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Hockey

No Pavelski, No Problem: Why the Stars Will Be Even Better Next Season

Rarely does a team lose its second-leading scorer and seem poised for improvement. But Dallas is.
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Wyatt Johnston and Logan Stankoven's continued growth will play a big part in Dallas' improvement next year. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s probably still tough for fans to reconcile the Stars feeling like the best team in the Western Conference yet watching them lose to an Oilers squad that few fans, writers, and analysts picked to win. But Edmonton is in the Stanley Cup Final, not Dallas, so something beyond just a very good but flawed Oilers team must have done the Stars in, right?

I think there are a lot of good theories, but that’s not my focus today. My personal philosophy is that strong emotion sometimes points more toward a hard truth more than raw fact. And I came away from the Western Conference Finals feeling quite positive about the Stars’ prospects next year. Is it just about Dallas’ youth movement or something else? Both, I would argue.  

Usually, NHL teams in the cap era have a window, a finite amount of time to be competitive. You only have so many seasons for veterans to give you their best, for prospects to contribute at just the right time under cheap contracts, and for the opponents to all line up in just the right way. It’s why hockey doesn’t have dynasties anymore. 

What makes Dallas’ window different is that a lot of changes are coming, and they’re almost all positive. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t dare trample over a man’s retirement. Joe Pavelski will always be a special player. But this is about the future, and hard truths, so forgive me for deciding a little trampling is in order when I tell you that losing this year’s incarnation of Pavelski will be a boon for Dallas’ offense. 

The Pavelski we saw at age 39 was, rather understandably, not the same player as the monster who teamed with Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson to form the backbone of Dallas’ attack for the last four years. They were elite because there were no passengers. But this season they weren’t elite because Pavelski was, in fact, a passenger, and a heavy one at that. Yes, Pavelski was second on the team in points in the regular season with 67. But with the top line on ice, Dallas outshot the opposition 376 to 307. That’s not awful; in fact, that’s 55 percent of Dallas’ shot share versus their opponents with all three on the ice. 

When Robertson and Hintz were without Pavelski, however, Dallas outshot the opposition 119 to 45. That’s a shot share of 73 percent (!). What’s more, only two units with at least 50 minutes together in the postseason were never on the ice for an even-strength goal. One was Vancouver’s underperforming top unit of Elias Pettersson, Ilya Mikhayev, and Nils Hoglander. The other was, you guessed it, Pavelski with Hintz and Robertson.

Here’s another way of looking at it:

That’s a massive difference. For perspective, 4.21 expected goals per hour was right on par with the dominance of Jamie Benn, Wyatt Johnston, and Logan Stankoven, and would have ranked fifth in the entire league among trios with at least 200 minutes together.

I want to drive home this point because I think the more evident it is, the more it highlights the residual effects it had—not only on Robertson and Hintz’s bottom line, but also why Dallas’ scoring depth seemed to disappear and how addition by subtraction could go a long way toward getting it back. In the same Dallas’s defense needed to move Ryan Suter off the top pair, the Stars can now move on without Pavelski on the top line.  

A lot was made about Dallas’ depth this year, but there’s a difference between having a lot of point producers and having a lot of playdrivers. A closer inspection reveals that the Stars belonged in the former rather than the latter group. If offense were solely about points, then Dallas’ nine players with over 50 points would have amounted to a deeper playoff run than Florida, who only had five (six, if you include their deadline acquisition of Vladimir Taresnko). Yes, offense is about goal-scoring. But it’s mostly about the things that lead to goal scoring: controlling territory, forechecking, and defense. When it got down to the marrow, the Stars only had one line—the Johnston line—that could do that. 

Pavelski’s departure could make room for another. The most obvious replacement for him is Tyler Seguin, who, together with Hintz and Robertson, outscored 3 to 1, with a 76 percent expected goal share that was good for second among all playoff trios with at least 30 minutes together, behind Florida’s monstrous Matthew Tkachuk line. 

