Why the Dallas Stars Could Win it All
The Stars have gotten close a couple times this century, but they've failed to win a second Stanley Cup. Is this the year that changes?
Since I began writing for Defending Big D, I've had many articles that I either started or began to brainstorm that never ended up published. Sometimes, the idea just didn't work out. Other times, something unexpected, like a trade or injury, invalidated the piece. And sometimes, I just chickened out in fear of looking dumb.
That was the case with the 2020 bubble playoffs, in which I began writing a piece called “Why the Dallas Stars are a Dark Horse Stanley Cup Contender.” I've talked about this before, but essentially, I wanted to publish after the play-in round before the "real" playoffs began. But Dallas looked horrendous in the Round Robin, and so I discarded the draft. A wise decision, because surely they weren't going to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals and take Game 1 over the Tampa Bay Lightning before ultimately falling short in six games.
There's no play-in round this year, although I could still wait a round or two before offering up my playoff prediction for Dallas. But I've learned my lesson from 2020, and so I'm going to just go out and say it:
I think the Dallas Stars are going to win the 2023 Stanley Cup.
For the bubble playoffs, I thought Dallas could be a "dark horse." But this year, I'm sure they're a bona-fide contender. And with all credit due to the rest of the league's juggernauts, I almost feel like Dallas should be considered one of the favorites.
That may come across as "Tyler's been drinking the Victory Green kool-aid," but let me explain my reasoning. When it comes to winning the Stanley Cup in today's NHL, I think a team needs the following qualities, more or less listed in order of importance:
- A Conn Smythe-worthy run by their goalie
- A high scoring ability, especially in key moments
- A strong defense, led by a Norris-caliber run by the top defenseman
- A (mostly) healthy roster
- They've been a perennial Cup contender
Perhaps you disagree with the contents or order, but these are the things I look for when projecting a Cup champion. Teams don't need all of them – I'd say they need at least any four out of the five – but it makes for a much stronger case. And in my opinion, Dallas is one of the few teams that meets all of the criteria.
Let's break it down:
1. A Conn Smythe-worthy run by their goalie
Everyone knows the universal truth: there's nothing more likely to ruin a team's playoff run than running into a hot goalie.
We see it every year – a team seems to be firing on all cylinders, dominating the ice in all aspects, only to be stonewalled by the opposing goaltender. Take any given playoff series upset over pretty much any timespan, and odds are, the winning team had a hot goalie.
That's not to say it's impossible to overcome a hot goaltender – the Calgary Flames managed to (barely) squeeze past Jake Oettinger in last years' playoffs – but it is extremely difficult. Usually, the only solution is for the team to have a hot goaltender themselves to even the playing field, which in turn means most teams that make deep runs do so on the backs of their goaltender. Again, not always the case – the Colorado Avalanche had subpar goaltending last postseason, and they won the whole thing – but more often than not, it holds true.
Similarly, while any goaltender is capable of getting hot – people love to say that "goaltending is voodoo" – more often than not it's someone who was already an established top goaltender or has proven they can get the job done come playoff time. Jake Oettinger is one of the few who can say he hits both points.
2. A high scoring ability, especially in key moments
"Defense wins championships" has been a cliché for most team sports at one point in time. Many NHL teams still believe it, which is why teams like Dallas and Edmonton hire Ken Hitchcock or the Winnipeg Jets go after Rick Bowness.
But much like the NFL and NBA, the NHL has been trending towards higher scoring for several years now, and the Stanley Cup champions reflect that – Colorado, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Pittsburgh are all examples of high-offense teams that have lifted the Cup, two of them twice!
And when you think about it, it makes sense – if playoff hockey "slows down" to a more gritty, defensive-minded game, then you need the offense to overcome that. It may sound silly when you say it, but it's true: at the end of the day, the team with the most goals wins. So if a team wants to make a deep run, they have to be able to score, especially in key moments like on the power play or in sudden-death overtime.
Speaking of which, did you know that Dallas is 6th out of all playoff teams in goals scored this season, 2nd in the West? That they have a top five power play, 3rd in the West? That they have one of the best top lines in all of hockey, highlighted by a player tied for 6th in NHL scoring, and that their second-leading scorer plays on the "third line?"
