The Stars love to keep their fans in suspense. Two seasons ago, they went to the Stanley Cup Final after a tailspin that had former Athletic beat writer Sean Shapiro wondering if they’d even make the playoffs before COVID shut everything down. They came into last season with their chests puffed from that run and, well, you know the rest. This season, they’ve played like each of those teams within the span of one month. Because of that, it’s hard to know if they’re better or worse than they’ve shown. Whatever the case, we can probably all agree that they can be better.
According to MoneyPuck, Dallas has a 13.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. HockeyViz has them a bit higher, at 29 percent. As of this writing, Dallas is six points out of a playoff spot, sixth in the Central, and nine points away from being within striking distance of the Central’s top three of the Minnesota Wild, the Nashville Predators, and the St. Louis Blues. The Stars are 1-4 against them. Perhaps that is the standard we should judge Dallas by. Everybody wants Dallas to make the playoffs, but it’s not really progress if they claw their way into the playoffs for a “puncher’s chance” only to get clowned on like they never belonged.
These being the holidays, let’s talk about what Stars fans should want. What added pieces would make them a contender? Is there something they can add from within that would make them a contender? Is there something the hockey gods can do for them that might turn them into a contender? Here’s my wishlist, in order of importance.
Gift No. 1: More offense (obviously)
There are only so many ways I can put Dallas’ offensive problems into perspective. Since Rick Bowness took over, there have been 94 different rosters in the NHL. Dallas has scored 41 even-strength goals in that span, which is almost dead last (92nd to be specific). A lot of problems are converging at once to deprive Dallas of its offensive ornaments: player decline, roster construction, deployment, bad luck—if there’s an issue, Dallas has it.
This will remain the storyline that defines the Stars’ future. It was the storyline that made everyone think they weren’t a real contender when they suddenly became one two seasons ago; it was the storyline behind why they missed the playoffs last season; and it’s the storyline explaining why they haven’t found consistency this season. It’s not a good idea to create a habit of outscoring your problems, but as this team has proven, you can’t defend every problem, either.
Gift No. 2: More selfishness from Miro Heiskanen
One of the highlights of the season came in November, when Heiskanen singlehandedly shut down the best player in hockey, Connor McDavid. That got some Norris buzz percolating from the likes of Elliotte Friedman, thrusting the spotlight on something we’ve been keeping an eye on in Dallas for a while. Beyond being the world’s fastest shutdown defender, Miro tallied 13 points through his first 15 games. He’s put up only three points since then. Fan voting has him ranked 13th among the league’s best, which is quite the comedown from where public perception had him a month ago.
What’s funny is that in terms of strict performance, nothing really changed. Per Natural Stat Trick, Heiskanen’s defensive numbers all grade out similarly: he’s been consistently good at keeping shot attempts and scoring chances down. His expected goals against (per 60) was 1.96 through his first 15 games (third among Dallas defenders). Since then? 1.68, which is first among Dallas defenders.
The difference? He stopped being selfish. Through his first 15 games, he fired the puck on net 27 times. After that? Only 18 shots. He led defenders in shot attempts by a wide margin through his first 15 games with 56 (the next closest was Esa Lindell, with 41). After that? Just 36 shot attempts, dropping him to third among Dallas’ defenders. The non-COVID illness going around Dallas’ locker room hasn’t helped either, but the Stars will be in better shape once Heiskanen realizes that puck selfishness can be a virtue.
Gift No. 3: A Time Machine for Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin
I don’t like talking about Dallas’ two highest-paid stars. The problem with the Benn/Seguin discourse is that it operates with a lot of fundamental assumptions I don’t agree with—namely, that players are fundamentally lazy or that they can “stop caring” because they’re paid so much. The idea that professional athletes suddenly stop being interested in winning is a foreign concept to me, but beyond that, Benn and Seguin gave Dallas exactly what they needed when they needed it. For five years, the two produced like the NHL’s best. Now they’re out of their prime. In my opinion, that’s on Dallas to forecast better, be better prepared, or in Seguin’s case, have better luck with injuries.
