The Window of Opportunity and the Mirage of Depth
The Stars utilized their prospects during the Stanley Cup Final. Heading into the 2020-21 season, there are question marks everywhere, but the window is far from closed.
The 2020 Stanley Cup Final showed the Dallas Stars relying on a combination of veteran talent and unheralded newcomers. After a disappointing regular season, Joe Pavelski put up star-worthy numbers throughout the playoffs. Likewise, Joel Kiviranta forced his way into the Stars’ lineup in Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche, and he parlayed that into a productive run against the Vegas Golden Knights and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In all, the black aces that the Stars brought into the bubble acquitted themselves well, and the expectation is that the roster for the 2020-21 season will reflect that performance. A flat salary cap and the economic impact of the pandemic on team owner Tom Gaglardi’s various service businesses probably keeps the Stars from making too big a splash in the free agent market.
Last year’s run shows that Dallas has a window to win it all. For all of their flaws in the regular season, if this team makes it to the playoffs and stays healthy, they are adaptable and surprisingly dangerous.
Taylor and Rob have already written on what the Stars are going to need to do to properly manage their veterans and prospects, especially if the upcoming season gets compressed. Older players are going to need games off, and younger players are going to need to fill in, learn on the fly, and improve.
The team also needs to balance the on-ice requirements with plans for the upcoming Seattle expansion draft. The status of the minor league hockey season also creates doubt, and there is still a distinct possibility that the AHL will not play, leaving prospects with limited live-action opportunities.
Dallas has eight veteran forwards under NHL contract, with three RFAs to sign and two UFAs to consider. Unless something drastic changes, half of the 14 forward slots are taken by established players under contract.
Given their importance to the team’s success, the three RFAs (Radek Faksa, Roope Hintz, and Denis Gurianov) will also be part of the group.
As for the UFAs, Corey Perry was impactful during stretches of the playoffs, but he can be replaced at a lesser cost. Mattias Janmark fits well with the group, and a two-year contract similar to the one just signed by Andrej Sekera would keep a useful player around while satisfying a forward slot obligation for the expansion draft. At the moment, Janmark is headed to free agency, but for the right price he could still be valuable as a fourth line contributor.
Kiviranta most likely earned a spot based on his playoff performance, leaving one or two slots available for a prospect. Given the young talent available, it probably makes sense to send Justin Dowling to Texas as a veteran presence — similar to the role that Travis Morin played until he retired. That would leave two slots up for grabs between Jason Robertson, Ty Dellandrea, Nick Caamano, and — if they re-sign him — Joel L’Esperance. Everybody is waiver-exempt, so there is no reason why the Stars can’t get a look at each player at the NHL level. Unless somebody forces their way into a spot, expect a good amount of player shuffling between Dallas and Austin.
Two seasons ago, injuries forced Dallas to use 14 defenders throughout the year. This year’s playoffs saw the Stars’ depth chart stretched again, with Joel Hanley pulling serious minutes in the Final.
On the plus side, all of the defenders expected to play with the NHL club are signed for the season. The Stars’ top two pairs are top-tier for the whole league, and they have quality options for the third pairing.
Going into the upcoming season, however, that depth is a bit of a mirage. The Sekera signing solidifies the third pair, however with the status of Stephen Johns still unknown, Dallas really has only Taylor Fedun and Hanley as known options. Both are older players with limited playing time in the NHL and with one year left on low cost contracts. Based on playoff ice time, Hanley has the trust of the coaching staff, and is likely ahead of Fedun on the play chart.
Beyond the NHL, there are loads of question marks. The two best options on the blue line with the Texas Stars are Dillon Heatherington and Gavin Bayreuther, both of whom qualified for UFA status. Each has shown the potential to play third pair at the NHL level and each brings a useful skillset — Heatherington has size and can play a shutdown role while Bayreuther can move the puck, run a power play, and brings a heavy shot from the point. If there isn’t a way to the NHL with the Stars, either may head for greener pastures and a more clear pathway out of the AHL.
Thomas Harley is the elephant in the room, and if he can force his way into the lineup, pairing him with Sekera would give him a veteran to rely on during what would likely be a steep learning curve. He is 19 years old, however, and it’s hard to think that the Stars will burn a year on his entry-level contract (plus move him one year closer to free agency). There is hope, but I’d be willing to wager that Harley finds himself in Mississauga for most of the year.
Beyond that, Texas has two defenders in the last year of their ELCs who need to produce up to expectations. Joe Cecconi has had injury issues, but hasn’t made the progress that you’d hope for after his success at the University of Michigan. Ben Gleason continues to show John Klingberg-type magic, but more often than not the risk/reward decisions turn into mistakes going the wrong way.
The Stars make a habit of pulling undrafted/unsigned players out of NCAA hockey programs. Jerad Rosburg and especially Ryan Shea add to team depth and could surprise in their first full professional season.
Ben Bishop is signed through 2024 and should remain 1A for the foreseeable future. Anton Khudobin made a run for the Stanley Cup in his first opportunity to backstop a team through the playoffs. Jake Oettinger got to mop up a few playoff games, and didn’t look out of place against the best in the league.
For now, what happens with Khudobin drives all of the downstream decisions about the organization’s netminders. Both sides appear to want a deal — although a two-year contract for Khudobin creates a roadblock for Oettinger on the second year of the agreement. Logistically, if the Stars don’t want to roll the dice on an untested backup, it might make sense to work a one-year deal. Henrik Lundqvist might look good in Victory Green for one year.
Downstream, Landon Bow is an RFA, and if Oettinger isn’t in Dallas, it may not make sense to make an offer. Oettinger in Dallas makes Bow the number one option in Texas, but having Bow backup Oettinger in Texas is overkill. Note - the Stars did not give a qualifying offer to Bow, so this has born itself out.
Colton Point is also under contract, and the team probably needs to give him the opportunity to play as a number one option somewhere. Tomas Sholl has been the best goaltender in the ECHL playing for the Idaho Steelheads for the last few years. He was on an AHL contract for Texas last year, and he’s good enough to play somewhere at that level. Giving Sholl a shot at a real AHL job makes sense if there is any hope of Point continuing as a prospect. If Point can’t dominate with an always good Idaho team, this is likely his last with the organization.
So Now What?
The Stars had to rely on some of their younger players during the run through the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the most part, they performed above expectations, giving ammunition to people who argue that Dallas over-marinates their prospects.
The concerning part is that, after a few top draft picks, there aren’t many options for Dallas. Up front, Hintz and Gurinov are reliable NHL players. Robertson, Dellandrea, Caamano, L’Esperance, perhaps even Rhett Gardner, could get there.
On defense, Dallas has a top seven that can compete with anyone in the league, but beyond the potential of Harley, there are a few borderline players who probably top out with third-pair ceilings.
There is a first-round pick this year, but the picks in the second and third rounds have already been spent. The organization has been successful at pulling in unsigned prospects from college programs and Europe, but unless they catch lightning in a bottle, that’s going to fill out the back-end of the lineup at best.
Regardless, there is a window of success available for this team. They aren’t going to get there by overspending on free agency, but there just may be enough talent in the wings to make it happen. Looking past the shiny veneer of their top prospects, however, there is a loads of questions and untested depth.