Opening night is less than two weeks away, and the Dallas Stars project to be a strong playoff contender this season. They have one of the league’s best top forward lines, arguably three “top pairing” defensemen, and should have a top-tier goaltending duo even after accounting for regression.
But a playoff contender is not the same as a Stanley Cup contender. If the Stars want to make a deep postseason run, they need several “non-elite” players to step up their game and serve as a strong supporting cast. If they don’t, then we’re likely looking at another year of Dallas as a playoff bubble team.
So let’s break down a few players who might break out and help push the Stars over the edge. We’ll be looking at players who did well last season and should improve upon an already strong foundation, meaning no rookies or other prospects. Also a “breakout” candidate won’t necessarily become a Top 6/Top 4 option — it simply means they’ll thrive in their given role. Bottom 6/Pairing players are important too.
Many Stars fans might argue that Roope Hintz has already “broke out” last year. After posting just 11 points in 44 games to start the regular season, Hintz went on a hot streak, scoring as many points in just 14 games. Add in his eight points across 13 postseason games, and Hintz was scoring at a 0.7 point pace, which would be good for 57.7 points over 82 games.
But there’s a difference between catching fire and staying lit — remember Alex Chiasson? — so Hintz will have to prove he can produce significant results across a full NHL season. Thankfully the Stars made it easier for him this offseason by signing Joe Pavelski, which sets Dallas up to have potentially their best second line since before the Jim Nill era.
All in all, there’s a reason Hintz is a popular “sleeper” candidate across the league. Based on his numbers from last year, I’d expect Hintz to put up 40+ points this season, with the potential for 50+. Anything more than that is just wishful thinking, unless Hintz supplants Jamie Benn as the Stars’ top line LW (and even then, temper expectations).
After a largely forgettable rookie season — what do you expect of a player who averages 8:32 in ice time? — Jason Dickinson quietly improved his sophomore season. Like Hintz, he hit his stride late in the season and played exceptionally well in the postseason, although it didn’t always show up on the score sheet.
Here's a Seguin breakaway from last night, courtesy of Jason Dickinson: pic.twitter.com/CPQ92vsabL— Tyler Mair (@mairican) May 4, 2019
The difference between him and Hintz is that while the latter is expected to become a Top 6 scoring threat, Dickinson projects to be more of a Middle 6, two-way forward. That’s not to say he can’t play on the Stars’ second line — as mentioned, he did well in that role last postseason alongside Hintz and Mats Zuccarello — but it’s more likely that the Stars play him in a 3rd line, penalty-killer role.
And there’s nothing wrong with that — all good teams have strong “shutdown” forwards, and Dickinson would be an improvement over some other Stars players who currently fill that role. Two seasons ago, the NHL was talking about how Radek Faksa was one of the league's better emerging defensive players. Perhaps that can be Dickinson this season.
We’ll wrap up our projections with a name that is bound to raise a few eyebrows. After spending a year with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jamie Oleksiak returned to Dallas in a trade that essentially reversed the one that sent him away. Only this time, he carried a $2.1M cap hit for two more seasons.
But while many were skeptical about how Oleksiak would fare after leaving the more-talented Penguins, the Stars’ former first rounder actually had a strong finish to the season. He didn’t always play, but when he did, he was effective:
Skeptics will point out the small sample size, but his #fancystats in Pittsburgh weren’t too shabby either. And it’s not as if he was sheltered either — Dallas started him in the defensive zone 63.3% of the time, and Pittsburgh 58.9% of the time. Yet he was still Top 5 on the team in both CF% and FF% out of players with at least 20 games played.
I’m not saying Oleksiak is Top 4 material, but he has the potential to be a very solid 3rd pairing option for the Stars. And if he’s able to hold his own in the defensive zone against some of the opponents’ best players, that opens up more offensive opportunities for defensemen like John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen. And we all know how well that turns out.