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Hockey

The Stars’ Top Line is Quietly Struggling. Here’s Why.

Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson, and Joe Pavelski haven't produced their usual level of offense this season. Eventually, that's going to be a problem.
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Jason Robertson's struggles are a big part of why Dallas' top line isn't clicking. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Hockey’s a chaotic sport, and with that chaos comes contradictions. As in, positive results don’t guarantee positive outcomes, just as negative results don’t produce bad ones. Just look at the Boston Bruins last season. You would think a record-setting 65 regular-season wins would have guaranteed a better outcome than not making it past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but you would think wrong. And it happened against a Florida Panthers squad that was a Pittsburgh win versus Chicago from missing the playoffs altogether. Chaos and contradiction are part of the sport’s milieu, and believe it or not, the Stars’ top line of Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson, and Joe Pavelski is no less immune.  

On the surface, nothing really looks out of order. All three are nearly point-per-game players, with 103 between them. Pavelski and Hintz are on pace for more even-strength points this year than last (46 and 51, respectively). Plus, who can question their pedigree? Last season the trio finished the regular season a plus-28, by far the best among forward lines with at least 200 minutes together, ahead of even LA’s top group of Quinton Byfield, Anze Kopitar, and Adrian Kempe. But the contradictions are starting to show.  

Let’s start with the most startling number: plus-4. That’s the top line’s plus-minus right now. For any other line that would be totally fine. However, this isn’t any other line; this is Dallas’ primary weapon. In that regard, this line has been surpassed. The Matt Duchene line with Mason Marchment and Tyler Seguin is a plus-11. If it feels as if there’s a new trio of victory-green sheriffs in town, it’s because there is.  

In one sense, that’s a great thing. But that trio is far less skilled or compensated than the top group, and the Duchene-Marchment-Seguin triumvirate doesn’t pass the Hintz-Robertson-Pavelski group without something being amiss. Or, in this case, many things.  The difference between last season and this one is across-the-board stark. The line’s per-game offense, whether it’s shots on net (SF/60), shot attempts (CF/60), unblocked shot attempts (FF/60), or expected goals (xGF/60), is all down.  

Its goals per game is higher this year, but we should expect that number to drop because everything else is. There’s no silver lining here; Dallas’ top line is taking fewer shots, and generating far less shot quality this year compared to last. 

This is probably encouraging for some. After all, the Stars are winning. They’re the only team to have nine players with 20 or more points, they’re the fourth-winningest team on the road, and they’re fourth in points percentage. Can you imagine what would happen if the top line got going with Duchene and friends? Unstoppable, right?  

We’re getting way ahead of ourselves. If the top line is not as dominant this year as last, why is that? 

Like most observers, I thought the answer was Robertson. While he has developed some momentum lately, he hasn’t looked at all like his old self for the bulk of the season. There were times early on where he was downright fighting it. Robertson is registering a full shot on net less per game this year than last. At 8.73, it’s the lowest in a career that had been progressively trending up since 2020. At 15.83, he’s taking two less shot attempts per game. Per Evolving-Hockey, his expected goals per game is the lowest of his career. In other words, Robertson isn’t just on pace for only 25 goals, which would be lower than his rookie year, in 2020-21. Rather, his shot quality suggests he barely deserves that much. So, yeah, it’s bad. 

But that explanation is still too easy for me. What if we took the same pot of stats from above and applied them to each individual from the top line, essentially comparing all of them against one other?    

Turns out it’s not just Robertson.

Hintz and Pavelski are creating less from shift to shift compared to last season. Why is that?

I don’t know. And it would be easy to say “who cares, they’ll find a way.” History is certainly on this trio’s side. Over the last two seasons, they’re clicking at 58 percent in expected goal share, outscoring opponents 126-78 when they’re on the ice. Few lines have demonstrated the kind of dominance the Hintz line has, so giving them the benefit of the doubt isn’t crazy. However, a line as good as this one doesn’t just magically stumble around in the dark either, not unless there are multiple weights holding it down. If anything, the top line’s performance should be a gauge for what might be ailing the team.  

In that regard, we do have some clues to help us unravel Dallas’ contradictions. The Stars might be fourth in goals, but per Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, they’re 14th in rush offense, suggesting they’re not attacking with high-percentage setups—i.e. not attacking with enough speed—and not getting through the middle of the ice enough. Dallas might be 12th in goals against, but it’s 22nd in chances allowed off of zone entries, suggesting that it’s keeping goals down a high(ish) level while also conceding a lot of territory. That means forward lines are getting trapped in the defensive zone and forced to spend more time having to defend than trying to counterattack. If the top line is a contradiction, perhaps it’s because the team is, too. 

This is not a matter of puck minutiae, either. The L.A. Kings—the team I would argue the Stars will have to beat in the Western Conference Finals if they want to win the Cup—lead the league in expected goals against and are fifth in chances allowed off of zone entries. The Carolina Hurricanes are sixth in expected goals-for this year; they’re also first in shots off the forecheck. Which is another way of saying that while hockey may be full of chaos and contradiction, the team shouldn’t be. 

I know this might seem like a funny thing to write—the “problem with the top line” and whatnot—but that’s the kind of question being asked of all good teams, isn’t it? How many people get bored watching Toronto win games in the regular season every year? It’s because they know that’s not the standard. There’s a standard for forward lines on Cup-winning teams, and right now, Dallas’ top line isn’t meeting it.     

Of course, that could change with a move at the March 8 trade deadline. Or it could change if the top line finds its groove. Whatever the fix is, the Stars can ill afford to simply stand around and wait. That’s not how races are won. They’re in the thick of the most important race in the toughest conference. 

Sooner than later, they need some separation. Just as they will in April.

Author

David Castillo

David Castillo

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David Castillo covers the Stars for StrongSide. He has written for SB Nation and Wrong Side of the Red Line,…
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