Matching Minors: How Does Dallas Match Up With the Central, By the Numbers?

David Castillo and Juraj Kralik are here to take you on a ride through the Central Division, projecting how the Stars match up against their divisional foes. So buckle up, as there will be some boxing analogies, too.

There’s a lot to be excited about for the 2022-2023 Dallas Stars season. Nils Lundkvist, Wyatt Johnston, and Ty Dellandrea headline the youth movement. As far as the preseason went, this trio and the newest signing Mason Marchment were also named the top performers by the players themselves – which should be a good sign for the upcoming real games.

Joe Pavelski will continue to care for his sons, Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz. Pete DeBoer won’t leave offense in the hands of Thoughts and Prayers like Rick Bowness. And Tom Gagliardi will continue to keep his fingers close to the Jim Lites text chain every time Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn don’t score.

However, the Central Division is no joke. It’s home to the Stanley Cup champions, and home to the only team that seemed to give them trouble (the St. Louis Blues). Will the Stars finally fit into the Central’s top class, or will they be stuck on the outskirts like they have of late?

We don’t have to analyze the Arizona or Chicago matchups, right?

David: No. It’s quite the blessing for Dallas. Only two teams are gunning for Connor Bedard with an utter lack of dignity, and they’re both in the Central. To paraphrase the great Ebert, these teams aren’t scraping the bottom of the barrel. They don’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels. Keep in mind, the quality of these teams aren’t even taking into account whether or not Jakob Chychrun is finally traded to Ottawa (as has been rumored), and when Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane get moved at the trade deadline. That doesn’t mean Dallas should play with their food. Recall what happened in late April. The NHL loves its parity, so while these games are handouts, two points are two points when they’re two points.

Juraj: Wait, hold on a second. Are we really dismissing two of the worst teams in the league just like that? You certainly have a point there – but this is also the Dallas Stars we’re talking about. Wouldn’t it be on brand for them to lose a game or two (dare I say more?) against a very motivated Blackhawks team after they go 0-7 prior to their Stars game? Or possibly even lose at the ASU arena? Mark your calendar folks, as November 3rd in Arizona could be the biggest trap game that ever trap gamed. They may still have Chychrun at that point. Let’s just say, if they find a way to lose ANY of the games against these teams, may it at least be in overtime. Just beware not to do it in the quantity of the 2020-21 season.

Let’s start at the top. Can Dallas be Colorado’s foil like they were in 2020?

David: Colorado will come down a little, but not by much. They lost Nazem Kadri, but they also got back Samuel Girard. For all the talk of their high-powered offense, it all starts from the blueline out, and for my money, nobody has a better one through six (Byram and Girard could easily be top pairing on a lot of teams). I’m also high on Alex Newhook, who is Kadri’s heir apparent. Dallas won’t sniff Colorado’s heels, but in fairness, they tend to play the Avalanche pretty tough.

As the boxing cliche goes, styles make fights. Two things make Dallas a tough out for Colorado: 1) the Stars are a quietly effective rush defense team, which Colorado favors; and, 2) the Avalanche are a stronger offense-via-committee squad than they get credit for, which helps a team like the Stars with their broad efficiency. The matchup still favors Colorado, but any wins they can score over the champs is house money. The real question is how this matchup changes.

Juraj: I follow you on Twitter so I know how much you love your boxing analogies, or is it MMA? I may be confusing those two, but the cliche should apply to both, no? Nevertheless, there are a few other things that come into the equation when it comes to playing against the Avalanche, as well as in any other sport – the infamous intangibles. Playing against a reigning Stanley Cup champion gives you that little extra motivation to fight and measure yourself against the best. Even a mighty champion might take a night off here and there to prepare for the biggest fight of the year — the playoffs in this case.

That wouldn’t be the only reason for the Stars to win against the Avalanche; quite the opposite. Dallas is better equipped than Colorado in the crease and that’s not something to scoff at. Jake Oettinger proved he can win games absolutely alone without any significant help, just like he already did in Denver last season. Add to that improved scoring from the Stars and the guys in Victory Green could prevail more than once.

David: Thanks for respecting my love of violence. I swear I wrestle with that love. But it’s not just a way to integrate all my interests into one not-so-well articulated point. It’s also about how dynamic I consider prizefighting next to hockey. So I find them useful. To that end, I wonder if Dallas’ wrestler is a nice neutralizer to Colorado’s striking. If any defenseman can take down MacKinnon, it’s Heiskanen.

Juraj: And if any goaltender can stare down Cale Makar, it’s Jake Oettinger. See? I can make a boxing reference, too!

Minnesota is considered the second best. Is that true?

