Aggressive offseasons are becoming something of a hallmark for the Jim Nill-era Dallas Stars. That and hip surgeries I suppose. Undoubtedly driven by an on-ice product woefully short of expectations, this year has, so far, been no exception. GM Jim struck early (Ben Bishop), late (Alexander Radulov), and in between (Marc Methot / Martin Hanzal), but let’s not waste time on something as simple as a list. Faced with challenges across the roster, how has GM Jim improved Dallas’ most vital areas: Forwards, Defense, Goaltending, Power Play, and Penalty Kill.
We’ll start where the Stars did, between the pipes. The Stars hitched their wagon to the Antti Niemi / Kari Lehtonen tandem at the start of the 2015-2016 season, and though it might seem unbelievable now, the move paid dividends. Those Stars won 50 games and a round in the playoffs before bowing out to St. Louis in that game seven. It didn’t last. Last season the same tandem led the team to 34 wins.
Hello Ben Bishop. After a Bronte-like pursuit the Stars shipped a fourth round pick to Los Angeles in exchange for Bishop’s negotiating rights. Shortly thereafter, the 30-year old inked a six year, $29.5 million extension with Big D. Pair that signing with Niemi’s June 27th buyout, and for all intents and purposes the Stars have moved on from the days of 1A / 1B goaltending.
While there is a bit of risk baked into the deal (Bishop’s 2016/2017 numbers were .910 Sv% / 2.54 GAA), the Stars clearly feel they’re getting the superb, 2012-2016 version of Bishop, or at least something close.
And Bishop is going to need to be close. The Stars get one more year with Kari Lehtonen-shaped training wheels and then it’s into the great wide open. Bishop has to play well, but the Stars need to improve internally as well. Quick, name a Stars-developed goaltender having success at the NHL level post Mike Smith era.
TL:DR - Nill made the right move given the market he faced.
From weakness to strength. After wearing out red lights around the NHL in 2015-2016, the Dallas Stars were an awfully middling offense last year (223 GF / 17th in the NHL). Tyler Seguin (72 points, 15th in the NHL) was a force, but the roster around him was markedly inconsistent. Jamie Benn fell from 2nd in 2015-2016 to 23rd and was Dallas’ only other top-50 scoring presence. For a team that was constructed to out-score many of their problems, their sudden inability to score proved fatal.
Part of the equation up top is full, get-healthy offseasons for their big guns. Fans have to hope Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza will all benefit from a summer sans international commitments, and enter the season at full strength. Fingers across Stars fandom will also be crossed for Mattias Janmark, who missed the entirety of last season due to injury.
But Dallas isn’t banking solely on a return to effectiveness from their central players. Jim Nill’s offseason mixed depth moves (Brian Flynn and Tyler Pitlick) with major free agent swings (Radulov and Hanzal), and took care of his primary RFAs along the way (both Radek Faksa and Brett Ritchie are resigned at this time).
Offensively, eyes will be on Radulov, Hanzal, and Spezza. Those three will need to compliment the Benn/Seguin first line while simultaneously providing a threatening presence on the Stars’ second offensive unit. If they can do that, the Stars will return to the matchup nightmare they were during their most recent post-season run.
TL:DR - Is Jason Spezza supposed to be a center or a wing?
As with the offense in general, Dallas’ power play entered the offseason in need of serious overhaul. A unit with the talent Dallas has available should be expected to clock in at higher than 17.9% (20th in the NHL) and to generate more than a paltry 46 goals (17th in the NHL). The failure of this unit becomes even more pronounced once you realize they finished 8th in the entire NHL in terms of power play opportunities (257). Blame early struggles (John Klingberg and Benn) or late injuries (Seguin and Spezza. Blame as well a second unit that could not consistently threaten opponents.
Here Alex Radulov is going to draw a lot of attention, and rightly so. He is the marquee signing, the big FA brought in to right the proverbial ship. The old standbys (Seguin, Spezza, Benn, and John Klingberg) will also be expected to conjure a higher percentage no matter what happens elsewhere in the lineup, but don’t sleep on Julius Honka.
Last season, Dan Hamhuis averaged 1:34 on the powerplay. That’s likely a higher number than the Stars would like to see. If the next rookie dynamo can come in and marshall an effective second unit, the impact on the Stars could be exponential. To do so, of course, Honka has to actually stick with the team for an entire season. Time will tell.
TL:DR - An under-reported flaw in 2015-2016 turned into a tire fire in 2016-2017. Will new players help right the ship?
Best to just close your eyes and move on here. Seriously. The Stars were bad last season. Dallas finished last in percentage, last in terms of total power play goals against, last in road percentage, and 27th at home. Forget fun narratives about hustle and growth and high percentage shot totals, Dallas was a disaster.
As such, the Stars directed a lot of their offseason towards solving the problem. Ben Bishop will be expected to stabilize the goaltending while Marc Methot gives the backline more of a traditional PK presence. Martin Hanzal carries a reputation as a strong PK center as well, but that’s really it in terms of major roster upgrades. The guys that sputtered last season, by and large, will need to pick it up this season.
TL:DR - It feels like the Stars are banking on addition by subtraction with their PK.
Saving the best for last. For two seasons running Stars management has been taken to task for carrying 8 defensemen at the NHL level. It’s a decision built on the inability of individual prospects to definitively seize roster spots, and one that has created limiting pressures elsewhere in the lineup. To solve that problem, Dallas appears ready to enter next season with Nine NHL-level defenders.
Wait, that can’t be right.
As of press time, the Dallas roster reads thusly: John Klingberg, Marc Methot, Dan Hamhuis, Stephen Johns, Esa Lindell, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, and Greg Pateryn. Notably, that list does not include Julius Honka, who you might have heard mentioned from time-to-time. It’s a logjam.
There are a couple of easy decisions. Methot, Hamhuis, and Klingberg are mortal locks. Johns and Lindell seem also to have earned dibs on the next two spots. That’s five, leaving one spot left for the rest of the bunch. The obvious caveat here is whether or not a new coaching staff takes a different view of the bodies at hand, but my goodness do the Stars need one (or two!) more trades to fix this mess.
On the ice, Hamhuis seemed to settle in on the 2nd pairing last season, and looks likely to anchor the unit this year. Methot’s experience in Ottawa suggests strongly he’ll get at least some kind of look next to Klingberg, though Esa Lindell may or may not have a case (I’m not even going to touch that statistical morass today). Johns is something of a wild card as his past mixes both success and inexplicable banishment. If he finds new life under Hitchcock, the battle for ice time on the Stars’ second unit could get interesting.
Or we get Nemeth and Oleksiak running a rec-league split all year and 82 games of Pater-madness.
TL:DR - Nine defencemen!? If John Klingberg can avoid another early season stumble and/or Julius Honka forces his way onto the roster, the mess at the bottom might not matter.
It’s a lot to process, and the Dallas Stars have “won” the NHL offseason before. After the disaster that was last season, optimism is a welcome change. Outside of a few finishing touches, the work now lies with Ken Hitchcock and his staff.