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Analysis: Are the 2022-23 Dallas Stars contenders or pretenders?

All things considered, this current season has been so far much more successful for the Stars than any of us expected before it started. Can we consider them as true contenders though? Let‘s find out.

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Florida Panthers v Dallas Stars Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Just go back in time a few months – right around to the climax of the Jason Robertson will-he-won’t-he-sign saga. How many of you have predicted the Dallas Stars to be this good this early?

When we were doing a Central Division primer here at Defending Big D, we expected an improvement over the 98 points they scored last season, if ever a slight one. But this? None of us could have predicted what actually transpired for the first 40-something games this season. Pete DeBoer and his coaching staff has had a great impact on how the Stars are playing basically in every game situation, be it on the offensive or defensive side of things.

So the question to ask is very valid. Are the Dallas Stars contenders already this year? And if they indeed are, how should they approach things, especially with a trade deadline some six weeks away? Let’s take a look at what they already have and see if it is indeed special enough to be upgraded to the upper echelon of teams within the National Hockey League.

The first thing to look at when you are a contender is whether you have that stability at the back-end and especially in goal. Analyzing the performances of Jake Oettinger in his career so far, it’s safe to say he is on the right track to become exactly what you need when you’re about to make a deep run in the playoffs and probably the closest thing to the MVP goalie Dallas has had, well, since Ed Belfour. That also coincides with the last time – and only time, I should add – they won the Cup.

Jake Oettinger is currently fifth in the entire league in goals saved above expectations according to MoneyPuck.com, while having 2.26 goals against average (4th in the league) and posting .924 save percentage (4th in the league), so it’s safe to say he has been a top-5 goaltender in the entire league this season.

Also, did I mention he’s still only 24 and quite possibly only discovering his true potential? I didn’t need to, because you knew that already. Adding to that, he has a stable and supporting true number-two goalie behind him in Scott Wedgewood. All that for a combined cap hit of only $5 million, which is exactly half of what Sergei Bobrovsky is making, to put that in context. So, considering only goaltending so far? Yup, the Stars are in the contender category on that one. Check.

As we move on to the defensemen, the first question is obvious: Do the Stars have an elite number one defenseman? Well, thanks to some good draft lottery fortune in 2017 – yes, they do. Check.

What about the rest of the pack? This is where things get a little murky.

If we go more strictly according to “The Contender Checklist” created by Shayna Goldman and Dom Luszczyszyn over at The Athletic, we might look for a 1B-style defenseman to play behind your elite 1A blueliner. While Nils Lundkvist certainly has the potential to become one of those supporting first-pair defensemen, he isn’t there just yet.

When he will reach that plateau is the question, but Jim Nill didn’t spend his 2023 first round pick on pure hope. There are legitimate reasons to believe Lundkvist will eventually get there with more playing time and possibly already in a couple of years. After all, remember he’s still technically a rookie this season. So, check? No, but ask again in 12 to 18 months.

The next thing in line? A top-pairing defenseman to help anchor a strong second pair. This is what the Stars brass are hoping Thomas Harley could become. He’s got the tools to become a first-line defenseman in the NHL – maybe more so in a supporting role but definitely he’s got a potential to drive his own pair in the second unit. Check? No, but ask again in 12 to 18 months. (See the theme developing?)

What you also need according to Shayna and Dom is another top-pairing caliber defenseman to crush soft minutes on the third pair. I believe Dallas actually has that in Esa Lindell right now already. The question is about his deployment. He’s currently deployed as more of a second-pair defenseman and plays twenty minutes a night on average, while strongly focusing on the penalty kill.

The natural growth of the Stars young stud defensemen like Nils Lundkvist, Thomas Harley, potentially Lian Bichsel, and, dare I say, Artem Grushnikov might move Esa Lindell down the depth chart in the future – and that actually might be a good thing for the team and for the player also. So check? Well, not particularly right now, but ask again in 12 to 18 months (ish).

To sum up the defensemen situation, Dallas certainly isn’t a contender by any standard, apart from having a true and elite 1A defenseman in Miro Heiskanen. Some might argue that should be plenty, but it’s just not. You need a strong cast supporting your elites that could potentially become elites themselves. Luckily, Dallas has something brewing in their pipeline, the fans and the management just need to be more patient when it comes to actual expectations this year.

