As the season wound down to its deadening disappointment in April, you likely weren’t sitting there saying, “Yeah, but if the Stars can get Anton Khudobin, Blake Comeau and Roman Polák, then we’ll really have something!” It may have been true in a literal sense, as those players are all technically somethings, but we are idiot fans, and we want to be blown away all the time. And while all of those players have upside, none of those players is more than a strong gust, at best. Your next iteration of the Dallas Stars will probably look pretty similar to the previous one, albeit with a couple departures.
We know the Stars would like to upgrade. Beyond the speculation, even people like Dan Hamhuis have said as much. As Dan Hamhuis told SportsNet: “Unfortunately, things didn’t work out with Dallas,” Hamhuis said. “We really enjoyed our time and wanted to be back but they’re kind of going in a little bit of a different direction. They kind of wanted to keep as much money around as they could to make runs at [John] Tavares and [Erik] Karlsson, but maybe that window’s not closed either.”
So, yeah. Who knows what will happen, but if nothing does happen, this is the team. Valeri Nichushkin is coming [back] to Dallas, John Tavares [who is not] finally gets to wear his old pajamas or whatever, and the Stars look a lot like a team that could challenge for a playoff spot after missing the dance two years straight...right? That should be doable! I mean, come on, here are some teams who have made the playoffs in the past two years: the Rangers, Flames, Avalanche, and Devils. Regardless of where those teams are headed now, it’s really, really tough to swallow two long summers when literally those teams all managed to play past 82.
I can’t see discussions in the Stars’ front office starting anywhere but right there. Not even qualifying for the playoffs when you have Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg is an embarrassment, regardless of the bright spots you might be able to zoom in on. Failing to qualify three times in four years would be catastrophic for an NHL team in a different market; But then again, the Stars are on their third coach in three years, so they may not have averted those consequences altogether.
And that is a massive wild card, of course. Will Jim Montgomery bring new life to a team that should be in the middle of its competitive window? That’s the idea, sure. Like everyone else, I am cautiously optimistic, but only because change after failure always invites hope. Things did not work out with the last guy, and now there is, well, someone else.
Of course losses aren’t all due to the coach, and of course any added wins won’t be either. But things will change, in the details of the team’s play if not necessarily in the end result. We hope, though.
So, put it this way: if I’m looking at this team as an outside observer, I can see how those at the top might have demanded big change after 2016-17. I can see how they might have demanded bigger change after 2017-18. Regardless of where you think the impetus came from for each coaching change—and Ken Hitchcock was certainly someone Tom Gaglardi wasn’t unhappy with—the Stars are in a rut, officially.
We’ve beaten the “why” to death over the last few months, and certainly with Jim Montgomery coming in, there is at least the seed of a new hope. Maybe the right coach will finally get this team flying high again after Ken Hitchcock solidified the defensive game while damning offensive torpedoes with #6 and #90 painted on their sides. Maybe Jamie Benn can still be a consistent, dynamic force that make the last four years of that contract extension not look quite so ominous. Maybe Martin Hanzal will be healthy and make his $4.75 million contract look mildly desirable by next summer. Maybe Roman Polák will kill every single penalty by himself this year and win the Norris Trophy. You don’t know that those things won’t happen, is my point.
So, barring a huge trade (which will inevitably happen ten minutes after this gets published), here’s what you’re looking at for opening night:
Phew, okay. So, lots to talk about, but let’s start with the new backup goalte-
*angry mob wearing #freehonka shirts pounds on front door*
Right, yes, like I said, let’s talk about the defense. Julius Honka has done everything most players would need to do in order to earn a lineup spot on at least the third pairing . Through a meager 58 games, he’s been a bit unlucky in terms of goals-for, but when you’re a smaller player, you have to do more for coaches to trust you. It’s a quirk of this NHL, that same league mostly managed and coached by men who played or coached in older eras, when size took precedence over skating. It’s an unsurprising blind spot, particularly to Stars fans, by now.
