The Stars are having a very good season. That’s not something we’ve been able to say with consistency or confidently during Jim Nill’s 10-year tenure. Maybe it’s because we’re terrified of jinxes. But fear not! Even with another round of all-too-familiar winter struggles, the Stars have held down the top spot in their division for a large portion of the season. It’s a testament to just how strong Dallas started that it’s still fighting at the top of the Western Conference despite slumping to 12-8-7 since the new year. That’s the luxury that comes with having built a cushion.
So the Stars are as close to a lock to make the playoffs as a team can be in the NHL, but we all know that this season won’t be defined by the first 82 games. The Seattle Mariners put up the best regular season in modern MLB history in 2001, winning 116 games; I can assure you that nobody in Seattle is sitting around talking about how special those first 162 games were. Right or wrong, seasons are judged by what happens in the playoffs.
For years, Nill has talked about how every playoff run has an element of randomness to it, so his goal from Day 1 has been to make the Stars a perennial playoff team. Get your playoff lottery ticket, catch a break or two along the way and hope things come together to make magic at some point, as they almost did three years ago. So you heard it here first: buying lottery tickets is a great investment. Suck on that, Dave Ramsey.
These Stars are poised to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, which would be a run the team hasn’t experienced since 2008. It took a while, but Nill has made the Stars a consistent postseason presence, and he has done it without torpedoing the future. (Perhaps you have heard about one or two good young players on this team.)
But how competitive can this team really be? Yes, teams in the West look to have a far easier road to the Cup Final than those in the East this season, but the Stars have spent much of the new year throwing cold water on what they accomplished in the first half of the season. Coupled with relatively modest activity at the trade deadline, I think it’s worth asking whether this team is good enough to make noise come playoff time. And never mind the playoffs. If you watched the soul-crushing loss to Calgary on Monday, you would be excused for wondering whether this team is good enough to make noise in a kazoo outlet on Free Sample Friday. We’ve seen promising Stars teams look suddenly fragile before.
So let’s ask the real questions: how does this team stack up to the one Nill built for the 2020 bubble run? How does this squad compare to the offensive battleship that got sunk by its goaltending in 2016, or the group that Ben Bishop dragged to overtime against St. Louis under Jim Montgomery in 2019?
The scientific way to do this would be to add up each team’s playoff roster plus/minus or points or something, but you don’t want to read that and I don’t want to write it, so let’s trust our collective gut and take a walk down memory lane. I’m certain we’ll be able to properly position the playoff chances of these Stars through the lens of nostalgia. Human memory is notoriously reliable!
It may be tough to remember, but way back in 2014, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were enjoying their first playoff run together. The Stars got a tad fortunate in Lindy Ruff’s debut season, slipping into the final wild card spot in the West despite a rough spring. That was the season Kari Lehtonen got clocked by Erik Haula; he was never really his vintage self again. The only deadline move the team made was to get Tim Thomas to shore up its backup goaltending. Elsewhere, Val Nichushkin was having a great rookie season, Jordie Benn and Colton Sceviour were getting regular time, and Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski found some legs that began to make Anaheim look slow. Sergei Gonchar and Vernon Fiddler were also lineup staples in a series that was even at 2-2, until it wasn’t. This was a team with older veterans and some great young forwards, and a lot of filler in between. The Stars had plenty of depth, but not much quality.
How did it all turn out? Let me answer my question with a question: Do you know who this team’s leading playoff scorer was? I bet you do not, because it was Shawn Horcoff. Yes, really. Shockingly, that team did not make it out of the first round.
Odd fact: Alex Chiasson somehow racked up a minus-7, even though the Stars surrendered only 12 even-strength goals to Anaheim. Congratulations to Alex Chiasson.
Best in the West, this squad was so dominant at times that it set the record (since surpassed) for most empty-net goals in a season. The forward unit was deep, as Nill paid sticker price to acquire Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza, and Aleš Hemský in hope of building a second line. The forward corps rocked Spezza and Jamie Benn at the top end of the scoring ledger. Patrick Eaves, Cody Eakin, and Mattias Janmark were all more useful than you might remember, while Nichushkin and Antoine Roussel were still sneaky dangerous on the fourth line. The team was fast, and it created shooting lanes and scoring chances at a terrifying pace, even without the injured Seguin.
The defense was dynamic as well, not least because of the midseason promotion of Stephen Johns, who provided a larger presence than the other players on the blue line. Nill had traded for Kris Russell at the deadline after Vancouver backed out of a Dan Hamhuis deal, and Jason Demers and Johnny Oduya were no slouches. Maybe the blue line didn’t have the elite top-end of other teams, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many weaknesses with the skaters in that lineup.
Also, there were goalies on that team. Two of them, in fact. Both played some games in the playoffs, and the Stars went home. The less said about that, the better.
Odd fact: Radek Faksa made his playoff debut by scoring the opening goal in Game 1 against Minnesota.
Ken Hitchcock’s brief reunion tour the year before had been an abject failure in the eyes of most fans, with the team putting up 92 points and falling flat down the stretch to miss the playoffs. In Montgomery’s first season, the Stars amassed just one more point, but in 2019, 93 points were good enough for a wild-card berth in the West, which led to a series-winning overtime goal against Nashville from John Klingberg. One measly point differential, but two entirely different outcomes. No one said life was fair.
