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2017-18 Season Afterwords: Playing for Pride in the Shadow of an Unclear Future

What do the Stars have to be proud of this year? More importantly, what’s next?

NHL: Dallas Stars at Los Angeles Kings Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

92 points is all right, I suppose. It was close to enough! But then again, the Stars also got 92 points in 2014-15, and that was with Anders Lindback and Jussi Rynnas and Jhonas Enroth rocking the backup ball caps. Still, here’s something I just realized: this is the third time in four years that a Stars player has scored a hat trick in the final game of the regular season. I can get behind this new tradition.

I was watching the highlights from the Colorado/St. Louis game last night, and man, what kind of energy that one had, eh? The crowd living and dying with each shot, the Colorado broadcast team completely losing their gourds when the Avalanche extended their lead late, and some smiles on the face of Patrik Nemeth: It does the heart good, even if I still bear some simmering resentment towards Colorado from last decade.

The Stars had that, sort of, in the first period. Daryl Reaugh and Craig Ludwig—we’ll have more on them later, too—became similarly unglued when Jamie Benn scored the fastest natural hat trick you might ever see, and you can hardly blame them for keying in on a sweet moment as the season wound down, or for emphasizing how Drew Doughty!! got beaten on a goal or two. It happens, and perhaps moreso in a game without playoff implications at the end of a season.

But now that 2017-18 Stars hockey is officially, totally done, it all rings a bit hollow. Three years ago, there was a huge trophy coming Jamie Benn’s way, and those are the sorts of memories you relish. There was even some decent optimism last April in a similar spot, what with the Stars having money to spend and some options for how to do it. Injuries were the biggest culprit, Lindy Ruff was moving on, so a fresh start of sorts seemed not only plausible, but likely.

This time around, there are wounds. Deep ones. The tenuous trust that had been holding this fanbase and franchise together for a few years seems to have been fractured, even if we’re not sure what all that means. For now, it two things seem clear: Time is short, and nothing is going to come easily.

People will talk about building a winning culture, about purging any mental fragility, and about how the Stars have, like it or not, earned a reputation this decade for what they haven’t done far more than what they have. It’s easy for us to go full correlation=causation and blame a new coach for new failures, just as it was easy last year to blame Lindy Ruff for exacerbating a troubled season by doubling down on some of his more puzzling player usage. Of course there are decisions that any coach would like back—not that most NHL coaches would ever admit that in public, of course—and Ken Hitchcock has, in the humble estimation of some folks, made a few of those this year.

But ultimately, hockey works like this: if you win the cup, everyone gets to celebrate it. That’s a wonderful thing, and who doesn’t love stores of equipment managers, say, getting to share in the glory of their team?

The downside of corporate reward is that the blame gets spread around just as widely when things go wrong. Yes, the team reduced its goals allowed number from 260 to 222 in a year where scoring actually went up across the league (Ken Hitchcock knows how to suppress shots as well as ever); but the team also scored just nine more goals (222 to 231) despite getting career years (and healthy ones!) from Alex Radulov, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg. Say what you will about depth, but that old hockey aphorism (“Your best players have to be your best players”) was truer than not for most of this season; and yet, none of those players has anything to show for it. Failure stinks, and the stench lingers.

Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin were both pretty unenthusiastic in celebrating goals last night, and it’s tough to blame them. Benn is very much a “I actually did not score a goal but my team, whom I love, scored it with sheer willpower and friendship” sort of captain; for cryin’ out loud, the dude only barely cracked a smile until his team dogpiled him when he won the Art Ross Trophy. Winning is the only thing Benn is here to do, and he will let his determination lead the way until joy has been earned for one and all.

Yet again, joy must be deferred. Players only get to do this for a few years, and each failed season is a death, of sorts. Teammates move on, some other retire, and it’s just never the same. As fans, watching each season is a gift, even with all the frustration it can bring. Devin Shore’s goal last night was laugh-out-loud wonderful in its out-of-nowhereness, but also in how eerily it paralleled Jamie Benn’s goal from the other night, too.