With last year’s second pairing of Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn gone, Marc Methot and Stephen Johns seem slated to step into that defense-first, PK-heavy role. However, it’s no secret that Pateryn beat out Johns for the Trusty Shutdown Guy role on the right side, so I would not be shocked at all to see Roman Polák getting decent minutes in the defensive zone over Johns. I mean, I don’t think Jim Nill gave maybe the Leafs’ weakest defenseman from last season a raise for nothing. Stars brass seemed to think they needed to get another Greg Pateryn back there, and they paid for one who is a couple steps slower, four years older, and $500k more expensive than last year.
So, in that light, color me skeptical that we’ll see Julius Honka and Stephen Johns finally earning a coach’s trust over Polák when times get rough. Maybe I’m cynical, but hey, at least it’s earned cynicism, right? My dreams of the 3-28-6 right side are thoroughly dead after two rough years, and I’m ready for the Acceptance stage.
Oh, and sure, Erik Karlsson would make those pairings look way better. He would do that on any team. And I still tend towards optimism that, if Eugene Melnyk lets any deal get done soon, the Stars will be the one to do it. But my gut says that Nill has probably made the Senators an offer, and he is not going to increase it as their leverage decreases. Pierre Dorion is probably waiting for some other team to try to sneak in with a massive offer right now, and maybe they will. But at this point as a Stars fan, it’s probably safer to move on, at least emotionally.
So, yeah. John Klingberg had an all-timer of a year last season, and the Stars wasted it. He can absolutely have another one this year, and Esa Lindell will likely remain his partner in that effort. It’s a great top pairing, even if Lindell is sometimes more of a Methot-to-Klingberg’s-Karlsson sort of player.
Miro Heiskanen should be legit, if he’s given the chance. I’d love to see him skate alongside Julius Honka, just so opposing teams won’t be able to target Heiskanen exclusively on the breakout. But we know how the Stars love their size, so that’s why I have Polák up there, as we touched on.
It’s a good blue line. It’s not perfect, but Stephen Johns is absolutely ready for a second-pairing role, and we began to see what he could do last year in a less confined space. Marc Methot is getting to that point where you’re not sure he’s really up for heavy defensive responsibilities, but with a mobile partner like Johns, I still like the Stars’ chances of having an above-average blue line from night to night. And when you have John Klingberg, any blue line that can tread water will be just fine. This is a blue line I’d put probably around #10-#12 in the league right now. If we see Miro Heiskanen and Julius Honka getting time and doing well and Johns and Methot handling the tough minutes, I could see some really good things here. Even better: it’s a young core. Johns, Klingberg, Honka, Lindell and Heiskanen are all 26 or younger. These are legs that should be able to handle the Central Division.
[Aside: it feels really weird not to be talking about Jamie Oleksiak here.]
The goalies, though. Yes, let’s talk about those. I’ve long been skeptical of that Ben Bishop contract, but how many people predicted that Kari Lehtonen would outperform Bishop at 5v5? Yes, at five-a-side, Lehtonen’s Sv% was .934. Bishop’s was .924. Both of those numbers were right around their expected numbers, given Ken Hitchcock’s system and the competition each faced, but that speaks volumes about what such systems ask (and do not ask) of their goalies.
The encouraging part of all this is that Bishop was far better on the penalty kill than Lehtonen (though mid-pack in league terms), which had been a weakness of Lehtonen’s for a while. Anton Khudobin was likewise decent on the kill, so one would expect the Stars’ PK to look slightly more robust next season from the crease, at least.
Anton Khudobin, for what it’s worth, was also right alongside Bishop, sporting a .924 Sv% at 5v5. The Stars took no risks with their goaltending. Khudobin was basically Ben Bishop last year. They’re both over 30 years old. The Stars are hoping to just have known quantities back there, and maybe they will this year. If Jim Montgomery’s system proves a bit less stifling (in tight, at least) than the Hitchcock Lockdown, the Stars will need solid goaltending.
