Monday, May 27, 2024 May 27, 2024
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Let’s Take Stock of the Stars at the All-Star Break

Taking stock of the good, the bad, and the next steps for a team finding its groove.
Thomas Harley and Matt Duchene are two big reasons why Dallas is surging. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As they pull into the All-Star break, the Stars rank fourth in the NHL, an elite team by any measure. Sure, they should have put away Anaheim and Washington without needing to hold onto their butts, but with so many teams performing at such a high level, it’s time to stop sticking teams in buckets of good versus bad and great versus terrible. Perhaps we need to start thinking about dominant pressure teams such as Colorado and Florida versus dominant opportunistic teams such as Dallas and Vegas, because the Stars look fully fleshed out as the latter. 

A little over halfway through the 2023-2024 season, ranking second in the murderous Central, their 30-13-6 record feels appropriate. That’s all the more impressive given the way Dallas has not only stabilized but excelled in the absences of Miro Heiskanen and Jake Oettinger. That’s a credit to the players for broadly making the most of their opportunities.      

If we were handing out perfunctory report cards, we’d be here all day. Matt Duchene, with 39 points, could be getting paid twice what he’s currently worth, and his deal would still qualify as a bargain. His 2.98 points per hour at even strength is actually higher than a top-three forward’s average production. The names below him, David Pastrnak and Sidney Crosby, are proof. 

Thomas Harley is another player going well beyond “exceeding expectations.” There’s not a lot to add to the praise he’s rightfully getting, but I’ll add anyway: at 1.55 even strength points per hour, the 22-year-old is giving the Stars the average production of a top-six forward. At this pace, it’s possible that Phillipe Boucher’s single-season franchise record of 19 goals by a defender is in danger. More than points, Harley is elite in key categories that suggest what he’s doing is sustainable. Defensively, he’s past growing; he’s outright mature.         

And were you to ask, “Who is having the best year in relation to expectation?” you’d have a fun game on your hands. Did you know that Tyler Seguin’s even-strength production, when adjusted for minutes, ranks second in the league, above superstars Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid? Did you know that when you adjust for minutes, Nils Lundkist is outpacing Roman Josi at even strength, with 1.24 points per 60? Did you know that Roope Hintz’s impact on goals above expected in all situations (also known as xOff) leads the league? Has Jason Robertson added some Selke juice to his already prodigious repertoire? I’m skeptical, but the math checks out through 49 games.    

That’s only half of the good list. 

However, there is some bad and a little ugly, too. 

That begins with goaltending, which we talked about in the wake of Jake Oettinger’s return and has yet to improve. Neither Oettinger nor Scott Wedgewood is having anything close to a quality season. Both are at or below .900 in save percentage; as a unit, they rank 22nd in the league. 

Notice the non-blue categories below?  

I’m of two minds on Oettinger. He’s been a good goalie much longer than he has struggled, so history is on Dallas’ side. But even good goalies can struggle to perform at a high level through multiple seasons. Oettinger’s slump began in last year’s playoffs; it’s possible that this is his down year, and the hockey gods have come to collect. Regardless, Oettinger’s situation is the kind of situation you let play out. Jim Nill is not about to trade for a goaltender, nor should he. 

And that’s ultimately where the Stars are: in Nill’s hands. What does he think about this team? Where are the holes? 

The blueline has always been a major point of contention, as it should be. But how much of it got fixed through the simple tweak of Pete DeBoer shifting Harley and Heiskanen to a full-time duo? If Ryan Suter is not going anywhere and if the Stars still believe in Nils Lundkvist—and it sounds like Nill does—then what’s the fix? 

I don’t want to minimize Dallas’ flaws, nor am I abandoning my issues with the blueline. In fact, the Stars rank first in a stat you don’t like to see: wins in one-goal games (16). Yes, a win’s a win. But in the regular season, stronger teams tend to win by larger margins more often, more consistently. Things won’t feel as great as they should going into the postseason if this holds up the rest of the way.

That brings us to the competition, the best of which all plays in the West. Heading into the break, Vancouver and Colorado are the only teams better than the Stars at scoring goals at even strength. In terms of preventing goals, Winnipeg and Vegas outrank Dallas by a yardstick. Each are potential playoff opponents, which is to say: Dallas isn’t the only shark in the aquarium. 

These matchups would be precarious enough in a vacuum, but what if the Avalanche get the second-line center they need? How will the Jets look once they weaponize the $5.2 million in deadline cap space they’re about to have? Nill has arguably the best roster he’s ever put together in Dallas. Is it possible it won’t be enough without a move?

Remember that old quote of his: “I like where we’re at.” When he said it in 2018, he was talking about a Stars team led by nostalgia more than a vision—with Devin Shore and Mattias Janmark playing top-six minutes for a team piloted by Ken Hitchcock, who still hadn’t changed. Fans criticized that quote, and they were right to criticize it. But if Nill were to say that today, he’d be talking about a team with the scariest depth in the NHL, two elite blueliners, a (former) Vezina candidate, and—lest we forget—a roster of black aces that look pro-ready.  

I like where they’re at, too. But that’s no longer the question. Rather, how does Nill like where the opposition is at? There’s no time like the present—and a long break—to ruminate.


David Castillo

David Castillo

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David Castillo covers the Stars for StrongSide. He has written for SB Nation and Wrong Side of the Red Line,…