Hindsight: Some Scarily Accurate and Hilariously Wrong Predictions I Made About The Dallas Stars
The "moneyball merchants" were my inspiration to write about hockey: Eric Tulsky, Tyler Dellow, Jen LC, Cam Charron, David Johnson (why do people always forget about him?), Dimitri Filipovic, and many others. They weren't journalists with the capital J, but it also didn't matter, because they weren't interested in being a part of the club or becoming glorified stenographers; they were interested in understanding the game by being willing to drop their familiar tools, thinking outside of experience, respecting but not being fooled by expertise, and always wanting to learn more.
I bore you with this because I take the analysis I do seriously. That deserves emphasis because we're about to rehash some very unserious—at least in retrospect—takes. But I'm here in the spirit of context, because I think that's what readers really want — more than soundbites from coaches who always have to be diplomats on the mic or GM's who have tickets to sell, readers want context, and nothing adds context like honest opinions from educated perspectives. I can't promise the latter, but I'll damn sure deliver the former. And that's the thing: good analysis shouldn't be about being right or wrong. It should be about being useful. So as we go through this list, you might laugh at some things, and I'll laugh with you, but hopefully the spirit of analysis is never lost. The Dallas Stars aren't exactly prone to easy analysis. They used to love offense at the cost of defense. Then they loved defense at the cost of offense. They used to be young. Then they got old. They were bad at drafting. Then they got to the draft table and starting splitting atoms.
It feels like yesterday that the best Dallas' scouts could give us was the Honka wars (shoutout to Sean Shapiro and Stephen Meserve for writing the literal book on this...well, among many other things); something I was on the wrong side of history of. Now we're talking about Dallas' scouts handing out generational talents like candy corn. Jason Robertson, Miro Heiskanen, and Jake Oettinger lead the way, but Wyatt Johnston, Thomas Harley, and Ty Dellandrea have significant roles of their own to varying degrees. So where does that leave us? The 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs of course. Did you see this coming? (If you did, show your receipts or show yourself out.)
I didn't. At least not in the way everything eventually unfolded. The Dallas Stars have officially punched their ticket to the greatest show on Earth, but you don't see any "happy to be here" vibes. This is a team that expected to get in because they know they can go farther. So what exactly did I expect? Probably something similar to you. As we'll see, some elements were forecastable. Some weren't.
The player who will have the biggest transformation under Pete DeBoer will be Jason Robertson.
Source: A TL;DR Dallas Stars Mailbag
Let's start by talking about something else. The biggest story last year, for me, was Rick Bowness. It's certainly the biggest story for the Winnipeg Jets right now; a team that should comfortably (to the extent that there's anything comfortable about squeaking by) snag a wildcard spot, but only because Calgary dropped the ball. I bit my tongue all year about Bowness not because I root for the guy's downfall, or because I predicted things would crash and burn in Winnipeg, but because Bowness was a Dallas Stars story when he was here.
The why is simple: teams are increasingly defined by what they can do offensively. They're defined by depth, and optimizing best case scenarios, whether it's on their fourth line, on the power play, or even on the penalty kill. Despite what has become the formula for all successful teams in recent years, the Stars organization let Bowness and his coaching staff do the complete opposite. Hockey teams aren't the only ones susceptible to falling behind on league-wide trends. We're seeing this with the Dallas Mavericks, and their pivot away from size. Listen. I had as much fun as the next Stars fan during their improbable 2020 Cup run, but let's face it: getting there was a miracle and a half, and all the run did was buy time for a lameduck strategy—from the jump—that should have been ditched sooner.
We're seeing the stark contrast between DeBoer and Bowness in real time. However, this isn't about taking shots at Bowness. If anything, this highlights DeBoer's strengths. He hasn't been perfect but he's done a great job of ignoring this false choice between choosing one or the other, instead managing the dynamic between them. Bowness' offense relied on having two forwards scratch, claw, and Last Of Us their way through opposing defenses while the third forward worried about the counterrush. DeBoer has all five players pressuring, which is why the difference between this team and last year's—which is more or less the same—is so different. Systems matter. Demanding more effort from players is one way to get more production out of them, but so is creating active strategies to put them in positions to score more.
