To say this was a pivotal offseason for the Dallas Stars is an understatement. After a near 30-point drop in points last season after winning the Western Conference in the regular season just a year before, and the failure to meet expectations, everyone in the hockey world knew that the Stars would be a player in the summer. Just think about how far this team actually fell and it will all quickly and painfully be placed into perspective.
The 2015-16 Stars were literally within a game of going to the Western Conference Finals to play for a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Finals. They won the toughest division title in hockey and won the toughest conference in hockey. The table should have been set for an epic encore during the 2016-17 season.
This was not the case. We all know what happened: injuries, inconsistent play, goalies and defense, etc…trust me, the ownership, management, new coaches, and especially the players know what happened. So nobody should be surprised that Jim Nill put the hockey world on notice that the Stars are very much focused on returning to that level of play in this upcoming season.
If the Stars have any designs at returning to the top of the Central Division this season, the defense and goaltending must be leaps and bounds better than what they iced last season. In saying this, Jim Nill did make moves to shore this area of their game up and fans should see improvement.
Bringing in Ken Hitchcock is a master stroke. One of the top defensive coaches of his generation, Hitch demands accountability and work ethic from his group on every shift. The man just knows how to coach a responsible and coherent brand of hockey. The system he coaches is tailored for a team like the Stars and if the players fully embrace this new style, improvement will be seen.
Secondly, the additions of Ben Bishop and Marc Methot are huge. Bishop is a two-time Vezina finalist (the award given to the top goaltender in the league for the regular season) and has taken his former Tampa Bay Lightning on deep playoff runs. If his health can hold, he will be the answer the Stars have been searching for since the exit of Marty Turco. In Methot, the Stars are icing an experienced and defensive defenseman. He has played straight-up against the best players in the world and kept them mostly in check. His experience playing alongside Erik Karlsson in Ottawa should be a huge bonus to any of the young offensive defensemen on this roster (i.e., John Klingberg, Julius Honka et. al.) and will help him to be a steadying force in the defensive zone.
In staying with the theme of new additions to this team, the Stars also bolstered their strength: offense. All of the national hockey writers, TV personalities, and fans around the league and here in DFW saw offense as the Dallas Stars calling card. If we are all looking at 2015-16 then this assessment would be correct, but if one were to see 2016-17 then we should tap the breaks a little bit. Dallas finished 16th in goals for with 222, compared to first in both goals for and goals per game with 267 and 3.23 respectively in the 2015-16 season.
That is a noticeable regression and is a key reason why this team missed the playoffs last spring. In 2016, the Stars could simply outscore their poor defending and goaltending, but when the well dried up offensively so did the wins and the dreams of competing in the spring.
The moves this summer prove that Dallas is committed to reversing this trend and by all accounts it should prove successful.
The team landing Martin Hanzal on the opening day of free agency (didn’t see that coming) and acquiring the belle of the ball in Alexander Radulov, the rich simply got richer. (Or were they rich to begin with?)
Radulov is a dynamic playmaker, who plays hard on the puck and sees the ice with impeccable vision. Hanzal is great on the dot and plays well in both ends of the ice. He is a big body who skates well, moves the puck, and limits his mistakes. Both additions will bolster the Stars’ top six corp into arguably one of the deepest and most talented units in the league.
The rest of the anticipated lineup is littered with talent and bonafide NHL players. Radek Faksa is as strong a two-way center as we’ve seen around here in a long time. He was rewarded with a contract extension this spring and appears to be a major piece to the puzzle for years to come.
Tyler Pitlick, Antoine Roussel, Brett Ritchie, Julius Honka, Esa Lindell, Stephen Johns, Devin Shore, shall I go on? All of these players are going to be key to the success of this team this year. If the coaching staff is able to maximize the productivity of these players, the depth the Stars possess will match up favorably against every team in the league. In short, there is no team in the NHL that the Stars cannot play with and ultimately beat if the engine is running at full power.
This leads us to the outlook and expectations for this revamped and seemingly improved squad. The moves made this offseason place Dallas back in the conversation of Stanley Cup contenders, but they have to prove that they are worthy of this respect.
Jamie Benn needs to be better, Tyler Seguin needs to be better, and Jason Spezza needs to be better. The defense (Klingberg and Johns specifically) need to regain their form and mold together into a tougher and more efficient unit. The new faces around the franchise need to develop chemistry with the familiar faces in the dressing room and contribute to the overall goal of placing this team back into a Western Conference powerhouse.
I have held the belief that the Stars are capable of making it to the playoffs as the first or second seed in the conference. I also believe once in the playoffs this team can be incredibly dangerous and make it to a conference finals. I’ll stop short of saying they will because they have to prove it and come out and show the world that they aren’t who we saw last year.
The ice is set and the lines are painted. The seats will soon be filled with fans clad in Victory Green sweaters and shirts. The lights will go down, Jeff K will welcome the team to the ice, and the lights will raise once the last note of the anthem is sang. The puck will drop against the Vegas Golden Knights and the season will officially begin.
When the season starts the Stars will have the third best odds to win the Stanley Cup. As we saw last year, this means nothing. This team has all the tools and talent. Stars fans have every reason to be optimistic about this team for this coming season, but the Stars must prove that they aren’t the same team that cratered just a few months ago.
Until this happens they haven’t proved anything, but here is to hoping that this season is as special as we all believe it can be.