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Stars Vibe Check: Owen Newkirk on the Trade Deadline, Jake Oettinger’s Emergence, And Whether Dallas Returns to the Playoffs

Plus: Who has been a bigger pleasant surprise over the last six weeks, Tyler Seguin or Jamie Benn?
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The NHL season is hitting its final stretch, and the Stars will be sweating every point as they attempt to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. So we brought back our Vibe Check correspondent, Stars radio host Owen Newkirk, to break down his thoughts about the trade deadline, Jake Oettinger cementing himself as the starter in net, and which stalwart forward has been more of a pleasant surprise recently. Then, finally, the big prediction: do the Stars ultimately make the playoffs?

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. We’ll circle back with him once the regular season is over.

It was a pretty quiet trade deadline, as I think we expected. In your opinion, did the Stars do enough last week?

I would have been a little disappointed if they didn’t do anything because, with the way this team is set up, all year they’ve been talking about going for it with a group of guys who are either at the end of their contracts or close to that, and getting older in age. That’s something that seemed like wasn’t the sort of thing you could punt down the road to next season, trade away a bunch of unrestricted free agents and say “OK, we’re good. We’ll claim some future assets and worry about next year.” It never seemed to be the kind of thing that this team was planning on doing. So you felt that because they had been a pretty good hockey team but hadn’t been that consistent with scoring outside of their top line, that they could use some help. 

Now, as Jim Nill said afterward, I don’t think anybody could have predicted he would have been acquiring a goalie at the deadline back in September. That’s something that understandable in the circumstances, but four, five months ago, you never would have guessed goaltender would be a position of need. But I think it was the right move. The [Vladislav] Namestnikov one isn’t one of the sexiest acquisitions—like, for example, going after a guy like Claude Giroux or one I thought in my head might be a good fit for Dallas, Andrew Copp, who went from Winnipeg to the New York Rangers. What I will say is they added a player who gives them flexibility. It makes them better, which is the first question. But even more so, they made two adds in two areas I thought, at the time, they definitely needed to address without going into the ridiculously high-priced area that some of those guys I mentioned before went for. To not have to spend a high draft pick or prospects to make your team better, I think that is a win for the Stars.

A major reason why this deadline was so quiet, of course, is Jim Nill pulling John Klingberg off the market. I think there are some shades of gray in this because, as you said, this is a win-now team and Klingberg is a massive part of what they do. At the same time, as you alluded to, this was a seller’s market. There were players going for monster prices, and John Klingberg is on an expiring deal, so there’s a way to look at this of “If that’s the sort of stuff coming back in trade returns, maybe they should have moved him.”

Put yourself in NIll’s chair for a moment. How would you have handled this situation?

Not much different than the way Jim Nill handled it because I don’t believe John Klingberg was ever actually on the active trade market. Reporting has said he had given Klingberg and his representatives permission to talk to other teams about a potential trade. That doesn’t mean he was actively shopping him, and I don’t think there was ever a point where he was [thinking] “Hey, I’ve got to make a move” with John Klingberg. 

Does every GM talk to all the other GMs all the time? Of course, because if you’re not feeling out and gauging the market and the move for everything in every aspect of his team, you’re not doing your job. There are players every GM talks about with other teams that never come to the surface for the media and the public that I’m sure would shock all of us, but it’s a normal business day for those guys.

So for me with Klingberg, put it in the alternative. Let’s say you’ve decided you’re going to trade John Klingberg away. I think it would have been a mistake, but let’s just say for the sake of hypothetical. Two questions. One, how do you replace him? And I haven’t come up with an answer for that yet. Months later, I don’t have an answer for “OK, you want to trade John Klingberg. Who is your top offensive right-handed defender who plays at the elite level in the NHL?” The answer is there are guys out there, but I don’t know how you could get them. I believe it would make your team objectively worse by trading John Klingberg away just for futures. Now you’re making your attempt to get to the playoffs harder. We know in the NHL that just getting into the playoffs gives you a chance. We always talk about the NBA: the eight seed is never going to beat the one seed, and if it does, I’m shocked. In the NHL, we’ve seen an eight seed win a Stanley Cup. So it can happen, and step one is to get in. If you trade John Klingberg away, you’re going to make it harder for your team to get into the playoffs.

The other part of it is you just signed Joe Pavelski to a contract extension with the idea that he feels he can have a chance to win a Stanley Cup with this team. He was an unrestricted free agent after the year, [and] there’s nobody who would have held it against Joe Pavelski if he said, “You know what? Really enjoyed my time in Dallas, but I think I’m going to try a different one because I’m going to chase a Cup, and I don’t know what this team is going to look like.” Now I’m not saying the Stars are going to [go] down from this year to next year; far from it. But what I see is if you had signed him to an extension and turned around and dumped Klingberg a week or two later, you would have had some serious questions to answer to Joe Pavelski and his agent. That just doesn’t make any sense.

You already alluded to the wonderful irony of this team, of all teams, needing goaltending help. The one constant through so much of this has been the young guy, Jake Oettinger. How do you evaluate his first season as the starter, and how good do you think he can ultimately be?