And no where is this more evident than watching Robertson completely and utterly unleashed. He's scoring nearly a point more per game, per 60. (Well, .68 more but Robertson has scored so much you can forgive me if I lost count.) Best case scenario hockey is what DeBoer brought with him, and that's why we're talking about Robertson as the most productive Dallas forward ever instead of simply their leading scorer for the year.
Hell it's not even out of the question that he takes the official franchise record.
Dallas should split up the Roope Hintz line.
Source: The Stars Shuffled Their Lines Without Roope Hintz. Why Stop Now?
Hey, hey. You don't have to be a jerk about it. Done laughing? Okay cool. Last season, the top line tallied 151 points. This year, they've amassed 256! In terms of expected goal share, they're sitting at 60 percent, just like last season. Better yet, a 60 percent expected goal share is right in line with the average for Cup-winning trios. Remember when I talked about shooting percentages and why we should worry about some top line regression? The Pinatubo Line's shooting percentage went up a point. Suffice it to say, I should leave the one foot in my mouth there, and not try to stick a second one in.
I have nothing to say in my defense. In fact, I'll add to my defeat and say this: as much as I believe readers crave analysis, they also don't want to sit through somebody posting player cards, and telling you who's good versus who's bad like this is long division. I love analysis, but we can do better. And one area where we can be better is more systems analysis.
One thing that was always so obvious to me when I was writing about MMA was the nature of strategy and tactics: noticing designed efficiency versus operational efficiency. For example, there's a whole class of writers devoted to breaking fights down on a granular level this way. While a team sport doesn't lend itself to the same up close and personal interplay of conflicting strategies, it is something that belongs on the menu for readers, and with very very few exceptions, hockey doesn't have something like that. Even though I wrote about how the Stars would look under DeBoer's system, I didn't do near enough to visualize what the top line could do under a system that played to their ceiling rather than their floor, and how. Doing so would have led led me to the conclusion that no matter my misgivings about Dallas' depth, if you can get more out of the top line, you do it, nevermind how. Hindsight might be 20/20 but foresight isn't blind either.
Stop playing Jamie Benn with Tyler Seguin, and find them younger facsimiles of each other instead.
Source: We Need to (Stop) Talk(ing) About Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin
You almost get it. Dallas management saw what Joe Pavelski is doing, or what Alex Radulov did before him (at least early on), and figured "why can't Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin do the same?" Part of the problem is teams thinking about players in terms of general roles rather than specific skillsets. Benn and Seguin were always scorers, so as soon as they stopped being scorers, the sky fell and nobody could envision who they were without high point totals. Thankfully, DeBoer did what needed to be done.
The erosion of their chemistry was always a function of their eroding skills. When the fast guy becomes slow (Seguin) and the big guy becomes blind (Benn), what in Sam's hell are you expecting? I could absolutely clean up these descriptives but you get the point. Thankfully, at least one of them—who knows, maybe both now that Seguin is getting what fans hope will be his new line home—has bucked the trend. We talk about chemistry like it's some magical healing potion in an RPG, but it's not rocket science. Now it's just a question of whether their new lines will pay off when it matters most.
The Stars should be afraid of an improved Western Conference.
Source: Matching Minors: How Does Dallas Match Up With the Central, By the Numbers?
This was pretty bad. There's no "to be fair" asterisk either. Not only did the Western Conference get worse, but Dallas got better exponentially better in proportion.
This shouldn't be a consolation for Dallas moving forward, though. While a lot of Western Conference teams took a step back for what should have been foreseeable reasons, the key players didn't fall; they just stumbled. Imagine Esa Lindell and Jani Hakanpaa missing half the season, Heiskanen out for 20 games, and Benn shutdown for the entire year...and tell me with a straight face that Dallas would still be in the running for first in their division. (This is essentially what happened to, in order, Bowen Byram, Josh Manson, Cale Makar, and Gabriel Landeskog. And yes, I know that Hakanpaa and Lindell don't quite belong.)
