Finally, after what feels like about a million years, the Dallas Stars stand poised to begin their 2018-19 campaign. For a fanbase long accustomed to splashy free agents, big contracts, and offseason promise, the actual start of the games that matter brings with it a certain catharsis. Good or bad, over the next few months, fans will finally know. You know?
The Arizona Coyotes have the honor of opening night at the AAC. After that, the Stars will play 11 games against 10 teams before anyone can put on their Halloween costume. A home-heavy month, the Stars will play four times on the road and seven times in the friendly confines of the AAC. They’ll face six playoff teams and four of their fellow DNQs. All told, October presents an interesting cross-section of known quantities — both good and bad — as well as a few of the league’s bigger wild cards.
Arizona Coyotes — October 4
Last Season’s Record: 29-41-12
Points Percentage: .427
First on the docket is Arizona. Yes, the Coyotes have been something of a laughing stock in recent years. Sure, they’ve gone from Winnipeg to Phoenix to Arizona, from Shane Doan to Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and from Mike Smith to Antii Raanta, but some year has to be the year. Right? Just like last year, and the year before… you get the drift.
The case in favor of the Coyotes will point out that Clayton Keller (23 goals, 65 points) is 19 years old and seems to be “The Business.” He’s joined by 2017-18 holdovers Derek Stepan (56 points), who is pictured next to “steady vet” in the dictionary, and defensive whiz Ekman-Larsson (42 points). If the Coyotes can get good production from Alex Galchenyuk (acquired from Montreal for Max Domi) and Michael Grabner, and a bounce-back season from Niklas Hjalmarsson, they might be onto something in the desert. Speed and youth should be an interesting test for Jim Montgomery’s still-settling squad. Arizona is not a pushover, but they aren’t a powerhouse either. Credit where credit is due to an improving Arizona squad, but this is a “gotta have it” game.
Winnipeg Jets — October 6
Last Season’s Record: 52-20-10
Points Percentage: .695
And the Stars better take care of business against the Coyotes, because things do not get easier. Last year’s runner-up Western Conference finalists, the Winnipeg Jets, come to Dallas for game number two. The Stars will want to better last season’s 0-4 record against the Jets, and an early season tangle might be just what the doctor ordered.
To win, the boys in Victory Green will need to do something about Patrik Laine (44 goals), Blake Wheeler (91 points), and Connor Hellebuyck (.924 save percentage). They’ll need to outmuscle Dustin Byfuglien and out-skate Mark Scheifele (60 points in 60 games). For a still-gelling team under a new coach, those are significant challenges. Then again, great challenge often presents great opportunity. The Stars should look at this both as an early, good test, but also as an opportunity to jump on a division rival before rosters settle.
Toronto Maple Leafs — October 9
Last Season’s Record: 49-26-7
Points Percentage: .640
Two days later and hold onto your seats. While the resurgent Maple Leafs lack Winnipeg’s recent qualifications (they lost last season in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs), there is no doubt that Mike Babcock’s squad is one of the NHL’s most rapidly rising squads. Toronto will present a different sort of challenge than the Jets, favoring speed over brute force, but will be no less difficult.
The Leafs were the NHL’s second most potent offense last season with 277 goals scored. Yes, that offense said goodbye to James van Riemsdyk (36 goals) and Tyler Bozak (43 points). Those are significant losses, but how far back can you set a unit built around Auston Matthews (34 goals), Mitch Marner (47 assists), and William Nylander (61 points)? The answer is not far, especially considering — and how’s this for a buried lead — the Leafs won last season’s John Tavares Sweepstakes. Replace the lights in the scoreboard, is what I’m saying. At least we get to see how the supposedly offensively recharged Stars stack up early.
Anaheim Ducks — October 13 & 25
Last Season’s Record: 44-25-13
Points Percentage: .616
From one extreme to the next. After a pair of high-octane tilts, Dallas concludes their first home stand against last season’s fourth best defense (216 goals against). While an injury to Corey Perry means this isn’t quite the Ducks team of yore, there are still enough quality pieces for this Anaheim squad to knuckle-puck their way into a tight win if Dallas isn’t careful.
Rickard Rakell (34 goals, 69 points) seems to have ascended into Anaheim’s top scoring spot, joined by the apparently ageless Ryan Getzlaf (50 assists, 61 points). That duo is supported by an assortment with the likes of Adam Henrique and Ondrej Kase (20 goals apiece), and backstopped by John Gibson (.926 save percentage). This will be a different sort of hockey than the previous two games, and also an early point of interest. If the Stars stumble against Arizona prior to their top-of-the-heap tangles, Anaheim could be the last chance to avert an early crisis.
Ottawa — October 15
Last Season’s Record: 28-43-11
Points Percentage: .409
The rebuilding Ottawa Senators will be Dallas’ first road opponent of the season. The reeling Senators said farewell to Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson over the offseason. In the months to come, they’re sure to send off anything else that isn’t nailed down in an attempt to stockpile the assets they need to clear salary cap space for an impending rebuild. So, at the risk of being crass, this should be an easy win, right? Or might it be a trap game?
Craig Anderson (.914 career save percentage) has stolen games before, while Mark Stone (249 points in 307 career games) and Matt Duchene (23 goals and 49 points in 68 Ottawa games last season) represent legitimate, NHL-quality talent. Perhaps the Senators rally around a smoldering situation. Maybe they accept the season-long audition and put on a show for potential suitors, or maybe the Stars stumble while expecting an easy win. On the other hand, a motivated Dallas squad should see this game as an opportunity to either build on a positive start or correct an early rough patch. Like Arizona, dump this one in the “gotta have it” category.
