to Ryan Suter hasn’t exactly been a 1-for-1 swap.
Ryan Suter looked just as lost as Oettinger against the Canucks and the Stars as a team looked slow and at times looked uninterested in matching the Canucks’ intensity.
This Twitter account HockeyStatCards has a simple breakdown of how each player played offensively and defensively.
Most of the roster struggled defensively, specifically the Stars’ top line, which had one of its worst defensive games of the season and that significantly impacted its offense on the other side of the ice. Jason Robertson and Joe Pavelski were each minus-3 in the game with Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg at a team-worst minus-4.
The curious case of Rick Bowness and the checking line
That brings us to head coach Rick Bowness and Radek Faksa, who are at the core of most of the drama and contention among Stars fans.
Fans feel like Faksa and his linemates get too much time on ice. Faksa saw the 11th most ice time on the team against Vancouver with 16:01 played. That also ranked him sixth amongst forwards.
Here is where the misconception comes in. Faksa ranks sixth on the season, averaging 15:47 per game behind Pavelski, Robertson, Roope Hintz, Seguin and Jamie Benn.
Faksa’s linemates Michael Raffl and Luke Glendening rank seventh and 11th on the team respectively.
Moreover, many of that trio’s minutes come on the penalty kill and in the defensive zone. It’s clear Bowness trusts this combination as his shutdown, checking line.
Again, this year’s squad isn’t as good defensively, but that line has a combined total of 1,691 games played. Experience is a gigantic luxury in the NHL, especially in the playoffs. Their games are rooted in checking and defense.
Yes, their lack of scoring hurts the team at times, but as previously laid out, defense is still this team’s identity and that has the Stars in position to not only make the playoffs, but on track to post the second-most points in a season in the past 14 seasons. This team dominates one-goal games with defense and like it or not, the Stars aren’t going to deviate from that defensive identity with six games left to go in the season.
Next season, all bets are off the table and the team the Stars have right now is permanent. General manager Jim Nill picked up Marian Studenic off waivers from New Jersey and traded a fourth-round pick for Vladislav Namestnikov, which are savvy moves for a team that is extremely tight against the salary cap. Nill did all he could to address the forward depth of the team and it didn’t cost much.
This team is what it is. There aren’t many drastic changes that can be made to change the DNA of the team.
Fans want players such as Denis Gurianov and Jacob Peterson to be given more of the checking line’s minutes, but neither Gurianov or Peterson kill penalties or have the wealth of experience that Faksa, Raffl or Glendening have. Gurianov is anemic defensively and has shown his lack of defense hurts the team.
Moreover, he only has 11 goals on the season, so the discussion with him is always, is his offense outweighs his defensive deficiencies. This season, his offense has not and he’s had plenty of chances playing on the second line with Benn and Seguin along with power play time on the second unit.
Peterson is a tricky case and Bowness definitely deserves criticism for not playing him against Vancouver, citing his inability to handle the “intensity” and “speed” of the game at times.
Peterson is sixth on the team in goals with 12 and there aren’t many excuses for him not playing in favor of Joel Kiviranta or even Alexander Radulov. The same case can be made for Gurianov.
Bowness absolutely needs to be held accountable by fans and sportswriters for these types of decisions — flat out.
But for fans to want Bowness fired for decisions impacting the bottom-six forward group is extremely radical.
Coaches change lines and lineups to find chemistry and to suit different matchups. There is a ton that goes into those decisions. They aren’t made haphazardly.
Remember when fans wanted Bowness fired for not playing Riley Tufte? Tufte has the third-worst Corsi numbers on the entire Stars’ roster this season.
At some point, the kids have to play right? Of course. But when the Stars are in win-now mode with an aging core of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Joe Pavelski and John Klingberg, they don’t have time to take chances on players without experience or without even the semblance of a defensive game.
Every game, especially as the Stars make their playoff push, is crucial. The coaching staff isn’t taking chances on rookies or players who have a detailed history of poor defensive play — see Gurianov’s season.
This team is not perfect by any means, but the goal in any game is to roll four lines. Radulov, Studenic, Kiviranta and Gurianov all saw 10-11 minutes of ice time in a losing effort against the Canucks. That’s an important piece of information to keep in mind.
When the Stars are losing, the bottom players get less ice time. When the Stars are winning, they are ideally rolling four lines and every player is getting their opportunities.
Dallas trailed by three goals after Vancouver’s Vasily Podkolzin pushed the Canucks’ lead to 5-2 just 49 seconds into the third period.
The Stars obviously needed offense, but their top line of Hintz, Robertson and Pavelski can’t play every shift. They can’t play every other shift. That’s not how the game of hockey works. Players need rest and you reach the point of diminishing returns if you overextend players past their abilities.
By that flawed logic, the top line should never come off the ice, but again, that’s not how hockey works.
Fans chide Bowness for his lineup decisions, but when he finally makes a significant change against Vancouver and puts Gurianov with Faksa and Raffl, he doesn’t get any credit.
After all, the Stars lost the game.
So did the lineup tweak even work? An easy case could be made that it hurt the chemistry of the team and the overall team defense, but much of the defensive lapses came by the Stars’ top-six forwards.
Faksa was the only player with a positive plus-minus at plus-1, but somehow this loss was blamed on him by some fans. He was clearly one of the best players on the team Monday, despite missing a golden scoring opportunity in the slot in the first period. He’s had a much better second half of the season both offensively and defensively and despite his down season, he has earned the trust of the coaching staff.
Evaluating Bowness and the Stars is clearly a moving target. Dallas doesn’t do itself any favors by playing such a Jekyll and Hyde game and Bowness doesn’t do himself any favors by sitting players like Peterson.
Jim Nill, if he still has a job next season, and Stars owner Tom Gaglardi have a major decision to make on Bowness next season. Anything short of a deep playoff run will most likely get him axed and that’s unfortunate, regardless of who the actual coach is, considering the historical nature of Dallas’ successful season.
This team does seem like it needs a new direction with the development of a budding crop of superstars ready to take the next step, but all of those concerns can be put to bed with a solid playoff performance.
At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding. The Stars are currently a playoff team, but they are built to win a Stanley Cup. Expectations are understandably high.
However, Bowness and the line of Faksa, Raffl and Glendening don’t deserve the hate they are getting considering the Stars are on track to return to the postseason.
Sportswriters are tasked with holding coaches and players for their failures and this season, there has been much more success than failure.