Sunday, June 4, 2023 Jun 4, 2023
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Have the Stars Pushed in Enough Chips to Compete for the Stanley Cup?

Once again, general manager Jim Nill has brought in veterans without sacrificing Dallas' youth. It's worth wondering if he should have gone further.
By |
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

“Pushing in your chips” as a metaphor can have various interpretations depending on your sport, but we know it when we see it in the NHL. To become two-time champs, the Lightning gave up multiple first-rounders to bring in Blake Coleman, Ryan McDonagh, and Barclay Goodrow. The Islanders, despite their reputation as a stingy team led by veteran GM Lou Lamoriello, have also been aggressive, giving up assets to bring in Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Kyle Palmieri, and Travis Zajac. Vegas, a powerhouse from season to season, always finds a way to negotiate for anyone whether or not they’re actually on the market. If we’re focused strictly on Cup winners, consider the trades that brought in Ryan O’Reilly, T.J. Oshie, and Phil Kessel for the Blues, Capitals, and Penguins, respectively. Conversely, how many assets has GM Jim Nill given up to bring in a veteran roster player since 2020? Zero

If there’s a formula for pushing your chips in, the Dallas Stars aren’t following it. Ever since the organizational about-face on Lindy Ruff’s high-flying style, Dallas has relied purely on cap space to bring in veterans to augment the youth, but never at the cost of one or the other. This offseason was more of the same: Nill bought two players in their 30s from free agency while also maximizing draft capital to take Wyatt Johnston and Logan Stankoven, two forwards with legitimate top-six potential. That’s certainly not a bad thing. Nill’s moves have brought Dallas within two wins of a Stanley Cup, and they’ve also produced longer-term successful trends. Defensively, for instance, the Stars rank fourth in goals against over the last three seasons—an elite margin. 

But Dallas is also firmly in the waning stages of a win-now window. It’s reasonable to question whether they’ve fully opened that window to begin with. The Athletic’s Craig Custance, with the help of analytics guru Dom Luszczyszyn, loosely defined a Stanley Cup contender for any given season by the following parameters: a team must finish the regular season with 100 or more points. They must be in the top 10 on both special-team units. They must be in the top five in goals-for percentage, expected goals-for percentage, and have advanced to the second round of the playoffs the previous year. Dallas hasn’t had a 100-point season in five years, even when adjusted for the shortened seasons. Their PK rank is 19th, and although they rank fourth in xGF%, which measures the percentage of goals a team is expected to score, they rank only 13th in GF%—the ones they actually did—over the last three seasons.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Dallas is doing it wrong. Trading down at this year’s draft to add more pick capital brought them Wyatt Johnston. You don’t have to take statistical projections about Dallas’ standing in the Central ranking seriously to wonder if all of Nill’s moves might pay off the way he thinks. Dallas has an all-in window this upcoming season. But do they have an all-in roster? By bringing in Ryan Suter, Brayden Holtby, and filling out the bottom six, the organization believes so. After all, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov will be making their returns, healthy and rested, following injury-riddled 2021 campaigns. 

But I keep coming back to that question: “Is it enough?” Let’s start from the top with a glass-half-empty view. Suter carries both the reputation and recent performance of a top-four defender. But he has struggled to stay healthy over the last three years, and the two previous seasons showed a defender whose loss of footspeed dampened his impact on the penalty kill, an area Dallas absolutely must fix. Like Suter, Holtby has struggled to be who he once was. It’s a struggle that, ironically, began the year the Capitals won the Cup with him (remember, it was Philipp Grubauer who started in those playoffs). While I don’t believe goaltending is a critical need in Dallas, I can understand why Nill thought otherwise. The outlook on Ben Bishop’s status is uncertain at best, and Anton Khudobin struggled last season. Jake Oettinger looked good, but Nill’s reticence to fully trust him can be explained by the Carter Hart saga. Hart is the Philadelphia Flyers backstop who authored one of the best under-22 goaltending performances in history from 2018-2020. Then he laid an egg last season with a .889 save percentage, and the Flyers, like Dallas, were on the outside of the Stanley Cup chase looking in. Why take a chance on Oettinger’s small sample of 29 games in such a critical year?         

That’s where the moves start to look like potential sound and fury rather than calculated direction and ambition. If Dallas needed to replace Jamie Oleksiak and improve their PK, is the 36-year-old Suter the man to transcend a top-four role and turn Dallas from an improved team into a great team? If goalie is voodoo, as the cliche goes, is simply adding more voodoo the solution? Johnston and Stankoven could be great, but how wise was it for Dallas to keep those picks when neither is likely to see the NHL in Seguin or Jamie Benn’s primes, to say nothing of whether Klingberg is even still here. If the worry is full health, how does bringing in more old players protect against the probability of being injured? The latter can be the domain of young players, too; look no further than Seguin, whose body has accumulated a long list of injuries that make you wonder if he’s not twice his age in hockey years. 

It’s worth revisiting the discussion about how performance is affected by age given the team’s belief in their own upward progress. Seguin and Benn certainly aren’t “washed up.” They are, however, in the twilight of their careers in terms of raw production. Eric Tulsky’s preliminary data in 2014 revealed that a player’s performance hits its peak at age 24. Recent data have affirmed this: offensive production hits its peak at 24 and will drastically decline between the ages of 28 and 32. Seguin and Benn have followed that aging curve to a T. Seguin hit his highest production rates between the ages of 22 and 24 and then hit his lowest rates between the ages of 27 and 29 (this unfairly includes the injury-riddled 2020-2021 season, but the overall point remains the same). Benn, meanwhile, hit his highest production rates between the ages of 24 and 26 before dropping to his lowest between the ages of 29 and 31. It’s hard to overstate the effect this could have on Dallas if their most prolific scorers keep following the decline of a typical aging curve.                   

There is a glass-half-full argument, and it’s the one Nill seems to be making: “Doubt the old man in a young man’s profession at your peril.” He could point to Radulov and Joe Pavelski, who have been defying the aging curve gods for years. If Pavelski and Radulov can do it, why not Suter and Holtby? Or, for that matter, Benn and Seguin? 

Maybe. When it comes to players, prospects, and picks, you can’t lose what you don’t put in the Stanley Cup pot. You can’t win much, either. A year ago, the Stars were two games away from winning the Stanley Cup. This year, they didn’t even give themselves a chance to win a round. Now, once again, they’re trying to thread the needle instead of taking bold action. It’s possible this is the year that approach finally pays off in the form of a long-awaited second Stanley Cup. That would be the perfect ending to Jim Nill’s unconventional script. It’s just not the most likely.

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