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THN’s 2015-16 NHL season preview: Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars have one of the most high-flying offenses in the NHL, but defensive woes held them back in 2014-15. If Dallas plays better in their own zone, they can easily compete for a post-season spot, but they’ll need better goaltending to go deep in the playoffs.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

2014-15 Record: 41-31-10 (92 Pts.)

THN’s Prediction: 4th, Central Division

What To Expect: Dallas’ identity last season was culturally fitting, as sharpshooters defined the club and paced the Stars to the league’s second-best offense.

Jamie Benn won the scoring title, and

Tyler Seguin wasn’t far behind. Center

Jason Spezza worked out as planned, providing 60 points from the second line.

John Klingberg emerged as a 40-point D-man in his rookie year. Yes, weapons were plentiful, but a playoff spot didn’t follow, as Dallas gave up far too many goals. General manager Jim Nill prioritized goaltending, as his club’s save percentage was pitiful while possession numbers were solid. Nill inked

Antti Niemi to split time with

Kari Lehtonen. That should give the club decent netminding for 82 games.

Nill further bolstered his roster by poaching

Patrick Sharp from the Cup-winning Blackhawks. Sharp fills out the top six forwards and has an established two-way dimension. The D-corps gets deeper with UFA addition

Johnny Oduya, who will slide in on Dallas’ second pair and log difficult minutes. The Stars should easily repeat as the NHL’s second-best offensive team and might even surpass Tampa Bay. The top six adds

Valeri Nichushkin, who played eight games last year because of hip surgery. Just 20, the Russian right winger could be electric in his second full season after scoring 34 points as a rookie at 18. The power play was tied for 11th and has potential to soar. Sharp is an option with Klingberg on the point. What keeps Dallas from true contender status is the lack of a true No. 1 blueliner. Klingberg’s tremendous rookie year indicates a bright future, but he isn’t yet an anchor. The Stars need a collective effort from

Alex Goligoski, Oduya and

Jason Demers to stabilize the back end. If Niemi and Lehtonen provide league-average goaltending, goals against will drastically drop. Both have historically been starters, but Nill thinks the platoon will keep them fresher. On paper, the holes have been mostly filled. Nill has spent three summers on the job in Dallas and made bold, impressive changes in each. The Stars’ arrow points skyward.

Best-Case Scenario: Few teams in the NHL can hang with Dallas offensively and that alone can be enough to propel the Stars into the post-season with even mediocre team defense. The Stars could very well win a round or two in the post-season, but they aren’t likely to be Stanley Cup contenders quite yet. In a season or two, however, that could be a different story.

Worst-Case Scenario: By the end of 2014, the Stars were six points out of a post-season spot and trying to claw back into the wild card picture. They were able to make it a race to the end, but came up short. The goaltending has to be more reliable and the defense needs to perform, or else this could be another high-flying Stars team that ends up on the outside of the post-season.

Who To Watch: One of the most important positions in Dallas this season will be between the pipes, where the Stars have two players to watch: Lehtonen and Niemi. In 2014-15, Lehtonen had a .914 save percentage at 5-on-5, which was among the worst of any goaltender to play more than 2,000 minutes at even strength. The Stars addressed the issue by bringing in former San Jose Sharks netminder Niemi, but he wasn’t much better this past season. In roughly the same amount of time at 5-on-5, Niemi wasn’t that much better. He posted a .921 SP in front of a stronger defense. Dallas can win because of their offense, but getting deep in the post-season will require Neimi and Lehtonen to push each other to be better in 2015-16.

What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):

Click here for more detail on these predictions. The staff is a bit bearish about the Stars ascent to the West’s elite, but the numbers think they’re already there. Part of that could be that offensive WAR is easier to predict and Dallas was a juggernaut in that regard, but it’s still impressive that they rank so highly. Hockey is a goal-scoring contest and the Stars are going to make it hard for the other team to catch up. The biggest reason for the Stars high projection is that they have the league’s best projected duo in Seguin and Benn. They’re worth six WAR combined and account for almost half of Dallas’ entire forward contribution.

There’s solid depth throughout the top 12 that should help ease the burden of the two superstars. But no one’s surprised by Dallas’ surplus of forward talent. The real sticker shock likely comes from the sixth-rated defense based on the Stars reputation. On the back-end it’s all about Klingberg. We can’t call him a number one d-man just yet because of his sample size, but he sure played like one last season. He and Goligoski make a dynamite first pairing and the rest of the group doesn’t look bad either. Demers is very underrated while Oduya is a big step up over Trevor Daley. On paper, the blueline doesn’t look as bad as its reputation. They’ll need to be great to cover up goaltending, though. Lehtonen should bounce back based on his career numbers, but last year’s season does put a damper on that. He should get the bulk of the starts over Niemi who has been the worse of the two over the past few seasons. Either way, some healthy competition could help both goalies play better this season. To sum it up, goaltending is troubling with potential to rebound, but the rest of the team looks elite. That should be enough for the Stars to show they’re the real deal.

THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.

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