2015-16 Season Afterwords: The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with 109 Points
Or, How the Best Season in 10 Years Still Felt Weird
Watching Game 1 of the St. Louis/San Jose opening montage, I was struck by how long it feels like it's been since Game 7. Don't misunderstand me: seeing David Backes plowing into players through dubious means still rubs salt in an open wound. But in a way, watching playoff hockey has gone from watching your kid's t-ball game to watching dressage while you wait for your taquitos to finish microwaving.
That may be underselling dressage (or overselling your kid's t-ball game), but with our collective investment in the playoffs having run its course as of Wednesday, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have become much more academic than we would have liked. I always wish I were the sort of Pure Hockey Fan who could watch any old game out of unbridled love for its essence, but for the past decade-and-a-half, I've had to face the fact that I just don't care quite as much about hockey post-Stars.
Still, this season saw the Stars play 13(!) bonus games, and that's something. This season saw the Stars end up as the second-best team in the NHL, and that's something more, indeed. I've long harbored sympathy for the European-style verbiage when it comes to "winning" one's league in American sports; namely, that the little tournaments outside the regular season are not related to it. The argument goes that it is far more impressive to come out on top after the long slog of the season than it might be to win a small sample size of a tournament against a few teams. There is something to that argument, but when you consider just how grueling the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be, I'm inclined to sit on the fence a bit. Yes, the Stars' finished atop the West, and that is, in no uncertain terms, a fantastic success. That is literally the best thing you can do in your conference over 82 games, and the Stars did that while playing in the toughest division.
Still, I can't quite bring myself to turn my nose up at the playoff results. There is something about a seven-game series against another good team (or the Wild) that just feels right. If sports are vicarious, sanitized outlets for our bloodlust, then a prolonged battle royale among the 16 teams left standing at season's end is our own personal Colosseum. It may not be justifiable--it may even be reprehensible--but it represents who we have become, and I can't get away from that. The Stars couldn't advance in that Final Fight, and we all must recognize that insufficiency for what it is, however we go about rationalizing it.
I don't want to gloss over those 82 games, though. I think the season deserves another good, long look now that the fray has begun to settle, even if we're still not quite over how that settling began. The Stars had a pretty wild season, and since sports are really just guilty pleasures for all of us to enjoy while we should be spending quality time with our loved ones or cleaning out the garage, let's stroll back through that season once more. It's not like you will admit that you have anything better to do.
For being the highest-scoring team in the league, the Stars surprisingly never beat a team by more than four goals; no seven-goal outbursts propelling Kari onto the net, no 6-0 stompings of the adorable little Arizona pups. No, this year's Stars would be all about victory without ease, or at least without large margins. In fact, if you remove the Stars' record-setting 24 empty-netters, they only outscored their opponents by 13 goals over the course of the season. That number bespeaks the Stars' thin margins throughout the year as much as their ability to, erm, Lose Like They Meant It at times, too.
So, it was a fun year. Specifically, the end of 2015 was a fun year, because 2016 kind of stopped feeling quite so fun. Put it this way: October-December of 2015 saw the Stars go 28-11-3 to lead their conference by nine points as of New Year's Day. When the calendar turned to 2016, the Stars were fresh off a 4-0-1 run against the Central that had seen them shut out Chicago and St. Louis to silence a good portion of the naysayers. The Dallas Stars were For Real, Antti Niemi was making the Stars' goalie tandem hum, Mattias Janmark was making us fall in love with yet another Jim Nill trade, and this was all before Stephen Johns and the Faksa/Hemsky/Roussel combo had even shown up in Dallas.
When a couple of us sat down to watch the DVR'd Game 7 last Wednesday night after successfully going "dark" for a few hours, one of the first things I said to settle my nerves was, "Well, it's been a fun season." And now, removed from the panic and apparently prophetic resignation I was feeling at the time, I can say the same thing: it was a really fun season. It's just a shame that the second part of the season couldn't have been quite as much fun as the first.
There are some things I don't want to forget about, even though they've already started slipping into the archive bin of my memory: Devin Shore's three-game debut (before he was later lost for the year on a filthy hit from Ryan Murphy in Charlotte); Curtis McKenzie's lost start to the year thanks to Nikita Nestorov's horrible hit (but you still have to love this picture); Esa Lindell's cup of coffee to whet our appetites for this fall; Jason Dickinson's first NHL goal. These all happened, but it'll be tough to place them all in a couple of years. Maybe not as tough as "name the year when Jamie Oleksiak did not outscore either of the Stars' goalies," but still. Little events blur together after a while no matter how fun they were at the time.
One of the biggest things that beat writers had been saying since day one was that Jim Nill would be using this season to get information about what exactly the Stars had in the way of their young talent. Well, the Stars certainly did that, although the situation on defense was such that they proved a lot more negatives than positives. Colton Sceviour made a good case for his return while Janmark and Faksa cemented their spots, and Klingberg and Johns seem poised to be around for a while after acquiting themselves quite well. No, not everything worked out (just ask Jack Campbell or Jyrki Jokipakka), but the Stars seem to have a better idea of how they will slot most of their NHL roster now, and that's going to serve Jim Nill well as he prepares for his annual summer fleecing. I'm not going to make any Jamie Oleksiak prognostications this time, though.
The dawn of 2016 was unkind, although 22-12-6 wasn't the worst second-half record in the world when all was said and done. Really, the fact Dallas was able to fend off the Blackhawks and Blues down the stretch to earn the Central Division crown despite prolonged absences from Klingberg, Seguin, Demers and Janmark is as remarkable as anything that happened in the first half. That Dallas was able to do it despite getting Calgary-level goaltending was nigh miraculous, but you've heard all about that by now.
