Lessons to Learn From the Stars’ Playoff Run
The Stars were just two wins away from a Stanley Cup. Here are some lessons they need to take to heart if they want to go the distance next year.
It’s been a week since the Dallas Stars’ season came to a disappointing end in Edmonton, with the Tampa Bay Lightning beating Dallas in Game 6 of their series to win the Stanley Cup.
We’ve had time to reflect on this year’s run and what it means for the franchise and its fans as a whole. The Stars have proven that, without a doubt, they have what it takes to win the Cup. But there’s a reason that the Stars ultimately fell two wins short of eternal glory. It’s up to the team to evaluate their shortcomings and improve upon them for next year.
Below are five lessons to take away from this year’s playoff run. Please note this isn’t meant to be a concrete checklist of things Dallas should do. You won’t see anything like “Acquire a Top-Six Forward,” although that would obviously help. Rather, this list will focus more on the team’s philosophy and bigger picture approach to how they should tweak the roster and the underlying system.
Do Not Shift The Blame On Injuries
After getting knocked out in the 2019 playoffs by the St. Louis Blues — who went on to win the Stanley Cup — there were reports that the Stars’ brass believed that had Jamie Oleksiak been healthy, Dallas could have beaten the Blues and won the Cup themselves.
This year, Oleksiak was healthy and they went as far the Cup Final, albeit not without a slew of other injuries. Ben Bishop essentially missed the entire postseason along with Stephen Johns, while Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, and Roope Hintz were knocked out late. Not to mention that, per reports, Tyler Seguin was playing through multiple significant injuries, the kinds that would make you wonder how he managed to play at all, let alone top-line minutes.
So it would be very easy for the Stars to adopt a similar mantra heading into the new season, that they would have won if they just had one to two of their players healthy. But that is fault reasoning — it implies that Dallas was the best team and simply ran out of gas and depth near the finish line. In reality, Tampa Bay was always the better team, the Goliath to the Stars’ David, and a Dallas victory would have been a major upset even if both teams were completely healthy.
Yes, the injuries sucked and ultimately took their toll on the team. But they’re also an inevitability that you simply have to deal with in the playoffs. The Lightning had to go the entire postseason without one of their best players (Steven Stamkos). Just two rounds earlier, Dallas beat a Colorado Avalanche team that was missing their starting goaltender, their backup goaltender, and a few key defenders, among others.
If the Stars win the Stanley Cup again next year, it’s not going to be because they stayed healthy. It’s because they will have been better equipped to deal with such injuries.
The “System” Needs To Be Adjusted
For the past several years, the Stars have played low-scoring, shutdown hockey all year long, citing how that style of hockey is what wins games in the playoffs. Come to find out, that isn’t entirely true. Yes, that system is what propelled Dallas past the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final, but they previously beat Colorado and the Calgary Flames by playing a different style of hockey altogether.
Most notably, that “defense mentality” ultimately failed them in the Final against the Lightning. Thanks in part to injuries — which, as we discussed, are not an excuse — to the team’s “FCC” line (Radek Faksa, Andrew Cogliano, Blake Comeau), Dallas wasn’t able to keep Tampa Bay off the scoreboard even when limiting their scoring opportunities. Perhaps more troubling, even the Stars’ healthy defensive studs were having trouble:
Of course, a lot of that was the PK. So, what about evens?— Robert Tiffin (@RobertTiffin) September 29, 2020
At 5v5, Tampa scored 11 goals.
Esa Lindell was on the ice for 10 of them.
Against the Avalanche, the Stars accepted that they couldn’t contain Nathan MacKinnon and thus opened up the floodgates to try to score as many goals as possible. In contrast, the Stars continued to try and grind out low-event games against the Lightning, which resulted in some embarrassing “shot for” totals throughout several games, most notably Game 6. Factor in how the Lightning dominated the Stars in special teams and it’s no wonder why they took home the Cup.
Considering their injuries, it’s actually kind of impressive that Dallas still limited the Lightning to an average of three goals a game, which includes that dreadful second period in Game 4. That’s a testament to the Stars’ strong defensive system — now they just need to learn how to properly shift into a more offensive style as play dictates.
Don’t Overemphasize Veteran Contributions
If the Stars came back to win the Stanley Cup, there’s a good chance that Joe Pavelski would have won the Conn Smythe Trophy. He was tied for third in points scored with 19 and easily led the team in goals scored with 13, exactly what the Stars were hoping for when they signed him in the 2019 off-season.
