There has been, and there will continue to be, a lot of talk about exactly what went wrong with the Dallas Stars in the playoffs this year. It's understandable, after all. As we wrote a few days ago, this team had a real sense of possibility for the first time in nearly a decade.
That's a necessary part of making the team better for the future. But there is also a time and place to recognize exactly what the heck the Stars accomplished in the 2015-16 NHL season.
Because this year's Stars did everything fans could have realistically dreamed and more, even before you consider the ill-timed injuries that may have derailed the post-season hopes. Not only did they rocket up to the top of the Western Conference standings and come within one win of the conference finals, but they continued to impose the wildly entertaining and wonderfully effective style of offensively energized hockey.
The style is different than a typical contending team, but it plays to the Stars personnel strengths in a way that may make them the next team everyone copies, according to St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who talked about the Stars after Game 7:
They are the future of the NHL. That's what they are. They are where the NHL is going. That's what they are. They are really good. They missed arguably one of their two best players today, and they are where the game is going. We all recognize that. They are going to be a tough opponent for a number of years because of what they got.
What the Stars have is elite offense and possession ability that drives a new-age NHL style - it doesn't matter if you how you approach limiting opportunities against as long as you can create more, and better, ones.
And the Stars excelled in that department this year. With Tyler Seguin just starting to reach his peak, a fully-in-his-prime Jamie Benn, a resurgent Jason Spezza and an exciting cast of supporting characters that could create offense from almost nothing (even if it did sometimes end in the Most Ales Hemsky Play of the Game), they and the Washington Capitals shared the title of "Most Exciting Teams in the NHL."
The accomplishment is a proud one before you consider how long it's been since the Stars were in this position. They hadn't broken 100 points since the 2006-07 season and hadn't won their division since 2005-06. The last conference regular-season title was way back in 2002-03. A whole generation of Tyler Seguin fans hadn't even been born yet.
Dallas succeeded via a mix of veteran savvy and youthful enthusiasm. Spezza had a renaissance the first season into his contract extension, even playing second-line minutes much of the time, and Patrick Sharp was able to mostly recapture his former form. Meanwhile, players like Radek Faksa, Stephen Johns and Mattias Janmark made such dazzling NHL debuts that they, not more veteran teammates, became playoff mainstays.
This was a team with imperfections, without a doubt. The goaltending took a step forward from "consistently the Achilles heal" to "roller coaster between solid and cringe-worthy," but it was ultimately a big part of the undoing. The defense excelled at possession metrics but struggled with the eye test against heavy Western Conference teams. The forwards played as big a part in those struggles as their blue-line compatriots at times.
But the bottom line is this - the Stars played the entire playoffs without one of their two All-Stars and were the better team in three of their seven games with the St. Louis Blues (notably, they were the better team in a few games they didn't win) with a fourth being a toss up. This is a flawed team with summer question marks, sure, but every team is, and the Stars are in an enviable position to all but a very small number of the true elite.
There is a place for criticism and fixes - sports is all about looking forward after all. But that can't reasonably be done without acknowledging what the Stars accomplished. To decry a seven-game-series loss to the No. 3 team in the entire NHL as a failure, even before considering the expectations entering the season, is losing the plot a bit.
To paraphrase what I've written before, they are flawed and they are chaotic and they are excruciating to watch at times. But they are talented and they are so much fun and they have come so, so far to this point that those flaws matter once again.
Because despite the finish, the Dallas Stars did plenty right this season - about as much as one could reasonably ask. And more importantly, as Hitchcock said, they did it in a manner than cemented them as one of the shining lights of the future of the NHL.
For fans of a franchise that had been stuck in neutral for so long, nothing is more satisfying than that.