The writing was on the wall or, more specifically, the shot clock.
The Dallas Stars enjoyed a nice 2018-19 playoff run, upsetting the Nashville Predators in Round 1. By Game 7 of Round 2 against St. Louis, at the end of regulation, the Stars had been outshot 41-17. Goaltender Ben Bishop kept them on life support. Eventually – and justly – Patrick Maroon won the game for the Blues in double overtime, ending Dallas’ season. St. Louis was the better team, period. It held the territorial edge in shot attempts in Games 2, 4, 5 and 7 and gained momentum as the series progressed.
The Stars weren’t quite smoke and mirrors, but they accomplished a lot this season on the strength of timely goaltending and got some help from a putrid Nashville Predators power play that went 0 for 15 in Round 1.
There’s temptation, then, to shrug the shoulders and not expect much going forward from a Stars team that finished 29th in offense, was merely good but not great in most defensive metrics and did most of its damage on the strength of Bishop and backup Anton Khudobin. But there’s actually reason to feel optimistic about the Stars next year – maybe even reason to expect improvement, depending on how the off-season plays out. Consider these factors.
1. Ben Bishop isn’t going anywhere
Bishop enjoyed a somewhat healthy season by his standard, avoiding any disastrous long-term absences, and it also happened to be his best season. He led the NHL in save percentage and goals saved above average. He finished second in high-danger SP and third in overall 5-on-5 SP. He’ll always be an injury-prone netminder given he’s the biggest goalie in NHL history at 6-foot-7 and therefore tough for net-crashing forwards to avoid. But Dallas is the perfect fit for him. The Stars have long endured one of the worst travel schedules in the league because of their southern location in the central time zone. Because of that, GM Jim Nill makes a point of keeping a busy backup on hand to play far more than the average No. 2. Over the past four seasons, his teams’ No. 2 stoppers have started 39, 30, 30 and 37 games. An environment keeping Bishop fresh paid off in 2018-19, and there’s no reason to mess with the formula next season. Khudobin sparkled in backup duty his year with a .923 SP and has a year left on his contract.
2. Jamie Benn can’t be this bad again
In the five seasons preceding this one, Benn scored more goals than every player other than Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Tyler Seguin. Only Crosby and Patrick Kane had more points than Benn. So it was shocking to see the Stars captain plummet to 53 points and his lowest per-game scoring average since his rookie season. Benn turns 30 this summer, and bruising power forwards can age faster than finesse scorers, but the decline was too extreme to be believed. His shooting percentage was actually slightly above his career norm, so we can’t blame luck, but it’s possible he played through nagging injuries. He has a history of doing so. It won’t be a surprise if we learn in the coming weeks that he requires some sort of off-season surgical procedure.
We’ve likely seen Benn’s best, yes, but he’s still young enough to produce like a front-line player for another season or two, especially if he has an improved supporting cast. Speaking of which…
3. The Stars should have cap space to spend this summer
Jason Spezza is a UFA, meaning his $7.5-million AAV evaporates, removing quite the burden. Defenseman Esa Lindell is an RFA and has likely played his way into a long-term extension, with John Klingberg’s seven-year, $29.75-million contract from 2015 a reasonable baseline. But Lindell is the only big-money RFA Nill must re-sign. Jason Dickinson established himself as an NHLer this season but remains in bridge-deal territory.
That means the Stars should have money available to pursue UFAs after being somewhat conservative last summer. Factoring in a projected cap increase to $83 million, Dallas could have more than $20 million to play with. The timing works out nicely for a team that (a) desperately needs forward depth and (b) happens to need forward depth just as one of the best UFA forward classes in NHL history arrives. There’s something for everyone: Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Jeff Skinner, Micheal Ferland, Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle…take your pick. Mats Zuccarello is a UFA, too, and he was a fantastic fit in Dallas as a trade-deadline rental from the New York Rangers, but re-signing him would trigger a condition of the trade that changes a 2020 third-round pick into a 2020 first-rounder going to New York. Is it worth re-signing Zuccarello for money plus a first-rounder when the other UFAs merely cost money?
4. Miro Heiskanen is just getting started
We knew the kid blueliner would be a beast, and he was a beast. His average ice time of 23:07 was the highest of any NHL rookie in the past six seasons. He had a positive impact on possession, and his 12 goals were the second most by a 19-year-old blueliner in the past 35 years. Heiskanen is special – Norris Trophy threat special – and is just beginning his ascension. It’s only a matter of time before he routinely dominates games as one of the NHL’s elite defensemen.
5. Roope Hintz
Heiskanen was always projected to be a phenom and thus didn’t sneak up on anyone. Another Stars prospect did, though. No player from Dallas’ youth class opened more eyes in the playoffs than Hintz. His blend of speed, skill and size showed up on so many highlights that it’s a wonder someone with tools like these didn’t do damage in the NHL sooner. He doubled his productivity in the AHL year over year before getting recalled for the last time in late January. He flashed legitimate top-six ability during the post-season and should build on his strong finish. Between Scott Glennie, Valeri Nichushkin, Denis Gurianov, Riley Tufte, Jason Dickinson and Hintz, the Stars have struggled badly to draft breakout forwards in the early rounds over the past decade. It appears Hintz and, to a lesser but still noteworthy degree, Dickinson are ready to buck that trend.