David: Yes. I say this with love, Stars fans, I really do. But every year, I see Stars fans underestimate the Wild, and every year, they’re proven wrong. Here’s the thing: yes, they don’t always look great on paper, but they run a strong system under GQ Creed Bratton Dean Evason, which makes their attack consistent from game to game. They lost Kevin Fiala, but they gained Marco Rossi (one of the best prospects in all of hockey) and Calen Addison (a Jared Spurgeon starter kit). If there’s one place where Dallas has an edge, though, it’s in their offense vs. Minnesota’s defense matchup.

Minnesota’s defense rates higher in most matchups, but not as many as you’d think. When you consider the offensive punch Dallas should get — Johnston, Dellandrea, Lundkvist, Mason Marchment, and even what the Roope Hintz line looks like in a more offensive system — there’s a lot to like about Dallas closing the gap on this matchup. That doesn’t mean I’m favoring them. Just that for as good as Minnesota is, I think their playoff success has revealed their limitations: great system, great depth, but without an elite core. Conversely, Dallas has a borderline elite core that happens to lack depth.

Juraj: I’m picking elite core over depth any day of the week and twice on Sunday, as they say – but that’s me. Somehow, Evason’s Minnesota has been able to look great throughout all three zones even without that elite core. Or are we dismissing they could realistically have a great core in a couple of years? You mentioned Rossi and Addison, but let’s not forget Matthew Boldy, Joel Eriksson-Ek and the mighty Kirill The Dollar Bill Kaprizov. While that might not be elite now, they’re not that far away from it either.

One thing that has become quite a theme is I really see Stars having an advantage again in the crease. Fleury is a great goalie and everything, but how confident would you be with a tandem of Fleury and Gustavsson if you’re a (self) proclaimed contender? I know Marc-André is basically a stopgap for them once a certain Jesper Wallstedt takes the stage, but we’re talking about this season. They are one freak injury away from potential trouble.

David: I agree, but I think the difference is in the margins. Minnesota has an elite top line, an elite checking line, and a solid second scoring line whereas Dallas has an elite top line, and what we hope will be two solid scoring lines below them. Heiskanen might be > anyone from Minnesota, but I think Spurgeon, Brodin, and Dumba are better than anyone on Dallas’ end.

Juraj: That’s true. I am aligning with the majority of Stars fans and not giving the Wild credit at any cost, even though they probably deserve that. Also, how can they have this great depth, so much dead cap space and also still have more than $3 million of available cap space? [Editor’s note: obviously slight-of-hand magic.]

Is this the year we finally stop worrying about St. Louis?

David: I’m inclined to say yes. Not only because losing David Perron is kind of a big deal, but because Jordan Binnington is slowly becoming Larry, Curly, and Moe. Hell, throw in Shemp. However, I wouldn’t bet against them. They’re still the best finishing team thanks to a slew of elite passers in their forward group. Their defense grades out as low-key horrible, however, and that’s where I’d expect Dallas to finally start leveraging their talents.

How much credit are we willing to give Dallas’ offense just because the system projects to unleash it? I’m gonna go on a little digression about regression here. For those uninterested in analytics minutiae, Chase McCallum has been trying to define offensive chemistry. The Hintz line doesn’t grade out so well. Do I buy this? I can’t speak to the methodology, but I do believe his data is recognizing something intuitive: put enough great players on a line and they will give you great production, but that doesn’t automatically mean all three necessarily have their hands at the wheel. I mention this because Robertson and Hintz have been shooting over 14 percent at even strength the last two seasons (!).

If you don’t know how absurd that is, consider that the average 5-on-5 shooting percentage in hockey is 9.46 percent. “But elite shooters will shoot better.” Yes, but the difference between average shooting and elite shooting is rarely that wide. Above-average players can shoot at an above-average rate, but very few can consistently shoot above 12 percent, and somehow both did.

Simply put, none of that is normal nor should Stars fans expect that to be the norm either now or in the future. For added perspective, even Pavelski—one of the game’s best shooting talents, in part because he never stopped working on his shooting—has only shot over 14 percent at even strength three times in what is now his 16-season career, per Evolving-Hockey. I realize I’m on ten different tangents at once, but my point here is that if the Hintz line regresses, so will Dallas’ offense. That changes the dynamic in a lot of these big matchups.

Juraj: Honestly, I don’t even expect the Hintz line to stay intact for the whole season as they did last year. The fact they have been dominating so much may have salvaged the Stars season last year, but it would be prudent to expect a little bit of regression this time around, but that’s not a bad thing. Why? Hear me out. Robertson’s contract negotiations might have shown that Pete DeBoer might not play the top line like your typical NHL coach.

