A new NHL season has finally arrived.
The Dallas Stars will pack up and move operations to Idaho to open Training Camp this Friday, officially turning the page on a 2017-2018 season that ran the full range of emotions. The obituaries of the past season, the analysis of the offseason, and the time fillers in August will now turn into previews for the 2018-2019 season. Those articles will surely come here as well. However, before the wheels touch down and the sticks are unpacked for camp, a statement should be made — and examined.
The Dallas Stars are at a crossroads and the path they venture down this season will almost assuredly dictate the future of the franchise for years to come.
What leads to this line of thinking is simple and quite obvious to hardened fans and passing observers alike. Since the 2013 arrival of general manager Jim Nill, the Stars have hardly risen from the ash heap of mediocrity that marked his predecessor’s tenure. The only (rather stark) difference between his era and that of Joe Nieuwendyk is that the franchise is no longer dusting itself off from their dark days of bankruptcy.
That fact makes the present situation and previous five years all that more maddening.
Since the arrival of the new ownership in Tom Gaglardi and new front office fixtures since, the franchise has failed to reach the playoffs in three of the last five seasons, and currently is mired in a two year absence. The Stars overall record over the last five seasons: 207 wins, 154 losses, and 49 overtime losses, good for 463 points, and a .564 point percentage. Not great, not bad, just mediocre.
Some could argue mediocre is worse than bad.
In the hard salary cap age, the need for high draft round picks to inject high-end talent into the team’s pipeline is imperative to future improvements. In order to build a consistent winner, the team needs cost-controlled, young talent grown from within. Constantly drafting in the 8-to-12 range doesn’t usually get those kinds of picks.
It has not been a complete disaster year in and year out, though. Anyone asserting that probably hasn’t followed the team very closely. There are glimpses of exciting — and encouraging — progress.
During the 2013-2014 season, the Stars finally returned to the playoffs on the backs of new captain Jamie Benn and budding superstar Tyler Seguin. The defining moment of that season came in the last home game of the season in which Seguin and Trevor Daley scored to defeat the St.Louis Blues, clinching the 8th seed. The Stars were rising, and even after falling to the Anaheim Ducks in six games of the first round, fans felt that the team had finally taken a step forward.
After adding Jason Spezza the next season, expectations for the Stars were that they would again make the playoffs and take the next step forward in their trajectory to Stanley Cup contention: winning a playoff round. A host of injuries derailed the team’s season, and the books shut on 2014-2015.
Then came the genesis of the confluence of emotions that has plagued Stars fans for the past two years: that 2015-2016 season.
The Stars would go on a tear, winning 50 games, recording over 100 points, winning the heated Central Division and, surprisingly, the Western Conference. The culmination of work had finally arrived. The team was a contender. The Stars would go on to lose to the Blues in six hard fought games (game 7 was a laugher), but the foundation had been firmly cemented.
Or so we thought.
We could recap the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, but what good would that do? Stars fans know the stories; the memories are still fresh, the wounds still raw. Two playoff-less seasons, a far cry from where Stars fans — and, likely, the team itself — expected them to be. Were they contenders or pretenders? Who are the real Dallas Stars?
Which leads back to the fact that the Stars are at a crossroads.
It is hard to fathom that in the two seasons following the Stars’ trip to the second round in 2016, the franchise has plunged into an inexplicable type of disarray. Three head coaches, 4 goaltenders, the drop in production of Jason Spezza, the impending Tyler Seguin contract, and even some fans questioning Jamie Benn’s captaincy at the end of the past season.
The Stars are where they are, right? Wrong. The Stars have a clear path in front of them. In fact, it’s so clear that if do they manage to muddy it up, Stars fans would not be remiss to clamor for full regime change.
However, the Stars aren’t there (yet.)
The Stars have a core that clubs in this league envy. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen. The Stars ARE deep. The Stars HAVE pieces that can lead to wins, playoff berths, and, daring to dream, a chance at a championship. The window is still open, and the Stars hold all the cards as of this moment.
At the moment.
To put it simply, the Stars need to win. The Stars have to win. The franchise has an owner who cares about the club, a general manager who still has the faith of the fanbase (albeit that seat might be feeling more warm than in summers past), and a new coach who seems to offer a style that can work on the foundation set by Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock. The Stars also have their dynamic core and troops down the lineup who can do the job. It isn’t all doom and gloom around here in Dallas as camp opens in a few days.
But the Stars need to win.
The franchise is truly at a definitive moment in it’s history. There are questions that need to be answered this season. A season that marks the twentieth anniversary since the most definitive moment in franchise history is a season that can validate the vision of this new era in Stars hockey, or simply resign it to history. The choice is truly up to the front office and players.
Carpe Diem. The battle has come. It is time to shake off the ghosts and burdens of the previous two years, and return to where the fanbase believes the Stars belong — in the postseason, fighting for the Stanley Cup.
Failure to make the postseason in 2018-2019 could dictate the need for change, changes that could close the book on this era, and open the pages to another.