Trendspotting: Fallout from Dallas Stars' drama, Elias Lindholm's breakout season and more

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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Welcome to a weekly feature we're doing here, where we try to have some fun with underlying numbers. The plan is to highlight a couple of trends, then dig beneath the surface to get a better sense of what they ultimately mean, what's causing them, and how likely it is that they'll continue. Think of them as bite-sized deep dives.

Last week we took a look at the potent Lightning offense, Sergei Bobrovsky's unique situation, and the surprisingly competitive Islanders. This week, we investigate what's really going on in Dallas, a member of the Calgary Flames that's been on fire this season, and a potential win-win situation that's brewing for the New York Rangers.

Who's to blame for the drama in Dallas?

The NHL is a lot of things, but one thing it isn't is a league that typically harbors many publicly outspoken personalities. Its players are trained from a very young age to expertly dance around questions posed by media members, saying a lot without actually saying anything at all.

People in the game have become savants when it comes to reciting clichés, making it far more likely that you'll hear an interview about the value of getting pucks in deep than something that passes as revelatory analysis. It's undoubtedly a shrewd and necessary self-preservation tactic, but it doesn't make for particularly entertaining content for the rest of us.

So when the CEO of a team publicly eviscerates the performance of his star players, everyone tends to pay attention. That's precisely what happened last weekend, when Jim Lites sent shockwaves through the hockey world with his cutting (and colorful) commentary on the play of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

With everyone's eyes now firmly fixated on the Stars, it's as good a time as any to formally conduct an audit of who and what's to blame for their highly underwhelming results yet again this season. While there's certainly something to the idea that the top players should get showered with praise when things are going well and pelted with criticism when they aren't, there's ultimately a limit to how far you should take it in both directions.

In this case, singling out Benn and Seguin as the main reason for the Stars' struggles is akin to missing the forest for the trees, because there appear to be far deeper-rooted issues with how the roster has been constructed.

As it turns out, the Stars have been as good as you'd expect them to be with their best forwards on the ice. If you include Alexander Radulov in the equation, the three of them have been as dominant a trio as any since first being put together last season. Colorado's top line is the only unit in that time that has outscored opponents by a greater total at five-on-five than the plus-28 posted by Benn-Seguin-Radulov. This season specifically, the Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen-Gabriel Landeskog and Artemi Panarin-Cam Atkinson-Pierre-Luc Dubois lines are the only combinations that have a better scoring margin than their plus-12.

So what has been the problem?

It's been the times when those three haven't been on the ice together where the problems have typically been arising for the Stars. Head coach Jim Montgomery has had a devil of a time in his first season behind the bench attempting to find any combination of forwards that can consistently provide a source of secondary scoring. Of the nine most frequently used trios he's tested out this season, the top line has been the only one that's managed to come out ahead, while the rest haven't been able to even stay afloat:

That's a rather staggering visual to consider, and quite the indictment against the supporting cast that general manager Jim Nill has cobbled together for this season. And it's that very inability to surround the likes of Benn and Seguin with complementary talent in a cost-efficient manner that is ultimately where the blame game should begin and end here.

Part of the issue is that arguably no team has less to show from their recent drafts than the Stars do under this current regime. You can count on one hand the number of regular contributors they've been able to uncover in the past decade, and it's especially bleak among the forward ranks. There's still time for the last couple of classes to develop and prove themselves (such asDenis Gurianov, who has admittedly shown flashes here and there), but for now, Radek Faksa is the last legitimate asset they've hit on -- and that was way back in 2012.

Their attempts to add scoring up front via free agency haven't been much better. Last summer, the two big free-agent additions they made were Blake Comeau and Valeri Nichushkin, the latter of whom was the Stars' first-round pick (No. 10 overall) in 2013; combined, they have a grand total of four goals and 13 points. Both players provide defensive and transition value, but at a combined price tag of $5.35 million against the cap, that level of scoring isn't remotely good enough. Without the requisite supporting cast, the Stars have recently looked like a withering husk of the team that was once the talk of the league for how fast it played and how many goals it generated on a nightly basis.

