With the St. Louis Blues officially in shambles this season, odd rumors have started to float around the NHL. Alex Pietrangelo to Toronto has made the rounds, as has an interesting tidbit about the availability of Vladimir Tarasenko. The money quote comes from GM Doug Armstrong, courtesy of The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford. Armstrong, you see, “is in a situation where all bets are off.”
If that truly is the case, there is absolutely no excuse for general manager Jim Nill not to move heaven and earth for the talented Russian winger. His name is out there, and is not being preceded by “hands off.”
First, the easy part: Why do the Dallas Stars need Vladimir Tarasenko? Answer: their offense is lousy. Even after Monday’s victory over the visiting Calgary Flames, the Dallas Stars rank 25th in total goals for (94), 26th if we break things out by game (2.76), and 24th in total shots (29.7). Not great, Bob.
But it gets worse.
While a recent flurry has upgraded Dallas’ powerplay into the league’s top half (14th - 21.1%), that number is undercut significantly by the fact that Dallas is dead last in terms of powerplay opportunities (90).
Digging through stats is like Christmas dinner with your wildly-disappointed mother. More than half (9) of Dallas’ wins (17) have come despite being outshot by their opponent, they’re near the bottom of the NHL at scoring at even strength (61 goals - 24th), 5-on-4 (19 goals - 17th), and have yet to tally with a two-man advantage (seriously, how is that a thing?).
It’s not a luck thing, either. Dallas’ PDO is a “what you see is what you get” 100.4, or barely above average. They are exactly what their record suggests.
Even the top line, for so many years Dallas’ Yeah-But calling card, is scuffling. Saturday’s three-point flurry puts Tyler Seguin atop the Dallas Stars in scoring, which is not a crazy statement in and of itself, but he is leading with 10 goals, 21 assists, and 31 points. That’s good for 54th in the NHL. Running mates Jamie Benn (70th) and Alexander Radulov (80th) find themselves similarly stuck on the second page of the NHL leaderboard.
Let’s get super depressing for a moment, the difference between Seguin and NHL-leading Mikko Rantanen would rank second (tied with Benn) on the Stars in scoring with 27 points. Brutal. Esa Lindell has more goals (6) than every single Stars forward outside of the Big Three. Great for Esa! Bad for everyone else.
The only offensive category in which a Stars player is excelling is hit posts (Seguin).
It is no wonder that the ringing of Christmas bells is giving Stars fans serious seasonal anxiety. John Klingberg is going to help, that is undeniable. Klingberg’s return should boost the powerplay, improve the Stars’ transition game, and generally relieve pressure across the rest of the defensive unit. It could create a cascade of positive effects. Better breakouts mean better opportunities for the forwards, and another elite player means more decisions for opposing coaches. We are talking about a <homer-mode>Norris-caliber defenseman</homer-mode> after all.
Things have to get better.
Serious question, though, how many points is that worth? As league business closed on Wednesday night, the Dallas Stars were 9th in the Western conference, two points behind the Edmonton Oilers for the second wildcard spot. Is Klingberg a two point player? Four points? Six? Minnesota, with a game in hand, sits one point back in 10th place. Is Klingberg enough of a Missing Piece to push the Stars past Edmonton and keep them there? Even if he is, can Nill look at this lineup and see a team ready to compete - and not just compete, but actually be more than first round fodder? Is the goal of the 2018-2019 Dallas Stars an eight seed and see-what-happens?
Are they okay with that? Notable investments elsewhere in the lineup (Benn, Radulov, Seguin, Ben Bishop) suggest loftier ambitions, which means Dallas needs to improve by more than just John Klingberg.
Internally, the team is just about tapped for options. Denis Gurianov might be ready after a torrid start to his AHL season (9 goals, 19 assists, and 28 points in 23 games), as could Roope Hintz (5 goals, 10 assists, and 15 points in 14 AHL games), but the pair have played a combined 18 NHL games this season (mostly Hintz) with only three goals to show for their efforts.
Given last year’s injury, I suppose Martin Hanzal might count as “new” scoring, but even without the back injury he managed just 20 goals and 39 points during his final pre-Dallas season with Arizona and Minnesota (2016-2017). This is not to detract in any way from the amazing human accomplishment of returning to an NHL lineup. Hanzal deserves serious accolades for what he’s been through, but 31 is not typically an age at which players suddenly exceed career norms. This is a player who has hit 40 points exactly twice. In other words, Martin Hanzal’s presence is not going to cure Dallas’ offensive woes.
Every other option is either part of the scoring malaise (Mattias Janmark - two goals in 34 games), or hasn’t been able to force his way into this lineup (Valeri Nichushkin - zero goals, has played in 26 of 34 games). Devin Shore, Jason Spezza, Jason Dickinson, and Radek Faksa all have five goals, Blake Comeau and Tyler Pitlick have three each, and Brett Ritchie has a pair.
That’s it, that’s the list. Unless you’re ride-or-die for Justin Dowling, the Stars simply do not have anyone else to call.
That leaves the volatility of the trade market as Dallas’ only avenue for serious improvement. Right now, the gem in that market is Tarasenko, which should put him squarely in Nill’s crosshairs.
A mid-season trade for a major piece is not Nill’s calling card. In fact, he’s one of the least likely general managers to make a mid-season move. From The Athletic’s review of general managers:
21. Jim Nill, Dallas Stars
Hockey trade: 42 percent
Buying: 25 percent
Selling: 29 percent
Other: 4 percent
Nill has made some notable trades, with Tyler Seguin still the standout trade on his resume, but Nill’s history suggests that the preference for him may be internal solutions rather than a big midseason trade.
The problem is that those internal solutions aren’t solutions right now, and after 30+ games, you have to start to think that they are the players they are. Which means there’s not some hidden scoring streak that’s going to magically appear and fix all the issues the team has with scoring.
On the road, their lack of true depth scoring is overexposed to the point where the Stars are one of the worst team in road scoring in the entire league. Continuing to look at the current construction of the roster and saying “yes, this is a contender” is like hoping that somehow you’ll lose 30 pounds by New Year’s Eve while you’re Netflixing and eating cookies at 10 PM every night.
With several of the team’s prospective forwards getting looks at the NHL this season thanks to injury, it’s possible that the solution isn’t internal this time. Maybe what the Stars need is to make a move that goes against the norm and gets them a consistent top six forward to slot guys back into roles where they’ll have the most success.
Whether the team has the assets or cap space to make that kind of move is most likely the determining factor of whether Dallas is in on those kinds of conversations or not.