Alexander Radulov has been among the Stars’ best players all season, but now that the rest of the off-season acquisitions are coming around, Dallas is starting to look like a real threat in the West.
Open a new tab in your browser, head to the search engine of your choice and find any old post on the NHL’s off-season winners and losers written ahead of the current campaign. Invariably, a team you’ll find on the positive side of the ledger is the Dallas Stars. And, quite frankly, it would have been difficult to argue otherwise in the days leading up to puck drop.
Let’s quickly revisit the moves the Stars made, shall we? In April, following a disappointing regular season finish that saw Dallas outside the post-season, coach Lindy Ruff was let go and former Stars bench boss Ken Hitchcock was brought back for a second tour of duty. In May, Dallas swung a deal with the Los Angeles Kings to bring goaltender Ben Bishop aboard, and Stars GM Jim Nill subsequently inked the netminder to a six-year, $29.5-million contract. Following that was the acquisition of defensive defenseman Marc Methot from the expansion Vegas Golden Knights and, come free agency, two big signings. The first was Martin Hanzal, brought in to offer additional depth down the middle. The second was Alexander Radulov, one of the off-season’s major prizes, in a deal that made an already fearsome Stars offense that much better.
It seemed as though Nill had himself a near-perfect summer. There didn’t seem to be a single misstep among the moves Dallas had made. Yet, despite the campaign beginning with the Stars carrying expectations of a Central Division title, the results weren’t there — or at least not in the way most would have expected. After the first month of the campaign, Dallas was seven points out of top spot in the Central. At the quarter-point, they were the division’s fifth seed. And by the time mid-December came around, only the Colorado Avalanche had fewer points among the Stars’ divisional rivals.
The most disappointing aspect of Dallas’ distance from top spot in both the division and conference, however, was that, for the most part, the summer additions hadn’t had near the impact that was expected. Hanzal, for instance, was hampered by three successive injuries — first a lower-body ailment, followed by hand and hamstring injuries — and had only four points in 21 games by mid-December. Methot, too, was bitten by the injury bug and has continued to miss time with a knee injury. And Bishop, brought in as the savior who could put an end to long-standing issues in goal, wasn’t playing like the netminder the Stars hoped he could be. He had a .910 save percentage, 2.71 goals-against average and, as of Dec. 15, was finishing up a stretch of three games riding the pine as Kari Lehtonen took over starting duties temporarily.
But now, as we crest the midway mark of the season, it seems as though the pieces may finally be starting to fall into place for the Stars and two of the off-season acquisitions, Radulov and Bishop, are key reasons why.
That begins with the former, whose performance to this point had already been notable. While Hanzal, Methot and Bishop struggled in the first half of the campaign, Radulov fit into the Stars like a long-tenured player, a seemingly perfect fit for what Dallas had built up front. Through the first 33 games of the campaign, which took the Stars up to the aforementioned mid-December mark, Radulov had 11 goals and 27 points, tying him for third in team scoring. And he hasn’t slowed down one iota since. In fact, over the past 10 games, Radulov has actually picked up his scoring pace, rifling home another five goals and 11 points, which is good enough for the second-best totals in the respective scoring categories over that span. It surely doesn’t hurt that Hitchcock has decided it best to utilize Radulov in a position that gives opposition nightmares, either. Though he’s moved up and down the lineup throughout the season, over the past 10 games, Radulov has almost solely played alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, giving the Stars a top line with more pure offensive firepower than just about any in the league.
More impactful than Radulov’s offensive outburst, though, is that it appears Bishop has finally found his game in Dallas. After a so-so showing in his first pair of games back between the pipes following his brief backup stint — he lost consecutive games in overtime, posting an .897 SP in the process — Bishop has been brilliant. Since Dec. 21, over which time Bishop is one of only eight goalies to play at least eight games, the towering netminder has stopped 241 of the 255 shots that have come his way, good for an excellent .945 SP, and has picked up six victories. Beyond that, Bishop has maintained a .952 SP at 5-on-5 over the Stars’ past 10 games. His successful run of play has helped him elevate his season-long totals to much more respectable levels, too, as Bishop now boasts a .917 SP, 2.50 goals-against average and has posted two of his four shutouts from Dec. 16 onward.
The contributions of the rest of the summer additions haven’t been as impactful — Methot, for his part, has only played once in the past 10 games — but it appears they, too, are starting to come around. Hanzal, who has played in seven of the past 10 outings, has one goal and three points, enough to almost double his point total after his disappointing first half, and Tyler Pitlick looks as though he was an underrated signing as a depth contributor. He has two goals and three points in his past 10 times out and has moved into a middle-six role. The result of Dallas’ summer signings finally taking hold and clicking at the same time as the mainstays such as Seguin, Benn and John Klingberg is a Stars team that looks more threatening than they have all campaign. And if they continue to play as they have over the past couple of weeks, Dallas may finally start making the noise that most expected them to in the West.