Defensive suggestions to unlock the Dallas Stars' offense

Today, we evaluate defensive tweaks that can help the Dallas Stars create leverage against the Edmonton Oilers in the 2024 Western Conference Final.
Dallas Stars v Edmonton Oilers - Game Three
Dallas Stars v Edmonton Oilers - Game Three / Codie McLachlan/GettyImages

While the main complaint and potential mental block for the Dallas Stars may be their offense, there are defensive tweaks that may help them win this series. 

To briefly summarize the most glaring issues on offense, the lack of PowerPlay urgency and low-in-the-zone puck movement has allowed Edmonton to play slightly passive and only have to challenge each Dallas ‘first attack’ and avoid over-committing, and the lack of offensive engagement by Dallas in the high-danger areas, because it’s hard to get to the high-danger areas, has forced Dallas to shoot from farther away, making it easier for Stuart Skinner to react, among other issues. 

Overall, offensive tweaks can be made, but I believe two defensive issues have limited the Stars’ offensive leverage: their ‘first man back’ issues and considering handedness in both zones.


The ‘best offense is a good defense’ quote gets both overused and overlooked at times, but it rings true in ice hockey for many reasons, including these two:

  1. Odd-man rushes (counter-attacks) are some of modern ice hockey's most effective offensive attacks.
  2. Playing behind the puck allows a team on defense to rarely get surprised and be able to capitalize on turnovers because of their body positioning. 

A good defense is proactive on turnovers because most of your team is facing the ‘attack net’ when playing behind the puck, as well as forward momentum with no need to turn 180 degrees to begin a play. From the opponents’ POVs, they are now facing backward without momentum, as they are facing their ‘attack net’ because they weren’t expecting a turnover. 

This common post-turnover scenario usually gives counter-attacking teams time and leverage to create chaos. Dallas was effective at this throughout the season, stretching the ice and going from defense to offense as efficiently as possible. 

Don Waddell, recently hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets as President of Hockey Operations, General Manager, & Alternate Governor, said this about rebuilding a team (it relates to making adjustments as well): 

""Cleaning up your defensive zone is a lot easier to fix than trying to find pure goal scorers, I think that's where our focus should be off the start.""

Don Waddell, Columbus Blue Jackets

The Stars can clean up their defensive zone, regardless if they can't find consistent goal-scoring from their forwards, except for Wyatt Johnston. The following defensive suggestions could help unlock the offense of the Stars:

First man back?

In past minor hockey circles, when backchecking as forwards, the ‘centerman’ is typically assigned to rush back and defend the lower end of the defensive zone as part of their normal coverage. This means that ‘wingers’ who get back first usually take care of the first attacking chance from an opponent but then head to the normal ‘winger’ boards position. 

For teams like the Dallas Stars, with confidence in their defenders and an emphasis on ‘positionless hockey.’ They employ a ‘first man back’ form of coverage, where the first forward available must cover the center’s role until a switch can be made. This usually helps prevent initial rush attacks and mitigates the ‘first’ chances, but it only works if all forwards are ready to be the ‘first man back’ should it be their turn. 

The issue in this ‘tight-checking’ playoff series against Edmonton has been a lack of accountability from the forward group, where Edmonton’s speed is throwing off the ‘first man back’ policy where few forwards are willing and able to catch up to high-flying Edmonton skaters off of turnovers.

For example, through two periods against Edmonton in Game 5, the Oilers had six odd-man rushes against the Stars. There were visible examples of forwards who were either near the end of their shifts or not pushing it 100% on the backcheck, causing Dallas’ two defenders to have to deal with the likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and others, all while out-numbered on six separate occasions. This lack of back pressure from forwards is stressing a defensive core that currently has Chris Tanev with one good foot left and Miro Heiskanen, who is tasked with playing more than 10 minutes in select periods and close to half of a game in Ice Time. 

The Stars need to emphasize ‘first man back’ accountability for all forwards or change how deep their centers cheat on offense. This could allow Dallas to protect against Edmonton’s counter-attack because McDavid & Co. will score on odd-man rushes if given multiple chances. This should help take some pressure off a taxed defensive core and put more pressure on Edmonton’s skaters to make plays.

Does handedness matter?

The handedness debate has been around for a long time in hockey, with players like Alex Ovechkin and MacKenzie Weegar as notable success stories of players who have played most of their careers on their ‘weak side’ (right-handed shooters playing ‘left’ positions). Miro Heiskanen is the local case, and the debate has gone on for multiple years about whether he’s playing his best hockey on the right side as a left-handed shooter. 