The funny thing is, you say the one constant: that wasn’t the case because there were four goalies in camp, and Jake Oettinger did not win a job when he came into the year, having been on the roster during the shortened season last year. And he fully expected to keep his job. “I’ve got my spot, and we’ll let those other guys fight it out for another spot.” 

The interesting thing is Oettinger didn’t play well in training camp and in preseason to a secure a spot on the NHL opening night roster. That’s an indictment of his play, but when we think, “Oh, he needs to be consistent,” he’s actually had his ups and downs. Lately, he’s been a rock, and he should totally be applauded for it because I think he’s actually gotten better as the season’s gone along. We saw when he got sent down at the beginning of the season that the Stars’ front office knew he was still their goalie of the future. I don’t think they expected him to be the No. 1 right now. I think Braden Holtby was the expected number one coming out of training camp. I think going into training camp, that was the expectation. I think the Stars knew Ben Bishop had a long hill to climb, and the Stars held out a little bit of hope that he could recover and play, but they weren’t mortgaging the farm on that, which is why they brought in Holtby in the first place. 

The fact that Oettinger has been able to deal with being sent down and not completely let it get to him, especially after being in the NHL all last year, and to then come up, have some great games, have a couple rocky games—there were a couple of days where it didn’t look like things were going his way, and it doesn’t mean he’s a bad goalie; just riding that roller coaster of NHL life—and then to really grab it and run when everyone else got hurt? I mean, the Stars aren’t a playoff team if it isn’t for Jake Oettinger.

We’ll return to that conversation about Dallas being a playoff team in a minute. Before that, though, I’ll give you a choice: bigger pleasant surprise over the last six or so weeks—Tyler Seguin or Jamie Benn?

Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think we saw with Tyler Seguin that he was coming along slowly. He even admitted being surprised at how far away from he needed to be he really was. It wasn’t from a fitness standpoint. It was from a recovery-from-surgery standpoint. He was in shape. He had good offseason training. He played a couple of games at the end of last season. It gave him that sort of impetus to [say] “OK, I’ve returned. I can play in the NHL again.” A lot of times, guys are still a little hesitant coming off a major injury because you just don’t know what the body’s going to react to. So there’s that. But, at the start of the season, I think it was a real eye opener to Seguin at just how far he had to go from getting back your explosiveness, getting back your timing, all those things. He just didn’t have the start he thought he would, but we’re seeing from Tyler more recently at least what a 30-year-old Tyler Seguin is going to be. And the expectations are there, and he’s been much, much better.

Jamie’s been a guy who I think surprises people because everybody still remembers 2014 Sochi Olympics Jamie Benn, where he just was a dominant force. He still can have a huge impact on the game, but he’s not going to be 2014 Jamie Benn. That was a long time ago now. Of course he’s going to be different. Jamie is the kind of guy who I keep looking at and going, “I wouldn’t want to take him out of the lineup because he is still such an important factor in the game even if maybe he’s not leading the team in scoring.” With that being said, if he wasn’t in the lineup, it’s a lot worse for this team. 

So I guess to answer your question in a meandering sort of way, I don’t know if either one’s a surprise. Jamie Benn is playing the way I would expect him to, and we’re happy to see Tyler coming along. 

Well, to play devil’s advocate, 21 points in 23 games is not the sort of thing we’d expect from Benn given how he’d looked for much of the season, as far as he was contributing but wasn’t on the scoresheet very often.

I guess I still expect him to be there. If this team’s going to win in the playoffs, they can’t just rely on the Avengers line [Jason Robertson-Roope Hintz-Joe Pavelski] because that trio has been so good. But at times on the road, they get the toughest matchup, and they’ve been shut down, and somebody has a better matchup when all the defensive focus is on that group. So that’s another reason, when we go back to the trade deadline with Namestnikov, that was so important because it adds another layer of depth, somebody who can put the puck in the net, who can play center, he’s physical, he’s responsible defensively—all the things you’re looking for other than maybe a guy like Claude Giroux who has that dynamic offensive ability that few players in the league have. 

But Jamie’s numbers are not surprising to me. He’s on a little bit of a run, OK, but that’s where a guy like that should be. 

Fair enough. All of this is with a view toward the playoffs, and this race could go down to the wire. It seems you are confident the Stars make it, but I’ll check to confirm. Do the Stars ultimately get in, and if so, why do you believe they will?

They will get in because the thing that has surprised me most about this team that shouldn’t by this point is just when you think they are counted out, they come off the mat and find another level, another gear, another push. And it’s happened not just this year, but in multiple seasons with this group. When you think they have nothing left to give, that their losing streak is going to end their season, that somebody’s going to lose their job because the results have been just horrific, they find a way to get a bounce, get a point, win in overtime. 

Honestly, the biggest reason why this team will make the playoffs is they turned around their overtime play. Last year, they were atrocious in games past regulation, and that’s why they missed the playoffs. If they were a .500 team in their overtime games, they make the playoffs last year. This year, they have one of the best overtime-shootout records in the NHL, and because they’ve won so many games, that’s the difference in this tight margin of standings where only a couple of points separate in and out: their ability to win games in overtime.


Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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