Did someone out there request some 1980s Japanese fusion? I thought so.
After spending most of the postseason being uncharacteristically optimistic about a team that still doesn’t quite know why it started Thomas Harley for a game during the round robin, I’ve finally had a chance to take a breath, step back, and re-assess what this team actually is, and ought to be, going forward.
The answer? Well, I’m not here to be coy. This team is probably going to look like the best team in the NHL for another 20-game stretch at some point next year, if everyone stays healthy.
That’s a little blunt, I know. Perhaps I’m just not interested in winding my way to a take on Election Day, or perhaps I’m just tired of acting surprised at what the Stars did in the Edmonton bubble. (It’s always something in Edmonton).
But here’s the real deal: after a 2019 run to the second round that had most folks saying Dallas was Ben Bishop and All the Rest, 2020 saw the team come together in an unprece-ahem, an unexpected way, given what we had seen in the past.
The 2017 team had everyone except the goalies get injured, and Ruff got fired for it. The 2018 team had Ben Bishop get injured, and Ken Hitchcock got fired for it (and other reasons). The 2019 team saw John Klingberg get injured, and Julius Honka played himself off the team. The 2020 team got off to the worst start in team history, jettisoned Jim Montgomery for cause, dealt with more injuries than I can honestly remember in the moment—seriously, there were a lot—saw Tyler Seguin score at the lowest rate of his career, and then saw Ben Bishop, of all people, get injured (and re-injured, or whatever that game 5 was)...and they came just two wins shy of winning perhaps the most unlikely Stanley Cup since the Hurricanes did it coming out of the ‘04 lockout.
The point is, of the four Stars teams over past fifth-of-a-score, this team is almost certainly the last team you’d have expected to do it. That’s a testament to Miro Heiskanen, first and foremost, but it’s also a bit of a complicating factor when it comes to calibrating things for next season.
Let’s not forget that the Dallas Stars are the defending Western Conference champions. That’s not hyperbolic; that’s what happened. The Stars went up to Edmonton and kicked the butts of all three teams they faced, then finally ran out of gas against maybe the best, most complete hockey team of the decade. It still took six games, and now we know that Tyler Seguin was playing with a torn labrum for pretty much the entire run.
That said, given the Stars’ run of play before and even leading directly into the tournament, it’s not as easy as just penciling them in atop the conference, or even the division. We all read enough national media coverage to know just how unexpected the Stars’ run was, in the minds of many outside (and perhaps inside) of Dallas.
So, assuming Roope Hintz is signed (as he surely will be), and assuming Bishop and Seguin are ready to go when they return after the season starts, what do you think this team will be over the course of however many games make up the regular season?
We could land a lot of places, but I wanted to throw this out there early in the offseason just to sort out my thoughts in addition to giving y’all a chance to do the same. So, here’s what I’m thinking:
- Joe Pavelski is going to be approaching his 37th birthday when the season is winding down. He finally looked every bit the Hall of Fame player he probably is once the playoffs started, but the Stars need to get there, first. Can they count on him for more than 0.45 points per game? I think the answer is yes, but not by a ton. Call it 0.6 points per game, and maybe 18-20 goals, depending on whether they get the power play figured out.
- Tyler Seguin isn’t going to score more by missing half the season, and Dallas just doesn’t have an equivalent player to slot in there. This will be the big storyline of the season early on, I suspect. Unless...
- Anton Khudobin doesn’t lead the league in save percentage again as he approaches the age of 35. Can he pull off similar heroics for a Stars team that doesn’t have the playoff atmosphere (weird though it was) to get them going in February? I tend to doubt it.
- Jamie Benn is Jamie Benn. I think he’s likely to land at 0.6 points per game, if he’s healthy (since he’s also recovering from that grueling playoff run as well, and doing so at 31 years of age).
- Alex Radulov probably won’t be a premier scorer in the back end of his UFA deal, but if he’s happy, he’ll probably be productive. But man, who really knows, right?
- John Klingberg will have a better season, because he has to, right? In fact, I genuinely believe he figured a lot of things out in Edmonton, so if they translate, I’d expect the Stars blue line as a whole to be very solid, even if Thomas Harley doesn’t make the team out of camp. Mark Pysyk and Andrej Sekera should round out the group all right, and Jamie Oleksiak is a genuine asset. Esa Lindell will probably play about 116% of available penalty kill time, and I expect that, combined with Khudobin’s less-than-stellar numbers at 4v5 to make the Stars’ PK look a bit rough.
- Miro Heiskanen, though, will be the heartbeat of this team, quietly or otherwise. If he’s going at full speed, I think this cures a lot of what ails this team. Having Oleksiak as a functional partner will be a huge boost, too. Having one of the best players in the world is a good thing.
- Finally we have Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov. If Hintz is healthy, he can probably get close to 20 goals again, though I don’t expect him to catch as many teams by surprise as he did early on. Gurianov, of course, will run hot and cold, as such players usually do. But I expect him to lead the team in goals again, barring even more of a reduction in his already-paltry ice time.
- The checking line(s) will probably miss Mattias Janmark’s work more than we’d expect, and Radek Faksa’s health will be a huge factor, as we saw against Tampa Bay. This team’s good health will be more crucial than it is for most other teams, and it’s not like it’s not already a huge deal for any team to begin with.
So, where does that leave us?
We’ll do official predictions as the season gets started, since things could still change here and there in the final full offseason before the Expansion Draft. But if you were to ask me now where I saw the Stars finishing, I think I’d start by reasoning myself into putting them in the first Wild Card spot in the Central, given their age as a team, the lack of crowds (most likely) to give them a boost, and the recovery times for Bishop and Seguin.
Then I might look at what they did in Edmonton, and even in their scorching run midseason, and say they probably could surprise a lot of folks. That said, Colorado is only going to be better, so I think they top out at second in the Central, with catastrophe lurking in the wings as usual.
But then again, maybe they really did learn something in Edmonton, and maybe they’ve found a gear that this group just never quite got to under Jim Montgomery or even Ken Hitchcock. Maybe Rick Bowness, for at least one more season, can lead these players to unexpected heights.
All we can do in the meantime is prepare ourselves for the things likely to go right (and wrong), while holding the truth in our hearts that plenty more will likely go right (or wrong) than we can ever anticipate. So, with that said, I think I like them for second in the Central, and another good run into the second or third round of the playoffs.
Is that foolishly optimistic? Well, sure; but hey, it’s 2020. That’s the only kind of optimism left. Take what you can get, my friends.
(Plus, those bonkers third sweaters are good for at least ten extra points over the course of the season, so that already puts them into the top tier. Science!)