He placed Marchment and Gurianov on Hintz’s wings and they were flying out there. Now add Joe Pavelski and Jason Robertson on the flanks of Tyler Seguin and you have two equal first lines. Jamie Benn and Wyatt Johnston on the official third line isn’t any slouch either. Why am I saying all this? We’ve talked about elite core and depth. This shows Dallas could even have depth when it comes to scoring if everything goes according to plan. The Blues? Same as Wild, they don’t have an elite core either. On the other hand, they still have eight 20-goal scorers from last season on their team.

But they also ran with the league highest PDO last season and with the Ville Husso departure, that number will go down, fast.

David: Good point. Especially about the Hintz line. I really hope it happens eventually. I know I can be obnoxious about it, but it comes down to cost/benefit. Does the cost of weighing down Hintz and Robertson by splitting them up outweigh the benefit of pulling players up like Gurianov, Seguin, Marchment, and Benn?

Juraj: I just think once the eventual regression hits, it’s better to be prepared for that and not play deer-in-headlights like we saw last season. I may be hard on that trio and I hope they’ll succeed once again, but there should be more layers on how DeBoer will construct his offensive trios than just repeating what they did last year. Luckily for him, he also has a better arsenal at hand to do so than last season.

We’re sorry Nashville. We forgot you were even here.

David: Nashville is always the middling team until they’re not. Throw in the additions of Nino Niederreiter, Ryan McDonaugh, and the continued development of Eeli Tolvanen and Tanner Jeannot (Calder nominee), and I’d say they upgraded even if we should expect regressions for Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene. What do the numbers say? Pretty much what we expect. A close one.

Nashville always plays Dallas tough too (perhaps fueled by the South’s desire to argue over who has better BBQ), and they’re one of the few teams with a goalie who can out-duel Jake Oettinger. It’s important Dallas wins this matchup, because if they don’t, it will put the Stars in position for another wildcard spot. “Anything can happen—” Please don’t. If you didn’t have a dominant gear in the regular season, you won’t have one come playoff time. Wildcard teams lose within the first round over 60 percent of the time. Teams that set their sights that low aren’t good enough to achieve anything higher. Do I sound borderline angry? I probably am. It’s just such a loser’s mentality.

Juraj: I just feel Nashville has Dallas’ number every time it doesn’t mean all that much – the regular season. Once we get to really important games, like the 2019 playoffs or 2020 Winter Classic, Dallas seems to have the upper hand. And yes, I know the Winter Classic was just another regular season game…blah blah, you done now? Stars won it, so suck it Preds and your nonsensical car-destroying routine or whatever the hell that is. Did I mention I don’t like this team that much? Well, in case I haven’t, I don’t. Maybe there is a reason for that.

As the classic says, what is the exact opposite of love? It’s not hate, it’s apathy. And I feel many things towards this Nashville team, but it’s not apathy – mostly because … they are … sort of good? They had the renaissance of Matt Duchene only to be bolstered by the acquisitions of Nino Niederreiter and Ryan McDonaugh. I know they won’t be good for long but I have them above the Stars in the standings once all the dust from the regular season settles. Somehow strangely, I feel better about facing them in the playoffs, we just need to acquire a certain right-handed defenseman as a rental from the Ducks to propel us through them. Yes, I still miss him.

David: How have I never seen that before?! I have mixed feelings about kids slinging a sledgehammer on a car Street Fighter bonus stage style — I mean, it’s good for building your core and your shoulders — but I don’t have mixed feelings about beating the Preds.

Juraj: I guess they need to vent a bit. Which I understand completely. After all, they had David Rittich as their backup last year.

Should we be worried about a Rick Bowness revenge tour?

David: Oh boy. The Bownessing has already begun in Winnipeg, with prized prospect Ville Heinola getting the Denis Gurianov treatment. Winnipeg fans truly aren’t ready for the Bowness effect, but man will we all look like village idiots if Winnipeg makes the playoffs and Dallas doesn’t. That kind of egg on your face doesn’t wash out. So just so we’re clear, it’s important to talk about the Bowness effect in offensive terms. Winnipeg is a bad finishing team as is.

However, if Bowness can improve the defense (which wouldn’t be hard to do even if Bowness were simply average at this instead of quite good), maybe the Jets have something. On paper, they have a strong group of genuine game breakers. Other than deciding to play Logan Stanley over Heinola, their defense is better than what you’d expect given their metrics, with a good mix of size, agility, offense, and defense. I don’t think Dallas should be worried about a revenge tour, but the Central is a tough place to be when you ignore the mole men of the division, which makes them a little like Nashville-lite: underestimate them at your own peril.

Juraj: I would love Heinola in Victory Green. Winnipeg Jets may even have the cap space to accommodate a bigger contract, maybe we can tantalize Rick Bowness with one Radek Faksa? Just food for thought. I genuinely feel Rick Bowness might be good for the internally broken team that the Jets certainly are. Winnipeg is that sort of middling team that could very well surprise on some nights, but over a larger sample size they’re just mediocre. And if we know one thing about the NHL, that’s the worst place to be in … well, apart from that Jets locker room, of course.