Dallas could also supercharge the top unit by slotting Johnston alongside Robertson and Hintz. The results were eye-popping: that trio yielded an obscene 82 percent share of expected goals this season, by far a league best. Dallas also outshot opponents 86 to 26 with them on the ice, outscoring them 9 to 1. That would make Dallas far more top-heavy, but it’s worth recalling how great a role the Connor McDavid-led trio played in Edmonton’s upset win. Either way, whether the Stars choose to stack their top line or tilt the ice with an elite top six, the top six will be just fine.     

Here’s what else Dallas has working in its favor: Johnston and Stankoven will continue to get better. You probably don’t need obscure numbers to know that Johnston is the goods, but here’s an obscure number anyway: Johnston’s playoff microstat rating, which highlights a player’s ability to enter and exit zones with control of the puck along with the shots generated out of it, ranked above Leon Draisaitl and was second only to Connor McDavid leaguewide. Johnston is taking more shots (two more per game), and more attempts (four more this year versus last) than ever, which bodes well for the power play. Even without credible minutes on the top unit, Johnston went from 3.11 points per 60 on the man advantage to 4.17. 

As for Stankoven, last July I did a deep dive into finding Johnston’s cohort and what we could expect as a result. When adjusted for minutes, Stankoven was nearly a goal above a replacement-level forward per game, at even strength. That’s just below McDavid and above names like Sidney Crosby and Elias Pettersson. The sample size is obviously small, and his production trailed a bit. But his motor never did. You’d be hard-pressed to name a better Dallas forward on the forecheck in the playoffs; his even-strength plus-minus was second-best on the team. 

This is really the crux of my Glass Half Full argument. If it’s an atypical argument, that’s because Dallas has drafted atypically well: this is a team with more wins from their draft than any other team since 2007, and most of those have come from 2017 onward. The idea of the Stars’ window widening rather than contracting is a logical outcome. (And that’s before considering the integration of Mavrik Bourque as Dallas’ next great young forward.).

If there’s an X-factor in this thesis, it’s Matt Duchene and Chris Tanev. What happens if two crucial veteran cogs don’t return? Let’s start with Duchene, who was great in the regular season and came to symbolize that forward depth. However, outside of a critical overtime goal versus Colorado, he was mostly absent in the playoffs. To me, Duchene is a luxury. He’ll certainly help the team if he’s re-signed, but if Dallas loads up their top six instead of rolling all four lines, then he suddenly carries less weight. Player production is not as important as the minutes a player wins.  

Meanwhile, like any sane person, I want to see Tanev brought back. He was a massive part of Dallas’ success, and his projected cap hit, per Evolving-Hockey, shouldn’t break the bank.

This will also leave plenty of room for Thomas Harley, who is expected to receive a bridge deal at $3.9 million per year for the next two. That leaves a little more $16 million in cap in a year before Benn and Esa Lindell’s massive contracts fall off the books, Jim Nill will have another $8 million to arrange some mixture of fresh faces and warm bodies. And if ever there were a year for a worthwhile Plan B and C, this is it. Younger players with similar profiles will hit the market in Brett Pesce, Matt Roy, and Dylan DeMelo. Throw in someone like Sean Walker to upgrade the third defense pair, and it’s hard to imagine Dallas’ blueline downgrading.   

None of this is to say there aren’t other hurdles remaining. Pete DeBoer has to potentially re-think the wisdom of “rolling four lines” if the outcome on home ice was an atrocious 4-6 record. The assistant coaching staff can’t be satisfied with Dallas ranking ninth on the power play and 11th on the penalty kill. And Jim Nill, no matter how much he believes in Nils Lundkvist, can’t go into next season giving DeBoer a lineup that he’s very obviously not comfortable with. That’s before considering the cap Nill needs to shed, whether it’s among forwards (Radek Faksa) or the defenders (Ryan Suter, presuming the organization trusts Lian Bichsel to make a move up).  

Dallas doesn’t head into this offseason with many weaknesses, which is what you’d expect for a team fresh off two consecutive Western Conference Finals appearances. Far less expected is a team cracking its proverbial contention window open even wider after the retirement of its second-leading scorer. But so it should go with these Stars, who are poised to have even fewer weaknesses. That’s why I’m predicting they’ll be back to the Western Conference Finals this time next year. And if they play to their potential, perhaps beyond that, too.

Author

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,…
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