Special teams are a wild card, no mistake. Dallas had a tepid 19th-ranked power play last season, with a slightly better penalty kill right around “ok,” which was a marked improvement from the prior year’s mark of “cataclysmic.” Certainly the loss of Martin Hanzal, who was slated to play a heavy role on special teams, contributed to the less-than-optimal output from both units, or at least Dallas have said as much. But the Stars will need a better excuse this year if they’re going to stay outside the top ten in both categories again.
They have the personnel for a wonderful power play, should they choose to deploy them accordingly. Jason Spezza might rebound a bit and earn some top power play time again. Radek Faksa is a weapons-grade, penalty-killing machine. I don’t know that this team is quite built for an elite PK from head to toe, but if they can remember how to score more of them ding-danged goals again, it shouldn’t matter too much. Defense, it turns out, does not win championships quite in the way we have been taught to think. Just tread water. Rick Wilson seems to have taught the Stars something last year; now they just have to remember.
The forwards, though? It’s a bit thin, truth be told. My gut tells me—and also mostly my brain, I think, since the gut is more for digestion and such, and less for information processing, the nervous system notwithstanding, this was too long for em dashes what I have done, oh dear—that we could very easily see another top-heavy year, and that’s not a great thing.
Last year, the Stars had three forwards score 70+ points—oh go on, which ones—and exactly zero other forwards score more than Mattias Janmark’s 34. That’s a deadly chasm, whoever or whatever you choose to blame for causing it. This time around, Valeri Nichushkin will be a handy player in the fold, but I think the Stars will be absolutely thrilled to get 40 points out of him. Or out of anyone, for that matter. Blake Comeau hasn’t hit 40 points since the other royal wedding, and Jason Spezza got outscored by a newly trigger-happy Cody Eakin last year. Things were not great in the ol’ Point Production Department for Dallas last year, which may have had some bearing on their shortage of standing points as well, come to think of it. But it’s never just one thing, of course. The transition game! The line chemistry! The coaching mandates! Age! Yell all you want—and hey, why are you yelling? Calm down, already—but the Stars got fabulous years from a few of their top guys, and they still didn’t sniff the playoffs. That suggests some serious issues, bad luck, or both.
The Stars don’t have immediate help in their system, unless you think Jason Dickinson is about to prove the Stars’ immense wisdom in refusing to trade him to one of many interested GMs over the past couple of years. Roope Hintz could get some time, but he’s not going to move the team’s needle that much all by himself unless things are seriously broken. There’s a reason Dallas drafted forty-six forwards last month, I think.
The second line right now looks a bit like a really good team’s third line, and that’s assuming Spezza and Nichushkin both have just mildly respectable years. Faksa, Pitlick and Comeau are a great fit on the third line—don’t sleep on Tyler “even-strength goal monster” Pitlick, and the fourth line seems like it should be quite serviceable. [Aside: I just don’t understand what more Gemel Smith needs to do to lock down his spot, with points-per-minute numbers this fantastic.]
Really, Dallas is a team with three third lines, after a fashion. And while technically (3+3+3)=(2+3+4) is logical, this past season showed that Dallas can’t afford second-rate production from its second line. The attack needs to be more consistent, and the team needs to be more dynamic and adaptable. Hey, if true strength can come from vulnerability, then the Stars might find more potency through trying to open things up instead of shutting things down.
In conclusion, the team as it stands right now is probably going to be fighting for a wild card spot, at best. It’s hard to see things going wildly right for them in a division as strong as the Central—I’ve got Greg Pateryn marked down to score six goals against Dallas this year as it stands now—and while the Pacific is pretty blarghy-blarghy, the Stars will need to find some more goals in the middle six forward group and hope for a better year in net. I guess you probably knew that already, but remember: it’s all about the journey. And this year, these Stars have themselves some hills to climb. No need to panic until at least Thanksgiving, though!