Over the span of six weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
By the time we’ve hit every team, it will be mid-September. And that, of course, means it will be time for training camps to open. Perfect timing, really.
Today, it’s the Dallas Stars…
Two years ago, the Dallas Stars finished second in the NHL with 3.13 goals per game. So they promptly went out, added Patrick Sharp and climbed to 3.23 goals per game this past season — good for first overall.
Those goals directly translated to success in the standings too, as the Stars jumped from 92 to 109 points — vaulting all the way from sixth to first in the Central. They also picked up their first playoff series win since 2008, but the wheels came off in the second round. Well, as much as the wheels can come off in a seven-game series, that is.
Dallas played St. Louis close, but the Stars had their biggest weakness exposed when it mattered the most. With everything on the line in a decisive Game 7, they were down 3-0 after one, and 5-0 with time still left in the second period. That was that.
Who is the goalie?
When a club reaches the status of legitimate contender, the bar is raised for everyone on the roster. Particularly in net, where the play of the goalie — or, in the case of Dallas, goalies — can go a long way toward determining the team’s fate.
On the one hand, the Stars score a lot, so there should be a little less pressure on the guys between the pipes. But the franchise has a combined $10.4 million tied up in the duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi — and they didn’t exactly get their money’s worth during the postseason.
In 11 playoff contests, Niemi posted a 2.81 goals against average and a less-than-inspiring .899 save percentage. He still managed six wins though, because the lineup in front of him is loaded with scorers.
Lehtonen was even worse, with a brutal 3.29 GAA and .865 save percentage over five appearances. Both netminders were better during the regular season, but still failed to consistently get the job done. The wins were there, but they posted 2.67 and 2.76 GAAs, respectively.
They’re each signed for two more seasons though, meaning one of them needs to step up as quickly as possible. It won’t be easy to trade either of them, and Dallas is good enough that they’ll both be put in pressure situations again very soon.
NOTABLE SUMMER LOSS
Alex Goligoski (to ARI)
The Stars knew they were likely going to lose Goligoski, who was set to be the highest-rated defenseman on the open market this summer. So they dealt his rights to the Coyotes, who got him signed before July 1 and gave Dallas a fifth-round pick in return.
The Stars lost Jason Demers off the blue line too, so now they’re relying heavily on John Klingberg, Dan Hamhuis and a lot of young guys. Johnny Oduya provides some experience as well, but consistency behind the top few names could be an issue for a while.
Julius Honka (drafted: No. 14 overall in 2014)
Honka has been playing in the AHL since he was 18, and saw a nice jump in both his production and overall level of play this past season. He finished the year with 11 goals and 44 points for Texas, and might even be in line to stay there one more year to really refine his game. Or it could be time for him to make the jump to Dallas.
The Stars are going to have some spots open along the back end, though there are other guys with either a little more experience or one-way deals that make it tougher to keep them off the roster. Either way, Honka is making a push as arguably the top defensive prospect in the system. And since that’s the area in the organization with the most fluidity right now, he’ll be knocking on the door soon.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Jason Spezza ($7.5 million)
Jamie Benn is set to make $9.5 million per season through 2025, starting in 2017. So his name will be in this space a year from now. But it’s still Spezza for the time being, as he’s slated to pull in $7.5 million in 2016-17. And, given the fact that he piled up 33 goals in 2015-16 — just one off his career high — Dallas is probably fine giving him the money.
2017 UFA TO KEEP AN EYE ON
The longtime Blackhawk was brought aboard last summer, with the hope that his offensive prowess and big-game experience would come in handy. He chipped in 20 goals — plus another four in the playoffs — and figures to be a big part of the plan again this year.
The picture gets murky beyond that though. Sharp will turn 35 in December, the Stars will have plenty of restricted free agents to take care of next summer and they’ll almost certainly still have all that money tied up in the two goalies. They’ll likely want Sharp back, but it may be a luxury they can’t afford.
The former top-10 pick (No. 10 overall in 2013) is a tough one to figure out. Standing 6-foot-4 while weighing in at 210 pounds, he brings a rare mix of size and skating ability to the ice. The pieces are there for a breakout campaign, but it hasn’t happened yet.
To be fair though, Nichushkin missed 74 games two seasons ago because of injury. And, while he slogged his way to just nine goals last year, he did show flashes in the playoffs.
He’s an RFA right now, so he’s probably looking at a one year “prove it” deal. But it’s important to remember that he doesn’t even turn 22 until March, so he really isn’t that far behind schedule. And if he does get going, he’ll make one of the very best offenses in hockey that much more dangerous.