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Upgrade or Downgrade? The Stars’ Offseason Additions

Let’s compare each new player to a departing one and determine if the Stars have improved during the offseason.

Dallas Stars v Nashville Predators
I don’t know what feels older: Nichuskin in victory green or Seth Jones in a Predators uniform...
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

For better or for worse, this is your 2018-19 Dallas Stars roster. Sure, there could technically be a last minute push for Erik Karlsson, and we could see a trade midseason, but more likely than not, the above 23 players — plus any call-ups due to injury — are going to be the ones you see wearing victory green this season.

The Stars said goodbye to four players this offseason — Antoine Roussel, Dan Hamhuis, Greg Pateryn, and Kari Lehtonen — and are saying hello to four new ones: Blake Comeau, Roman Polak, Anton Khudoblin, and rookie Miro Heiskanen. In addition, Valeri Nichushkin is returning to Dallas after a two-year stint in Russia, and forward Martin Hanzal will miss the start of the season as he recovers from his back surgery.

So how do this year’s Stars stack up with last season’s? Let’s take a look by comparing each of our newest player with the player they replaced, and deciding whether the Stars made an upgrade at the position or a downgrade.

(All stats courtesy of Hockey Reference)

Antoine Roussel —> Blake Comeau

A fan-favorite in Dallas, Roussel stood out from most “pests” in the league due to his ability to help score. Although he never hit the 30-point mark, he still scored at a .36 PPG mark in three of his first four seasons, and even improved to .45 PPG in 2016-17.

Unfortunately, Roussel’s scoring touch cratered this last season to a career low of .23 PPG, scoring only three more points than he did his rookie season with 34 less games. That regression combined with his inability to stay out of the penalty box — his career low PIM is still 1.54 per game — led the Stars to part ways with the left wing.

Comeau, meanwhile, has scored at least 30 points in three of his last four seasons. The exception was a 20-point campaign with the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche, which is understandable considering the Avalanche were historically bad that year. Not only does he bring more scoring to the table, but he also stays out of the penalty box — he’s only hit 60 PIM once in his 12-year career.

On the other hand, his possession stats are considerably worse than Roussel’s. In his past three seasons with the Avalanche, Comeau has averaged a 47.8 CF% and a 47.6 FF%, compared to Roussel’s 52.4 in both CF% and FF% over the same span. And this time, the 2016-17 Avalanche season isn’t an excuse, since Comeau’s possession stats were actually highest that season.

The Verdict: I’m firmly in the “didn’t need to sign Comeau” camp, instead wishing the Stars filled Roussel’s vacancy from within. But since they did, I’d say his increased scoring and lack of penalties make up for the lower possession stats, making this an upgrade.

Greg Pateryn —> Roman Polak

Pateryn was a sore spot among fans this season. Under the guide of Ken Hitchcock, Pateryn went from career seventh defenseman to a top-four shutdown defenseman, averaging 19:37 minutes a night and sometimes even leading all Stars in ice time for a given day. And surprisingly, he did this without being a possession black hole, posting an average 49.8 CF% and 51.3 FF%.

The soreness comes from the fact that Pateryn’s playing time came at the expense of rookie Julius Honka, who many fans felt was much better but was being punished for not playing a defensive game that matched Hitchcock’s style. Pateryn also noticeably tailed off towards the end of the season, yet his ice time never changed considerably.

But if you didn’t like Pateryn, you’re going to love Polak. He’s had a positive FF% just four times in his 11 year career, and a positive CF% only once. He scores about as much as Pateryn does, if not less, and won’t have the benefit of having a defensive mastermind like Hitchcock coaching him up to a higher level like Pateryn.

Our own Wes Lawrence did a good job advocating for signing, but that’s assuming Polak is nothing more than injury insurance. If Polak ends up playing on a regular basis, it’s not going to be pretty.

The Verdict: You could argue this is an improvement so long as it means Honka gets regular ice time, but he’s not a part of this comparison. So it’s a downgrade.

Martin Hanzal —> Valeri Nichushkin

This comparison is a bit weird, since Hanzal is still with the team and isn’t going anywhere, not to mention he plays a different position (center) than Nichushkin (winger) . But as mentioned before, the veteran will be starting the season on LTIR — and might possibly stay there — and thus his roster spot is more or less taken up by Nichushkin’s homecoming.

Anyways, Hanzal was a mixed bag in his first season with the Stars. He had horrid possession stats, posting a 47.6 CF% and 48.4 FF%, and didn’t score much — despite Hitchcock’s insistence on giving him power play time — but he made up for it with solid penalty killing and the ability to win face-offs. In the end though, constant injuries and a low number of total games played (38) make it hard to get a read on how Hanzal was this season.

