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Erik Karlsson Trade Reveals Much About Dallas Playoff Aspirations

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The Dallas Stars did not get their man. Instead, Erik Karlsson is San Jose bound. Despite the obvious disappointment of losing out on a marquee player, the failure of a Dallas-Ottawa deal to come together is a valuable learning opportunity. Who the Stars were and were not willing to include tells us a great deal about the roster, and how the 2018-2019 season might go.

NHL: Preseason-Dallas Stars at Minnesota Wild
Big Val could be a big winner in the Erik Karlsson trade.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

On September 14th, the Ottawa Senators traded Erik Karlsson to the - groan - San Jose Sharks. The move ended months of speculation that had included, up until the bitter end, the Dallas Stars. Two critical details have emerged regarding Dallas’ proposal. The first: Dallas steadfastly refused to include uber-prospect Miro Heiskanen in any deal. The second: Dallas was apparently willing to peddle Devin Shore and Roope Hintz.

Now, a player of Karlsson’s obvious qualities is going to demand a king’s ransom. This isn’t Stars fans learning that Shore and Hintz are somehow out of favor. Nor is it Stars fans learning Heiskanen is well regarded. The first is reductive, the second is obvious. That is not to say we cannot learn things about our favorite team from the almost-exchange.

Let’s start with Miro Heiskanen.

One constant of the Karlsson-to-wherever saga was Dallas’ steadfast refusal to include the 3rd overall pick in any trade. Think about that. By all reports the Stars had an open avenue to trade for a two-time Norris Trophy winner with 518 points in 627 NHL games. They took a look at the 28-year old Karlsson, then one at the 19-year old Heiskanen and said “nah-m’okay.” That, combined with a growing number of superlative pre-season appearances, isn’t going to slow down the Heiskanen hype train. Not one bit.

Considering Heiskanen was the 3rd overall pick, and had already begun to rack up personal accolades, the Stars’ hardline insistence was not exactly out of left field. It was, however, a serious affirmation. For the organization that brought fans a seemingly endless progression of close-but-not-quite blueline talent (and John Klingberg, they get full and total credit for Klingberg), to see Jim Nill take a hard line on Heiskanen is the equivalent of a deep, cleansing breath. The kid is alright, in other words.

Speaking of the defense, it’s not unreasonable to view Jim Nill’s insistence as a vote of confidence in another Stars prospect: Julius Honka. Stick with me here. Yes, adding Erik Karlsson to the Stars’ defensive group would have removed at least one available opportunity for Honka, and yes, if they were willing to do that it could suggest management did not want Honka in that spot. Thing is, they were adding Erik Freaking Karlsson. Other thing is, they didn’t. That decision leaves the Stars with Honka, Klingberg, Marc Methot, Stephen Johns, Esa Lindell, and Roman Polak.

Now, think about where the Stars are as an organization. Tyler Seguin re-signed (thank goodness) for big money. His is just the latest in a string of deals that ranges from extensions for Benn and Klingberg, as well as acquisitions the likes of Jason Spezza, Ben Bishop, and Alex Radulov. Those are Win Now (™) moves from a team with Realistic Playoff Aspirations. While they would have been aided by the addition of Karlsson, none of the above was dependent upon the defensemen. Which means the playoff aspiring Dallas Stars are comfortable entering a make-or-break season with Julius Honka in, at least, their top seven. That’s closer than Honka has ever been to an honest-for-reals roster spot.

Which brings me to Valeri Nichushkin. Wait, Big Val? Shouldn’t this be about Roope Hintz or Devin Shore? Those two were a part of the proposed deal after all. Well, technically, it is. It’s just more about the big Russian winger.

Last season, the Dallas Stars’ top three scorers (Benn, Seguin, and Radulov) accounted for 229 points. If you add up the totals of every other forward that played even a single game for the Stars, you get to 222. There was a 45 point gap between Jamie Benn (1st - 79 points) and Mattias Janmark (4th - 34 points). By comparison, the Western Conference Champion Nashville Predators saw a 13 point gap between Filip Forsberg (1st - 64 points) and Craig Smith (4th - 51 points). There certainly were exceptions - the Philadelpiha Flyers saw a 55 point gap between Claude Giroux (1st - 102 points) and Travis Konecny (4th - 47 points) - but that sort of proves my point. Teams either needed balance, or they needed a truly superlative producer at the top of the roster.

The painful truth is that Dallas had neither. Benn, Seguin, and Radulov were fantastic, but not transcendent. Beneath those three, offense was consistently inconsistent. It’s a painful hypothetical, but is a 50-point season from Janmark the difference between 10th place and 8th place? Bottom line: the Dallas Stars missed the playoffs last season because they were utterly unable to generate offense outside of their top line. Same as the season before, and really, it’s been a consistent failing throughout the Jim Nill era.

Erik Karlsson would have solved that problem, albeit indirectly. With the stakes where they are, Dallas passing means they have at least some faith things will be better this season. Furthermore, the reported inclusion of Shore and Hintz at least suggests questions around either’s ability to right the ship. That leaves Nichushkin (or Jason Spezza, but that’s a whole different thing). If the Stars were certain Nuke wasn’t going to contribute offensively, especially with no other big-ticket prospects looming, maybe it makes sense to convert blue chip Heiskanen into immediate help, or at the very least, maybe the final offer looks a bit different.

It is indisputable that Erik Karlsson would have improved the 2018-2019 Dallas Stars. Frankly, Karlsson would improve every single team in the league. Simultaneously, the Dallas Stars have been a team on the verge so long they’ve got to tip one way or the other, and soon. For all of his obvious promise, Miro Heiskanen is still no more than just a very (very) good bet. The Stars could have cashed their lottery ticket for a surefire asset. They didn’t, and that tells us a lot about how they view the coming season.