Even though they missed the playoffs last year, there’s reason to believe the Dallas Stars will be much better this season. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

From Finals To Fall-Off, Where Do The Stars Go Next? 2021 NHL Preview

For the first time in six years, a Stanley Cup finalist from the year prior missed the playoffs entirely. It was one of many fitting notes for one of the most unique and weirdest seasons in NHL history. Just over nine months after reaching hockey’s biggest stage, the Dallas Stars failed to qualify for the 2021 playoffs, finishing just four points behind the Nashville Predators for the final playoff spot in the new-look Central Division… and one point ahead of the Montréal Canadiens, who qualified for the final spot in the one-off North Division despite finishing eighteenth in a league with a sixteen-team playoff.

Not all non-playoff teams are the same, and thankfully for the Stars, they’re near the top of that food chain. It’s hard to have a more Murphy’s Law season than the 2021 Stars. The start of their season was delayed due to COVID. Then they had a few more games rescheduled due to a massive snowstorm in Dallas in February. Tyler Seguin, their first-line center, didn’t return until the final three games of the season. Ben Bishop, their starting goaltender, missed the entire season after missing nearly the entire playoffs. Alex Radulov underwent season-ending core muscle surgery after playing just eleven games. You can’t make that up.

Fortunately, the Stars should be much healthier in 2021-22, and therefore much better. They solidified their team depth with a couple of free-agent signings. The Stars are largely running it back, and it’s hard to argue with that logic. Over the previous two seasons before last year, the Stars won more playoff games than any other team (22), coming one double-overtime goal from reaching the third round in both years. Granted, Dallas only ranks 15th in the regular-season record over that span. But they were a playoff team both years and proved they could challenge and even defeat some of the league’s top teams in the playoffs. Not many other clubs can say that. Can this year’s Stars team get back to that level? Let’s take a look.

Forwards (New Players in Bold)

Jamie BennTyler SeguinAlexander Radulov
Jason RobertsonRoope HintzJoe Pavelski
Blake ComeauRadek FaksaDenis Gurianov
Joel KivirantaLuke GlendeningMichael Raffl

Three of the NHL’s best surprises all came from this unit, and in this projection, they’re all playing together; a rookie in Jason Robertson, a player in his prime in Roope Hintz, and an aging veteran in Joe Pavelski. All three exceeded expectations last year and were huge reasons why the Stars stayed competitive all year despite the massive injury spree that took out many of their other key contributors. Jamie Benn was the only member of Dallas’ projected top-line who played over 50 games last year. Not many other teams had to worry about that type of problem.

Hintz didn’t even reach that threshold last season, dressing for just 41 games as he dealt with injuries all season long. The fact that he was not able to play in that many games, but scored a career-high 43 points despite that, is incredibly impressive. His underlying numbers were phenomenal, too, as Hintz sported a 55% Corsi and 58% Expected Goals, plus a 67% on-ice goals for percentage. If there was one bright side of the Seguin/Radulov injuries, it meant prime opportunities for some of the Stars’ younger players. Hintz’s ice-time jumped by three-and-a-half minutes from 2019-20 to last year, and he took advantage of the increased role. And this wasn’t just a player benefiting from more ice-time; Hintz’s 5v5 points-per-60 more than doubled, from 1.29 to 2.65, 18th best in the entire league. If that breakout is for real, the Stars top-six looks even scarier.

Yet that incredible performance might not have been enough to be Dallas’ MVP up-front. That honor easily could go to Joe Pavelski, who led the team with 51 points while playing elite defense (finishing 7th in Selke voting), even when asked to play center. After a tough first regular season with the Stars, Pavelski has been Dallas’ best forward since the 2020 playoffs, when he became the all-time leading playoff scorer by an American thanks to a team-leading 13 goal run. At the other end of the age spectrum was Dallas’ second-leading scorer, 2017 2nd rounder Jason Robertson. The 22-year old was fantastic in his rookie season, making a legit challenge at Kirill Kaprizov for the Calder. Robertson was 10th in the NHL with 2.85 points per 60 at 5v5, two spots ahead of Nathan MacKinnon (Kasperi Kapanen, go figure, was 11th).

