Let’s be honest, this year’s edition of the Dallas Stars is no threat to crack anyone’s all-time favorite teams bracket. They’ve possessed, almost from day one, a Brunnstromian stink. Over the course of this woe-begotten season they’ve been unable to score, suspect on defense, and susceptible on special teams. The core of the team (obligatory Tyler Seguin exemption) struggled, the fringes (mandatory Adam Cracknell praise) remained on the fringes, and while a couple of youngsters flashed (hi Devin, ahoj Radek), there was no John Klingberg to celebrate… seriously, not even Klingberg.
But this isn’t a hit piece. Instead, I find myself thinking about the one thing this team probably did well, but has been lost due to dire circumstance. Namely, GM Jim Nill’s approach to building his forward roster during the offseason. It’s hard to see now, but last summer’s business should have bolstered a unit that was already among the NHL’s best. Nill did much to emphasize the strength of his team, and should not necessarily be blamed for the myriad of problems that caused it to go four paws up.
I assure you there will be plenty of coverage of everything that went wrong, but for now, let’s turn our attention to what might have been.
First let’s recap what the Stars actually did. Over the course of the summer, GM Jim officially graduated Curtis McKenzie, Radek Faksa, and Brett Ritchie to the NHL, inked his first round draft pick (Denis Gurianov), signed a no-duh one year agreement with Patrick Eaves, and slightly less surefire pacts with Adam Cracknell and Jiri Hudler.
Patrick Eaves is the obvious win here. In 51 games, the veteran winger set career highs in goals (21), assists (16), and points (37). He also setted the Stars either a second or first round draft pick (Stars fans, sadly, need to root for Anaheim to win two playoff rounds) in a deadline-day trade. Don’t sleep on Ritchie either. The first-year forward is third on the Stars in goals (13) and eighth in points (21). While not a Calder threat, he’s provided important production in a difficult season. Throw in an outside shot for Cracknell to hit double-digit goals (7 as of writing), and that’s an effective trio of signings.
Contrasted to that group, Jiri Hudler seems like a bust, but that’s mostly hindsight. Throw out the 2012-2013 Lockout (this is the NHL, you have to be specific when you mention labor disputes), and Hudler has been the model of durability. After breaking in with 16 games from 2003 to 2006, Hudler exceeded 70 games in every season prior to this one. Jim Nill would have needed literal clairvoyance to predict the bizarre turn of events (my money is on the Legacy Virus) that kept Hudler on the shelf during the first half of the year.
If the wheels stay on the Stars lose a depth forward signed for a single season. Fine, zero consequence there. Except those pesky wheels emphatically did not stay on. Tyler Seguin spent the summer recovering from injury, and Jamie Benn had (another) off-season surgery and slumped his way through the All Star Break. At the time, fans lamented both missing Canada’s run to the World Cup, but given how that tournament treated the rest of the squad, it might have been a blessing in disguise.
International play was not kind to Big D.
By the time the trophies were handed out, Mattias Janmark (knee) and Ales Hemsky (hip, Robert Tiffin Restraining Order) were effectively lost for the season. Hemsky has only recently returned to the lineup full time, and Janmark still faces ominous long-term questions. Perhaps envious of the attention his colleagues were getting, Cody Eakin jumped on the knee injury bandwagon (fell off the bandwagon?), and before the end of October, Jason Spezza (back) and Patrick Sharp (concussion) would join the All Star IR Squad.
Tally that up and you get eight players capable of top six minutes either negatively impacted or outright unavailable. Those eight include the absolute three best forwards on the team (Spezza, Seguin, and Benn). That’s the canary in your offensive coalmine.
Walk me through how GM Jim could possibly have offset that parade of pain? Knowledge he’d get top six minutes basically by default might have kept Val Nichushkin in town (or a snarkier answer: better handling from the coaching staff of a young player), but would that a have been enough to stave off disaster? Perhaps the team could have taken the unprecedented step of hiding passports from their World Cup aspirants. I truly believe the Stars set themselves up for the best possible chance of success with their forward unit.
Which is sort of a major problem.
If anything, the fact the Stars got their offense so right during the offseason and still saw the season go so wrong should be terrifying. There wasn’t a Plan B. Outside of the eventually-astute Dan Hamhuis signing the D sputtered, and the best the crease apologists can muster are tepid “but Kari’s 5v5 save percentage isn’t awful!” arguments. On special teams, the Stars combine historically bad penalty killing with a one-line power play, and might actually be worse in overtime.
It’s like they left the bodies and only moved the headstones, or that time my roommate used duct tape and Crest to mimic drywall repair (spoiler, our landlord did not buy the “fix”). It’s hard to see this team collapse and not feel like a crazy person. Were we deluded? Should we have seen this disaster coming?
And the Western Conference was so winnable this season.
Now we’re one year closer to the end of Seguin’s sweetheart contract, and wondering if last season’s playoff run was more mirage than transitional step. Outside of maybe John Klingberg (and that “maybe” did not exist 12 months ago) you can find a major flaw with just about every defender on the roster, and the goaltending is literally unchanged since June 2015.
Were the Dallas Stars lucky last year? Do they actually stink? It is starting to feel like 2016-2017 is the pivot year. If the Stars can couple even marginal injury regression with intelligent work in free agency, they could rebound emphatically. If not, we’re in ominous ellipse territory…