The recent four-game winning streak against the dregs of the league notwithstanding, Dallas is a mediocre road team. But the road they’re on as an organization is also in doubt. Their immediate future could be one without their most dynamic defender in John Klingberg. Their most highly paid players are declining at a rapid rate, and everyone has bought into a system that still hasn’t ironed out the kinks.
Yet despite the drama, Dallas is in a wildcard spot. Premature panic and outrage? I don’t know. I think panic and outrage can serve as strong clues that something is wrong. Dallas can certainly surprise us here. But what are the markers saying? Right now the Stars are almost 10 points out of the Central’s top three. Even their wild card spot is in question. Although they’re holding down the eight spot, Calgary is just one win away from tying Dallas with three games in hand, giving them a higher points percentage. If you dig deeper into Dallas’ expected plus/minus, they’re where they should be: on the cusp. Essentially, Dallas has to hope that either Anaheim or L.A. is playing above expectations to get more comfortable (they are, but really good teams don’t depend on that to make the postseason).
This isn’t a referendum, even if a recent 5-3 loss at home to the Montreal Canadiens, the worst team in the league, seemed to call for an autopsy report not halfway into the season. Besides, they’re one of the league’s six best teams at home, right alongside the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs with 14 wins. Roope Hintz with Joe Pavelski and Jason Robertson is one of the best lines in all of hockey. Add Miro Heiskanen and some good to decent goaltending, and you wonder: why so many unanswered questions?
Predicting the future isn’t hard. All it takes is a healthy respect for the past. The Stars struggled on the road last year, too. It wasn’t as outwardly disastrous as it feels this season, but they were 10-12-6 on the road last season with six losses past regulation. Why? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: they couldn’t score. They were 27th in goals scored at even strength. On the topic of the literal road ahead, they have two games to buckle up for before the next two months. Why is that important? Well, have you seen the next two months?
In March, Dallas gets 10 games on the road and only four at home. February is no joke either, with six of 10 games against Central Division opponents (specifically two against Colorado and two against Nashville). It’s a tough road ahead, and it’ll be tougher without Klingberg, should a trade finally come to fruition.
Before going further, it’s worth talking about the Stars at American Airlines Center. Surely the wheel will come around, and they’ll pick up more wins on the road? That’s possible. They scored 5-4 wins against the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings for their first back-to-back road wins of the season. Then they beat the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils to push their win streak to four. If we’re being slightly unfair, these were paved roads. Dallas scored four goals on six shots on their PP versus Buffalo; Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi missed an empty net to allow Dallas back in the game; Philly had just lost 10 straight; and New Jersey’s goalie, Akira Schmid, allowed more than four goals on average before getting perforated by Joe Pavelski. Dallas winning is all that matters if all that matters is making the playoffs. But that’s never been the goal here.
Here’s the thing: what if they regress at home? Montreal was just one game, but it’s worth highlighting how Dallas is doing at home versus on the road. Below is a table comparing their home/road splits at even-strength rates for the following (in sequence): shots, unblocked shots, shots on net, scoring chances, goals scored, and goals they should expect to score. The numbers are color-coded to indicate rank, with green for top-10 material, yellow for average, and red for not good. Since Dallas’ problem is lack of offense, I’ve only focused on what they create rather than look at percentages.
Unfortunately, their road record tells us they are who we thought they were, even with the recent streak. Whether it’s low-danger shots, medium-danger shots, or high-danger shots, Dallas doesn’t generate quantity or quality, ranking as a mediocre team across the board. The real kicker is that there’s nothing special about their performance at home, either. The only category where they stand out is their shots on net, where they’re ninth at home. What makes the magical difference? They’re eighth in shooting percentage at home and league-last on the road. What’s more likely to regress? Their away shooting percentage, where they don’t perform well enough to get lucky, or their home shooting percentage, where they’re shooting great but performing merely OK?
With the hiring of Steve Greeley, I’m sure Dallas has their own internal analytics that look at the macro level as much as the micro level. How can you look at these numbers and think anything will change without some sort of shift, be it a shift in philosophy, deployment, or roster construction? With all due respect to the team for putting together some wins, isn’t this “will they, or won’t they?” situation why the organization has historically struggled? If Dallas makes the playoffs, great. But no Cup winner since the cap was introduced, in 2005, has ever been outside their division’s top three. Making the playoffs shouldn’t be a blue ribbon for a team with two players (Robertson and Pavelski) out-producing Connor McDavid at even strength.
If so, what does that say about Dallas’ figurative road ahead? Is that not a concession that this isn’t the year? How do you go all-in without all your best weapons, presuming Klingberg gets traded? If you’re like me, and money’s thankfully not at stake to play Armchair GM, you’re suddenly presented with a very attractive proposition: why not trade everything?
Most teams have to bottom out and wear a paper bag over their heads to turn their fortunes around. Toronto did it to land their core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Edmonton did it to land McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The table is set for Dallas to do the same this season, if they so choose. Jim Nill has one of the game’s most dynamic offensive defensemen to help a team’s offense across all three zones, and it’s only going to technically cost a little over $2 million through the end of the year. They have Pavelski, a veteran forward producing over a point-per-game pace with a strong playoff pedigree and no term to worry about. And what would Nill’s old buddy Ken Holland be willing to pay for a cost-controlled former Cup winner like Braden Holtby in Edmonton? There’s no such thing as a halfway rebuild, and Dallas is in position to do it without hitting rock bottom.
While the 2022 draft is not considered particularly strong, some experts do believe that the pandemic stoppages could result in players outperforming their rank—as Stars prospects Wyatt Johnston and Logan Stankoven have done—in addition to the fact that there’s a lot of prospect depth on the blueline. Dallas already has a young core producing and performing like veterans between Hintz, Robertson, and Heiskanen. Their future core of Johnston, Stankoven, Thomas Harley, Riley Damiani, and Mavrik Bourque are approaching the doorstep. The phrase all-in doesn’t have to mean all-in now. What’s wrong with going all-in later?
A decision like that wouldn’t be popular. But hockey fans in Texas aren’t dumb. They know what you’re selling because what you’re selling is so rarely sold in the South. They know the difference between tearing it down to build it back up and pretending to build. Hockey even has half-baked slogans built around weaponizing failure: Sour for (Owen) Power, Lose for (Jack) Hughes, Falling for (Rasmus) Dahlin, and what should have been Zero for Miro in 2017 (I’m ignoring Cale Makar for lack of better bars).
Not being able to commit in the first place is how we got to the point where Klingberg becomes an asset never maximized in a season with too many questions to answer all at once. But let’s keep things in perspective. This isn’t an autopsy report. The Stars could go on a magical run, which they’ve done before. Problem is, they’ve also failed. Getting a solid return on Klingberg could be the way, but it can’t just be him. This season, more than any other, presents a unique opportunity to decide the fortunes of the current roster against the fortunes of tomorrow’s core. Dallas may be mediocre on the road, but it’s the road not taken that could make everything better today, worse tomorrow, or vice versa. Whatever path they choose, as Omar Little says, they best not miss.