It wouldn't be fair to mention "miraculous" without talking about Ales Hemsky, who found chemistry with first Janmark and then Faksa to turn his second half of the season into something of a reputation-saver in Dallas. Personally, I have always believed that Hemsky had the magic within himself the whole time, but I'm not unaware of the fact that Ales Hemsky regalia is not exactly a common sight around the old AAC promenade. Still, let me remind you simply of this: Cody Eakin scored 16 goals and 13 primary assists last season. Ales Hemsky had 13 goals and 16 primary assists. Okay, consider yourself reminded.
By the way, Jason Spezza kind of had himself a year, didn't he? I would love a montage of all his slapshot goals (with some of his fake-slapshot-to-freeze-goalie-then-skate-and-score-on-a-wrister goals interspersed, if possible) from the season, because I believe there are a lot of them. I guess we'll have to settle on just watching his Game 82 hat trick for now. That does not feel much like settling at all, really. Consider this: Jason Spezza's average TOI decreased from from 17:13 to 16:31 this season, and he doubled his goal output. Obviously there are still a few years left on that extension, but 33 goals is a pretty auspicious way to kick it off. For a player who willingly took a lesser role when he signed his extension, it's not like Spezza is pouting. He is doing the opposite of that, in fact.
Alex Goligoski might have played his final game for the Dallas Stars. If so, he's left quite a legacy, and I mean that with sincerity. Last summer, I compared him to noted Big-Bodied Blueliner Brent Seabrook. One year later, we find that #33 significantly outperformed Seabrook everywhere (except power play scoring) in '15-16. Seabrook is signed for roughly forever for roughly way too much money, and Goligoski will get less than that, but much more than any of us shall ever dream of accumulating in 50 years. There is probably a "they won the trade after all" piece that will force itself to be written once Goligoski officially leaves, but let's not worry about that quite yet. For now, we simply have to note that Goligoski did, once again, what was asked of him. Also, he made some mistakes. I feel like a lot of you will remind me of that fact if I don't mention that Goligoski made some mistakes.
In that same vein, Vernon Fiddler went out with a few cool moments of his own. My favorite was the one below, but Fiddler is a highly decent dude, and you doubtless will miss him for some additional reasons as well, should he not return to Dallas. Let us not forget that Fiddler took less money (we think) to return to the revamped Stars. Also, let us not forget this:
this Fiddler goal is absurd. Stars lead 2-1 pic.twitter.com/hlPIgugUEf— Stephanie (@myregularface) November 11, 2015
The Stars went 12-4-2 after trading for Kris Russell. I don't know what that means any more than I know what Russell's (and Demers's) playoff struggles mean for his future with Dallas. Probably the Stars figured Russell could help them down the stretch as a true rental with retention potential, should things go well. Also probably, the Stars figured Jokipakka was not going to find himself playing meaningful minutes on the Dallas Stars in 2016-17.
It was a weird trade--the only real trade Dallas made after the season started--but it gave the Stars a defenseman they were willing to trust down the stretch. That trade rocked my world a bit. I saw it on Twitter while walking through Manhattan on February 29th, and I ducked into a cafe to process my disappointment (read: whine about how shot differential is important, as if Jim Nill doesn't know that). I'm not sure I would say that the trade "shook" my faith in Nill's decision-making so much as it re-calibrated my assumptions about him. Jim Nill is a former player surrounded by former players (and others) in his staff. Nill & Co. liked Russell, and apparently Lindy Ruff agreed with him enough to keep Russell in the top six. That decision flew in the face of Russell's horrible shot differentials up to that point, but when Russell started to fit in down the stretch with Dallas, we all started to question whether maybe Jim Nill wasn't just using a GameShark on the NHL that we couldn't see. Then that LA game happened, and we all said, "never mind."
Is it enough just to say that this season was a regular season success and a postseason learning experience? That seems feeble, but it isn't not true. Dallas flopped last year and didn't even make the tournament; they made a couple of adjustments, Jamie Benn scored even more points that in his Art Ross season, and this year saw them finish in first place. Perhaps the Stars are a feast-or-famine team on more than just a game-to-game basis.
If you promised a GM a regular season conference title with no guarantee of postseason success, they would almost all take it in a heartbeat. The only ones who would pause would be those accustomed to that level of success, those managing teams who have shown themselves able to finish near the top of the league consistently.
Well, the Stars have now done so exactly one time in recent memory, but that is how consistency starts. Yes, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are not exempt from the constraints of time; it would be more efficient if NHL teams won the Cup every year so as to maximize their talent before it grew older and slower, but most teams do not win. The Stars made it to Game 7 of the round of eight, and no further. They will be working to better their chances of surpassing that finish over the coming months.
On the other hand, the Stars are coming off a 109-point season, and they are not losing any of their best players, and they are not about to be steamrolled by the salary cap. They have money coming off the books, and even Jamie Benn's new extension that kicks in next summer won't put them in any sort of jeopardy.
The Stars are not a championship franchise, yet. They are a one-really-great-regular-season franchise so far this decade. But it is a lot easier to go from "really great" to "championship" than from where nearly every other team is going to be when the season ends.
It was a fun season. But the best kind of fun is lasting fun, and that is what these Stars are set on attaining. Goals are fun, but winning is better. The Stars won 50 games in the regular season and seven in the playoffs; it's that first number that helps me to believe they can win nine more of the second number in the very near future. I'd call that a pretty good season.
P.S. I am going to end every single thing I ever write again with this John Klingberg video clip. Please file a lawsuit against me if I do not do that. I am counting on you!