Right after the Stars beat the Arizona Coyotes to punctuate a seven-game winning streak, I had an epiphany. “Dallas’ turnabout feels pretty cut and dried: Dallas played more games on the road at first and thus lost more, then played more games at home and thus won more,” I wrote. The numbers revealed a clear pattern: Dallas is stellar at home, but they’re less than stellar on the road. They then proceeded to lose their first three road games to start the month. I’m not deliberately trying to put a hex on them, but let’s predict the future once more: Dallas will have to consider splitting up Dallas’ super line of Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson, and Joe Pavelski.
I know it sounds like a hot take. They’re Dallas’ best line and their only consistent source of offense. There’s an asterisk here, and it’s that it’s something to consider on the road. After all, Dallas has a contradiction it needs to resolve: Hintz and Friends is one of the best lines in all of hockey, but the team they play for has just one regulation win on the road—and that regulation win was against the far and away worst team in the league.
Before we go further, it’s worth putting into perspective just how good the Hintz line is compared to the rest of Dallas’ commonly used trios. I wanted to look at some straightforward offensive data using rates (i.e. per 60 minutes of even strength play): in this case, the plus/minus of a line in terms of shots, the plus/minus of their on-ice goals, and the plus/minus of their shot quality (last column). Hintz’ line is predictably the only line that outshoots, outscores, and should outscore their opponent all at once.
It’s not all bad for everyone else. Jamie Benn’s line with Michael Raffl and Denis Gurianov is unproductive, but they get the better of the shot quality against opponents. Tyler Seguin with Joel Kiviranta and Luke Glendening is predictably unproductive, but at least they shoot more than they give up. Then there’s the oldie but once-goodie. Benn and Seguin with Alex Radulov have been—forgive me, this hurts me, too—garbage in every way, getting outchanced, and outshot to the point where they’re a net negative across the board. The trio has been (mercifully) disbanded, but time will tell if it is reunited.
If everyone else is bad, and Hintz and Friends is so good, what good will splitting them up do? That’s not the question. Getting back to what I wrote last week, the pattern is black and white: when Bowness gets the last change, the Hintz line dominates; when Bowness doesn’t get the last change, they don’t. In other words, the real question is can Dallas afford to wait for them to score more on the road eventually at the cost of exploring new chemistries? The problem of splitting them up and dulling their individual impacts is a theoretical problem. The problem of keeping them together yet struggling on the road is an actual problem.
Let’s go back to Dallas’ performance at home versus on the road for a minute. Like the team at large, the Hintz line is unstoppable at the American Airlines Center. But during the team’s three-game road trip to start December, they combined for only two even-strength points. It wasn’t by accident, either. Against Vegas, the Hintz line drew Vegas’ top line of Chandler Stephenson centering Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty. Against LA, they drew the Philiip Danault line, and if you saw Montreal’s improbable Stanley Cup run then you know exactly who Danault is and how good a defensive forward he is. Against San Jose, with Hintz suddenly out of the lineup due to illness, the Sharks didn’t need to worry about matchups since Bowness decided to nuke his own lineup.
“Well, what do you propose, egghead?” I propose that Bowness works with what he’s already built. At home, Dallas has access to one of the best lines in all of hockey, and that’s something he should stick with. On the road, he may not have access to one of the best lines, but he still has access to some of the best players. It’s important to remember that Hintz led the team in high danger shots per game during Dallas’ first six contests with Robertson injured. He was a beast to start the season; he just wasn’t getting puck luck. That’s why I’d humbly recommend the following for some road games:
Peterson – Hintz – Gurianov/Pavelski
Robertson – Seguin/Benn – Pavelski/Radulov
Raffl – Benn/Seguin – Radulov/Gurianov
Kiviranta – Faksa – Glendening
Peterson isn’t near the talent that Robertson is, but he can create space for himself and win one-on-one battles, which gives him some functional similarities to Robertson that could pair nicely with a duo that already works (Hintz and Pavelski), or a duo that has worked in the past (Hintz and Gurianov). If anyone’s earned a real top-six look, it’s Peterson. Faksa gets the third-most minutes of any forward at even strength, but he should be the odd man out, in my opinion. He’s struggling hard this year and has been for some time. Whatever fans think about Seguin, it’s hard to imagine he’ll get going if they keep playing him next to Kiviranta and Glendening. Even if you think he’s “done,” Dallas can’t afford for Seguin to only get to the meager 36 points for which he’s on pace. Radulov and Benn aren’t that far behind, either. If Dallas wants to compete, they have to find some way to get them going, otherwise last season’s offensive issues will repeat themselves with the Hintz line pulling all the goalscoring weight. History isn’t kind to one-line teams: even Connor McDavid has only been able to drag the Edmonton Oilers into the playoffs in three of his six seasons.
There isn’t a formula for optimizing line combinations, but in 2017, Ryan Stimson harnessed passing and shooting data from 900 games to figure out playing styles. This might seem overambitious to the average hockey fan, but it’s pretty standard in other sports. I recommend reading Stimson’s article in full, but the long and short of it? Playmakers pair best with other playmakers (the Hintz line being a good example). Two playmakers with a balanced forward (like Peterson) is better than two playmakers with a shooter, surprisingly, and the next-best line is two shooters paired with a playmaker. Meanwhile, the most unproductive mixtures are dependent players (like Glendening and Raffl) paired with other dependent players (like Faksa), or shooters paired with dependent and balanced forwards. Granted, you don’t build lines on a spreadsheet, but experimenting isn’t about setting standards as much as setting up new experiences.
There’s no easy answer, however, and that’s where Bowness deserves some slack. How do you pair playmakers together if you have only a small handful? How do you pair shooters together if half the guys who used to be good at shooting now struggle to do it? How are you supposed to keep a bunch of dependent forwards away from one another if you have too many of them? That part is on Jim Nill. His job is to predict the future. There isn’t any time to fix having to play on the road, but there’s plenty of time to fix the line combinations should Dallas make a push and become buyers at the deadline. If Nill can find a way to make the Stars better on the road through trade, we’ll know he’s willing to push his chips in. Given the Hintz line’s dominance plus Jake Oettinger’s emergence, he should be.
Talking about line combinations is a polarizing process. For fans, it either matters a lot, or not at all. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation with an overactive line blender and losing. But I think finding the right lines can matter a great deal–just look at Vancouver’s current turnaround under Bruce Boudreau, whose first major change was their line combos–and there’s no better proof of that in Dallas than the Hintz line. After all, nobody had them on their line-card bingo back in 2020. Remember, Pavelski had a pretty slow start for the 2019-2020 season. He was paired with Hintz early, but Pavelski would end that season next to Radulov and Mattias Janmark while Hintz finished the year alongside Corey Perry and Jason Dickinson. Once Robertson came in (and was taken off the fourth line), the rest became history.
My counter to the objections that “it’ll never work!” is there’s a circular logic to the effectiveness of the ideal trio to begin with: we only ever call them great after they’ve given us evidence that they are. Moreover, Dallas doesn’t need a new line as good as Hintz with Robertson and Pavelski because there are none. They just need an effective one, with room to grow. We already know that the Hintz line is a weapon in Dallas’ back pocket, should they need it. Why not try adding another?