One of the most common, pervasive adages across all of professional sports is the notion that “defense wins championships.” This idea has been especially common in the NHL over the past 20 years and it’s easy to understand why, as defensive teams have ruled the day far more often than not in recent memory.
Don’t tell that to the Dallas Stars, however.
The Stars handily led the entire NHL in scoring this season, finishing with an average of 3.23 goals per-game, well ahead of the second place Washington Capitals who had 3.06. Dallas confidently plays an up-tempo, high-flying style of hockey that’s spearheaded by offensively elite players like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and John Klingberg.
This style of hockey worked wonders for the Stars over the regular season. They burst out of the gate to start, going a combined 19-5 in October and November, and aside from a rough stretch of games in January and February maintained their successful pace throughout the year, including finishing on a 9-2 hot streak.
But the question still remains: will this style of hockey translate beyond the regular season and work in the playoffs as well?
Puck Daddy’s Josh Cooper wrote about this topic recently, highlighting the challenge that Dallas has ahead of them:
Shoring up the defense for the Stars is important if they want to win the Stanley Cup this year.
Since 2010-11, the league Stanley Cup champion has ranked either first or second in goals allowed per-game. In 2009-10, the champion Chicago Blackhawks ranked fifth in goals allowed per-game.
The Stars aren’t exactly porous when it comes to overall defending, but it’s also no secret that it isn’t their strongest suit, either. They finished tied for 19th in the NHL in goals against at 2.78 per game, tied for 10th in shots against, and, most worryingly, 27th in HSCA60 (even-strength high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes of play), as tracked by the analytics website War-on-Ice.com.
To their credit, the Stars are well aware of their weaknesses and have been actively trying to correct them, with impressive results. They only allowed a combined 19 goals over their past 10 games, a very encouraging sign with the playoffs coming up next.
However, don’t expect the Stars to dramatically alter their style of play any time soon.
The team simply doesn’t have a big enough, heavy enough roster to successfully deploy a physical defensive system, like the Los Angeles Kings do, and has no desire whatsoever to attempt a collapse-and-hang-on-for-dear-life system of defending, such as the one that failed to get the Colorado Avalanche in this year’s postseason. Instead, the Stars are going to stick with their high-risk, high-reward strategy, try to tweak out the inherent glitches, and see where it takes them.
Shifting The Focus
While it might seem like a plan that’s doomed from the start, there’s also evidence to suggest that there’s another generalized element of hockey that’s just as important for playoff success as defense is: puck possession.
Cooper’s recognition of the relationship between defense and recently Stanley Cup-winners isn’t wrong, but one thing that he didn’t do in his article was look at puck possession as a whole. When examining Corsi For percentage, the most common element of puck possession, there’s also an interesting correlation with winning championships: the 2015 Blackhawks finished 2nd, the 2014 Kings finished 1st, the 2013 Blackhawks were 4th and the 2012 Kings were 2nd.
The 2015-16 Stars, meanwhile, finished 3rd in the NHL at Corsi For percentage.
Perhaps simply playing strong defense isn’t as important as a team’s overall ability to control the puck. Sure, Dallas allows more chances than normal in their own end, but still finish on the positive side of things because they generate an incredible amount of chances against their opponents.
And in a league where goal-scoring significantly dries up in the playoffs the Stars’ explosive offense could become the key difference-maker at turning regular 1-1 and 2-2 deadlocks in their favor.
Defense may indeed win championships, but to borrow from another common sports analogy for the Dallas Stars, maybe “the best defense is a good offense.”