It seems that since Jim Nill became General Manager in 2013, every season has been projected to be “the year” for the Dallas Stars. It would the season that the Stars break away from the pack and join the upper echelons of the NHL as Stanley Cup contenders, highlighted by some major offseason addition by Nill.
In 2013, that new player was 21-year-old Tyler Seguin, courtesy of the Boston Bruins. The following year, the Ottawa Senators sent captain Jason Spezza to Dallas, where the veteran hoped to capture his first Cup. In 2015, the Stars stocked up veteran talent with three-time Cup winner Patrick Sharp as well as young defenseman Stephen Johns from the Chicago Blackhawks.
The 2016 offseason didn’t bring a shiny new addition, but the Stars were riding the momentum of finishing first in the west and being one game away from the Western Conference Final. Then last offseason, they loaded up with top free agent Alexander Radulov and brought back head coach Ken Hitchcock, who was expected to lead them to glory just like he did in 1999.
After all of those moves, after all of that optimism, and the Stars have only two playoff appearances and a single series win to show for it. Add in the fact that the Stars missed the postseason five consecutive years before Nill arrived, and you paint an even bleaker picture.
So it’s hard for Stars fans to be optimistic about the team and the franchise, let alone believe their team can push for a Stanley Cup. That’s why I’m here, to try and push back against the negativity and show us all that, while the Stars certainly aren’t Cup favorites, there is good reason to believe in the 2018-19 Dallas Stars.
Reason #1: This Was a Playoff-Caliber Team Last Year
For the majority of the 2017-18 season, the Stars were consistently in a playoff spot, typically the first or second Wild Card berth. As they approached the trade deadline at the end of February, the Stars even had the potential to lock down third in the Central, as the St. Louis Blues started to fall apart and were sliding down the standings.
Then the eight-game losing streak happened, and the Stars missed the playoffs by three points. I’m not positive about the numbers, but I believe that before that first loss, the Stars had more than a 90% chance of making the postseason, which makes the Stars’ plummet almost unbelievable.
For better or worse, that losing streak seems to have defined the 2017-18 Stars. It’s what most likely led to the retirement of head coach Ken Hitchcock, the decision to not re-sign backup goaltender Kari Lehtonen, and may have cost Dallas a Tyler Seguin extension at the start of the 2018 free agency period.
And so, it’s easy to forget what I led off this section off with — for the majority of the 2017-18 season, the Stars were a playoff team. Alexander Radulov was the best offseason signing in recent memory for any team. John Klingberg was running away with the non-existent defenseman scoring title, and was almost a lock to be at a Norris finalist. After years of bad defense and goaltending, Hitchcock had brought the “D” back to “Big D.”
Ultimately, the eight-game losing streak still sunk them, and you could argue that in itself means they weren’t a playoff-caliber team last year. But I think the losing streak rests largely on the coaching staff for failing to adjust and right the ship — a coaching staff that is, for the most part, no longer here. And at the end of the day, the Stars still missed the playoffs by only three points; it’s not as if they were a bottom 10 team.
So while the Stars will still be fighting off the memories of that painful collapse, I still believe they’re building off of a playoff team, which brings us to...
Reason #2: The Roster is Better This Year
I already talked about this in length, but to summarize — when you compare the newest players on the roster with the ones who left via free agency, the Stars are a better team. You might shrug your shoulders at Blake Comeau and Anton Khudobin and roll your eyes at Roman Polak. However, Valeri Nichushkin has the potential to become a top-six forward for Dallas and help out their secondary scoring problem, and future rookie sensation Miro Heiskanen will do wonders for an already decent blue line.
On top of that, the players who are returning from last year should be even better as a whole thanks to another year of experience under their belt. John Klingberg has arrived on the scene as one of the top defensemen in the NHL, and should only improve. Radek Faksa quietly landed seventh place in Selke Trophy votes, and is a dark horse for the award this season. Players like Esa Lindell and Mattias Janmark look to improve on solid campaigns, while even younger players like Jason Dickinson and Julius Honka could finally break out if given the opportunity.
Of course, just like younger players will improve with experience, older veterans might decline due to age. But even then, there’s room for optimism. Marc Methot was injury-plagued last season, but will likely only be needed as a third-pairing defenseman with limited ice time. Ben Bishop is on the wrong side of 30, but hasn’t showed any recent signs of slowing down. And perhaps most interesting of all, Jason Spezza — who is now the oldest player on the roster at 35 — might even improve this season, since you could link a lot of his struggles last year to a bad match with Ken Hitchcock’s dump-and-chase system.
Add everything together, and you have a team that, on paper, is better than the playoff-caliber team they were last year. Of course, it’s up to the coaching staff to take that talent on paper and translate it to success, which finally brings us to...
Reason #3: Jim Montgomery is an Upgrade over Ken Hitchcock
First off, let me preface with the following: I am not saying Montgomery is a better coach than Ken Hitchcock. That would be a rather bold statement, considering Montgomery is a rookie coach when it comes to the NHL and Hitchcock has the third most wins all time and a Stanley Cup under his belt. Montgomery could end up being a better coach than Hitchcock, but it’s going to be a while before you can objectively compare the two.
What I do think, however, is that Montgomery is a better fit for the Stars than Hitchcock was. Under GM Jim Nill, the Stars’ roster has been built to be a a fast, possession-driven team that excels in putting the puck in the net. That’s what we saw under Lindy Ruff, and the peak of that system was seen when the Stars finished first in the Western Conference in 2015-16 despite bad goaltending and defense.
Hitchcock, however, took that same roster and tried to make them play a shutdown defensive game, one where a one-goal lead might lead to Greg Pateryn leading the team in ice time, a system that made the Stars third in dump-ins and first in icings. Rather than adapting to the talent he had, Hitchcock tried to mold the roster into his system, which led to the struggles of potential key players like Spezza and Honka. You can also argue his taxing coaching style wore the players thin, which might be a big reason as to why the Stars collapsed at the end of last season.
In contrast, Montgomery has preached the importance of a strong possession game, hoping to develop a system where having the puck and keeping it away from the opponent is more important than dropping down and blocking shots. It’s hard to imagine what Montgomery’s game will look like in practice until we see actual hockey getting played, but the outlook is promising.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the modern NHL is evolving to a style of play closer to Montgomery’s vision than Hitchcock’s. While we’re still in the era of the dead puck and defense remains as important as ever, we’re seeing less and less of the “shutdown, gritty defense wins the day” and more focus and emphasis on puck possession and creating quality scoring chances, even when you have a multi-goal lead.
Just as there is room for optimism for Stars fans approaching the 2018-19 season, there’s reason for concern as well. You could argue that every team in the Central is also better heading into the new season. It’s fair to say that even if the Stars are a playoff team, they aren’t a Cup contender when they should be by now. And of course there’s the lack of a Tyler Seguin extension looming in the background.
But I think the positives heading into the new season outweigh the negatives. The Stars were a good team that had a horrible March and improved the roster over the summer, even if it wasn’t by much, even if they didn’t “win the offseason” again. Not to mention that Jim Montgomery looks like a great fit for the team, in addition to having a reputation of building winning cultures with his previous teams.
I don’t think the Stars will be a top team in the Western Conference, and they may not even be top three in the Central. But they should at least be a Wild Card team, and they have the pieces to surprise everyone with a deep playoff run. So if you’ve hopped off the wagon or have been considering jumping ship, get back on, because this team is going places.