“Do ya like me now?” Dallas Stars General Manager Jim Nill says quietly to himself as he looks over his new and vastly improved roster. All of the major flaws on his team have finally been fixed, at least on paper.
Like any good team, it all starts at the top. After four years, two playoff appearances and two disastrous falls from grace, Coach Lindy Ruff was sent on his way. Ruff has always been a good bench boss in the NHL, but never a great one. His one Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1999 was the closest he’s ever brought a team towards a championship. I greatly appreciate what he managed to do with Dallas in the transition into a new era. He broke the six-year playoff drought, made Benn and Seguin a household hockey duo, and helped the defensively-poor Stars nearly make a Conference Finals thanks to the high powered offense. It was a good run with Lindy, but if the Stars want to take that next step into consistent contenders, then they had to move on. Now, the guy they brought in is a different story. Ken Hitchcock just finished a successful stint with the St. Louis Blues and is near the end of a record book career. Where Ruff focused on a high-speed attack, Hitch prefers a defensive counter attacking style. That has proved to be quite the point generator in the regular season, but it seems that Hitch’s teams always flounder in the middle of the playoffs. His lone championship came back with the Stars in 1999. It’s now 2017. He has seen three Conference Finals since then and has won one (2000). The noise surrounding this hire sounds like Hitch will lead the way for a couple seasons and then fade into an advisory role as a new guy takes the reigns. Who that will be is yet to be seen. We do know that it will likely not be Mike Modano as Hitch directly answered a question about bringing on Mo to his staff in a press conference question with a big fat, “no.”
The 2017 draft was one of the best drafts in franchise history. Why? Dallas hit the jackpot and moved up from 9th to 3rd thanks to the lottery. With two choices in the 1st round, the Stars selected defenseman Miro Heiskanen and goaltender Jake Oettinger, both rated as the top prospects at their positions. The final five picks included four forwards and one goaltender. However, the seventh round goalie was sent to Vegas in a trade. The six remaining picks will not be anywhere near the Dallas Stars roster but will play major roles in the years to come. It may feel like Jim Nill is in win-now mode, but this year’s draft was used to build a team that will have a steady streak of success.
Let’s continue with the Stars offense. Entering last season, Dallas was expecting to roll out with nearly the exact same lineup as the one that got them to Game 7 of the 2016 Western Semi-Finals. Superstar forward Tyler Seguin was returning from a major Achilles injury and Captain Jamie Benn had undergone surgery to repair abdominal muscles. It was a good summer until the injury bug hit during the newly established World Cup of Hockey. Cody Eakin, Ales Hemsky, and Mattias Janmark all had to miss time. Janmark has not played a single game since last September. Coach Ruff was forced to mix and mash lines throughout the season as his forwards rotated in and out of the doctor’s office. The offense came nowhere close to its historic numbers from 2015-2016, so Jim Nill decided to cut ties with unrestricted free agents Ales Hemsky, Jiri Hudler, and let fan favorite Cody Eakin get taken by Vegas in the Expansion Draft. Adding on, 2013 1st round draft pick Valeri Nichushkin was rumored to return from the KHL with the departure of Lindy Ruff, but he has chosen to remain there for one more year before returning to Dallas. To replace the holes, Nill brought in two big name free agents: Martin Hanzal and Alexander Radulov. Hanzal is a big centerman who is expected to take the second line center position while Jason Spezza will be moved to the wing. I’m thinking that this will prepare the lineup for Spezza’s eventual decline due to age. It could also simply be that Hitchcock wanted a bigger boy in that center spot. Hanzal isn’t much of a point producer, so his role will be to win faceoffs and bang the body. The biggest addition to the offensive ranks in my book was the surprising signing of Russian star Alex Radulov (or as I call him, Radiocarbon). Benn and Seguin have been a dynamic duo, but they have needed a playmaking winger to complete their line. Valeri Nichushkin was not ready for that position, Spezza never quite fit, and Patrick Eaves was only productive when he was healthy. Radiocarbon has all the experience needed to keep up with Benn and Seguin and does not have a history of pesky injuries. He should provide that extra setup skill that will make the entire league cower in fear of Dallas’ might. At $6M for six years, he better pay off or Jim Nill may face consequences. Dallas also signed depth center Brian Flynn and Tyler Pitlick. We’ll have to wait until Training Camp to see where the coaching staff slots them in. The new additions make the Stars offense a deadly threat for any opponent. It’ll be exciting to see how Hitch will unleash his new weapons.
Looking at the blueline, it was pretty dang bad last season after the losses of Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers. John Klingberg missed having an experienced partner while Esa Lindell, Stephen Johns, and Jamie Oleksiak all showed growing pains of young defensemen. Johnny Oduya and Jordie Benn were traded mid-season to bring in what assets they could. It was a mess all year. Jim Nill was stuck at the start of the summer having to figure out what to do. Thanks to some major luck, he was able to trade two draft picks to Vegas for first-line defenseman Marc Methot. He was Erik Karlsson‘s longtime partner in Ottawa. Klingberg plays a very similar style so Methot should slot right in next to him. That solved a major issue. Solidifying the top pairing allows the bottom four some room to work through growing pains. Dan Hamhuis will continue to be a veteran presence that will be of use when the young guys are having a tough stretch. I’m thinking he gets paired with Johns on the second pair for most of the season. There remains a logjam at the bottom because Esa Lindell, Julius Honka, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, and Greg Pateryn are all fighting for three spots (bottom pair plus one scratch). None of them really fit on an AHL roster anymore, so at least one will need to be traded before the season to clear things up. Besides that, Jim Nill lucked himself into a pretty nice set of blueliners for the upcoming campaign. If the young guys mature, then the Stars will be just fine.
Now for the fun part, goalies! Antti Niemi became a quality backup in terms of Dallas Stars backups. Meaning, he proved a better option than Tim Thomas, Anders Lindback, and Jhonas Enroth. Sure he got many starts at AAC, but I still saw Niemi as the backup or 1b. to Lehtonen’s 1a. status. In 2016, Kari showed he was the most inconsistent starter in the league. One week you could see why he was earning six million a year and the next you were left wondering who would even pay him $20. Kari just has not seen the same success as he did before his concussion late in the 2013 season. He shows signs of being an elite tender, but he continuously falls back into a major bad streak. Oddly enough, the combination of Kari and Niemi worked well enough in 2015 to nearly reach the Conference Finals. Did the losses on defense hurt so bad that Dallas would go from first to one of the worst in the standings? Maybe. Or maybe the offense’s lack of ability to take up time in the opponent’s zone led to a more aggressive opposition? It’s hard to judge goalies because defending the net is a team task. Yes, goalies like Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist can carry their teams, but there are not many of those guys out there. Jim Nill’s solution was to bring in new blood by trading for Ben Bishop, the longtime starter in Tampa Bay. At 6’6″, he can fill the net. It must be noted that he has a history of injury issues in the playoffs. So, to not overload him during the regular season, Nill chose to buyout Niemi and keep Lehtonen as the certified backup. If Kari manages to show his elite side when he gets his starts, then Dallas should be confident in whichever guy is in net. Bishop’s goals against average have decreased a little over the past couple years, but I think familiar scenery for the Frisco high school alum will get him back up to speed. Kari’s contract ends after this season so if things don’t cut it then there will be options to find a better solution. Dallas is finished with their Finnish duo and now put all their hopes on a bonafide American. It will be emotional to finally see Bishop take the ice for the first time in Victory Green after years of speculation that Jim Nill would get him. Is he the answer in net? Let’s hope so.
Offseason Grade: A
Trade/Cut Nemeth and Pateryn