Sharks Gameday: How Zonestarts Prevented the Stars From Falling



5:30 PST
33-24-8, 74 points 36-26-5, 77 points
8th in Western Conference
3rd in Western Conference
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Coming into this season, there was little reason to be optimistic about the Dallas Stars' chances of snapping their three-year playoff drought. In 2010-11, the Stars were the only Pacific Division team to miss the postseason and while it came down to a loss in Minnesota on the final day of the regular season for their fate to be sealed, there was quite a bit of evidence suggesting the Stars were unduly flattered by their record. Dallas was a fundamentally poor hockey club but a very high team shooting percentage (which we know is a shitty stat) buoyed them through the first half of the year before regression took full effect. They followed up their collapse with an offseason headlined by the loss of their leading scorer Brad Richards to the New York Rangers via free agency (although, honestly, Richards is no longer the difference-maker he's considered to be and it wouldn't be at all surprising if that contract turns into an albatross of Gomezian proportions before long - but I digress).

They entered the year with a new head coach in Glen Gulutzan and actually showed marked improvement in their underlying numbers - the team's close-score Corsi ratio at the All-Star break was 0.490, meaning that, when the score was tied at any time or within a goal in the first or second period, the Stars earned 49% of all even-strength shot attempts. Still, while that represented an uptick in their possession numbers from the 2010-11 season, it remained below league average and without the fortuitous shooting percentage they'd enjoyed the year prior, Dallas sat 10th in the Western Conference at the break. Since then, they've gone 11-5-3 and now sit 3rd in the conference and first in the Pacific. That in and of itself isn't entirely impressive (although it's of great annoyance to the Sharks) - mediocre teams go on percentages-fueled hot streaks all the time before eventually crashing down to earth. The impressive part, and the part that's unfortunate for the Sharks' chances to claim the division crown, is that this isn't a hot streak in the usual sense of the term - the Stars' recent run has been driven by a significant strategic shift on the part of Gulutzan.

Terrific Stars blogger Josh Lile over at Defending Big D was the first to bring to light the key adjustment in coaching philosophy by Gulutzan that helped raise the Stars to new heights over the past month. As Lile explains, prior to the All-Star Break, Gulutzan and the rest of the Stars' coaching staff were more or less content to roll their lines and defense pairings with little attention paid to matchups and zonestarts. The indispensable SnarkSD's look at league-wide deployment a few weeks ago illustrated this. For example, forward Michael Ryder is good at many things but defense really isn't one of them - having him start 55% of his EV shifts in the defensive zone prior to the All-Star Break was probably not the most optimal usage of the ex-Bruin. Ditto Mike Ribeiro. Meanwhile, defensive specialists like Vernon Fiddler and Radek Dvorak were also starting roughly 55% of their pertinent shifts in the defensive zone. The link between offensive zone starts and performance is well-established - it made very little sense for Gulutzan to start his offensively-inclined talents in their own end of the ice as frequently as his defensive stoppers rather than give the latter a larger share of the defensive responsibility, allowing the likes of Ryder and Ribeiro to spend more time in the offensive zone where they're less liable to cost the team defensively while doing what they do best - generating offense.

At some point, likely during the All-Star break, Gulutzan realized this. Since league play resumed following the festivities in Ottawa through the Stars' last game in Vancouver on Tuesday, Ribeiro has started 61.5% of his shifts in the offensive zone, with frequent linemates

Loui Eriksson

and Ryder joining him there more often than not as they've received 62.7% and 59.8% offensive zone start rates respectively. Fiddler and Dvorak have started in the defensive zone at a higher rate than they did earlier as well, although their profile isn't as extreme due to a bit of a chicken-and-egg effect: Gulutzan's zone-matching has worked so well that the Stars just don't have too many defensive zone draws to deal with anymore. Where only 46.3% of Dallas' non-neutral zone EV faceoffs were taken in the offensive zone before the All-Star break, 52% of them have occurred in the right end of the rink since. As team faceoff location tracks closely with puck possession, it follows that the Stars' underlying numbers have dramatically increased as well - Dallas's close-score Corsi and Fenwick ratios are an impressive 0.530 post-All-Star game. To put that in context, only Detroit, St. Louis, Boston and Pittsburgh have maintained Fenwick Close ratios north of that over the course of this season.
The learning curve for a rookie head coach in the NHL is steep so it's no surprise it took a little while for Gulutzan to put all the pieces together. But that he most definitely has. While a team like the

Phoenix Coyotes

were a bit lucky to embark on the streak that they did through the month of February, and are therefore unlikely to remain serious contenders for the division title, the Stars have earned their success through a shrewd optimization of their lineup. The Sharks have dominated Dallas this season, winning all three meetings between the clubs and outscoring Dallas 14-5 in addition to generating 68.6% of all even-strength scoring chances and 56.2% of all Fenwick events but, although the most recent contest came immediately after the All-Star break, this is really San Jose's first game against the "new-look" Stars and as such the first legitimate test of the season against their Texas rivals. To top it all off, it's damn near a must-win game against a team Gulutzan has molded into a legitimately good hockey club in position to bust two streaks this season: their own three-year absence from the postseason and the Sharks' four-year reign over the Pacific Division throne.

Prediction: Sharks win a shootout just to piss off everyone in the Western Conference, including themselves. Goals by Tommy Wingels and Joe Pavelski. Jamie McGinn with the shootout winner.