They're now a plodding group that's unfortunately ground to a halt during a time when the league around them is getting faster than ever before. All the way down at 27th in shot share at five-on-five as a team, they're fortunate to be as high up in the standings as they are. Ironically enough -- considering that it was their downfall for all those recent campaigns -- it's actually been the top-ranked goaltending tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin that's kept them afloat despite the floundering possession numbers. Their pace of play has plummeted to 25th in the NHL after being first for two straight seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16:

None of this is to fully absolve Benn and Seguin, who surely could be having more dynamic individual seasons themselves. For the latter, there's plenty of reason to believe that better days are ahead. No player has struck iron more times than he has thus far (11), which indicates that he's due for some better shooting luck. And those near misses don't even technically factor into his career low shooting percentage of 8.0 percent at the moment. If he'd just been converting at his career norm this season, he'd currently have 18 goals, which would put him on pace for a perfectly reasonable 37-goal campaign. If he keeps playing this way and shooting the puck this frequently, those goals will eventually come, and the outlook will look a lot brighter.

Benn is a slightly more complicated situation. He's still a valuable player who will get his counting stats by hook or by crook, but there are far more red flags in his underlying performance. Quantitatively, his individual shot generation has been on a downward trajectory for a while now. He's also taking more penalties than he used to, and drawing less of them than he once did. All of those figures match up with what our eyes are telling us qualitatively, which is that he's slowing down as a player. What was once an unbridled locomotive that would routinely put the Stars on its back and carry them to victory is now a far more easily contained vehicle that can ramp it up only once in a while. The idea of potentially trading him while he still has value is complicated by what he's meant to the franchise and the no-move clause he holds, but all of those warning signs should be quite alarming considering the $9.5 million cap hit he will carry for six more seasons after this one.

The fact that trading Benn is even a legitimate discussion at this point speaks volumes in and of itself. The enraged comments by CEO Jim Lites seemingly came out of nowhere at first, but in reality this is something that's been bubbling under the surface for a while. Considering all of the turmoil and losing in the past few seasons, it's now easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a team that was one home win away from a Western Conference finals appearance less than three years ago.

Elias Lindholm is en fuego

We're approaching the halfway point of the regular season, but that's not stopping Calgary Flames wingElias Lindholmfrom already checking off some personal benchmarks along the way.

On Wednesday night in Detroit, Lindholm scored his 19th goal of the season. He also tacked on a pair of assists, bumping his point total up to 47. Both now represent career highs for any given season, which means that everything Lindholm does offensively from now through the end of the season will continue to mark a new personal best. The goal he scored against the Red Wings was his 16th power-play point, which also represents the most he's had in a single season.

A couple of weeks ago we highlighted Alex Chiasson in this space as a player that was squeezing the most newfound success out of having fallen into arguably the best situation possible, but Lindholm may not be too far behind in either regard. After years of relatively underwhelming results while being stuck in shooting percentage purgatory as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, he's broken out in a big way after being traded to Calgary last summer.

Strapped with a $29.1 million contract extension and a gig on the team's top line riding shotgun with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, Lindholm is currently loving his new life in his debut season with the Flames. What's particularly notable about his success is that most of his underlying numbers aren't actually all that different from his career norms, except for the fact that he's suddenly gone from being a below-average shooter to an elite one in the blink of an eye:

Normally we'd greet that type of jump with a high level of skepticism, but in this particular case it seems plausible that at least some of the improvement is sustainable moving forward because of a specific change in environment and circumstances.

While he's not necessarily shooting more on a per-minute basis, he's a) shooting more overall because he's playing more total minutes, and he's b) shooting from better scoring areas because he's playing alongside a lethal finisher in Monahan and one of the best playmakers in the game in Gaudreau. The last part is the most fascinating theoretical point to consider, because we don't often think about how individual players and their presence on the ice influence the teammates they share the ice with from a geometrical spacing perspective.

In Lindholm's case, he's clearly benefiting from both of the weapons he plays with, and the respective attention they command from opposing defenses. On one side he's got Monahan, who has quickly established himself as one of the most efficient shooters in the league, being good for 25 to 30 goals and a 15 percent conversion rate on his shots every single season. Just by being out on the ice, he's earned a certain level of respect from opposing defenders, making them uneasy about leaving him open, at the risk of being burned.