There are two areas on the ice I believe ‘strong side’ handedness is essential for: the high OZ and the high DZ. Specifically, between the top of the circles and the blue line, in both zones, are areas susceptible to dangerous turnovers and can be the areas of the ice where threatening offensive pressure begins for some teams. This leads us to two cases:

The Case for Wingers on the Breakout

In Dallas’ modern defensive philosophy, including ‘first man back’, they want their forwards to support whichever DZ side the puck is near. This sometimes results in sloppy breakouts from wingers on their ‘weak side.' For example, if a right-shot winger is on the left-hand boards waiting for a pass from a defender behind the net, the winger has to turn their body to face the puck and receive the puck on their forehand.

This prevents a clean breakout because the winger now has to either turn 180 degrees to push the puck up the middle (without getting surprised by opponents from a blind spot) or has to chip the puck on their backhand against the boards (without getting pinched by the opposing Dman). If Dallas set their lines up so lefties could play ‘left boards defense’ and righties could play ‘right boards defense’, their body positioning would allow for multiple passing options on breakouts because they are no longer forced to face the boards to receive a pass or make an unreliable backhand pass in crucial situations. This tweak in lineup management and defensive coverage could help Dallas become a better threat in transition and counterattacks.

The case for defenders in the OZ

Similarly, when a lefty has to pinch down the right boards in the OZ, it usually comes with a backhanded ‘poke’ rather than a forehanded ‘push.' A lefty on the right side such as Miro Heiskanen, can’t control the puck this way because his top hand must extend outward to contest a puck, or else he must fully commit his body for a 50/50 board battle on his backhand. Conversely, if Heiskanen were on the left boards as a lefty, 50/50 pucks have a better chance to be collected, controlled, and passed off the wall because he’s on his forehand or ‘strong side’.

Furthermore, a player's body in the high OZ is better oriented for adjusting to high-speed plays on his strong side because his back is against the boards on pinches as opposed to having to close off the front of his body on weak-side pinches. Facing your body to the boards on pinches leaves little room to pivot if the pinch fails or little space to make a play if you happen to get the puck yourself. 

Overall, the ‘mental predictability’ is not there for hockey players who don’t have time to overthink in the playoffs. Stars players can't resort to ‘strong side’ and comfortable habits because they’ve been taught to analyze the ice as they see it, playing weak-side winger roles despite visible issues with transitional play.

This results in ‘old dogs’ like Matt Duchene and Joe Pavelski being unable to learn ‘new tricks’ and adjust during high-stress moments. This has led to the Stars getting overwhelmed by proactive opponents like the Oilers, who won’t let you have time to think about how to play the puck on your ‘weak side.’ Defenders like Thomas Harley don’t have to play hockey on their backhand all game are critical for the confidence and playmaking ability of the D core, helping the team overall.

Recent positive example

I stress back pressure from the forwards, handedness in the defensive zone, and playing behind the puck because these ideas have helped hockey teams like the Dallas Stars play smooth hockey all year and have led directly to goals.

For example, the only goal that the Stars scored in Game 5 vs. the Oilers started because of the following keys:

  • Jamie Benn back-checked hard, causing the Edmonton forwards to run out of time on their rush chance before the Dallas blueline
  • 3-on-2 Dallas transitions quickly the other way (all Edmonton forwards are facing their ‘attack net’ and unable to turn around fast to stop the counter-attack)
  • Johnston tries to get the puck cleanly to the ‘danger’ area of the ice and loses it but creates chaos because of the confident and forceful decision
  • Edmonton defenders collapse to net-front to ‘protect the house’
  • Stankoven astutely recognizes low defenders, goes low-to-high to Harley
  • Johnston wins body positioning over Oilers defender, makes an elite tip

This play began with aggressive back pressure by Jamie Benn, taking away time and space from the Oilers, followed by Wyatt Johnston pushing the envelope on offense by driving to the high-danger area, and Logan Stankoven showed great on-ice improvisation to recognize the panicked Oilers defenders who came down too low in the zone. 

This was a ‘team-first’ and well-executed goal. 

We have seen the defensive back pressure and the offensive rush ability of the Dallas Stars team from that goal sequence throughout the season, but it’s less prevalent now. It could be a fatigue issue, lazy wingers, tight-checking hockey, or something else, but if the team’s forwards can’t score and won’t backcheck until it’s too late, the Stars’ hockey season may be over sooner than desired.


The Stars will not win the Western Conference Finals by just, “playing their game." Adjustments, including the notes above, could be critical to keeping their 2023-2024 season alive. Will the Stars be a desperate club pushing forward with the same team philosophy but with a last-minute adrenaline boost? Or, will the team pause to reflect on what needs to change to surprise the Edmonton Oilers during a time when the Oilers' confidence and speed have combined for a rush-heavy, out-number you in all situations, just like what Dallas’ identity was this season? 

All the best to the Stars, who are on their last playoff life.

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