What can we expect from the Dallas Stars for the 2021-2022 season? Something like their recent successes? Or something like their recent failures? Let’s dig deep to figure it out.
Who are the Dallas Stars? Are they the 2019-2020 group that struggled to get into the playoffs, then leveled it up, and went all to the Stanley Cup Finals? Or are they the 2020-2021 group who missed the playoffs and were only great at one thing: losing in overtime? The answer is quite clearly neither. So what does that mean for Dallas? Does that clarify who they are now?
I’m not sure. There’s a loose, but defined formula for being a Stanley Cup contender, and here’s a spoiler alert: Dallas doesn’t qualify. “Yea but who cares what the numbers say?!” And that’s why we’re here. We’re here to experience the joy of being right or wrong. I can sit here and jabber on about charts all I want but that doesn’t decide what happens on the ice. The players, and the coaches do. The teams they play, and the challenges they must endure — whether it’s forging chemistry with new teammates, systems adjustments, the schedule, or the mumps on Sidney Crosby’s swollen face — do. Proper analysis should never be defined by right or wrong answers, but righter and wronger insights.
For the organization, the hope is that being healthier will cure what ails the Stars. It makes sense but things that make sense as an ingredient for success and things that guarantee the right ingredients for success are not mutually inclusive. Dallas isn’t the only team getting a much-needed reset. The bone and marrow of great teams is determined by consistency — not the stars randomly aligning (ho, ho), and that’s what the Stars need to find: consistency. They haven’t had it, but with a new core finally coming into its own, perhaps they’re about to take that critical first step.
These point projections are from Evolving-Hockey, and they’re also easily the most negative of Dallas’ projections. “A thirty percent chance of making the playoffs?! Silly nerds…” I know. It’s fun scrollbait, but let’s clarify a few things. JFreshHockey’s model is not high on Dallas either, but MoneyPuck is very high on them (although they posted their rankings in July, far earlier than the others), while Dom Luszczyszyn is higher as well, but lukewarm on their prospects overall. Micah Blake McCurdy hasn’t posted his 2021-2022 forecast, but his model was bullish on Dallas the year they to the Finals, and seems to consistently favor them. In other words, the “fancy statters” don’t all agree just like the eye testers don’t all agree. It’s almost like there’s no such thing as ‘people who watch the game versus those that don’t.’
So why doesn’t the math agree that Dallas is a great team with a better roster than the one they took to the Finals a season ago? So much is made about what it takes to win in the playoffs, it almost seems quaint to talk about what it takes to win in the regular season. Sure, the intensity increases, but the talent remains the same. If anything, teams like Montreal and Dallas emphasize how slim the margin for error is, whether it’s the regular season or the postseason: how a goaltender getting hot (as Jusse Saros did for Nashville) or cold (as Anton Khudobin did for Dallas) can be the difference, or how injuries in key positions can be too much to overcome when every point matters. In a division like the Central, the parity is just a little higher, making the margins for error that much slimmer. If the Stanley Cup playoffs are the sprint, then the regular season is the marathon. The lesson going into the new season is that, whether it’s opening night or game seven of the Stanley Cup finals, you have to set a pace. The pace they set against the realigned Central will be essential to figuring out if Dallas is ready to make something more than just an underdog’s noise.
Other than the Arizona Coyotes, the marathon in the Central is looking like a barnburner. Chicago and Nashville are two teams probably on the outside looking in, but both project to have strong goaltending, and both teams tend to play Dallas tough. There’s no love lost between Stars fans and Wild fans, but Minnesota has an underrated squad. Kirill Kaprizov is a legitimate all-star player (and was before he ever got to Minnesota), and it looks like Kaprizov might play with Joel Eriksson Ek, a proper top six center, instead of Victor Rask, who is barely above replacement-level. Beyond the superficial strength of their roster, Minnesota has been a strong even strength team on both sides of the puck, ranking 5th in goals for, and 15th in goals against over the last three seasons. Winnipeg and St. Louis might not be great teams, but both teams made strong additions to holes they otherwise had (two top-four blueline additions for the Jets, and two top-six forward additions for the Blues).