Devin Shore scored 33 points (13G, 20A) last year, playing 82 games and averaging 14:08 minutes per night. This season, Shore scored 32 points (11G, 21A) in another 82 games, averaging 15:26 per night.

Do you remember who else scored hat tricks for Dallas this year? Of course you know about Benn’s two-in-three this week, but there were two others: Tyler Seguin, of course, scoring the game-winner and en empty-net goal against Calgary back in November. But do you remember who scored the Stars’ fourth hat trick of the season?

Yes, that would be Radek Faksa, who scored all three goals to defeat Vegas in their barn, 3-0 (in what I believe was their first home regulation loss in franchise history). Outside of that hat trick, Faksa never scored two goals in a single night all year. That was the same Faksa, by the way, who scored the first goal of the Stars’ playoff run in 2016 while playing 14:32 in the playoffs. That same Faksa had his minutes cut this year, which is not something anyone really saw coming.

In 2016-17, Radek Faksa scored 33 points (12G, 21A) in 80 games, averaging 16:10 minutes per night. (This was after getting concussed in the World Cup before the season, you may recall). In 2017-18, Faksa scored 33 points again (17G, 16A) in 79 games, averaging 15:16 minutes per night.

The Stars have gotten some guff this year for being a one-line team, but that’s not totally unintentional, in one sense. Last year, the Stars didn’t have a single player who averaged fewer than 10 minutes per night. This season, they had three: Gemel Smith (9:26), Jason Dickinson (8:32), and Curtis McKenzie (8:06).*

*You could also include Adam Cracknell and his one game of 8:35 played in that group, if you like.

Where fans might have expected to see Radek Faksa and Stephen Johns stepping into big roles on this team, the Stars instead went another route, opting for Martin Hanzal and Greg Pateryn. Ken Hitchcock has been unabashed in his preference for playing known quantities over unknown ones, and the ice time reflected that all season. Even Julius Honka, who seemed to have earned a top-six role out of training camp, lost three minutes off his average minutes per night, from 16:52 in 16 games last year to 13:01 in 42 games under Hitchcock. Whereas some were clamoring for the Stars to find out what they had in Honka last year, the Stars this season seemed thoroughly uninterested in finding out anything radically new about their players after game 10 or so. A captain steering a giant ship does not enjoy discovering new things.

The Stars were too weak on the road, and their depth was too thin when the top line couldn’t carry them. Those two factors are surely connected, but it’s tough to see how the Stars can fix that next season with any serious level of certainty.

Antoine Roussel, in a contract year, dropped fom 27 to 17pts, and you must have heard the broadcast groan when his empty-net attempt was blocked with time expiring last night. Roussel did not score a goal in the second half of the season, and that’s a tough way to go out. With all of the Kari Lehtonen fanfare, it’s easy to forget that Antoine Roussel will probably be getting a payday from another franchise come July. Did anyone think he’d be the last man standing from that Eakin-Garbutt-Roussel “pitbull” line from four years ago? (Not including Brian Hayward et al, who are perpetually confused that a long-retired Philadelphia goaltender has rejuvenated his career at 48 years old.) Roussel, like Jordie Benn before him, has earned everything he’s gotten from the lowest levels on up, and we wish him all the best, until he plays Dallas.

Brett Ritchie also dropped, from 24 to 14pts, and this honestly might be my biggest disappointment of the season. Ritchie was a player the Stars have liked a lot internally, and Ken Hitchcock’s usage demonstrated a similar level of approval. But this team just didn’t have an answer for what to do when Ritchie took a big step back this year. That was, by the way, despite getting extended shots on the top power play and on Benn and Seguin’s right wing. If the Stars were playing Benn at center to try to get him going during his mini-funk of sorts, then Dallas deployed the big guns to try to find the Real Brett Ritchie, Scoring Winger lurking under the surface. Ritchie is a tough player to assess at this point, because while his metrics are still good, you have a hard time looking at that player and saying, “Yeah, his shooting percentage will fix itself, no problem.” But the alternative to waiting and seeing is to trade him at the nadir of his value, and that’s very rarely a good option with a younger player. It’s a pickle, to be sure.