3. A strong defense, led by a Norris-caliber run by the top defenseman
Of course, offense isn't everything – the team still needs the defense, else the other team's offense will light them up, forcing them into a high scoring, chaotic bonanza. Manageable for a single series? Yes (see: Dallas vs Colorado, 2020). As a team's entire identity for an entire playoff run? Probably not (see: 2015-16 Dallas Stars).
So yes, a Cup contender needs strong defensive play. And on top of it, I'll borrow from Down Goes Brown and argue it can't be a job by committee either – teams need at least one defenseman leading the charge with a Norris-caliber playoff performance (e.g., Cale Makar, Victor Hedman, John Carlson, Kris Letang, etc.).
When it comes to Dallas, their defense is probably their weakest link – they have the Number One guy in Miro Heiskanen, but everyone after that is a second pairing defenseman at best and debatable lineup regular at worst. They allowed the third fewest goals in the league and have the 3rd best penalty kill, but that's also in large part due to the stellar goaltending of Oettinger.
Then again, you can't give all the credit to the goaltending. And when it comes to shifting to a more defensive-minded strategy for the playoffs, perhaps there's no roster better equipped than Dallas, who before this season had spent the past several years playing that kind of hockey all the time.
4. A (mostly) healthy roster
Every team that wins the Stanley Cup will have its fair share of injuries – there's no escaping that. The playoff grind is long and hard on the players' bodies, especially after an 82 game season, to the point where players will get hurt. And then those players will continue to play while hurt if able, potentially hurting themselves even more.
That's why people talk about depth when it comes to Cup contenders. Not because a fourth line scorer will single handedly win a game (unless that name happens to be Joel Kiviranta and he's playing the Colorado Avalanche in a Game 7), but because injuries will happen, and those players will have to step up.
When teams can't do that, either because they lack the depth or have just too many injuries, that's when they tend to fall short. To this day, I'll argue health is the main reason why Dallas lost to Tampa Bay in the 2020 playoffs, as the Stars were just decimated by injuries. People love to argue that Jason Robertson, who was a Black Ace but didn't play a single playoff game, might have been just the perfect emergency solution, but I think the injuries were just too much for the team to overcome.
This year, however? The Stars are one of the healthiest teams going into the playoffs, with no player on injured reserve. There's probably some injuries we don't know about, and Mason Marchment is still coming back from a long-term knee injury, but the team as a whole has been remarkably healthy this year. That will change this postseason, but going in with a leg up goes a long way.
5. They've been a perennial Cup contender
This is by far the most subjective criteria, and thus the most debatable. But this is just an observation that I've made over the last decade or so over NHL hockey: Cinderella teams don't (generally) win the Stanley Cup.
Oh sure, they make the Cup Final all the time – Vegas did it in 2017-18, Dallas in 2019-20, Montreal in 2020-21, and Ottawa just barely missed it in 2016-17. But that's where they fall short. They end up falling to Colorado, or Tampa Bay, or St. Louis, or Washington, or Pittsburgh, or Los Angeles, or Chicago. All teams that have spent the past several seasons as Cup contenders, teams that have either already won a Cup or have been poised for one if things will finally break right for once.
That's why when it comes to Stanley Cup brackets, you'll see a lot of people pick Boston, Carolina, Edmonton, Vegas, heck maybe even Toronto, but not as much so with New Jersey, Seattle, or Los Angeles. Most have an internal bias towards the teams that are "usually" good, and the track record backs it up.
Does Dallas belong in that consideration? They're a weaker case than the other teams listed above, but I think they do. Seven players on this team were on the squad in 2019-20, in which they fell in Game 7 to the St. Louis Blues, who went on to win the Cup, in the second round. Eleven players played a playoff game in the 2020 bubble run, with Robertson there practicing as a Black Ace. And although it was only seven games, Dallas nearly pulled off the upset with their 2020-21 run last year, of which most players on this roster were here for.
Maybe this is wishful thinking. Maybe I really am drinking the "Victory Green kool-aid." But Dallas has won a lot of playoff games over the past several seasons. They're not an underdog Wild Card team like last season, but rather a top team in the Western Conference. They have the experience, they have the talent, and they have the health.
When it comes down to it, this may very well be the year where everything "breaks right" for Dallas.