Since 2008, It Has Always Been Something with the Dallas Stars
Why haven’t the Stars been able to assemble a complete team for so long?
It’s always somethin’ every day remindin’ me.
Everywhere I go, there’s a memory.
Ready and awaitin’ to catch me off guard,
There’s no way to prepare my heart.
The Dallas Stars are enjoying their bye week before the All-Star break, which means there is a whole lot of time to ponder what this team is. And, through 48 games, the Dallas Stars are something like this: a stout defensive team (though not as stout as they were earlier this year) with a flailing offense, elite goaltending, and above-average special teams.
Dallas still gets the better of high-danger chances these days, and that (and said goaltending) has been enough to keep them solidly in the divisional mix despite massively underwhelming years from just about all of their top offensive weapons.
But when you combine the Stars’ frustrating offensive impotence with their stingy defensive play, you wind up with a team that is 27-17-4. It’s not bad, not bad at all. They’re comfortably in third place in the Central, which would mean an opening round matchup against Colorado. And hey, the Stars swept Colorado this year! That’s great! I am sure this means the Stars would win every game against them in a series, too, because that’s just how math works.
But today, in light of the long layoff, I wanted to take a bit further of a step back. We spent all of last year saying, “If only Dallas could get a playmaker for the second line, then they’d be elite!” And they got Mats Zuccarello, and they kind of were really good, until he got hurt, and also Roope Hintz flipped the switch, except he also had to play hurt later in the playoffs, and also the entire offense just sort of wrapped itself in a chrysalis of collapse and waited for Ben Bishop to score the winning goal. He did not score the winning goal, and the team did not end up winning more than one round. (But what a round it was!)
This season, the Stars should have fixed things. They got Joe Pavelski on a relatively enviable deal, and Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop have both been healthy enough to lead the league in goaltending for chunks of the year. Denis Gurianov has emerged from the depths of your doubt and scored when they’ve needed him to, and Radek Faksa has more goals than Joe Pavelski. The defense has done a great job protecting the house, and now Stephen Johns is back. So, so many things should be better now. And yet, the team just lost three of four games — and they probably deserved to lose the game they won, too. They’ve lost four games in a row two other times this year, but they’ve had three different four-game winning streaks, two of which were eventually six-game winning streaks, and a 14-1-1 stretch that would have all but sewn up a playoff spot, had the Stars not dug one heck of a ditch beforehand.
Anyway, you know all this. What you might not have put your finger on is why some folks feel so emotionally drained as Stars fans. Why, in other words, watching this team has become so exhausting, even putting aside the impressively dull style of play they’ve chosen. Shouldn’t we be able to handle the ups and downs of a season where the ups have accumulated sufficiently to outnumber the downs to the tune of a divisional playoff spot?
What I wanted to do today was to look back at every season since the 2008 run to the Western Conference Final — what I would call their last truly complete team — and come up with the whack-a-mole problem the Stars couldn’t manage to address each season. I’ll put my biggest flaw for each team in bold, but of course I might be wrong about some of them. My hope is that maybe this will make you feel a little less insane for how crazy this team can make you. Maybe this will just trigger another flare-up of rub-the-bridge-of-your-nose-ing. I do not know what it will do. I am not a doctor. Not yet, anyway.
So, let’s take a trip back down Painful Memories Lane™. It’ll be fun!*
*you know perfectly well what that asterisk stands for
The dual-GM role made its ignominious presence known with a Certain Offseason Signing. He didn’t last long, you may recall.
Marty Turco heralded the beginning of the Dallas Stars Backup Goalie Chasm by being forced to play 74 games(!!) that year, what with Mike Smith having been traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Brad Richards the year prior. And what a trade it was, with Richards having a few more years left on his contract. The Stars looked like a team ready to transition to the sunset years of their core, but one still ready to land some solid punches while doing so.
Then Richards missed almost 30 games, Brenden Morrow got even more hurt, Modano’s decline began in earnest, and Hall of Famer Sergei Zubov played only 10 games in what turned out to be his final NHL season. Dallas iced 13 defenseman that year (which seems like a lot, until you remember 2018-19), including noteworthy stalwarts Andrew Hutchinson and Garrett Stafford.
If 2007-08 was a complete team, this was a team about as incomplete as you could imagine. No real blue line — Robidas and Daley were all right, as they would continue to sort of be in another half-decade — and a save percentage below .900, to go with an offense that had some weapons but still scored below the league average. This team was all kinds of broken, and Dave Tippett paid the price for it.
