Welcome to the latest file for The THN Hot Seat series, an ongoing set of THN.com columns in which we pick out one member of each NHL team who’ll face the most pressure in the upcoming season. The Hot Seat person can be an NHL player, head coach, GM, or franchise owner. In today’s file, we’re examining the Dallas Stars.
STARS HOT SEAT: (tie) TYLER SEGUIN, CENTER; AND JAMIE BENN, FORWARD
WHY: The Stars aren’t currently salary cap-strapped, but that’s only an illusion: yes, they have more than $10.3-million in cap space, but they have two very important restricted free agents – leading goal-scorer Jason Robertson, and No. 1 goaltender Jake Oettinger – to sign to new contracts. Signing the young duo is going to eat up much of that cap room – and that’s the reason why the Stars’ defense corps took a major hit with the free agent departure of veteran John Klingberg to the Anaheim Ducks.
Dallas GM Jim Nill replaced Klingberg with former Bruins/Golden Knights/Sabres veteran Colin Miller, but Miller is nowhere near the same caliber of player Klingberg is. Consequently, the Stars are going to need more help from their forwards than they got last season. They amassed only 238 goals-for in 2021-22, far and away the smallest amount of offense of any NHL playoff team last year. If they’re going to keep up with the six potential playoff teams in the Central Division, they’re have to have better production from their group of forwards.
This is why the focus is turning to cornerstones forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They’re Dallas’ two highest-paid players – Seguin leads the team at $9.85 million, while Benn makes slightly less at $9.5 million – but they’re no longer first-line players, having been usurped by Robertson, center Roope Hintz, and veteran winger Joe Pavelski. Robertson, Hintz and Pavelski combined last year for 105 goals and 232 points, and that’s with Robertson missing eight games; Benn and Seguin played 82 and 81 games respectively, but combined for 42 goals (Benn with just 18) and 95 points.
Even with the addition of former Panthers young winger Mason Marchment this coming year, Seguin and Benn are backsliding into the later stages of their NHL careers, and they were unable to push the Stars past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last year, with Benn managing only one goal and two points against Calgary, and Seguin doing slightly better, with a pair of goals and four points in the series against the Flames. As the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators gear up to make a playoff push this season, and with the improved Pacific Division looking poised to take back the one playoff berth they gave up to the Central in 2021-22, the fact the Stars made the fourth playoff position by only a single standings point should serve as a negative harbinger of what could be to come for them in 2022-23.
The play of Oettinger and Robertson, both only 23 years old, is a bright spot for Dallas, as is the play of veterans stars Pavelski (who at age 37 had an impressive 54 assists and 81 points in 82 games) and blueliners Miro Heiskanen (31 assists, 36 points, and a team-high average time-on-ice at 24:53 per game), Ryan Suter (23:39 per game) and Esa Lindell (22:02 per game). The issue is clearly their offense, and once you get off those top two forward lines, there isn’t an abundance of goal-scoring talent there. The Stars’ projected third line of center Radek Faska and wingers Marian Studenic and Luke Glendening hardly strike fear into the hearts of opponents. Their fourth line of young Swedish center Jacob Peterson and wingers Joel Kirivanta and Denis Gurianov aren't especially intimidating. However, Gurianov may play his way onto the second line if Marchment doesn’t fit in well.
The departure of Klingberg (and veteran forward Alex Radulov, who headed home to Russia and the Kontinental League) has depleted Dallas’ depth in the one area in which they were strongest. Oettinger will still have to be very strong in net, but Benn and Seguin are in the Hot Seat because of their salaries and because of the fear their offensive numbers will continue to fade. Seguin actually had seven more goals last season (24 in total), but that was partially because he played 12 more games, and his assists numbers have dropped in each of the past two seasons to just 25 last season – his worst total in that category since his rookie year of 2010-11, when he had 11 helpers in 74 games.
Benn, meanwhile, is three years older than the 30-year-old Seguin, and his offensive stats have also slid in recent years. His 18 goals last season were only seven more than the 11 he scored in 52 games in the 2020-21 campaign, and they were only one fewer goal than the 19 goals Benn netted in 2019-20. Both he and Seguin have a lot of miles on their odometers, but the truth is their production with the puck is not commensurate with what you expect when you’re paying them a combined $19.35 million this year – and for the following two years. (Benn’s deal expires at the end of the 2024-25 campaign, while Seguin’s contract ends two seasons after that.)
The slow demise of Benn and Seguin add a sense of bleakness to the Stars this year. They are the team that was playing in a Cup Final only three years ago, but the Predators have improved by adding winger Nino Niederreiter and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and by retaining star center Filip Forsberg, and the Jets have a new head coach in previous Stars coach Rick Bowness and a talented, veteran lineup that could snap out of their 2021-22 funk and leapfrog Dallas in the standings. Most importantly, the Stars aren’t likely to beat out Colorado, Minnesota and St. Louis at the top of the Central Standings.
Dallas also has a new coach in former Panthers, Devils, Golden Knights and Sharks coach Peter DeBoer. Essentially, the Stars are returning as much of last year’s lineup as possible, and asking for the continued blossoming of Robertson and Oettinger to keep the team in the Central playoff hunt. However, if Benn and Seguin’s performance continues to drop off, management and ownership will arrive at an uncomfortable conversation about the future of the two longtime foundational players. No doubt, a contract buyout would hurt, but they don’t deserve banishment to a contract death zone like Arizona or Chicago in a trade. At the same time, Stars fans don’t deserve to have Dallas’ payroll situation so messy.
Without more internal improvement from a number of Stars prospects, the long-term picture looks like a step back for the franchise. That also goes if their veteran contributions buckle. Dallas needs much to go right this season for them to keep pace in the Central and Western Conference in general. There are few teams they’d be favored against in a playoff showdown, and that’s a telling comment on the current state of the franchise. And as Seguin and Benn make the biggest paydays, they’re the ones who ultimately have to own that.