The Dallas Stars are coming off of a rather disappointing end to the 2017-18 season. With a strong core consisting of players such as Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and John Klingberg, they were expected to be at least a playoff team if not a full-blown Stanley Cup contender. Yet after the regular season ended, the team found themselves watching the playoffs from home.
Management responded in a big way in an attempt to right the ship. Stars GM Jim Nill decided to bring on a new coach, one whose coaching style and philosophy should help shape the team into a true playoff contender. Nill also went after one of the top (if not the top) free agents on the market, in addition to signing a new goaltender to fix some of the teams’ netminding woes.
It also looks as if the team might get a boost from its developed prospects. They have a certain fan-favorite Finnish defenseman (Miro Heiskanen) who should have a great rookie season, and while one of their former first round picks did not make the team out of camp, they could easily be the first call-up in case of injury. In addition, the team added to their top six forward group with a Russian right wing, bolstered their defensive depth with a trade acquisition, and could have breakout seasons for sneakily good young players like Radek Faksa, Mattias Janmark, and Esa Lindell.
That all brings us to today — the first day of the regular season for the Stars. After a moderately successful preseason, Dallas will have their first meaningful game tonight at home. They’re set to face off against a Pacific Division team based out of the desert (the Arizona Coyotes) who aren’t widely considered a playoff team, so it’ll be a good warm up before their matchup on Saturday against a much tougher opponent from the Central (the Winnipeg Jets).
Sure, fans might be worried about how long it’ll take for the players to truly adjust to the system, but things will eventually work out. And besides, they’re surely a better team than last year, so where else is there to go but up?
Does any of that sound familiar to you? If it does, it’s because I could have written (almost) the exact same thing one year ago on October 6. Sure, the specifics details would be obviously different, but the start of this season feels eerily similar to last year’s.
That season might not have ended as badly as the 2016-17 season when it comes to the standings, but you could argue it hurt a lot worse. Sure, the 2016-17 Stars were remarkably bad just a year after finishing with the best record in the West, but at least they were well out of playoff contention by March. The 2017-18 Stars, by contrast, were all but a lock to make the postseason — quite possibly as a top three team in the division — before an eight-game losing streak in March knocked them so far down the standings that they couldn’t recover in time.
So when you look at the similarities between the start of this season and the last, it’s quite tempting to sigh and say, “Here we go again.” But instead, Stars fans are rather optimistic about the upcoming season. And it’s not just because they’re wearing victory green-tinted glasses; there are genuine reasons to be excited this year.
The first reason is the head coach. When Ken Hitchcock was hired last year, he wasn’t many fans’ first choice, but he began to win the crowd over with his comments during interviews and press conferences about wanting to take a new, modernized approach to the game while still maintaining the excellent defense that made him successful. Such an approach was short-lived however, as a 1-3 start to the season led Hitch to revert to his standard system of slow dump-and-chase hockey, one that consistently favored players like Greg Pateryn over the likes of Julius Honka.
Contrast that to new Stars’ head coach Jim Montgomery. Like Hitchcock, Montgomery has been talking about utilizing a modern approach to the game, only he doesn’t have an “old way” to fall back to. The system that he has been preaching, one that is centered around puck possession and giving players free reins to try and make plays, should be what we see throughout the season, even if some early lineup decisions might raise some fans’ eyebrows.
We’ll have to wait and see how Montgomery’s approach works in the regular season before we know how effective it is, but the results from the preseason look promising. Most people believe the system will be a like a blend of Lindy Ruff and Hitchock’s, and while I personally think that’s a rather lazy comparison, it does have some hints of truth to it. Montgomery should be able to get the most out of this roster, tapping the scoring potential that Hitchcock could never bring out while maintaining a solid blue line that Ruff seemed to never establish.
The other major reason to be excited about the Stars’ season is Miro Heiskanen. Stars fans are no strangers to the 2017 third overall pick, and I’m sure everyone around the league just wishes fans would stop talking about him. But the Finnish defenseman brings something that the Stars haven’t had in a long time: an electrifying rookie. He’s the youngest player to make the team since Valeri Nichushkin back in 2013, but unlike Nichushkin, Heiskanen is coming in with rather high expectations.
Consider this: Nichushkin was one of the top talents from the 2013 draft — you could argue the “Russian factor” was a reason why he wasn’t a top five pick at the time — but the Stars weren’t expecting too much from the 18-year-old, who had put up decent, but not great, points in Russia. The main priority was to get him adapted to the NHL and North American life, and his 34 points in 79 games was considered to be a solid rookie campaign.
In Miro Heiskanen’s season as an 18-year-old, he spent his time playing over in Finland rather than the NHL. But he also led the league in average ice time, became the youngest defenseman ever to win the Liiga’s equivalent of the Norris Trophy despite missing about half of his team’s games, and was one of his nations’ best players at the Winter Olympics. Oh, and he also did a great job playing against Connor McDavid, arguably the best hockey player on Earth, at the World Championship.
The best case scenario for Nichushkin his rookie season was that he would adapt to the NHL quickly and find a permanent place in the Stars’ starting lineup. In contrast, Miro Heiskanen was arguably penciled in for a starting lineup spot on the blue line before training camp, and could theoretically be on the top pairing by the end of the year. Fans hoped Nichushkin could establish himself as one of the league’s better forwards after a few years in the league; I’d argue Heiskanen might be getting Norris votes by the end of his ELC.
So when you factor in the Heiskanen hype and the breath of fresh air that Montgomery’s coaching should bring it, it’s hard not to get excited about the Stars this year. And there’s plenty more to be excited about, such as Radek Faksa being a dark horse for the Selke Trophy race, Roope Hintz adding to the Stars’ already impressive group of young Finns, a potential bounce back season from Jason Spezza, and countless other storylines.
Sure, the start of this season looks a lot like last year’s when you view t it a certain way. But there’s reason to believe this year will be different. You might not believe the Stars are a Stanley Cup contender, and you might even be skeptic about them making the playoffs in a brutal Central Division, but one thing’s for certain: this team is going to be fun to watch.