Who Will The Stars Be This Year?

Rick Bowness used the league’s pause due to COVID-19 to adjust his team’s system heading into the playoffs. What we saw was an uptick in scoring. Is that their new identity — or will it be back to stifling defense once again?

It’s actually kind of hard to project what the Dallas Stars will do this season.

Firstly, they have two key injuries that are going to impact them for the majority of a shortened season with a more compact schedule. Tyler Seguin, their top center, will be out until the end of March or early April, assuming all goes to plan, as he recovers from hip surgery after last summer’s playoffs. Ben Bishop, the team’s 1A goaltender and half of a tandem that has seen the Stars have a top five goals against average each of the last couple of seasons, will be out for a similar amount of time thanks to a knee surgery.

So there are questions about the center depth and whether Anton Khudobin can carry the Stars through a regular season as a starter. There’s also the question of how Jake Oettinger will adjust to a backup role in the NHL. In his limited playing time in the playoffs, he acquitted himself fairly well. But he often entered games where the outcome was already all but secured, which is easier to play loose and confident because the result doesn’t rest on your glove hand.

Then, there’s the question of what kind of team Dallas is going to be in their first season under Rick Bowness. When he took over as head coach in December 2019, the Stars were in the middle of a pretty good run of hockey. They had a Winter Classic just weeks later, when all eyes of the hockey world would be focused on them.

That’s not exactly the time for wholesale changes.

As the team hit a late-season skid, the league paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The break was a blessing for the Stars. For the first time really that season, Bowness had a chance to take a step back and assess his team’s play and what would be needed to be successful when play resumed.

When the team kicked off the mini-camp prior to the playoffs starting, Bowness and his staff went to work on changing up the way the Stars were playing.

The changes weren’t monumental. Dallas still had a defense-first mentality. However, what sticks out the most is that they seemed to be given permission to take calculated offensive risks. Instead of looking for a pass first, they were encouraged to find a shooting option if it was there — and it didn’t have to be pretty, as Bowness said in the Stars’ documentary on their Stanley Cup run last summer.

Nowhere did that change become more apparent than with the blueliners.

Throughout the 69 regular season games Dallas played prior to the league pause, they had scored 178 total goals. Of those, 26 were scored from guys on the back end, good for about 15 percent of the total goals scored. That was relatively league average.

In the playoffs, however, Dallas had 17 of their 77 goals scored by the likes of John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, good for a 22 percent clip. What doesn’t show on the stat sheets, though, was that if a blueliner stepped up to be offensively aggressive, the Stars forwards were committed to rotating and covering for them positionally. When you have confidence that your forwards are committed to defensive play, it makes it much easier to pounce on chances and take advantage of a mobile offensive backend like Dallas has.

The question is whether that tweak is sustainable throughout the course of the season. Playoffs are, of course, subject to the “small sample size” disclaimer (though Dallas did play 27 games, which isn’t actually that small of a sample size relatively speaking.)

The Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning have defensive units that take advantage of their offensive weapons from the back end. To be competitive this season in their new division, Dallas will need to carry over the best parts of their playoff run while maintaining their defensive structure within their own zone. While that likely means more one-goal games for Stars fans to watch, maybe they’ll be more of the 3-2 variety versus the 2-1 variety we often saw last regular season with a chance of games where the team scores more than three goals more often than they did last season.