When the Stars formed the Benn-Seguin-Radulov line by adding the latter in free agency in 2017, they figured to be one of the most potent lines in hockey. The trio has been good; a 57% Expected Goals and 64% On-Ice Goals For from 17-18 through 19-20 is certainly nothing to scoff at. But with the trio exiting (or in the 35-year old Radulov’s case, likely past) their primes, perhaps some concern is warranted. That especially applies to Benn, who is tied for 114th in the NHL in scoring over the last two seasons at a hefty $9.5 million cap hit, tied for the league’s 15th highest.

Physical power forwards like Benn often wear down in their early to mid-30s, and unfortunately, the Stars captain might not be an exception. He’s still a productive player and a full season along with Seguin (whose last full season, 2019-20, was a decent step back from where he was the year prior) and Radulov could help. But Benn’s best days are likely behind him.

His potential decline makes it that much more important that Denis Gurianov bounces back. Despite an increased role last year, 2015’s 12th overall pick scored at just a 19-goal pace after tallying 20 in 64 games the year prior. That might prove challenging if he’s indeed saddled with the defensive-first Radek Faksa and a merely decent bottom-six vet in Blake Comeau. Perhaps 2020 playoff hero Joel Kiviranta (11 points in 26 games) or 2018 1st rounder Ty Dellandrea (5 points in 26 games) jump up and make that third line more of a scoring threat than currently projected.

Just to be safe, the Stars added a couple of depth veterans in Luke Glendening and Michael Raffl. Glendening can win faceoffs and kill penalties, but that’s about it. That isn’t enough for $1.5 times two years for a 32-year old in my book, but apparently, Jim Nill thought overwise. He’ll take over Jason Dickinson’s role after he was dealt to Vancouver to avoid (likely) losing him for nothing in the expansion draft. Raffl was once a versatile Swiss Army knife/possession beast in Philadelphia, but his best days are in the past. Still, he’s a decent fourth-liner who was clutch for the Flyers in the 2020 playoffs, scoring four goals in nine games, including a first-round series winner. I may still feel a thing or two for the Austrian Rocket.

Defensemen

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg
Ryan SuterMiro Heiskanen
Andrej SekeraJani Hakanpää

Dallas’ most notable move of the off-season came on defense, where they said goodbye to their physical second-pair left-handed defenseman only to bring in another. Jamie Oleksiak and Miro Heiskanen were excellent next to each other over the last three seasons; their 56.45% Expected Goals ranks eighth among d-pairs with at least 600 5v5 minutes since 2018-19. But the Seattle Kraken swooped in during their exclusive negotiation period and signed the would-be UFA to a 5-year, $23 million contract, locking Oleksiak up until he’s 33.

Dallas countered that by signing someone current older than Oleksiak will be by the end of that deal; 36-year old Ryan Suter, fresh off a buyout from Minnesota. That wasn’t because Suter isn’t serviceable anymore. But the Wild felt they had a chance to get out of the last four seasons of the 13-year megadeal he and Zach Parise inked in 2013 and decided to pull the chute.

Their loss is Dallas’ gain, as Suter is still a top-four defenseman even with a pretty sizable offensive drop-off last year (his 28-point pace is his lowest since 2006-07, which is concerning). The bigger question is how the four-year deal will age. Since Suter is over 35 at the time of signing, his contract is subject to special rules; namely that if the Stars want to buy the deal out, they’ll still have to pay Suter’s exact cap hit ($3.65 million) until the deal is done. That term allows Dallas to save much-needed cap space; they currently have just $800K of it, per CapFriendly. But it could really burn them down the road.

Saving money there became extra important thanks to the massive and deserved contract Suter’s projected partner earned. Miro Heiskanen is one of the game’s brightest up-and-coming defenders, a well-rounded smooth skater with a game tailor-made for the modern NHL. While Dallas’ top-pair features a defensive stalwart (Lindell) and a strong offensive weapon and power-play quarterback (Klingberg), Heiskanen represents the best of both worlds. His top three contract comparables are Thomas Chabot, Cale Makar, and Aaron Ekblad. Not only is that excellent company for Heiskanen to be in, but those three should also be honored to be in the same company as Heiskanen himself. The Stars were wise to lock the 22-year up long-term, even at a pricey $8.45 million cap hit. Unlike some of the defensemen who signed jaw-dropping deals this summer, Heiskanen should be worth every penny.

For the moment, Dallas’ third pair features a pair of serviceable veterans in Andrej Sekera and free-agent addition Jani Hakanpää. But the Stars certainly wouldn’t mind if 2019 1st round pick Thomas Harley pushes past one of them. He was an offensive force for Missasagua of the OHL in 2019-20 and scored 25 points in 36 AHL games last year. That’s a pretty impressive output in a pro league for a defenseman in his draft-plus-two campaign. Harley is easily Dallas’ best defensive prospect and could perhaps take Suter’s second-pair spot shortly. I’m sure he’d more than settle for a third-pair role out of camp though.