That's not an insult to Dallas. It's to remind everyone how good the Avalanche still are. Everyone's got their eyes on the Boston Bruins (rightfully), but last year's Avalanche also weren't gifted so many wins from teams in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes. They played a full season, went into the Stanley Cup playoffs, and only lost four whole games. Their expected goal share through 20 playoff games was 58 percent (!). This team dominated the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, beating the closest thing hockey has to a dynasty in six. The Western Conference got worse, but one of Dallas' biggest rivals is still very much the team to beat.
And Edmonton is. No. Joke.
Pete DeBoer will help hand Miro Heiskanen a career year.
Source: Miro Heiskanen Is Poised to Have a Career Season, And He Has Pete DeBoer to Thank
I'm not patting myself on the back for this one. For two reasons. 1) this was patently obvious and 2) pairing Heiskanen back with Ryan Suter puts a damper on the whole thing. I get it. You want a veteran next to Thomas Harley now that he looks ready, and Colin Miller fits that bill. It was basically the same exact assignment he had in Buffalo. And you can't stick Harley on a pair with Suter because then one is playing on their weakside. So W(hy).T.F. is it that one of the world's best defensemen has to be the one to accommodate everyone else?
I didn't actually shout, but you get it. That's the only thing that bugs me, even more than Suter and Heiskanen's questionable chemistry. Dallas has spent all year moving Heiskanen back to his strongside (which predictably freed up his offense again), putting him in ideal situations, and really doing the opposite of what the previous coaching staff did...only to tear it all back down again. While we're at it, when did Lindell-Hakanpaa become so untouchable? (I'm not advocating for scratching one of them, mind you.) Somehow Harley's presence has Dallas doubling down on Suter, giving him more minutes, and keeping him on the second power play unit instead of Harley for reasons (or what I can only presume so) that are downright laughable.
Dallas somehow has a better defensive lineup than the one they're actively playing, and it's maddening. Still, let's focus on the positive (because I'll get negative again in short order). There's no reason why Heiskanen shouldn't break Sergei Zubov's record this week. Like I said; he'll have Pete DeBoer to thank.
Denis Gurianov will be reborn under the new coaching staff.
Source: Denis Gurianov Is Running Out of Time to Become Who the Stars Need Him to Be
Ok so I didn't actually say this. Here was my actual quote back in July when asked in a mailbag if I thought Gurianov would look different under DeBoer:
I expect DeBoer to give him a better chance than Bowness, but DeBoer is still a hockey coach: he’s gonna like some guys more than others, and Gurianov just doesn’t fit a His Guys kind of profile. The other factor is Dallas’ offense. As long as Dallas leaves the Hintz line intact, there won’t be a single combination that allows him to play more comfortably because not a single forward below Hintz and Friends can drive a line. I don’t expect Gurianov to perform bad. I just don’t think he’ll stand out, and everyone will say “see I told you so” instead of “maybe there’s another way.”
Regardless, it was an opinion I kept to myself. I tend to err on the side of the players. Because I don't believe players are fundamentally lazy. I don't think they "make too much money." And I'm pretty sure they all want to win each and every night. So of course I favor the person putting their bodies through the ringer for what they love over a bunch of men in suits with the same tired agendas.
Still, I was wrong. Even after it looked like I might be right once Gurianov got traded to Montreal. Sometimes it's hard to look beyond obvious talent. We saw the skating, and the shot and figured the maturity would come with time. Just like in the professional world, there are hard and soft skills required to be a good worker. Gurianov had the hard skills to perform but the soft skills eluded him. When you're a player in the margins, you need either both, or a swarming abundance of one over the other.
It helps that Evgenii Dadonov has been very good next to Benn and Johnston. Given that Gurianov seemed to have negative value with Stars management, it's quite the accomplishment that Nill was able to turn Gurianov into value added. (Although let's cut the BS: the bigger accomplishment would have been not drafting him in the first place.) Because Seguin hasn't really found two dedicated wingmen, it's on the "third" line to deliver the secondary scoring Dallas will need right out the playoff gates.
Colin Miller is the next Anton Stralman.