Part of Monahan's success as a shooter is clearly individual raw talent, but part of that is the byproduct of playing with a passer as gifted as Gaudreau. The thing Gaudreau does that all truly great playmakers do is soak up eyeballs and bodies, and still manage to routinely get the puck to his shooters right in their wheelhouse.

That's a common theme that shows up in a lot of Lindholm's goals this season, where he's feasting on the additional time and space that his two linemates are affording him. Of those 19 goals he's potted, it's not surprising to see that 11 of them have been directly set up by a pass from Gaudreau. And seeing where he's most often been firing from, it's equally unsurprising to see that he's managed to hit those aforementioned milestones in both efficiency and volume.

However you choose to divvy up the credit, the results for that trio have been astonishing. Lindholm himself may not continue producing at this kind of a scorching hot pace, but it's clear that our expectations of what he's capable of need to be adjusted accordingly. The No. 5 overall pick from 2013 profiles as an entirely different player now from what he'd been with the Hurricanes.

How far this trio can ultimately take the Flames remains to be seen, but for now the team is good enough offensively to cover up any flaws defensively and make some noise in a Pacific Division that's there for the taking. Only the Lightning, Maple Leafs and Capitals are currently generating goals at a greater volume than the Flames, and that new-look top line is the biggest reason why.

Predicting Kevin Hayes' future

There hasn't been a lot to cheer for this season if you're a fan of the New York Rangers. They're 30th in shot share, 24th in goal differential, and quickly plummeting in the standings after a surprisingly frisky start to the season.

They're once again a complete mess defensively in their own zone, and if not for top-10 goaltending, things would certainly look even bleaker across the board than they already do. Even with the unbridled greatness of Henrik Lundqvist in net, there's only so much he can ultimately do to stave off the inevitable mountain of losses that's standing between the Rangers and the next time they'll be able to be truly competitive again.

The good news is that this is all part of the long-term plan, and the Rangers appear to be committed to executing the rebuild properly. It was roughly around this time last season that they embraced their new reality for the first time publicly, penning a letter to their fans explaining what was to come. Since then they've admirably started to work on a series of necessary moves that'll help ensure that the process is propelled in the right direction.

After selling off the likes of Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh for a medley of assets last season, they avoided any financially restricting moves this summer while setting themselves up for another potentially lucrative trade-deadline period this season.

The most consequential move of the bunch was the one-year deal they struck with Kevin Hayes, setting up a mutually beneficial future scenario for both parties. It's one where they could provide him with an opportunity to improve his numbers in a contract season with a prime spot guaranteed because of their lack of depth, before cashing in at the deadline by dangling him as an enticing trade candidate for a contender.

So far, so good, because Hayes is holding up his end of the bargain by trending toward a career year at the most opportune of times. After a relatively slow start to the season in which he had just four points in 12 October games, he's really turned it on since the start of November. In 27 games during that time, he's amassed eight goals, 29 points, and is skating nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game.

Beyond just those counting stats, he's had an awfully profound effect on the Rangers at five-on-five. With Hayes out there, they've somehow managed to keep their heads above water in terms of both shot and goal differential, while getting thoroughly caved in at pretty much every turn as soon as he steps off the ice. As a result, his relative stats are right up there with the most influential skaters in the league this season:

He's tied with Nicklas Backstrom, Ryan O'Reilly and Steven Stamkos in five-on-five points, and he's tied with Anze Kopitar, Eric Staal and Mathew Barzal in primary points. In terms of shot impact relative to teammates, he's in the same ballpark as Dylan Larkin, Sidney Crosby and Brendan Gallagher, while trailing only Mark Stone in expected goals relative to teammates. Part of that is an indictment of the state of what's around him, but part of it is also a testament to how he's been able to stand out regardless of it.

It remains to be seen what kind of market will materialize for him between now and the trade deadline on Feb. 25, but based on the way he's been playing this season there figures to be no shortage of suitors lining up for the chance to add him to their lineup in preparation for a long playoff run. With his unique combination of size and skill, he'd presumably be an appealing option for a team like the Jets or Avalanche that could slot him in as a second-line center and surround him with shooters.

Regardless of the eventual landing spot, assuming the Rangers are able to avoid talking themselves into a long-term deal and instead parlay him into future assets as they initially planned, they'll have played this thing to perfection every step of the way.