Be prepared though for the hype Bowness will get in Canadian media once Winnipeg win their first two games by the combined score of 3-1. I’m not overly concerned about them in the bigger picture, but that’s maybe exactly where they want us to have them. Also, wouldn’t it be Starsing at best, losing to Winnipeg like 6-5? I wonder how much Cole Perfetti changes the dynamics of that offensive core, which hasn’t done all that much altogether, apart from that one Western Conference finals run in 2018.

David: A lot. Perfetti gives Winnipeg easily one of the league’s best top six from end to end. They’re underachievers of the highest order, but I’d be scared crapless if that top six begins firing on all cylinders.

Juraj: That’s why it’s murder-death-kill division, right? If Winnipeg comes back from the dead, the fight for the playoff spot could be bloody and bloody hard as well. Isn’t it easier to think they’ll just suck?

Matching Minor point projections?

David: I genuinely have no clue. I think the parts are there for excitement (young players). The sum (how the youth movement manifests in better results), however, is something I’m less excited about. I expect DeBoer to maximize the roster, but is that the same as turning them into a contender? Micah’s model seems to predict exactly this.

“Better” can’t be good enough, and it likely won’t cut it unless they get the right breaks. Even though this is about the Central, there are only two teams truly tanking this year. Even yearly basement dwellers like Ottawa, Columbus, and Buffalo are finally sick of losing, and made the necessary moves to—at minimum—keep from being an easy out.

That means Dallas can’t skip a beat.

They can’t complain about “getting used to the system.” They can’t suffer key injuries at critical junctures. And they can’t get away with a rough goaltending month. Being in such a strong overall division ratchets up the pressure to perform all the more. Why am I predicting 99 points then? Because I believe in Lundkvist and Johnston. I don’t see them as rookies. I see them as extremely talented players who happen to be young, and will be playing key roles. I think letting Miro cook is an absolute boon for this team, and the fact that Bowness squeezed 98 points out of a slightly lesser roster says a lot about what I think they’re truly capable of. Why then, only one more point?

Because I think the Western conference is overall better. Vancouver under Boudreau and Vegas under Cassidy should be better teams. Even if one of the Central’s gatekeepers falls out of their usual spot, the Pacific is loaded and primed to occupy the two wildcard spots. Calgary, Edmonton, and LA are basically better teams, and I’m a firm believer in Seattle as darkhorse; it’s hard for goaltending to be even half as bad as it was last season, and Matty Beniers is one of my favorite prospects in all of hockey, except now it’s him and Shane Wright.

Juraj: That Rick Bowness managed to squeeze 98 points from the Dallas Stars last year is a somewhat underrated accomplishment. Let’s focus on Pete DeBoer here though a bit. If we count the point percentages of just his first 82 games with each of the Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils, San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights, the average point total would be 103 points.

Now, am I saying he will get that with the current version of the Dallas Stars? No. Will he get close? I think so.

While the Stars have lost Klingberg’s offensive ability, he was coming from a down year and even he admitted that he wasn’t utilized properly. Lundkvist should have much better conditions to thrive under DeBoer and could replace Klingberg fully just because of that. Add to that the acquisitions of Mason Marchment, Colin Miller and also promotion of guys like Ty Dellandrea and, most importantly, Wyatt Johnston. Tyler Seguin should also be better than last year, just because this summer he actually could train as hard as possible without injury limitations. Then you realize, Heiskanen could be better. Even Robertson and Hintz have space to grow as far as their games go. And also there is Jake Oettinger in the crease. How can this team not jump over that 98 point benchmark with flying colors?

You make a great point about the quality of the Western Conference in general. That’s what keeps my projections at least somewhat reasonable, I think. But they’ll crack 100 points. And stay right there. Nice, round 100 points is my prediction. Maybe now is a good time to do a quick 1 through 8 on how the standings will end up in the Central?

Final Verdict

David: I’ll go with…(mainly because I think the Pacific will push down some of the Central’s better teams)

  1. Minnesota (110)
  2. Colorado (104)
  3. Dallas (99)
  4. Nashville (94)
  5. St. Louis (89)
  6. Winnipeg (88)
  7. Arizona (63)
  8. Chicago (48)

Juraj: Here is how I see them stacking up…(with a small extra explanation for those interested)

  1. Colorado (107)
  2. Minnesota (106)
  3. Nashville (102)
  4. Dallas (100)
  5. St. Louis (93)
  6. Winnipeg (90)
  7. Chicago (52)
  8. Arizona (50)