The Big Miss: How The Greatest Stars Team Of The Modern Era Disappointed
The 2015-16 season was magical, and could have had far-reaching impacts on the NHL. The Stars wasted a year of the prime careers of their best players — all because they didn’t fix the glaring issue that year. Could history repeat itself once again?
Across the SB Nation network, each team brand has been posed an interesting question: which team in history was the best to never win a championship? For the Dallas Stars, there are a few to choose from. You could consider the 1999-00 squad made it to the Stanley Cup Final after winning it all the year before, but fell up short versus the New Jersey Devils. Or the 2007-08 team that slugged it out to reach the Western Conference Finals, but fell to the eventual Stanley Cup winning Detroit Red Wings.
For my money, the greatest team to never win the championship goes to the best Dallas Stars team in the modern era: the 2015-16 squad that ran through every team with speed, skill, and scoring to sit atop the Western Conference at the end of the regular season.
That team was a breath of fresh air. Instead of the more conservative approaches that had become synonymous with Dallas hockey, the 2015-16 team had a system that fit the personnel very well. For once, fans got to watch a team that had a system designed for the players, and players that fit that, for the most part, were acquired or had skillsets built for that system.
It was one of the best years of general manager Jim Nill’s tenure to date.
There was only one Achilles heel of that roster: goaltending. All season long, goaltending had been a wild ride. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi backstopped the team, with both goaltenders having their moments — for better and for worse. Lehtonen could come out and turn in a 44-save performance and a sparkling .957 save percentage one night, and follow it up with a game in which three goals were allowed on 23 shots (good for a 0.870 save percentage). Niemi’s season was marked with a similar rollercoaster vibe.
After seeing goaltending and team defense implode two seasons prior in a first round exit against the Anaheim Ducks, culminating in a blown two-goal lead and an overtime loss on home ice (why yes that does still sting Stars fans, why do you ask?), Niemi was signed to provide the team with a viable backup in case that became an issue again. It was far from the answer, and the team was able to out-score its issues in net.
The playoffs are a different animal, though.
Defenses are stouter, and goaltending is generally better, with everyone dialed into the playoff intensity. The Stars went from scoring 3.23 goals on average per game in the regular season to an average of 2.69 goals per game in the playoffs. That half-goal difference is where goaltending weaknesses can be magnified. Which is exactly what happened in the St. Louis Blues series, where Lehtonen turned in a stellar performance to force a Game 7 — and the exact opposite when the stakes were the highest.
The reason this team is the most disappointing in Stars history to never win a championship is two-fold. Firstly, a win by the Stars could have accelerated the league’s shift to this fun style of game. Yes, it is still leaning that way, but maybe the league would have gotten there faster with this team’s win of the Stanley Cup.
The larger disappointment, of course, is that this wasted some of the prime years of the established core of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and John Klingberg. It’s not limited to just this year, though. As a result of the second round loss to the St. Louis Blues in the 2015-16 season, the Stars have since executed a complete reversal on the fun, speedy, skilled team and overcompensated by becoming too defensively stout. After Lindy Ruff followed that season up with an injury-plagued campaign that saw the Stars miss the playoffs completely, they hired as head coach Ken Hitchcock, and then, after that disastrous season, Jim Montgomery.
Though Montgomery preached a puck-possession style of play, he no longer had the players to implement a system that was originally described to be closer to the Lindy Ruff-esque team that tore through the regular season. Instead, he inherited a roster that had a glut of aging veterans and third-line players. He adapted his system to the players, and they found success — albeit in a less exciting brand of hockey.
With age quickly becoming a factor for Benn, Seguin, Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov, and Joe Pavelski, the Stars may have missed their best chance to win it all back then with their established core of players. By the start of the 2015-16 season, goaltending had been a known issue for several seasons, and wasn’t addressed until Lehtonen’s contract expired. With goal scoring being a several-seasons-now issue that hasn’t been consistently addressed, it’s time for Jim Nill to assess the style and system the team is playing with to resolve that problem — before the last years of prime playing time are wasted for good, and we have another “best team that never won it all” entry into this discussion.