Overall, the current defensive corps lack needed depth to be considered a contender-quality. Does the addition of an elite defenseman during the trade deadline change that perspective? For sure, but you have to ask whether the price is really worth paying and especially, whether the Stars are truly one piece away from being a contender. Looking closely at the forwards, you might find the answer for this question, so let’s go to the checklist first.

First two are: Elite number-one center that’s among the very best players in the world and elite first-line winger to support the first-line center. It has been an amazing revelation for the Stars how impactful and truly elite players Roope Hintz (center) and Jason Robertson (winger) have become in the last 12 or 18 months. Both should be just entering their primes so the things look pretty rosy for Dallas there. According to the GSVA model by Dom at The Athletic, both Hintz and Robertson are among league elites, while Robertson is quietly attacking the MVP category as well. So far? An underlined double-check with a star.

What makes the duo of Hintz and Robertson so effective is possibly the third guy on their line – the glue – Joe Pavelski. He is another true top line winger which every serious contender might need if they are serious about making noise in the postseason. So the Stars have him, good. That is good. But they need two of those. Who is the second one?

Jamie Benn has had a renaissance season so far (no, I’m not using that meme today) and Mason Marchment has had the same impact numbers as the captain. Are they top line quality? No, but they’re also not that far away. So, this is only a half check and quite possibly the reason why there has been so much talk about Dallas needing another top-six forward.

So, do they need one? Well of course they need one. Who doesn’t? Should they look and buy one? That’s the catch. The price for the likes of Bo Horvat and/or Timo Meier appear to be astronomical. Considering the unstable situation on the back end, shouldn’t Dallas prioritize that over forward help first? That’s the question the management group should be (and probably is) asking as we speak.

Jamie Benn’s resurgence has been somewhat surprising as according to Byron Bader, he didn’t have a star level season in the last four years. We’ll see whether he manages to sustain that level of performance. Mason Marchment famously broke the model last season with the Florida Panthers and is something of an analytical darling. Both these players are better fits for another category on the contender checklist: Two more top-six forwards for depth in the middle six. Are Benn and Marchment top-six forwards? Absolutely.

What about that missing top line winger playing on the second line, though? This is where the fanfare should come and I should shout thy name unapologetically – Welcome to the Logan Stankoven show! Please have a seat, the show will begin in … 2023-24 season.

Looking at his performances at World Juniors, his otherworldly points pace in the WHL where he is simply the best player (apart from Connor Bedard, of course) you might wonder where this Dallas team could be if the management wasn’t afraid to have two teenagers in their top-nine or if Tom Gaglardi owned Everett Silvertips instead.

Logan Stankoven is exactly that missing piece to the Stars roster right now, that top-line talent pushed down the depth chart to the second line to play with another top-line center playing with him. Would he be able to do it from the get-go already this year? Maybe, maybe not. But he will sure as hell get a chance to do that next season. Or will he? Okay, this is a pure dreamland, but hear me out on this:

The Memorial Cup hosted by Kamloops this year and the event where Stankoven is guaranteed to play concludes on June 4th 2023. Do you know when the Stanley Cup Finals Game 1 is projected to start? A mere four days after, on June 8th 2023.

Imagine a scenario where the Memorial Cup is finished (Kamloops winning it or not doesn’t matter here) and the Dallas Stars actually got to the Stanley Cup Finals already this year? The reason why they lost the 2020 finals was the lack of depth, as they were depleted injury-wise and couldn’t be a match against that monstrously deep Lightning team.

Insert Logan Stankoven. Yeah, this is a pipe-dream. But it’s super fun though. The best part about that, apart from Dallas being in the Cup finals again? Stankoven wouldn’t even burn the first year of his entry level contract as he would play a maximum of seven games in that series. Given he’s slide eligible, he would be guaranteed to slide and his contract will actually begin in 2023-24. Having a Stanley Cup ring while your NHL contract isn’t actually triggered would be quite an achievement.

But okay, snap back to reality, oops there goes gravity…

The last piece on the contender checklist?

Another top-line center to play behind the elite center. While we have established the Stars are currently missing that second elite top line center playing on the second line, the void should be filled already next year with Stankoven’s arrival to the big show. Speaking of Stankoven’s possible partner on the second line…is that desired top-line center still actually Tyler Seguin?