New Jersey Devils — October 16
Last Season’s Record: 44-29-9
Points Percentage: .591
After Ottawa, it’s off to New Jersey for Dallas’ first back-to-back of the young season. To say that double-headers have been a weakness for the Dallas Stars in recent years is something of an understatement. There’s a high likelihood one of these games will be fans’ first look at new backup goaltender Anton Khudobin, which is nice. Learning is always fun.
Not to tempt fate, but the Stars could not have asked for a better pair of opponents. The Devils boast a few obvious names: Taylor Hall (93 points in 76 games) was last season’s MVP, and Nico Hischier (52 points at 19 years of age) proved to be a gift from the draft lottery gods last season. Eight other Devils broke into double digit scoring last season to power an offense that landed 14th in a 31-team league (in case you’re curious, the defense was 17th). One last thing worth noting is a developing situation in the Devil’s crease. Corey Schneider (40 games played, .907 save percentage) has battled injury and ineffectiveness in recent seasons, but Keith Kinkaid (41 games played, .913 save percentage) hardly has the resume to demand starter status. These are not your father’s Devils, and the Stars have to like their chances, provided they can manage minutes across the back-to-back.
Minnesota Wild — October 19
Last Season’s Record: 45-26-11
Points Percentage: .616
The poster children for hanging around, Minnesota feels like one of the least understood squads in the NHL. There is undeniable talent throughout the team, but relatively little in the way of buzz or dynamic, offseason improvement. That could be a good thing — after all, the Wild have been in the playoffs every year since 2012-13. It could also be a bad thing — they’ve failed to make it out of the second round in every single one of those seasons. In either case, the sustained level of competence has to leave Stars fans deeply envious.
Can Ryan Suter rebound from last season’s leg injury and play 26-plus minutes a night? Has Eric Staal rebounded as an offensive force (70 goals and 141 points in 161 games as a member of the Wild), or simply experienced the final bounce in his trajectory (36 goals and 93 points in his previous 160 games prior to the Wild)? Players the likes of Mikael Granlund (67 points last season) and Jason Zucker (64 points) are going to need to make up the difference, and a healthy season from Zach Parise (42 games played) will also help. The bottom line is that Dallas, if they’re truly going to make waves in the Central, should look at this game as an opportunity more than a trial.
Los Angeles Kings — October 23
Last Season’s Record: 45-29-8
Points Percentage: .598
Hey, look, Ilya Kovalchuk! The Kings represent Dallas’ third (of four) Pacific Division showdowns of the young season. A Wild Card entrant, the Kings scored three goals and were swept from the playoffs by last season’s Western Conference Champion the Vegas Golden Knights. Alternatively, Los Angeles surrendered a paltry seven goals and lost four single-tally contests. Even in a league driven by insanity parity, the Kings are something of a question.
Last season, the Kings were the NHL’s best defensive team with 203 goals against. Anze Kopitar can flirt with 100 points (35 goals, 57 assists, 92 points) while simultaneously playing shut-down defense from the center position. Drew Doughty (50 assists) can do literally everything, and Jonathan Quick is better than his critics will sometimes admit (64 games played, .921 save percentage last season). Keep in mind, the guts of this team won Stanley Cups in 2011-12 and 2013-14. If they can get anything resembling the 2012-13 version of Kovalchuk (31 points in 37 games), they could surprise. Then again, Kovalchuk is 35 years old, Jeff Carter has battled injuries, and does anyone want to place a bet on Dustin Brown approaching 30 goals again?
Detroit Red Wings — October 28
Last Season’s Record: 30-39-13
Points Percentage: .445
A decade ago, this matchup would have had a lot of juice. As things stand, the Red Wings are swapping former champions for future producers, and perhaps hoping Steve Yzerman can be coaxed back into the fold. In other words, this is not anyone’s idea of a Stanley Cup Final preview, and perhaps, would have been more appropriately scheduled for the 31st.
Anthony Mantha (24 goals) and Dylan Larkin (47 assists, 63 points) were last season’s offensive leaders, and are young enough that some improvement should be expected. Jimmy Howard (.910 save percentage) could possibly be back to some degree, but Henrik Zetterberg (retired) will not return. Mike Green will likely miss this contest while he battles a virus, which will be a blow to the Red Wings’ defense. Outside of speed, there just isn’t much to write home about, at least not yet.
Montreal Canadiens — October 30
Last Season’s Record: 29-40-13
Points Percentage: .433
Apparently, struggling former champions is set to be a late-month theme. The Dallas Stars close out their month against Les Habs. These, as they say, are not your grandfather’s Canadiens.
Carey Price is the big name, and has a lot to prove as he bounces back from injury (49 games played) while simultaneously attempting to live up to a massive contract extension ($10.5 million through 2025-26). He’s not alone either. Defenseman Shea Weber (26 games played, $7.9 million through 2025-26) is expected to play sometime in either December or January. The team also shipped captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Alex Galchenyuk to Arizona. Brendan Gallagher (54 points), Jonathan Drouin (46 points), and Max Domi (acquired from Arizona and converted to center) should get every opportunity to carry the proverbial mail for a roster short on NHL-level accomplishment.
October will be an interesting month for the Dallas Stars. With more winnable games than challenges, it should serve as a nice starting point for an improved roster. A smattering of marquee matchups also provide Dallas a handful of opportunities to test themselves against likely contenders. This is not a slog through the Central, but a romp across the league from division to division. That said, a few tough losses could quickly spiral into angst. No matter what happens, fans will at least get a sense of what this team can be on the ice versus on paper.