The Dallas Stars, after seemingly falling out of the playoff race, have found their way back in the mix — and it’s their top line driving that push for the post-season.
Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic has a 66 per cent probability of the Stars reaching the playoffs, while MoneyPuck is slightly lower at 63 per cent. HockeyViz slides down to 57.5 per cent, and Evolving-Hockey is about one per cent less. That’s quite a change from early February.
With that trio on the ice at 5-on-5, the Stars have rocked a 66 per cent expected goals rate that exceeds their actual goals share of about 59 per cent. That bodes well for sustaining this high rate of play. The impact they had last year does, too, seeing as this isn’t some fluke combination put together in desperation; it’s three players who found chemistry last year and only built on it.
Robertson, the rookie, saw his ice time quickly rise last year when he joined the top line after playing closer to bottom-six minutes for about the first quarter of the season. While he didn’t have as immediate of an NHL impact as, say, Kirill Kaprizov, it really didn’t take long for him to string together a really strong case for the Calder trophy. His second season has only been an extension of that strong start.
Already this season, Robertson-Hintz-Pavelski has seen over 500 minutes of even-strength play together — the only line that’s been together longer is the Flames’ leading trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk.
What truly highlights their value -- and, really, is a key reason why they’re still in the playoff race -- is how much this line generates while this line is deployed versus on the bench. They’re driving play for the Stars, and the sophomore Robertson has a ton to do with it.
The second-year winger forechecks hard and pressures opponents. Hintz recovers dump-ins and battles for loose pucks to change possession. Their efforts start back in their own zone.
Robertson can exit with control better than most in Dallas, with a rate of 20.5 controlled exits per 60 that rank third on the team; 75 per cent of those exits are followed by successful plays. Often times, those "successful plays" happen in the neutral zone. Those plays can be passes to set up entries into the offensive zone. Hintz tends to be the puck-carrier on that line, although both wingers can skate it in, too.
Once in the offensive zone, this trio is at their best. There isn’t simply a designated shooter or passer, all three can contribute each way. It adds more dimension and obviously is tougher to defend.
Hintz is the most frequent and effective passer in the offensive zone, but his linemates aren’t far behind. It’s Robertson, though, who attempts the most dangerous passes — moving the puck laterally and to the slot at the highest rate of 10.3 attempts per 60.
Those shots help assist Hintz, who shoots from the slot at the highest rate of this trio, and concentrates most of his attempts there, and Pavelski, who can often be found deflecting shots in that net-front area with his stellar hand-eye coordination. No one’s set Pavelski’s goals up more at 5-on-5 than Robertson, who has five assists, all primary, on his tallies.
While Hintz and Pavelski each thrive with quality shots, it’s Robertson leading the way in shot volume. His 16.7 shot attempts per 60 rank 36th in the league among players with at least 100 minutes of ice time. The winger attempts about two more shots per 60 than Hintz and four more than Pavelski.
Of course, he too can drive right to the quality areas like his linemates. And Robertson’s hands in tight only make him that much more dangerous when he finds that space.
Along with having that release and finishing ability, there’s an art to knowing when to shoot and when to be patient with the puck before taking the shot. That’s something that left wing has only improved on this year.
Hintz, who tends to carry the puck into the zone, can create scoring chances both off the rush and the cycle. Robertson, on the other hand, generates the most slot shots from the cycle on the team. What helps keep these plays alive, even after their shots, is that each player rates well in successful puck retrievals after shots and rebounds. Pavelski and Robertson, in particular, win those puck battles in the offensive zone to hold possession. That just wears opponents down in the offensive zone, as this line can pepper their opponents with shots and quality chances.
With Pavelski extended for another season, the Stars can keep their most important players together next season — regardless of what happens this spring. While there may be concerns of the veteran’s play slowing down over time, they clearly have a star on the right in Robertson, whose NHL career is just starting.
Data via Sportlogiq