Then there’s Colorado, who still projects to be one of the league’s strongest teams. The Avalanche haven’t had much success against Dallas over the last three seasons, having won only three games in eight contests, but no matter how well Dallas matches up with Colorado, the Avalanche remain the division’s gold standard. Their points percentage last season of .732 was good for 22nd of all time. The only three teams with a better win percentage over the last decade were either former (Chicago and Pittsburgh in the 2012-2013 season) or future (Tampa Bay in their 2018-2019 campaign) Cup winners. By contrast, Dallas didn’t do anything dramatic to improve. That’s not an indictment, though. In the post-Lindy Ruff era, they’ve routinely graded out as one of the league’s best defensive units. Since 2018, they’re fourth in goals against, and first in expected goals against. They’ve won four playoff series in that span, and they’ll have Tyler Seguin and Alex Radulov healthy and whole(ish) again. There’s a lot to like. But the competition projects to be unforgiving. And as an older team, production should (hence why many models use weights to adjust for age), on average, go down, not up. Then again it hasn’t mattered for Washington. Maybe Dallas can buck the trend too.
The roster isn’t set in stone, but I think this is a decent approximation given what we know about Rick Bowness’ decisions in the past, and what has been said about the future. WAR here refers to Wins Above Replacement. Each number is meant to signify how many wins a player adds or subtracts to a team over an 82-game season by weighing even-strength offense and defense, PP offense, SH defense, and penalties taken versus drawn. So for example: the ridiculous Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski line projects to add five and a half wins based on the above weights over the course of a full season. That means that at a 95-point pace with them, Dallas would be at an 84-point pace without them; assuming the Stars only had replacement-level players in their absence.
With Hintz’ comic book level speed, Robertson’s ability to facilitate transition offense, and Pavelski’s ability to turn defensive wherewithal into counterattacks — they’re the cape, cowl, and utility belt of Dallas’ primary attack. They accounted for thirty percent of Dallas’ even strength offense, tallying eighty-two points of the team’s 266 EV points. As a trio, they’re offensively potent, but also defensively sound thanks mostly to Pavelski. It’s natural to assume they’ll take a step forward, but with Seguin and Radulov healthy again, their minutes at EV and on the PP should get a modest reprieve; not to mention their ridiculous shooting percentages, which should go down. Production and performance are not synonymous when looking at impact, and that’s why WAR offers so much value as a surface-level insight. Their production might drop, but they’ll be pulling their weight game to game, shift to shift.
For the first time in a long time, Dallas anticipates strong depth at center, and no checking line. Seguin’s early looks in the preseason are promising. His speed will never be what it once was, but he showed an increased agility and springier first step. I’d also argue that Seguin is Dallas’ biggest x-factor. Of all the capable centers, nobody has his experience being asked to produce and defend against the loyal NHL opposition. His chemistry with Radulov is well known, but for the first time in a long time, they won’t start the season with Jamie Benn next to them. He’ll be centering the third line, which is not a luxury many teams can make. Benn looked good at center last season alongside Jason Dickinson and Denis Gurianov. Despite so many difference-makers, right now the biggest obstacle to Dallas’ top nine is the left wing depth. Joel Kiviranta will always be a hero in Dallas but it’s hard to tell how he might complement Seguin and Radulov specifically. Kiviranta has some well-defined skills: good hands in tight, whether shooting or handling the puck, and a well-rounded profile with an imposing physicality despite his frame. But how does that manifest in production and performance in a top six role? If he’s being expected to dish Seguin the puck, or read Radulov’s eccentric passing patterns, could that set him up to be miscast? Kiviranta won’t actively drag them down, but in a theme we’ll return to throughout this piece — can he pull them up?