Well, to be frank, not by his current standards. He’s currently best suited as a secondary scoring option but his play is nowhere near the level of top-line center. Luckily for Stars, they have a budding top-line center in the making in Wyatt Johnston already playing for the big team and being a major contributor. To add another layer on this, they have Mavrik Bourque in the minors making huge strides during his first professional season at the age of 21.

When he hits his prime, I believe he will be able to play both center and right wing, giving the Stars coaching staff positive headaches on how to utilize him the best. So even while Joe Pavelski’s time in the NHL might be coming to an end soon, Dallas has more than capable replacements on that future top-six which should include Robertson, Hintz, Johnston, Stankoven, Bourque and possibly still one of Marchment, Benn or Seguin or some wild card addition to bolster their scoring touch. A Timo Meier type of player, to put it in perspective.

If you look at this checklist in the next one or two seasons, you might see this puzzle getting more complete as more pieces will enter the picture rather than leave it.

So what’s the overall score on the contender checklist for the 2022-23 Dallas Stars? Let’s summarize:

  • A top-10 caliber starting goaltender.
    Jake Oettinger. Check.
  • Elite No. 1 defenseman.
    Miro Heiskanen. Check.
  • A second No. 1 defenseman to play behind him.
    None currently. Nils Lundkvist in the pipeline.
  • A top-pairing defenseman to help anchor a strong second pair with the No. 2.
    None currently. Thomas Harley in the pipeline.
  • Another top-pairing caliber defender to crush soft minutes on the third pair.
    Possibly Esa Lindell. Check but only slightly.
  • Elite first-line center that’s among the very best players in the world.
    Roope Hintz. Check.
  • Elite first-line winger to support the elite center.
    Jason Robertson. Check.
  • Two other top-line wingers on each of the top two lines.
    Only Joe Pavelski. ½ Check. Logan Stankoven in the pipeline.
  • Top-line center to play behind the elite center.
    To be frank, none currently. But Tyler Seguin is still here and making his case. There is also Wyatt Johnston in the pipeline. I‘m tempted to give 12 check. But not yet.
  • Two more top-six forwards for depth in the middle six.
    Jamie Benn, Mason Marchment. Also Tyler Seguin. Check.
  • Total: 6.5/10

So to answer our initial question: Are they in fact contenders or just mere pretenders? The answer is – maybe as always with complex questions – somewhere in between. But they are definitely closest they have been since 2015-16 and yes, I‘m also including that 2020 bubble run. Is it thanks to how the present Dallas Stars are built though or more so due to lack of competition in the West currently?

Roster-wise, I believe Dallas isn’t the clear cut contender that is only one piece away at the trade deadline to go and make a deep run in the playoffs. Yet.

They miss more than just that, but they are not that far either. The best part about it is they have the missing pieces coming, sooner or later. Some of them are already at the NHL roster, just not quite at the peak of their abilities, like Nils Lunkdvist or Wyatt Johnston.

To put things in perspective though, the Stars find themselves in a very favorable conference, let alone division this year. The defending champs are currently looking at the playoff picture just from the outside, while Predators and Blues are even lower in ptheir own respective playoff chances.

At the top of the Central, Winnipeg and Minnesota look both extremely beatable in the best of seven format. Looking over at the Pacific Division, where the teams are stacked closely to one another, but none of them is cutting away from the pelothon. The top team in the Pacific, Vegas Golden Knights just recently got shutout in a statement win by the Dallas Stars themselves, while playing without one of their core pieces — Roope Hintz.

So yeah, you could easily make the case for the Dallas Stars being the best team in Western Conference. Especially when you consider how are the current defending champs, the mighty Colorado Avalanche struggling right now — but that will probably change in the second half of the season once they get all of their injured players back.

We don‘t really need to analyze potential matchups against the powerhouses in the East, the Bruins, the Leafs, the Hurricanes but also the Lightning. We‘ll cross that bridge when we‘ll get there. But one thing is for sure. If Jim Nill is serious about contending this year, he would probably need to make a splash trade or signing to bridge the gap between Dallas and the best teams in the Eastern Conference.

Because while the Stars genuinely made some ground standing-wise compared to even last season and also are currently first in the West, they still have those anti-contender moments when they are very keen on beating themselves rather than confirming their upper hand.