Marc Crawford was the coach of the Dallas Stars. You know what? I didn’t enjoy that very much. Just gonna go ahead and put that out there. Admittedly, this was more due to a faulty perception of him as a Certain Type of Coach than any intimate knowledge. Certainly we know much more about Crawford as a human being now, so I leave the retroactive judging to you, or someone else more qualified than I. Anyway, credit where it’s due: it could have been worse!
Alex Auld gave some brief respite to a declining Turco by appearing in 21 games and winning nine of them (he went 9-6-3 on the year), but this would be the year when Kari Lehtonen arrived in Dallas once the playoffs were out of reach, and the Stars would begin the crease transition as another legend rode off into the sunset in a quiet fashion similar to Zubov: Jere Lehtinen, who played in parts of 58 games, but still ended the year as a minus player for the only time in his career.
The penalty kill was rubbish, the defense was suspect, and the goaltending finally gave way to the point where a decent-ish offense (nine players with double-digit goals!) wasn’t nearly enough to get the team going. They never won three in a row the entire year, which is what goal-prevention problems will do to you.
Modano’s swan song in Dallas (and also his career, as we all know, not sure what else you would be referring to) ended with a victory over the Minnesota Wild — though unfortunately you couldn’t say the same for the following year, when such a victory would have been far more useful.
Jamie Benn also appeared on the scene that year, scoring 22 goals at the tender age of 20. The torch had been passed, although it would take some time for it to flare up.
Yes indeed, Marc Crawford would have loved to have seen a second Minnesota victory to end the regular season — it occurs to me that multiple coaches lately have had their fates decided (or nearly) by games against Minnesota — but the infamous loss to an eliminated team in Game 82 left the Stars’ 2nd-best team of the 2009-2019 era out in the cold.
The culprit? Kari Lehtonen actually got the team’s save percentage back up to average, but that was no thanks to their allowing 15 shorthanded goals. The special teams were bad in both directions, and the knife-to-the-gut SHG column really reinforced the unforced errors that sunk a team that probably deserved at least a playoff round. But then, missing the playoffs may have kept the Stars’ price down when Tom Gaglardi bought them in November 2011, so hooray! Those extra dollars probably ended up going to the fans, I am sure.
Brad Richards also spent some time injured, and he exercised his no-trade clause to prevent the Stars from getting anything for him at the deadline. I don’t have a problem with that, but everyone always mentions it, so I thought I’d point it out. Good for players doing what they want to do with rights they have earned.
The Stars also pulled the trigger on a revamp of the blue line with some of their apparent offensive surplus, as Joe Nieuwendyk sent James Neal and Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh for a dearly needed puck-moving defenseman. Alex Goligoski arrived on the scene, and he would be a staple of the Stars’ top pairing for a half-decade. It wasn’t enough to save this season, though.
That said, the Stars ended the year with 95 points, but they barely missed the playoffs due to an unusually high cutoff line that year. That point total remains the second-best season by the Stars since 2008. Marc Crawford was not thanked for his work, as losing to Minnesota remains a potentially fireable offense no matter what year it is.
Glen Gulutzan was an inexpensive rookie coach who was always a decent human being from what I heard from other DBD writers who interacted with him. That said, he was never going to be ready to start spinning Dallas straw into gold right off the bat. Except that, well, he kind of was? The team started off with a scorching 11-3-0 record that included a five-game winning streak, only to have a five-game losing streak bring them back down to earth in a hurry. 11-8-0 is a lot less formidable a position when problems start to creep into view.
The power play was awful, but Kari Lehtonen’s perseverance kept the team afloat, especially after a six-game winning streak in March would cap a 10-0-1 stretch—hey, does this rocket-fueled tennis match of a season sound familiar?—put Dallas right on the cusp of getting back to the dance.
Unfortunately, Dallas would follow that great surge with a 3-9-0 stumble into the muddy ditch, landed with style in a five-game crash to end the season. It was a bit of a bummer, but this team was probably playing above its collective head to get as close as they did. Michael Ryder scored a scorching 35 goals, Eric Nystrom scored a just-as-surprising 16, but the Stars couldn’t quite scrape together anything more than “fine” in any category, with their slight positives in goal prevention being more than equaled by their overall lack of scoring, and that ended up leaving them just outside the playoff hunt. Turns out, living on the edge can be a volatile life to lead. Or so I’m told.
Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney, and Derek Roy. Dallas went in hard on a transition season, and why not? I still love this approach by Nieuwendyk, even seven years later, as he found a bunch of low-cost players who enabled the Stars to move some declining players for some immediate help, as well as a couple of UFA signings that fit solidly into the “why not?” category.
