Despite bold off-season acquisitions making them a favorite in the West, the Stars are on the outside looking in with dwindling playoff chances as the regular season draws to a close. So, where does Dallas go next?
It doesn’t have to be today, it doesn’t even have to be tomorrow, but at some point in the coming weeks, maybe after they’re officially eliminated from post-season contention, the Dallas Stars should consider sending the Edmonton Oilers a gift basket of some sort. It would be Dallas’ way of saying thank you to the Oilers for ensuring that no one would consider the Stars the biggest disappointment in the Western Conference this season.
You see, Edmonton no doubt takes the cake in that respect. Coming off of a trip to the second round and thought to be headed towards a Pittsburgh Penguins-esque run of dominance on the strength of superstar Connor McDavid, the Oilers are set to finish more than a dozen points out of the final wild-card spot in the West. They have been so poor that McDavid, despite a sensational season, has been disqualified from competing for the Hart Trophy in the minds of some voters given the sad state of affairs in Edmonton this season. But that things have gone so awry for the Oilers has provided the Stars, who were projected to be one of the conference’s top teams entering the season, a nice blanket of cover.
Entering the campaign, there wasn’t another organization that underwent a more significant facelift than Dallas, and the moves made by GM Jim Nill were almost universally lauded. In need of a goaltender, he acquired two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop for a song and signed him to a friendly six-year, $29.5-million deal. Desperate for help on the blueline, Nill leveraged the Vegas Golden Knights’ surplus of defenders and brought Marc Methot into the fold. Looking to bolster the depth down the middle and add two-way acumen, Martin Hanzal was targeted by and inked in free agency. Then Nill capped off the summer with the signing Alexander Radulov to a five-year, $31.25-million deal, adding more offensive punch to a lineup that was already chock full of attacking prowess.
Suffice to say the expectation following the signings was that Dallas, who had finished 15 points outside of a playoff spot in 2016-17, would reemerge as one of the top teams in the uber-competitive Central Division and return to the post-season as true Stanley Cup contenders. Bringing aboard one of the winningest bench bosses in NHL history, Ken Hitchcock, didn’t help to temper expectations, either.
The unfortunate reality in Dallas, however, is that nothing has gone the way they expected. There’s no greater indication of that than the fates of their off-season signees. Bishop, who isn’t guaranteed to see the ice again before the end of the campaign, has missed several games due to injury and is set to finish with no better than league-average numbers. Methot suffered a knee injury early and will end the campaign with less than 40 games played. Worst of all, Hanzal, who has already missed 38 games, is out for the season and has undergone surgery on his back that will sideline him for at least six months. Even when he was healthy, though, Hanzal vastly underperformed. His five goals and 10 points in 38 games set him on an 11-goal, 22-point full season pace.
So, even while true that Radulov was a smashing success in Dallas — he has already matched or set career-highs and is on pace to finish with 28 goals and 70 points — the Stars’ other shortcomings were too much to outrun. Thus, despite Radulov’s play, despite Tyler Seguin sitting on the fringe of the Rocket Richard Trophy race, despite Jamie Benn heading towards a 30-goal, 70-point campaign and despite John Klingberg boasting the second-most points among all NHL defensemen, Dallas sits with a 0.5-percent chance of earning a post-season berth according to SportsClubStats.com. There’s next to no chance this season ends in anything other than utter disappointment.
The result of this campaign leaves more questions than answers, too. Nill seemingly went all-in and still has a group that is likely days away from bowing out of playoff contention. What’s next, then? How do the Stars recover from this disheartening result and turn things around come next season?
First and foremost, Dallas will have to make some tough salary decisions going forward, including what to do with underperforming players such as Jason Spezza. Signed on for one more season at $7.5 million, Spezza seems expendable and the cap space freed up my moving him could prove valuable, but will there be any takers for the 35-year-old pivot as he comes off of the worst season of his career? No matter what happens with Spezza, however, one has to wonder what the Stars do in the way of additions. With somewhere in the range of $20 million projected to be available come the summer, where will Dallas spend to improve this roster?
With the 10th-fewest goals against this season, team defense no longer appears to be an issue, though the Stars certainly shouldn’t hesitate to pursue some of the top available options in free agency. Astoundingly, what does appear to be worrisome is the overall offense, something we absolutely couldn’t have said a few seasons back. Dallas’ goals-per-game rate, 2.78, is the 11th-worst in the NHL and there’s a chasm between the top unit and the rest of the forward group. Radulov, Benn and Seguin have 65, 69 and 71 points, respectively, but the next-highest scoring forward is Mattias Janmark. He has 19 goals and 34 points in 75 games. The return of Valeri Nichushkin and development of Jason Dickinson could help matters, but how quickly can they be effective, top-six contributors? Dallas needs those in a hurry as only four teams this season have fewer half-point-per-game scorers than the Stars.
The blame for that, however, may fall as much on Hitchcock as it does anyone. A roster that looked much the same up front was one of the league’s best not long ago under former coach Lindy Ruff. The transition to a lower-event, less freewheeling attack under Hitchcock has benefited the defense, to be sure, but stripped away part of what made the offense so formidable. It seems unlikely the Stars will go one-and-done with Hitchcock, though, so it might be up to the veteran bench boss to adjust if Dallas is to see more success.
Others would also suggest good health can fix a lot of what has ailed the Stars. But truth be told, Dallas’ man-games lost total isn’t all that high compared to the rest of the league. And while it can be argued they lost key players, Bishop chief among them, playoff teams or wild-card contenders such as the Winnipeg Jets, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings had to deal with injuries as significant and each dealt with blows to important members of their defense or top-six on a more consistent basis than Dallas.
No matter how they do it, though, the Stars need to find a way forward. Their thin prospect pool — Dallas ranked 23rd in THN’s 2018 Future Watch — and top-heavy roster would suggest dipping into free agency is going to be a must once again, but it’d be hard to blame the Stars’ faithful if even the biggest, boldest off-season was met with nothing more than cautious optimism.
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