It’s easy to get caught up in the finality of it.
The empty seats at the AAC, 6-0 still on the scoreboard, as the Vegas Golden Knights celebrated—but didn’t touch the trophy—their Western Conference title on the Stars’ home ice.
Because of the actions of Jamie Benn and his subsequent two-game suspension, Game 6 will always be linked with Game 3. An aggregate 10-0 beatdown in the two biggest home games in more than 15 years, tears from grown men in the locker room, it blurs out the good times it took to get there.
“It’s all about the Cup,” is a well-contrived marketing slogan, but it’s also an ideology that makes it feel like a trapdoor has been pulled when you get so close to the Stanley Cup Final, but fail to advance.
It’ll hurt even more for the team that loses the next series. Stars players and fans will watch Vegas or Florida lift the Stanley Cup and wonder to themselves, some more quietly than others, “What if Jamie Benn hadn’t lost his cool in Game 3?”
At the same time, the Seattle Kraken will wonder what if Wyatt Johnston hadn’t gotten loose in Game 7. Boston Bruins fans will wonder what would have happened if Brad Marchand had scored with less than a second remaining in Round 1 against the Florida Panthers to potentially end that series.
In a random sport, we try to assign meaning to often unexplainable events. We question what-if rather than celebrate what was, and it can numb how impressive a playoff run truly was.
Because at the end of the day, even with the sobering letdown, the Stars played into late May. They were the third-closest team to winning the whole thing, and it was chaotic and fun along the way.
The youth movement energized the franchise, the 20-year-old Johnston’s Game 7 game-winner an exclamation on an excellent campaign. Thomas Harley evolved from a what-if top-four prospect to the Stars’ bona fide No. 2 defenseman in the playoffs. Miro Heiskanen, Jason Robertson, and Jake Oettinger—believe it or not—still have yet to celebrate their 24th birthdays. Roope Hintz is a spry 26.
An NHL general manager once told me it takes five bona fide stars to win a Stanley Cup. Having even more certainly helps, but that number is looked at as the threshold between contender and pretender. The Stars have that core, and I haven’t even mentioned Joe Pavelski, who has defied aging curves into his late 30s and will be back for another ride next season.
The Stars’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020 was more of an aberration, a team catching fire in an odd situation, MacGyvering themselves into the bubble final where they got slammed by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
This run wasn’t about catching fire. It was about formally passing a torch.
Benn and Tyler Seguin have moved into the background (albeit when one isn’t cross-checking opposing captains), and the Stars’ core is locked up for repeated runs on the NHL playoff Plinko board.
The franchise is healthy, the cap situation is solid, and Jim Nill has built such a strong foundation that his name surfaced as talk-radio fodder to fill the GM position in Toronto.
There are things to celebrate, but there are also lessons to be learned, some more obvious than others.
Oettinger was a bounceback king, but he was asked to bounce back too many times. He was playing through injury, according to coach Pete DeBoer, and by the end of the Vegas series, he was worn down by the heavy workload: a combined 81 regular-season and playoff games. The two goalies who will start Game 1 of the final on Saturday have played a combined 102 NHL games this season.
Each of the other three conference finalists went into this season with at least three goalies they trusted to play NHL games, and Vegas went out of its way to acquire a fourth at the trade deadline. Dallas ran two-deep, lacked an NHL-ready No. 3, and when Scott Wedgewood was injured down the stretch, Oettinger had to carry the load.
Nill needs to be in the market for a viable No. 3, someone who can play when injury arises, and in theory a player you’d trust to start a playoff game.
Nill also has decisions to make about the defensive core. Miro Heiskanen is the best defenseman in franchise history, but until Harley showed growth in the NHL playoffs, he was a Jon Snow in the Battle of the Bastards, without the Knights of Vale saving him at the end. Harley can be that legit No. 2, either on his own pair or riding with Heiskanen, but the Stars need to address the rest of the defensive core. They can’t be blinded by Ryan Suter’s play in the first two rounds, and they can’t be the team that makes the mistake of signing Joel Hanley for more than a No. 7 defenseman role. They have to advance their defensive thinking to stay competitive.
There will be rumblings about Benn’s role and potentially stripping him of his captaincy, Such talk even percolated among the national media after his actions in Game 3. As painful as that was, the Stars don’t need to overreact. Instead, they need to remember the Bennasaince we witnessed this season: how effective Benn can still be in a reduced role and how he gracefully stepped back to allow younger players to seize his spot on the marquee.
The Stars need to embrace the next core, allow the hand-off of responsibility, while keeping the veterans who understand how to steward that and cutting ties with those who potentially get in the way of progress.
Ultimately, the Stars were good enough this season to win it all. They really were. And they could be even better next season if they have learned the right lessons and aggressively address them this summer.