Nichushkin is also a source of contention across the fanbase. Some fans see a young player who scored 34 points as an 18-year-old rookie and 29 in his third season (he missed all but eight games his sophomore season due to injury) and can’t help but think how improved he’ll be now that he’s more experienced and mature. Nichushkin seemed to have great chemistry with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, and thus could potentially play as high as the top line, or at least the second.

Others see an over-hyped player who was decent, but not great in Russia these past two seasons. They pencil in Nichushkin as a third liner, maybe second at best, and feel 30 points or so is his ceiling, which isn’t good enough for a team that desperately needs secondary scoring.

The Verdict: As an avid Nichushkin fan, I could debate what his impact may be all day. But even if you’re the world’s biggest skeptic of the young Russian, he’s an upgrade over Hanzal at least because he should be healthy all season.

Kari Lehtonen —> Anton Khudoblin

As I wrote the other day, I feel Kari Lehtonen gets a lot of undeserved hate from the fanbase. Many people see a goalie who crumbles under pressure, but I see someone who does a solid job and is forced to shoulder too much responsibility at times. They see a player who still hasn’t found a new team for a reason, I see one of the best goalies from this year’s UFA crop somehow still unemployed.

Like Nichushkin, I could argue about this for hours, but instead let’s just look at the stats. Thanks to a massive improvement in defense last season, courtesy of Ken Hitchcock, Lehtonen saw his save percentage rise from .902% to .912% and his GAA drop from 2.85 to 2.56. It was a bit lower than starter Ben Bishop’s .916% and 2.49 GAA, but Lehtonen was also in the net for the Stars during that disastrous March. Before then, he was actually better with a .919 SV%.

Khudoblin saw a similar boost last year, rising from a .904 SV% to a .913 and his GAA dropping from 2.64 to 2.56. This too can be attributed to an improved defense for the Boston Bruins, who bolstered their blue line with rookie Charlie McAvoy — who is apparently one of the top 20 defensemen in the league according to the NHL Network — and rose 17 points as a team in their first full season under head coach Bruce Cassidy. Khudoblin also has the benefit of being three years younger than Lehtonen, which means he’s less likely to regress this next season, although he is still on the wrong side of thirty.

The Verdict: I’d say the change in net here is a wash. You could argue things are less than likely to go wrong under Khudoblin, but their stats are just too comparable for me to give a edge to one over the other.

Dan Hamhuis —> Miro Heiskanen

Like his defensive partner, Greg Pateryn, Hamhuis saw an uptick in usage last season as a shutdown defenseman for Hitchcock. The difference is that this wasn’t as big of a change for Hamhuis, who was already established as a solid NHL defenseman. His average time on ice rose by less than a minute, from 19:22 to 20:11, although he did rise from an average penalty kill time of 2:01 to 2:40, bumping him up from fifth on the team to first.

Perhaps most impressive about Hamhuis’ 2017-18 season is that his offensive totals actually improved from the previous year, going from 16 to 24 points. This in spite of his offensive zone starts dropping from 49% to 40.4% and his power play time plummeting from an average of 1:34 a game to just 0:20. All in all, Hamhuis was a solid defenseman for Dallas last season.

So why then did the Stars part way with Hamhuis despite the veteran’s interest in returning? Two words: Miro Heiskanen. Last season in the SM-Liiga, the Stars’ third overall pick led not just his team, but the entire league in ice time with an average time on ice of 25:06 as an 18-year-old. He played in only 30 regular season games due to injuries and international play, yet still won the Pekka Rautakallio Award, given annually to the best defensive player in the league.

He’s such a talented prospect that the Stars refused to trade him for Erik Karlsson, aka arguably the best defenseman in the world, and even national writers defended the decision. He looks to enter the NHL as a top four defenseman from day one, and that’s downright impressive for someone who just turned 19.

The Verdict: Simply put, unless Heiskanen struggles to adjust to the NHL this season, he’ll be as good as Hamhuis to start the year and will be a clear upgrade by the end of it.

In total, that’s three upgrades, one downgrade, and one wash. Furthermore, you could argue that Khudoblin is an improvement over Lehtonen and that replacing Pateryn with Polak is addition by subtraction if it gets Julius Honka more playing time.

Sure, Dallas didn’t blow away the competition by adding John Tavares or Erik Karlsson (yet) in the offseason. But as the Stars themselves have proven over the years, “winning” the offseason doesn’t always translate to success. So even if you wanted more from the front office this offseason, take solace in the fact that, at least on paper, the Stars are better this season than last.