Much has been written about Jason Spezza, but it occurs to me that his and Hitchcock’s years have an eerie parallel. Neither seemed to agree with the other’s choices most of the time, and now we’re sitting here 82 games later, and both individuals’ shelf life as members of the Stars organization are facing an abrupt end. Broken trust (or trust that was never forged to begin with) hurts everyone. Spezza failed to prove his coach wrong in the chances he was given, and there’s no escaping the fact that the Stars could very reasonably have no choice but to buy him out, which would have seemed unthinkable even a year ago.

Speaking of trust, some fans felt betrayed, or at least disappointed, by the way Greg Pateryn was, after ten games on the bench, stuck for good in the Stars’ top four while Julius Honka was yo-yoed for most of the season. It might have been one thing if Stephen Johns had been getting those bigger minutes with a veteran partner all year as Honka was brought along slowly on the third pairing, sitting for Pateryn on occasion; that would have been in line with the organization’s philosophy, as it’s Johns’s third year here, and it would have been nice for Johns to have gotten some big opportunities after getting yo-yoed a bit himself by Lindy Ruff last year. Every team would love a Stephen Johns, and the Stars have one.

But Johns was kept on the third pairing, even at the expense of being moved to the right wing for most of the year when Honka drew into the lineup. Somehow, the Stars managed, yet again, to avoid icing a blue line with three mobile defensemen on the right side who could pass or carry the puck out of the zone. The transition game faltered, and even as the Stars ground away and got into the top three in the Central, things were fragile. Then the road trip from hell happened, and Johns and Honka both saw their minutes drop in the final quarter of the season. I’m still happy for what Johns did this season, and I think there’s good reason to be excited about his future in Dallas, as his play seemed to reach another level, even on the third pairing. Honka, on the other hand, is still a bit of an unknown factor for the organization, and that’s going to be a really tough conversation over the next couple of weeks in Dallas. Maybe Honka isn’t going to be a good as many hoped, but it’s hard to say Dallas knows that with much more certainty this year than they did last summer. That’s not good, for him or for them.

Of course, there’s also Jason Dickinson, who is definitely still on the team, though that’s about all the Stars really know. You can’t solve mysteries if you don’t walk the pavement like a gumshoe, or something like that. Dickinson, of course, didn’t force the Stars’ hand, but you can make a case for why that was never going to happen with his usage just as easily as you can make a case for why Hitchcock was justified in doing so. Next year, I suppose, we will find out more.

The players and coaches alike have to wrestle with what happened. As much as scapegoating is nice for how it simplifies things, those making the decisions internally don’t get that luxury, if they’re wise. Player A might have underperformed for a variety of reasons, just as Player B might have exceeded his reasonable production level for other reasons. Parsing all of it out is best done with some measure of detachment, when the pain of this season still lingers, but not so much that it occludes reason and good judgment. Hopefully that will happen a good long while before July 1st, as I think there is some other business to deal with on that day, but my memory is fuzzy. Some extension or something, I dunno.

While we’re comparing to last year, the Stars’ special teams improved, though it’s hard to outright rejoice about a 19th-ranked power play and a 14th-ranked penalty kill. I guess fans can’t tweet #firefraser as rabidly when Stu Barnes is running the power play (which was 20th last year, by the way), but I’m not sure you can really call it an improvement when you add Radulov to the mix and don’t really become much more dangerous. But kudos to the PK, which was gloriously average after being incredibly awful last year. At least it managed to wait until just after Gemel Smith exited the penalty box last night before capitulating, technically. Small mercies.

So, this is how the year ends: with Jamie Benn taking over a game for a period, again; with none of the Stars’ three forward recalls playing in a meaningless game for one reason or another; with the Stars turtling for two full periods, this time successfully, because Jamie Benn decided to score three goals; and with locker cleanout day arriving ahead of schedule.

If all adversity can teach valuable lessons, then this season has a wealth of knowledge for those willing to search for it. The Star just have to figure out where to start looking. For better or for worse, they have a whole lot of places to begin.