Unfortunately, the team’s offense leveled off to average, the special teams were all below par, and the defense started bleeding at the worst time. Much like the prior year, Dallas teased the fans with a hot streak of five straight wins late (this time in April, thanks to the lockout-shortened season), only to go 1-5-1 after that. The weird thing was that the Stars’ winning streak actually came right after they had sold at the deadline, moving Roy, Jagr, and even Morrow for whatever they could get. I remember thinking that year that it would have been almost unfair for Dallas to make the playoffs after shipping Brenden Morrow out. Apparently the hockey gods agreed with me.
This is a good place to mention that the Michael Ryder for Erik Cole deal still baffles me to this day. And by “good place,” I mean “what the what the what the what?”
Okay, let’s keep the more recent ones brief. You know these.
Goaltending was average again despite backup woes persisting with both Ellis and (quite briefly) Tim Thomas, and they got a full season of Brendan Dillon. Also, some guy named Tyler Seguin showed up and scored 37 goals to drag the offense into “adequate” territory. They made the playoffs, thanks to a down year in the division, but Kari Lehtonen, Ryan Garbutt, and the rest of the team ended up falling on their faces against the Ducks. I’ll still never forget those legendary Trevor Daley playoff goals, though. What a wonderful gift those were. Still, these Ducks were still a clearly better team, and Dallas probably did well to push them as far as they did, making the playoffs as the 8th seed and all. The Stars clearly needed a second line, and Jim Nill would work his magic the next year to get one.
The offense was amazing, the defense was bad, then Nill fixed it with Demers and Klingberg. Goaltending, however, was atrocious, as a fading Lehtonen and his nonexistent backups couldn’t plug the high-danger leaks at anything like a suitable pace. Benn won a trophy, and Mike Valley lost the trust of the organization after his Jussi Rynnas/Anders Lindback Frankenstein Bargain Goalie Monster ended up walking into some power lines. The Stars had to spend mightily for Jhonas Enroth in an attempt to salvage the season after a seven-game losing streak in October-November put them behind the eight ball from the start. But after crawling back to a manageable 27-22-8, another six-game slide pretty much sunk their high-flying offense’s hopes for good.
Things were good. Goaltending was great, at first. Then it wasn’t. Still, this season was awesome, and I would absolutely do this all over again. Without the injuries and stuff. And with better goaltending. And with Miro Heiskanen. Wait, how many wishes do I get agai-
Everyone got hurt at the World Cup, the goalies repeated their last year except without the “good first half” part, and the offense ended up disappearing as Ruff tried in vain to revamp the Stars. That would come the following year. The offensive disappearance was here to stay.
Ken Hitchcock’s team was pretty good, actually. Just not good enough to overcome their lack of depth scoring when Hitch more or less dispensed with Spezza and elevated Devin Shore and Greg Pateryn into High Responsibility roles with returns more focused on what they didn’t do than on what they did.
Admittedly, things started badly when the Vegas Golden Knights injured Ben Bishop in the first game of the year, and when Dan Hamhuis injured him again, later on. This season was just rough enough to keep the Stars from sneaking into the playoffs, and it prompted some more major changes, which I think a lot of people will say ended up being for the better.
(By the way, Kari Lehtonen still gets a bad time for his final two months in Dallas, but the scoring issues were just as responsible for the late-season collapse). One suspects that the room had some troubles under Hitchcock as well, though that is just some educated speculation. The bottom line is that a lot of Stars weren’t great, but at least the top guys were. Jim Lites wasn’t delivering any nastygrams this season, no sir.
Amazing goaltending and solid defense were enough to balance out offensive troubles. Honestly, it was a fine-ish season, even if in-house expectations were higher. I don’t have a “bad” from this season, other than their inability to draw power plays that bit them against St. Louis, the injury to Klingberg late in 2018, and the injury to Zuccarello that saw him playing one-handed for the entire postseason. This year could have been so many other Stars seasons from 2011, 2014, or 2018. They just happened to get 93 points this time around, and it got them into the playoffs when other years saw 92, 92, and 95 prove insufficient. Living on the margins is tough, but sometimes you get a crumb or two of consolation.
So, here we are, with the offense declining and the defense beginning to show some stress fractures. Can the Stars re-imagine themselves in the final 34 games and rediscover their November identity, or are we in for a repeat of one of these prior years? I don’t know the answer, but I can promise you one thing: with these Stars, there is always something to marvel at. With some emotional distance recommended.