Similarly, the Stars also received strong performances from Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera (although the latter had a bumpy start). Most notably, Perry became a temporary hero in Dallas as his two-goal performance kept the Stars alive in their Game 5 victory. In a league that keeps getting younger, the Stars were able to make it so far in large part thanks to their older veterans.
That’s a good story and all, but Dallas would do well not to look too far into it. Players like Perry and Sekera are replaceable, and while the Stars already opted to re-sign the latter, it would be a tad foolish for them to believe they need to re-sign all their veterans, and/or to think they need to actively seek out even more.
Of course, many will point out that the benefits of veterans extend beyond their on-ice contributions, and that their experience is invaluable in the locker room. But here’s the thing — the Stars just reached Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. No other team has more playoff wins in the past two seasons. This team has experience — they don’t need some well-tenured players to impart their wisdom on them.
That’s not to say that veterans are worthless — just that their benefits are lessened in light of the Stars’ recent successes. In contrast to last off-season, the Stars should focus this October on adding skill and talent, which leads me to my next point.
Trust The Youth
Although the Stars received some excellent performances from their veteran group, it would be foolish to pretend they would have made it that far without their younger players. When you take the entire postseason into account, Miro Heiskanen was their best player, full stop. Jamie Oleksiak was a true top-four defenseman, Denis Gurianov was second on the team in goals scored, and Joel Kiviranta became an overnight international sensation.
Yet, as fans have no doubt grown accustomed to under this current coaching staff, the Stars were far too often afraid to trust in their younger players when they needed them most. Gurianov saw his ice time dwindle in the Final, and while you could make the argument that his goal-scoring had gone cold after the first two rounds, consider that 1) Vegas was a low-scoring series all around and 2) you need consistent playing time in order to consistently score.
In a game in which Dallas has spent most of their time trailing, Denis Gurianov is second to last on the team in ice time.— Tyler Mair (@mairican) September 24, 2020
Thanks to the Stars’ salary cap situation (including the probable unfortunate reality of an internal cap), it’s highly likely that the team sees an influx of young talent if nothing else because they are cheap. But as fans saw with Gurianov, simply being on the roster and getting important minutes are two entirely different matters. What good is adding Jason Robertson’s scoring ability if he plays less than 10 minutes a game on the fourth line?
It has been my long standing belief that in order to win the Stanley Cup, you need strong performances from young players — we just saw that in Tampa Bay with Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, and Mikhail Sergachev. It’s time for Dallas to trust its young players to do some heavy lifting, and they’ll have no better opportunity than this upcoming season in what is sure to be a very condensed schedule.
Speaking of which, our final takeaway.
Rest Is Important
This one is a bit different from the others in that it’s something that the Stars did right this postseason, albeit not intentionally.
Earlier, we mentioned that Pavelski would have been a strong Conn Smythe candidate had the Stars won the Cup. But heading into the Final, my prediction in light of a Dallas victory was a different veteran forward — captain Jamie Benn.
Benn was tied with Pavelski for most points among forwards, and treated fans all postseason long to vintage “Beast Mode” performances. More so than any other player in the entire postseason, Benn benefited from the stoppage, able to shift it into high gear without the wear and tear of the regular season weighing him down.
Obviously, that’s not going to happen this next season. If anything, the condensed schedule will make things worse and will wear Benn down even more. The same goes to the Stars’ other top players, such as Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop.
But here’s the thing — the regular season only wears them out if the Stars let it. Perhaps it’s time for the Stars to take a page out of the NBA’s playbook and start resting its players throughout the year. I’m not necessarily advocating for healthy scratches, but do the Stars really need Benn and company to average 16-plus minutes per game? Would it benefit the team to let them play fewer minutes against some lesser teams, instead giving the playing time to younger players as a form of experience?
The dangers with such an approach is that you still have to win games in order to make the playoffs, not to mention earning good seeding so you aren’t facing another Colorado-Vegas-Tampa Bay gauntlet. But Dallas has some solid depth in their lineup, and as last season should have proved, they don’t need top-tier performances from Benn and others in order to finish near the top of their conference.
If Dallas wants to make another deep run next year, they need strong performances throughout their depth chart. As this postseason showed, perhaps the best way to ensure that from their older players is to keep them as fresh as possible.