Source: Why Aren't We Talking About Colin Miller?
In Vegas, he was the next Stralman. Some people might disagree on this, though. There's nothing obvious about Miller's game. He's a good skater who puts in honest work, but he's still prone to the big mistake. As I pointed out in the Stack piece, his decision-making was a big part of what pushed him out in Boston. Still, having a player who can defend reasonably well against the rush (which Dallas already excels at) is a major plus for what he cost.
The jury's still out on this one with Suter being moved back to the top pair though. I'm not sure seeing tougher competition with Miro Heiskanen is harder than seeing weaker competition with a rookie. We've already seen evidence of this. Harley looks great, but let's not jump the gun (even though I am). Regardless, I'd consider this a hit on Nill's part. He can punch above his weight class, which is exactly what you want out of your depth: players who fit into their given roles, but who aren't out of their element if they have to play up the lineup either.
Ty Dellandrea is not a lock to make the Stars roster.
Source: A TL;DR Dallas Stars Mailbag
I don't think bias is a dirty word, but it was for me here. I've always had good things to say about Dellandrea going back to when I profiled him ahead of the 2018 NHL Draft. But I never liked the pick. Even worse, I liked Joe Veleno over him (in my defense, I also liked K'Andre Miller over him). In some ways, Dellandrea is a constructive case study in having the necessary soft skills needed to play in the NHL, and this should have been obvious to me. He plays hard, and while he takes a few too many careless penalties, this is exactly what coaches love: passion. Remember how Valeri Nichushkin's zero penalties was somehow framed as a cardinal sin? (Spoiler alert: he still doesn't take any penalties.)
Not only was I looking past Dellandrea because I was still sour about the pick, but I had googly eyes for Dallas' big three. I never actually thought Wyatt Johnston and one of Logan Stankoven/Mavrik Bourque would make the NHL roster for reasons that were confirmed by my colleague Sean Shapiro: Dallas wasn't about to play that many rookies. But their talent was and is undeniable and I was distracted by that.
If my Twitter timeline is any indication, Dellandrea is not quite a fan favorite. But he has a lot of qualities that don't fit into your typical checklist of a checking line forward. Those stats clarify that he wasn't just a function of Benn and Johnston. There was a real synergy between them, and Dellandrea has genuine qualities that can benefit the middle six. So not only is he perfect for the role he's about to have in time for the playoffs—on the fourth line next to Radek Faksa—but like Miller, he can play up the lineup and not just down.
Dallas will finish third in the Central with 99 points.
Source: Matching Minors: How Does Dallas Match Up With the Central, By the Numbers?
Last but not least: a prediction that is both wrong and wrong. Worst case scenario; Dallas finishes second in the Central drawing Minnesota in the first round. Needless to say, the potential is there to finish first with a nice punctuation mark which makes my prediction way off. Finishing first isn't out of the question. Lest we forget: they get to see Hockey's Biggest Baby this week. But boy were some of those doozies:
Calgary is basically a better team...
Vancouver under Boudreau should be a better team...
The Pacific is loaded and primed to occupy the two wildcard spots...
There are only two teams truly tanking this year...
My thought process was twofold: not only would Dallas have to deal with better competition, but they'd have to deal with better competition while feeling the loss of John Klingberg.
Despite the season Dallas has had, we're still learning who they are, which makes their impending playoff run a learning experience of its own. Do they have real offensive depth, or just guys who can score below the top line? (Yes, there's a massive difference.) Are Suter, Lindell, and Hakanpaa top four defensemen? Will the top line's regular season upgrade translate into a postseason upgrade? There are a lot of stories I've neglected to mention, Jake Oettinger and Wyatt Johnston being the biggest. But they're both playing with house money. I wouldn't begrudge Oettinger for having a few bad playoff games after the debt the team owed him last year. Johnston gets a pass no matter what.
At this point, it goes back to the question I asked Juraj Kralik: is DeBoer's ability to maximize the roster the same as turning them into contenders? The good news is that maximizing the talent on the roster is one less question we have to ask. Given what we've seen so far, that's a damn good start. Is it enough for a damn good finish, though?