The Stars are an old team. The Stars are also a young team. Which one you believe more depends on what reality you see. Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Hockey

Ready to Start: Setting the Table for the 2021-22 Dallas Stars Season

Say hello to the most fascinating team in town.

The Dallas Stars are an old hockey team — the oldest in the NHL, in fact, with an average player age of 29.75 years old. That’s more than half a year higher than the second-placed New York Islanders. Last year’s leading goal scorer, Joe Pavelski, is 37. Their captain, Jamie Benn, is 32. One half of the goaltending duo that brought them within two wins of a Stanley Cup, Ben Bishop, is 34; his counterpart, Anton Khudobin, is 35. Alexander Radulov is also 35, which is the same age as the heartbeat of the checking line, Blake Comeau, and one year younger than the team’s big offseason acquisition, Ryan Suter.

The Dallas Stars are also a young hockey team. Their best player, Miro Heiskanen, is 22. So is Jason Robertson, last season’s runner-up for NHL rookie of the year. Roope Hintz, the presumptive top-line center of the future and perhaps present, is 24. Tyler Seguin, the only player who could have anything to say about the latter, is still only 29, as is John Klingberg, Heiskanen’s defensive co-anchor. Denis Gurianov is 24; Esa Lindell and Radek Faksa are 27. Their best goaltender last year, Jake Oettinger, turns 23 in December. Twenty-year-old Thomas Harley, one of the NHL’s top 30 or so prospects, could be up by midseason.

You can craft a narrative around either one — the fading giant or the hopeful upstart, a team that already blew its shot or one yet to encounter it. What makes the 2021-22 Stars the most fascinating team in Dallas is that there’s legitimate reason to believe either story. You see what you want to with this group.

For instance, the goaltender situation. Four of them are in the mix to start, a discombobulating number or maybe a brilliant one at a position where momentum and flow matter almost on par with skill. You can convince yourself of a happy ending to Bishop’s improbable comeback after injuries wiped out his 2020 playoff run and 2020-21 regular season, just as you can chalk up Khudobin’s miserable ’20-21 campaign to a bad case of COVID-19. It’s reasonable to think that import Braden Holtby, a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender just three years ago, just needs to rebound from bad circumstances in Vancouver. Perhaps parts of all three. Or: Bishop’s body is too broken, Khudobin’s skills too faded, Holtby too far removed from who he was in Washington, and Oettinger pays the price for all of it by getting mired in the AHL to accommodate a trio with a collective age of 101 years old and a combined cap hit north of $10 million.

Benn seems revitalized by a move off the wing, while Seguin is saying all the right things about feeling healthy, and so Dallas may have backdoored its way into the center depth that so often defines Cup winners. Unless time has stolen too much from both, leaving Hintz, who slogged through injuries last season, to shoulder an even heavier load in an Olympics year, a proposition that could leave his body at its worst by the time of year his team needs him most. Gurianov, arguably the Stars’ most electric goal scorer, could fizz or fizzle; he’s done both in the span of a calendar year. And it’s hard to guess what Radulov, enigmatic in the best of times, might do ahead of his last meaningful jaunt into free agency.

Pavelski and Klingberg are set to join him on the open market, and as Owen Newkirk explained this week in Vibe Check, this scenario starts to look like what Jim Nill saw his days with the Detroit Red Wings: one wave of talent exiting the team’s conveyor belt but offset by another maturing and a third getting its skates sharpened. This is how Detroit spread four Stanley Cup wins across  12 seasons — never too heavy in one age bracket or another and thus never vulnerable to a total system collapse.

But as our David Castillo wrote last month, there is a thin line between balance and half measures, deliberate and gun shy. A cycle must start before it can be maintained. As Nill enters his ninth season helming the front office and as Dallas’ roster has spun through several iterations without a championship, where does the team stand on that thin line?

Perhaps there is no dichotomy. There is a world in which everything blends together in the perfect way, the upstarts ascending right when the veterans crest. Robertson and Hintz score 45 goals as Pavelski and Seguin chip in 45 more; Heiskanen makes his first real Norris push while Suter paces the team in +/-. But the age balance is wide enough to make everything so fragile. A stalled breakout here and an unexpected decline there could be all the misalignment needed to push Dallas off course in one of the NHL’s most stacked divisions, to say nothing of injuries that crop up more frequently among men in their 30s who have been worn down from slamming into one another since puberty. This team wants for timing far more than talent, and it can look no further than the past two seasons to realize how high and low that can bring them.

This time, though, the stakes are higher than ever. Rick Bowness’ contract expires after this year, and Nill’s the year after; if Tom Gaglardi wants a regime change, a financially convenient window is about to creak open. There is no clear bright line on what constitutes success or failure this year, and even that might get muddled further if contract negotiations break down with Klingberg, forcing Nill to deal him midyear versus losing one of the game’s better defensemen for nothing next offseason.

Everything is so deeply unknowable and figures to remain that way for most of this season — if not well into the playoffs. After all, nobody fancied the Stars of two years ago as Cup contenders until they suddenly were. Which is how we can envision so many different realities for this team: there’s little absolute truth about them, which means even less is demonstrably false. The Cowboys (very good) and Rangers (very bad) are well defined at this juncture, while an overwhelming amount of the Mavericks’ season hinges on what Kristaps Porzingis and Jason Kidd can provide. But the Stars operate as a collective far more than a showcase for any one or two individuals, and that collective could be many things, good or bad.

Expect them to be compelling and probably a little chaotic, too: the most defensively principled bumper car ride in all the land. The destination is anyone’s guess.

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