Another layer in the answer is the cap allocation, or better said: getting the best bang for your buck. Looking at the player cards from The Athletic, there are some negative value contributors – basically the whole fourth line.

We’ve had this discussion before and in the salary cap world, you need to maximize the investments you make, especially on the player personnel side of things. That trio of Joel Kiviranta Radek FaksaLuke Glendening with a combined negative value of -1.2 GSVA has a combined cap hit of $5.8 million. If you add another underperformers in Denis Gurianov ($2.9 million in cap hit vs. -0.4 GSVA) Ryan Suter ($3.65 million cap hit vs. -0.4 GSVA), or you realize you have another $2.2 million of cap space buried in AHL (Anton Khudobin’s last year of a contract) – that’s just way too much of a dead cap space.

Kiviranta, Glendening, Khudobin are all UFAs after this season and it’s quite possible none of them will return, so there is a positive addition by subtraction factor for the next season. Stars should have better and cheaper depth this time around next year, another important checkmark (albeit not officially in the Contender Checklist) for a potential contender.

At this time, the only player with a neutral GSVA metric at that fourth line is actually Radek Faksa. With his very strong defensive underlying numbers, I may see a world where the Stars will keep him around also next season. After all, he is signed through 2025. Denis Gurianov’s situation is much more complicated and it’s entirely possible he will not be qualified by the Stars, as his qualifying offer will be $2.9 million.

None of the teams at the market are giving that to him, so we may see him signing a lesser value type of a deal with the Stars or just starting fresh elsewhere. He could also be traded come trade deadline in a money-in-money-out type of transaction. I’ve already mentioned the Alex Kerfoot proposal in my latest article and there are definitely other options out there.

The biggest obstacle right now for Dallas in the current roster to becoming contenders? None other than Ryan Suter. All of the six Stars defensemen are signed through the next season as well and none of them is cratering in on-ice contributions more than Suter. He’s also 38 years old already and you’re not stopping Father’s Time here. He’s placed way below replacement level for pretty much all of the 2022-23 season but is still averaging around 21 minutes of ice-time per game. The only positive impact he has is on the penalty kill, with the expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60) clicking at 6.90 (-11% than league average) with him being on the ice compared to when he’s not on the ice, when the team has xGA/60 at 7.50 (-3% than league average). Apart from that, he’s been really hurting the team.

Since he has a full NMC throughout his contract (runs until 2025), there are only two ways out of this for the Stars: buyout or retirement. Both options are pretty enticing from a cap perspective. The former one could save around $2.8 million in cap space ($2 million if you already count with Thomas Harley as his replacement) and the latter one could erase his cap hit altogether without any cap implications further down the road, compared to the buyout.

(Of course, after I wrote this part of the article about negative contract values, the Stars proceeded to pump four goals against Vegas by four different players carrying negative surplus value of their deals, while Ryan Suter scored his first goal of the season. Of course. But I‘m not complaining about that. ... No, really, I‘m not!)

All this said, I genuinely feel the Stars still could make a noise this season, because this is the NHL. Anything can happen, right? But remember, this is also the NHL. The transition from being a bubble team to a true contender doesn’t happen in six months. I’ve said it at the beginning of the season and I’m saying it again:

This is a transitional season. Has the transition from one core to another been rather successful? Absolutely. Is the transition finished? Not yet.

That’s why I would expect them to approach this year’s trade deadline as a buyer, but cautiously. You have some depth scoring issues that would probably need to be addressed if you are indeed serious.

I would much rather add an impact defenseman as to bolster the defensive core (ideally with term) rather than just spend meaningless lower round pick for a depth guy. Dallas already has enough of depth guys down in Austin and I mean it in the most complimentary way. Thomas Harley, Alex Petrovic, but also Will Butcher or Ryan Shea should all be dependable options to fill-in in case of injury and probably better options than trading for Ben Lovejoy 2.0.

The 2022-23 Dallas Stars are still an unfinished product in more than one way and the deep playoff run expectations of them for this year (or dare I say Stanley Cup?) should be taken with a grain of salt. Ask the same question again in 12 or 18 months and you might get a different answer. But make no mistake. They are coming.

Well, the Stanley Cup expectations are, at least.