© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
The Dallas Stars were the NHL’s most fun team in 2015-16, pounding teams into paste with their high-flying, 80s team offence. But in 2016-17, after losing both Jason Demers and Alex Goligoski to free agency, they predictably took a step backwards. The Stars’ juggernaut offence collapsed down to league-average, and as a result, the team wasn’t able to compensate for poor defence and goaltending and they fell by a whopping 30 points in the standings.
General manager Jim Nill responded by firing head coach Lindy Ruff and replacing him with Ken Hitchcock, a familiar face in Dallas. Soon after, the Stars were blessed by the Draft Lottery gods, moving from eighth overall all the way to third. Nill has a lot of salary cap room and flexibility to work with this summer, and he’s already made a major move trading and signing Ben Bishop to a long-term contract. It’s already been a busy offseason in Dallas, and I imagine Nill, who’s notorious for making big splashes, isn’t finished yet.
In 2015-16, the Dallas Stars had the league’s best offence by a damn country mile. They scored 2.46 goals per hour at even strength and they boasted a lethal power play, resulting in the team scoring 267 goals. And they needed all of them, because they weren’t very good at keeping the puck out of the net. The 2015-16 Stars allowed 2.34 goals per hour at evens, in company with basement teams like Edmonton and Toronto.
Over the offseason, they allowed two of their top defencemen, Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers, to walk in free agency. That, coupled with veterans Ales Hemsky, Jason Spezza, and Patrick Sharp all missing major time due to injury, resulted in their attack taking a major step back to a league-average 2.23 goals per hour.
Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin were bright spots, as usual. Seguin scored 72 points and was among the league leaders in shots, and Benn racked up 69 points, which is solid but not spectacular for one of the game’s best producers. Patrick Eaves also had an excellent season, scoring a career-high 21 goals before netting the Stars a huge return at the trade deadline.
Injuries seriously took their toll on the Stars last season, massively hindering the team’s depth up front. Veterans Patrick Sharp and Ales Hemsky were sidelined for most of the season, Jason Spezza missed a good chunk of time with injury, and produced his lowest point-per-game total since 2003-04, and Mattias Janmark missed the entire season after having knee surgery.
In their absence, nobody was really able to step up and fill the void, as Benn, Seguin, and Eaves were the only players to score more than 20 goals. Cody Eakin only scored 12 points in 60 games despite playing a heavy amount of minutes with Jamie Benn, which generally should result in a spike in production. On a more positive note, youngsters Radek Faksa, Devin Shore, and Brett Ritchie showed promise despite not putting up huge offensive numbers.
The blue line, as I said earlier, was a pretty big issue for the Stars. Dan Hamhuis was a solid, veteran presence, leading the Stars’ defencemen in Corsi For percentage, but he can only do so much with this young and inexperienced group. John Klingberg put up 49 points, but struggled defensively, resulting in him being a healthy scratch multiple times. In a similar vein, Esa Lindell stepped into a major role in his rookie season and got shelled pretty hard.
But of course, the biggest issue for the Stars was their goaltending. I mean, that also has something to do with the defence and general game that the team plays, too, but both Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen had terrible seasons last year. Niemi’s .892 (!!!) save percentage in all situations was far and away the worst of his career, and Lehtonen fairly solid play at even strength was guttered by his .808 (???!?!!?) save percentage on the penalty kill.
Conclusion: The Stars struggled with injury and their offence wasn’t able to compensate for their inability to keep the puck out of the net like it did in 2015-16.
Jim Nill and the Stars have a tremendous amount of financial flexibility going forward. The only long-term contracts they have signed are Jamie Benn and John Klingberg, who are locked up for eight and five more seasons respectively, and Ben Bishop, who was recently signed to a six-year deal after the Stars acquired his free agent rights from the Kings.
Otherwise, the Stars are a young, cheap team with the cap room to improve in the short-term and to keep around core players for the long-term. Tyler Seguin, arguably their most important player, has just two years left on his deal before he can hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. When it does come time to give him a pay raise on his current $5.75 million figure, Jason Spezza’s $7 million deal will be coming off the shelf.
The only immediate issue for the Stars financially is their absurd situation in net. As I noted, they inked Bishop to a six-year deal, but they still have Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen around, and the three of them combined project to have a cap hit of roughly $15.5 million.
Conclusion: The Stars have a lot of flexibility moving forward as a young team with players on cheap, short-term contracts.
Offseason Game Plan
The boys look, uh, excited for Ken Hitchcock to become their coach, don’t they? Frankly, they look terrified, because Hitch is going to whip their asses into shape.
But in all seriousness, Hitchcock will be a welcomed addition to this team. The Stars already have a lot of pieces in place, as Benn, Seguin, Spezza, Klingberg, and Hamhuis form a nice core, and they have a wealth of solid, young players who can fill in the rest of the lineup. Hitchcock, who’s notoriously good at getting his players to play two-way games and bring a well-rounded, physical style of play each night, should be able to turn the Stars into more of an NHL team than a pond hockey shinny group.
That was the Stars’ first major offseason move. The second was adding Ben Bishop, one of summer 2017’s biggest free agent splashes before free agency even began. So what next?
I briefly mentioned above that the Stars have $15.5 million tied into three goalies heading into next season. That obviously isn’t going to work. They could buy either Niemi or Lehtonen out, which would only have cap ramifications for two seasons. Before that happens, though, they’ll leave them both exposed in the expansion draft and hope that Vegas doesn’t have any better options available and plucks one of them. I can’t imagine anybody being interested in Niemi after the season he just had, but Lehtonen’s even strength save percentage was actually solid, so he could actually have some value.
Speaking of the expansion draft, the Stars will protect Seguin, Benn, Spezza, and Radek Faksa up front and Esa Lindell and Klingberg on the blue line. Dan Hamhuis may be left exposed in favour of Jamie Oleksiak because he’s only a year away from free agency, and the Stars will also have decide who between Brett Ritchie, Antoine Roussel, Cody Eakin, and Valeri Nichushkin will be exposed.
Then there’s the actual draft. The NHL Entry Draft, in which the Stars were gifted the third overall pick, rising all the way up from eighth overall. This year’s draft is kind of a top two then a crapshoot kind of thing. After Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick, there isn’t an obvious choice at three, and it’s difficult to imagine any of the prospects available being ready to step in and help the Stars immediately.
That makes them a prime candidate to shop the pick. The Stars are in somewhat of a unique position because they’re good enough to compete now and could send that third overall pick to a team who’s nowhere near competing in exchange for an asset that helps them immediately. For example, the Ducks and Wild are at risk of losing a good player like Sami Vatanen or Matt Dumba in the expansion draft, so them and the Stars could potentially work something out before either player is lost to Vegas for nothing. Who knows! The possibilities are endless, and with Jim Nill at the helm, expect something interesting to happen.
Then, finally, there’s free agency. The Stars have made a big splash already, and have the cap space to make another. Could T.J. Oshie or Kevin Shattenkirk be interested in reuniting with Hitchcock, their old boss from St. Louis? Maybe. But what the Stars badly need is veterans to fill up their lineup. Hemsky and Sharp could be options on re-signings after down years, and names like Justin Williams, P.A. Parenteau, Daniel Winnik, and so on represent options to add depth to the team.
Conclusion: They’ve already made a couple of big moves and they’ll likely make a few more by the end of summer. Dallas badly needs some veterans and some help on their blue line in order to bounce back to contention next season.
Previously in this series…