Goaltenders

Anton Khudobin
Braden Holtby

Goaltender is supposed to be a pretty straight forward position to write about for these previews. There’s a starter, a backup, and that’s about it. Some teams have a promising youngster waiting in the wings. But it’s usually pretty clear whether they’ll start in the AHL for be trusted with the backup role. Apparently, when they save everything is bigger in Texas, they mean everything – including goalie controversies. Granted, this seems like less of a controversy and more of just plain old confusion. Between Khudobin, Holtby, Ben Bishop, and Jake Oettinger, it seems like a safe bet Dallas will receive good netminding this season. Who will be the catalyst for it? Your guess is as good as mine.

As is with a question on a test you didn’t study for, let’s see where process of elimination gets us. While Bishop is the best (and highest paid) of the group, I, unfortunately, don’t think he’s the answer, at least at the start of the season. The 34-year old has dealt with injury troubles throughout his career and hasn’t suited up for a game since August 31 of last year, one of just three he played in during the bubble. When healthy, he’s been great for the Stars. But even if he returns this year, there’s no guarantee he’ll also return to borderline-Vezina level.

It seems telling that Bishop waived his no-move clause for the Seattle expansion draft to allow the Stars to protect Khudobin, the hero of their 2020 run. The journeyman was excellent as the ying to Bishop’s yang in 18-19 and 19-20; while Bishop was first in the NHL in save percentage over that stretch, Khudobin was right behind in a tie for second. But when asked to take on a bigger role, the 35-year’s old numbers slipped to a pedestrian .905 save percentage.

Khudobin is definitely the safest bet to be a part of Dallas’ tandem this year. And I suppose Braden Holtby is the front-runner to join him as long as Bishop’s out. It was confusing to see the Stars sign Holtby to a 1-year, $2 million deal this summer, potentially blocking out 22-year old Jake Oettinger. After all, the 2017 1st rounder had a solid (.911 SV%) but not spectacular (-4.8 goals saved above expected, per MoneyPuck.com) rookie season. He’s only going to get better.

Meanwhile, Holtby’s only been getting worse, especially over the last two seasons; his .895 save percentage in that span is 60th out of 63 goalies with at least 30 games played. Among goalies who played at least 15 games last year, he was just as bad; 55th out of 58 with a .889 SV%. Look, I understand the allure of adding a former Vezina winner, especially since Khudobin wasn’t great last year. But potentially forcing out Oettinger (who’s waiver exempt) after a decent year doesn’t seem like the smartest call. But goalies are weird, so who knows, right?

The Verdict

Looking at the Stars roster and all of the incredible talents it features really makes me appreciate how nutty things must have been last year for them to miss the playoffs. There are so many really good players on this team, many of whom the average hockey fan probably doesn’t appreciate. The Stars boast an excellent mix of skilled young talent with quality veterans, albeit with some questionable contracts mixed in. Those might burn the Stars three or four years down the line. But in the here and now, their current level is all that matters. And thankfully for the Stars, it’s still pretty high.

The real question for Dallas is who will be the main catalysts to get them there. For a while, this has been Seguin, Benn, Radulov, and Klingberg’s team. All four should still be key contributors in 2021-22. But with Radulov and Klingberg set to be UFAs in the summer, there might be a slight shifting of the guard coming soon in Dallas. The future is now for the Stars when it comes to players like Robertson, Hintz, Heiskanen; maybe even for Oettinger, Harley, and Dellandrea, too. It creates an interesting dynamic this season for the Stars that might have them closer to contention than some realize.

Check out our preview of another Central Division team hoping to return to the playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Dallas is the unique, optimal position of having a still productive veteran core and an emerging young group that can supplement them. Before those young players fully take over the load is the time to strike. That’s where the Stars are right now, but no one gets to say there for long. Their lack of cap space could make it difficult to make a splash at the deadline. But Jim Nill should do whatever it takes to get this team over the hump. Dallas has proven they have a group capable of making a deep run. Pushing over the hump will be their hardest task yet; but Dallas has the pieces to make a pretty good run at doing just that.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick; Salary Cap Info and Depth Chart via CapFriendly