The Stars are a mess on the blueline and in goal, and bringing in Ken Hitchcock’s system should help them improve in both areas.
It would be a wonderful narrative to suggest that Ken Hitchcock is being named the new coach of the Dallas Stars out of some sense of nostalgia, an attempt by the organization to harken back to better times. Hitchcock, of course, is the only coach in franchise history to win a Stanley Cup in Dallas. And hooking up with the old ex certainly worked out for Claude Julien and the Montreal Canadiens, Randy Carlyle and the Anaheim Ducks and Paul Maurice and the Carolina Hurricanes. (Not to mention John Gibbons and the Toronto Blue Jays.)
And there’s no doubt that the market’s familiarity with Hitchcock is a nice bonus, GM Jim Nill is far too smart to pass over more qualified candidates just to get the band back together. Ken Hitchcock is coaching the Dallas Stars next season because Ken Hitchcock is exactly what the Dallas Stars need next season.
This is a team that is porous defensively and has suspect goaltending. One of them, Hitchcock will be able to address immediately. The second, well the Stars will either have to upgrade in the off-season – not the easiest task when your two goaltenders are under contract for one more year with a combined cap hit of $11.4 million – or hope that an improvement defensively and on the penalty kill will bring out better play in Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi.
The Stars gave up 260 non-shootout goals this season, which was second worst in the league behind only the Colorado Avalanche. That’s 32 more than last season when they finished second overall in the NHL with 109 points. In other years, the Stars have been able to score their way out of a lot of their troubles, but this season the scoring dried up and the Stars were not able to keep the puck out of their own net.
Much of that had to do with a putrid penalty kill, one that was worst in the league by a considerable margin. No team gave up more power-play goals than the Stars did this season, so they’re either going to have to start taking way fewer penalties or improve on the penalty kill. Hitchcock will have a huge influence on the latter.
It also didn’t help that the Stars were really, really spotty in goal this season. In terms of straight save percentage, of the 37 goalies who played at least 35 games this season, Lehtonen finished 19th and Niemi dead last in 37th. In terms of save percentage while shorthanded, Niemi was 35th in the league and Lehtonen was 37th. The Stars were fourth this season in Corsi For and fifth-worst in Corsi against. It would not be a huge surprise to see the Stars almost reverse that trend next season with Hitchcock behind the bench.
It’s interesting to note that in terms of 5-on-5 play, Lehtonen actually had a decent bounce back season in 2016-17. There are a couple of problems with that. First, it was only decent and that’s not good enough. Second, Lehtonen can’t play every game and Antti Niemi was enormously sub-par by almost every standard of measurement and he appeared in 37 games this season.
Hitchcock has made some goalies look good in the past, but not even he could make a silk purse out of the likes of Roman Cechmanek. The Stars’ goaltending will probably improve if they can clamp down defensively and curtail the number of 10-bell chances against, but for at least next season, they might be stuck with what they have.
Another probable reason why Nill brought Hitchcock in is that the Stars defense corps is a dog’s breakfast and Nill knows that. He also knows he needs a coach who can work with the little the Stars have on the backline and somehow make it work. John Klingberg has regressed since signing a long-term deal and Dan Hamhuis is 34 years old. Esa Lindell needs to develop some consistency in his game and the Stars still aren’t sure what they have in Jamie Oleksiak, who is 24 years old. And aside from top prospect Julius Honka, the Stars don’t have much on the way within their organization. So does that mean the Stars go after a pending UFA such as Karl Alzner in the off-season or make a trade to bolster their blueline? Even if they do, they’re going to need the guidance of a coach who has a defense-first mentality and has the credibility and authority to implement it.
With the Stars, the two go hand-in-hand. Hitchcock has always been able to establish a system that makes goaltenders’ lives easier and in this case, it will start with a better penalty kill. So what does all this mean for the Stars going forward. Well, the probably won’t be as much fun to watch if you don’t have a skin in the game. But if you’re a fan of the Stars that has been frustrated by seeing your team lose game after game with poor play behind its own blueline, you almost certainly have reason for optimism.