Still, it’s worth highlighting just how bad things are. Below you’ll see a bar graph. The bars are broken down into different types of “goal elements” per Evolving-Hockey: dark blue for even-strength offense, orange for even-strength defense, pink for power-play offense, powder blue for shorthanded defense, green for takeaways, and yellow for penalties drawn. Any blocks behind the “0” refers to the average performance of a healthy scratch forward. Skip this if you don’t want to be sad today. For the rest of you, well, you sure you want to look? Alright then …
What do Benn and Seguin do better than a replacement-level forward? Power play offense, and that’s pretty much it. There’s no getting around this: something has to happen to get these two going. Any notion of a buyout would just make the cap worse, and no other team is about to take on their contracts even if they waived their no-move clauses. I do believe, however, that there’s a potential solution. Failing that, the organization needs to know that this is Benn and Seguin’s new normal. They can either accept it and prepare for it, or they can convince themselves (incorrectly in my view) that they aren’t “trying hard enough.”
Gift No. 4: A top-six winger
It’s been clear for a while that Dallas needs a top-six winger. Jason Robertson and Joe Pavelski are producing like elite wingers, but the cupboard is bare after them. Dallas’ most talented options (Denis Gurianov and Jacob Peterson) have sometimes been healthy scratches, which leaves Benn when he’s at wing (which isn’t often), and Alex Radulov when he’s firing on all cylinders (which also isn’t often). So, now what? Go shopping! The smartest place to shop is with bad teams. I’d be looking at Ottawa’s Connor Brown, signed to a favorable annual average salary of $3.6M AAV through next season. He provides what Dallas wants (defensive responsibility) and needs (above average-offensive performance), and all of his value is tied up in his even-strength performance, which is where Dallas struggles most. Over his last three seasons in Toronto and Ottawa, he’s also used to playing big minutes despite his relative youth.
To make the cap work, the most obvious return would start with Radek Faksa. Faksa is a Bowness favorite, so it’s unlikely, but so was Blake Comeau and we saw what happened there. Ottawa wouldn’t need Faksa (they have strong center depth), so it’s doubtful he would be the piece, but a once-Selke candidate wields magical power. Jim Nill has never traded away a first-round pick for a roster player, but if Dallas believes in this team, he’s gonna have to if it means improving the team’s offense. In fact, any move to trade for Brown would likely involve a first-round pick, an A- or B-level prospect, and a player going the other way to make the cap work. Brown has 16 points so far this season, which would put him fourth in forward scoring on Dallas’ roster. The bigger the benefit, the higher the cost, and Nill can’t be afraid to pay it, whether it’s Brown, or somebody else with a similar impact.
Gift No. 5: Don’t let go of John Klingberg*
The asterisk is so we can table extracurricular discussions about Klingberg’s future. He’s had a quiet year, but he remains a crucial part of Dallas’ ability to transition the puck. If defense is part of the sum—managing the dynamic between all three zones—rather than the parts—i.e. “what a defender does exclusively in the defensive zone”—then it’s impossible to deny his overall effectiveness. It’s easy to think of defense in old-school terms: “offensive” versus “defensive.” The game is littered with defenders who can shoot, pass, defend, or transition. But few can connect so many different elements all at once, and Klingberg is literally one of the best at it.
Klingberg is generally good for 10 or more goals over a full season. While much is made about Dallas’ blueline “depth,” we’ve seen what this team looks like when one of Heiskanen or Klingberg are out of the lineup. That’s because they’re the only two players who can drive play across all three zones. That’s not to diminish the other defenders, only to emphasize that you can’t underestimate how much more assertive Dallas is from their blueline out when both defenders are on the ice.
There’s a running theme to this wishlist: Dallas needs to add more offense, however they can. That goes without saying. But what is the organization wishing for? Do they believe this current team’s weaknesses are coming from a lack of effort, a lack of weapons, or something else? It’s hard to say, but we know one thing: whatever’s on Nill’s wishlist, it better be able to travel.