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Sturm Blog: Faceoffs and Defense

by Bob Sturm / Dallas Stars
Bob Sturm

I have my own unique views of the game of hockey, and I am not asking you to necessarily adopt mine to be yours.

Many of my views are traditional and non controversial; special teams and goaltending, right?

Others, that I have grown to feel strongly about with each season that I study this sport are perhaps open for debate amongst the masses, and that is why I am happy to present them to you to see what you think.

They are:

1) - Faceoffs are vital, and you must win your share. If you do not, you start the majority of each sequence chasing the game. Faceoff wins lead to possession. Possession leads to opportunity. Opportunity leads to scoring chances. And scoring chances lead to goals. Of course, those are just the offensive applications - on defense it helps you kill off a game with some defensive zone wins that lead to clears. I am sure there are exceptions to this rule of mine, but I always feel that the best teams in the NHL are really good on the dot. The Red Wings, the Penguins (last year, at least), the Sharks, the Blackhawks and the '99 Stars are all good examples of good teams that had that special ability to win the draw.

2) - Great teams have a great group of defensemen. Again, I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, but show me a Stanley Cup contender, and there seems to generally be a Norris Trophy candidate somewhere nearby. And, even if there is not an exceptional #1 D-man, there always must be a very dependable group of 4-6 guys back there that you can count on.

Guys who can handle the cycle (and beat it), guys who can move bodies from the crease, and most importantly sometimes, guys who can make that 1st pass to get out of the zone.

Consider it a starting pitching rotation or an offensive line. It is not always going to find its way to a cover of a magazine or a tv promo for an upcoming game: "Come see Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals against the fundamentally-sound-lock-it-down-and-get-it-out Dallas Stars defensemen!" But it is what wins in this league on the most consistent basis.

So, why am I bringing these two items up? Well, as I watch both legs of a very forgettable trip through NJ and NYC this week, it again occurs to me that while there are many components of the 2009-10 Dallas Stars that I do like, these two particular components are not something the Stars can do.

They don't win faceoffs; 27th in the NHL this year. They simply have a group of centers that do a number of things very, very well - but winning faceoffs will never be one of them.

And this blueline just simply does not possess the quality to win in the National Hockey League.

Now, this is where I am going to generate hate mail and argument so let me be clear: I think the Stars have some guys who are fine NHL defensemen. Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley can certainly help any team win. Karlis Skrastins has been quite a find for $1.1m and serves as some sort of Craig Ludwig shot blocking grit guy that every blue-line needs. Jeff Woywitka is an ideal #6/#7 insurance policy that every team needs.

And then there is a group of kids that show different levels of promise. The best is Nik Grossman who I have very high hopes for and generally demonstrates consistency and quality from night to night. Matt Niskanen and Mark Fistric could not be more different players in their styles, but they both together suffer from the growing pains of finding out how difficult it is to play on the blueline in the NHL.

It is not that individually they are not interesting parts. To me, it is that as a group, they do not constitute a group that demands fear and respect at this collective points in their careers. Instead of a pair of studs (#1 and #2 D-men), a pair of solids (#3 and #4), and a pair of dependables (#5 and #6), because of how the Stars have built their team, I estimate that they have a group that may have a group that has a 3 #3-#4 types (Robidas, Daley and Grossman), 3 #5-#6 types (Niskanen, Fistric, and Skrastins).

I think Robidas in particular plays his tail off and squeezes every drop of effort and ability out of his resilient frame - but I personally wonder if the Stars ask too much of him and exhaust the poor fellow by St Patrick's Day. Wouldn't he be an ideal #3 instead of an over-taxed #1?

So, where am I going with all of this? Allow me to show you what I have been looking at recently. I have to ask myself if Stars management (past and present) agree with me, since they have so little of their resources dedicated to the defensemen group. As Razor pointed out in the 1st period, the Stars are well below the salary cap. Given the Stars are spending, according to Razor, $46m (including almost $2m to Sean Avery) we see that the Stars are ranked 27th in the NHL in payroll. I use the website NHL Numbers who suggest the Stars are closer to $49m, but there is no dispute about the Stars being $9.85 million dollars under the salary cap. Razor also suggested the Stars are merely $4m above the salary floor.

Now, the amount they have to spend is not the decision of the personnel department (I am reasonably sure that they would be happy to add $10m in players). That, obviously, is an ownership issue that is tied to things like the economy, the Texas Rangers sale, the Liverpool stadium and debt, and many, many other things that I don't care to speculate about - partially because these are the types of things that get me in trouble.

But, given that they are spending $49m, let's at least work off of that internal budget to see how the money is distributed:

Position Total % of Payroll
Forwards $34.3m 69%
Defense $8.7m 17.5%
Goal $6.7m 13.4%
Totals $49.7m 100%

Obviously, this is an eye-opening way to look at the payroll. Considering that there are as many as 20 different forwards who share in that amount, 10 different defensemen, and 3 goalies, you have to account for averaging each department to get a true feel for things.

Also, we must remember that contract size does not always tell the story. However, it usually does. There is a good reason a Porsche cost more than a Hyundai. But, in the NHL, if you buy a Hyundai, it is still going to have to race Porsches every night, so it is important that you are careful with your budget.

With that in mind, I put the following chart together to show what Western Conference teams have chosen to spend on their defense corps. I believe this will show that the Stars must strongly consider a reallocation of funds at their earliest opportunity.

Rank Team Money on Dmen
1. Detroit $23.8m
2. Calgary $23.4m
3. Edmonton $23.2m
4. Vancouver $21.4m
5. Colorado $20.8m
6. Minnesota $19.0m
7. Chicago $18.8m
8. St Louis $18.7m
9. San Jose $17.9m
10. Anaheim $17.3m
11. Phoenix $16.2m
12. Los Angeles $14.9m
13. Columbus $14.2m
14. Nashville $12.6m
15. Dallas $8.7m

Dead last in money allocated to the blue-line, and it isn't even close. So, my logical conclusion when watching a Dallas team that struggles with getting the puck out and dealing with size and the cycle, is that the Stars must upgrade this portion of the squad.

You are likely saying, "Bob, what about the forwards? All of that money, and they score 2 goals on a 2 game road-trip?". Fair question, but when I watch the Stars, I see a few things that I trace directly back to defense.

1) - Marty Turco's erratic performance. So, with Boucher, Zubov, and Norstrom on his blue-line, he plays some of the best goal of his career in the '07 and '08 playoffs. Then, when those three guys are subtracted at the exact same time, he forgets how to play? I don't totally buy it. He needs to be better, but you don't think Hatcher, Matvichuk, and Zubov made Belfour better?

2) - The Territorial War - I don't have stats to back this up, because to my knowledge, nobody keeps these numbers, but, I would love to know how much time the puck is in the Stars defensive zone versus the offensive zone. I feel like in most games, the puck is around Marty far more than it is in the other end. To me, that speaks to your group in the back struggling to win the puck battles and to distribute the puck up the ice like they have in past years. Of course, this has plenty to do with forwards supporting, too, but in the end, I just don't see enough quality on the blue-line in the Stars' defensive end.

Anyway, I know this sounds like I am being critical of the Stars current group. I am not. I think everyone is doing everything they can. I am just not sure the Stars are built with a quality blue-line in mind. Now, in fairness to the current Joe Nieuwendyk/Marc Crawford Stars, they have not had a chance to address this. They took over a team that had this team built this way, and the easiest solution is if the ownership tell Joe to go spend that extra $10m on a #1 and #2 defense pair. But, assuming that is not realistic, the Stars may have to trade pieces to make this puzzle fit a bit better.

What do you think?



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