In truth, the biggest difference between those two years—aside from Jim Lites’s profanity—was Ben Bishop. This would be the only healthy playoff run of Bishop’s time in Dallas, and Nill did everything he could to make it count. He must have sensed that Bishop was going to be cooking that year because he paid a high price at the deadline for Mats Zuccarello, who was a big contributor in the playoffs despite being far less than 100 percent.
On the blue line, Miro Heiskanen’s rookie year was wonderful in all the ways you remember, and until he got hurt, Klingberg was a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate. Esa Lindell and Roman Polak won over many fans, and before the deadline, Nill traded for Reliable Veteran Ben Lovejoy, who promptly put up a Reliable Veteran minus-7 in the playoffs. After Jamie Oleksiak got hurt, Joel Hanley, Taylor Fedun, and Dillon Heatherington did their best to fill his shoes, with extremely mixed results.
Anyway, things were fun until the scoring dried up, and the Blues made it out of the Western semifinals because fate was on their side, or because Jordan Binnington had some serious blackmail material on fate. I know what I believe.
Odd fact: Both the 2015-16 squad and these 2018-19 Stars scored the same number of goals (35) in their 13-game playoff runs.
Heiskanen and Klingberg led the team in playoff scoring, but Jamie Oleksiak also put up five (!) playoff goals, including a memorable one or two.
Joe Pavelski potted 13 goals in the bubble, and Benn and Alex Radulov were consistent with nine goals apiece. Denis Gurianov led the team in goals during the abbreviated season, and he had some heroics in a surreal playoff run with nine goals, including the winner against Vegas. It was a mixed bag for the other forwards. Joel Kiviranta had a hat trick, including the OT game-winner, in Game 7 against Colorado. But he had only two other playoff goals. Corey Perry had five goals, which matched his total from 57 regular-season games. Seguin and Roope Hintz had only two goals each. Was this the NHL version of “spreading it around” or just some fortunate sequencing? You decide.
Anton Khudobin was otherworldly in the bubble. The Stars have been spoiled with goaltending for most of their history, but this was another level. Help unsought is often the most welcome, and this was no exception. Throughout the Vegas series, it felt as if the Stars were charmed. This was whatever the terrible, made-for-TV hockey adaptation of Angels in the Outfield would be, except it was amazing.
Odd fact: Jamie Oleksiak led the team with a plus-11 rating, while Esa Lindell brought up the rear with a minus-12, belying their respective reputations for defensive aptitude.
Oh, sure, other stuff happened, technically, but this team was sputtering in a lot of ways, and their goaltender refused to let them crumble. The Stars finished fourth in the Central after bringing in only Vladislav Namestnikov at the trade deadline, and the goalscoring issues continued in the playoffs. The top line of Pavelski, Hintz, and Jason Robertson was the only thing going for them; they scored half of the team’s goals. That isn’t saying much, however, because the Stars tallied only 14 goals in the seven-game series against Calgary. They had no business pushing that series to six, let alone seven games—and overtime, at that.
Yes, Oettinger did his best 2019 Bishop impersonation, insofar as it was enough to give the Stars a chance that they ultimately couldn’t capitalize on.
Odd fact: Klingberg led the team in penalty minutes with 26, because he couldn’t stop fighting people. That’s some kind of a farewell tour.
So how does a squad freshly supplemented with Max Domi and Evgenii Dadonov stack up to these rosters? Pretty well, I’d say. While the Stars still have issues with their depth on the blue line, it’s not nearly as top-heavy as it was in 2019, and it’s probably just about even with last year. Thanks to Benn’s resurgence and Wyatt Johnston’s emergence, they have multiple forward lines that are productive, and they have the same goalie who nearly won a series by himself last year.
They may not have the depth of 2016’s skaters, but goaltending is so critically important that I’m not sure I wouldn’t take this year’s squad. The 2019 team with prime Klingberg and rookie Heiskanen was perhaps a bit more deadly on paper, but we know now that a lot of folks on that team were fighting injuries. The scoring dried up pretty quickly as a result, and the blue-line depth got exposed. This year, in contrast, Thomas Harley is waiting for a chance to show off his solid defensive game, and Dallas also has Joel Hanley, because there is always Joel Hanley.
We’re still a month away from finding out this team’s ceiling, but if reviewing the past has taught me anything, it’s that every team except Boston has weaknesses or will have them exposed along the way. The Stars have serious forward depth and a system that positions them to come back even when they have an off night. They’ve proven time and again that they can make other teams look foolish, and they have a roster loaded with players who know what the playoffs feel like. That’s not nothing.
I’d say this team is right up there with any of the past playoff rosters. We’re always more acutely aware of a team’s weaknesses than its strengths over the course of a season, but when you pull back a bit, you remember just how good this team has been and can be. Another way to look at the 12-8-7 record since New Year’s Day is that the Stars have lost in regulation in only eight of their last 27 games.
That doesn’t mean the Stars won’t find a new and exciting way to disappoint their fans; after all, being sad in a group is what sports is all about. But it does mean that, for all their flaws, Peter DeBoer’s Stars are as capable as any team in recent memory of doing something special, given half a chance. They’ve already done enough to earn one.