Before the NHL’s current season, I went on record saying I thought the Dallas Stars were going to make a significant impact.
Early on this year, I was very disappointed in them, and their sub-par 18-16-2 in mid-January. But since they ended a three-game losing skid at the end of January, Dallas has gone 9-3-1, and battled their way back into playoff contention in the Central Division. But who are these Stars?
In their past 10 games, Dallas has gone 7-3-0, and now sit just four points behind the slumping Nashville Predators, with the Stars holding two games in hand on the Preds. What seemed an impossibility one month earlier, is something that could happen now. Dallas can be a playoff team after all, and let’s look at how they’ve battled back.
Clearly, in five of their most recent nine wins, the Stars clamped down on defense: in each of those five games, they allowed one goal or fewer; in seven of those nine wins, they’ve allowed three goals or fewer. They are capable of generating offense, as well – in those nine wins, they’ve outscored opponents 37-18 – but Dallas’ bread-and-butter has been their defensive play. Goalie Jake Oettinger has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, posting a 2.36 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.
But in addition to helping out Oettinger in their own end, the Stars’ defensemen have chipped in on offense. Their top four blueliners – star D-man Miko Heiskanen, John Klingberg, Esa Lindell and first-year Star Ryan Suter – have combined to produce 75 assists and 87 points this season. Meanwhile, they’re getting solid production from their top two forward lines: Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin aren’t putting up superstar numbers, but they've been helped out by youngsters Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson, and veteran forward Joe Pavelski. All three of the aforementioned players are near or over the point-per-game level.
The Stars have some winnable games in the next month – Arizona, Buffalo, Montreal, and two games against Winnipeg – but Dallas is going to be tested regularly. The Jets are only four points back of them, and it’s still possible the Stars buckle and fail. But they’ve played well enough for long enough to make GM Jim Nill to be a buyer instead of a seller at the NHL’s March 21 trade deadline. CapFriendly.com projects the Stars to have just $1 million in salary cap space by deadline day, but Nill can be creative in having a trade partner assume some salary, but it’s not likely they’ll be able to swing a deal for a big-name player. More likely is a depth move with a non-marquee name.
In any case, it’s good that the playoffs are in sight again for the Stars. Dallas is a key market for the league, and it wouldn’t be good for optics if the Stars faded quickly and painfully, and had to play the rest of the season without hope for the post-season. They’ve got a tough enough time carving out their share of the spotlight amid the city’s love affair with the NFL’s Cowboys and the NBA’s Mavericks. Getting back into the playoffs would boost the Stars’ profile, and encourage more participation at the grassroots level.
We’ll find out quickly whether the Stars’ recent success is a harbinger of things to come or a mirage that temporarily masked their issues. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act has got to end sooner than later. And if they’re not a playoff team, serious questions will be asked about their direction. There will be questions regardless, particularly about the future of soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Klingberg, but the lack of positive results in the win-loss column will force some tough decisions.
For now, though, they’ve scratched and clawed their way back to be a playoff contender. The Stars still have time to salvage their season. It’s going to be up to them, and there are many teams that can’t say that already. You don’t want to doubt them just yet.