If Kiviranta is a (potentially) miscast mystery box, Raffl is an open book. In fact, if you’re wondering why Bowness has been playing him next to Benn and Gurianov, it’s because Raffl is an older version of Jason Dickinson. Like Dickinson, Raffl offers below average offense, with slightly above average defense, but not much else. Ok, I lied. Dickinson offered way better defense, and not just at even strength, but on the PK too. Of course, having Kiviranta and Raffl in the middle six won’t sink or swim the team. But it’s worth questioning what the point of the forward signings was when you look at how it affects the bottom six. Dallas’ primary problem has been scoring at even strength, and to help fix that, they brought in…Raffl and Luke Glendening? Sure Blake Comeau and Glendening are paid in proportion to what they can contribute, but it’s still strange to see Radek Faksa reduced to a potential 4th line center making $3M a year. Can we expect Faksa to take a forward step if those are his teammates? If the point was to replace Dickinson and Andrew Cogliano, Dallas didn’t even accomplish that. Dickinson and Cogliano were good on the PK: Raffl and Glendening are not. If the point was to get rid of the checking line, then the plan only works if Benn stays at center, and there’s no guarantee of that.
I posted a thought experiment on Twitter: if playing Benn at center was a serious plan, then why not pay the exact same price for players with higher upside, like Michael Bunting, and Ondrej Kase? Taking WAR at face value, signing Bunting and Kase to play on Benn’s flank would have been worth two extra points in the standings. Bunting alone scored as many goals as Raffl and Glendening combined last season, and that was while playing half their games. It’s hard to believe Nill even looked their way given the profiles of the players he did sign. Should Benn return to wing at any point, then Dallas is back where they started: strength in the top six, and weakness in the bottom six. Signing a player who could mesh with Seguin and Radulov to push Kiviranta down with Benn and Gurianov is something I would preferred to see, but what’s done is done: these are “his guys” and they fit the system. Don’t get it twisted. The Stars will be a better team offensively this season than they were last season. But did they have potential to be an actively potent one? That’s the real question.
Defensively, Dallas is, like their offensive depth, a lineup of extremes. Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg have their own gravity. If you think of good defense as efficiency across all three zones — that manueverability is equally essential to defense in the modern game — then it’s clear which blueliners are the most well rounded. In fact, it’s not even particularly close when looking at last season’s tracking data in all three zones courtesy of Corey Sznajder and CJ Turtoro.
Heiskanen and Klingberg do almost everything. They generate shots in the offensive zone, they exit the zone with control, and they enter the opponent’s zone with control. The only weak link here is Klingberg’s defense against zone entries. This is where I think Dallas’ depth on defense is given more weight than it’s worth; and why Dom has their defensive group ranked 14th as a group, which is above average, but not the top five machine some fans claim it is. While Heiskanen and Klingberg carry the load in different ways, their partners are one-dimensional. Esa Lindell is very good at playing a strong gap against zone entries, but his habit of dumping the puck out just leads to more indirect turnovers, and more time having to defend reentries, rushes, or burn time in otherwise critical moments (better when leading, less so when trailing) with 50/50 battles in the neutral. His zone exit/zone entry efficiency has been poor from season to season, which might explain why Ryan Suter is getting a strong look with Klingberg. Suter himself is a bit more well rounded (with a particular edge on assisting shot attempts), but his game waxes and wanes. When you look at his transition ability from season to season over the last four years, there’s very little consistency.
The other obstacle is conventional wisdom. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Well sure, but balancing between Broken Versus Unbroken seems like an obnoxiously limited goal. Over the last three seasons, Klingberg and Lindell have an expected goal share of 50 percent. Without Klingberg, Lindell’s expected goal share falls to 47 percent. Without Lindell, Klingberg’s expected goal share rises to 56 percent. This potential breakup feels long overdue. To top it off, none of Dallas’ “big four” even broke even at keeping shot attempts down in their own zone last season. However you slice it, their top four is a lot like their forward depth: the top half pulls most of the weight, while the bottom half doesn’t really weigh them down, but they don’t pull them up either.
If the top four is a static combination of great with a side of okay, the bottom pair has a surprising degree of fluidity. Andrej Sekera and Jani Hakanpaa will likely fill out the third pair. They project to be utterly serviceable players, which is all you can ask for in a bottom duo. Hakanpaa in particular offers strong shutdown ability. The biggest question about the bottom pair will be whether or not Thomas Harley eventually gets the proverbial cup of coffee. Harley’s been a lightning rod for discussion among Stars fans, and expectations are high on him. My impression of him is that it seemed like he tried to do too much at the Prospect Tournament, and then maybe tried to do too little during the preseason. However, he’s still young, and I’d sooner weigh his performance in the AHL more than the small string of games to precede the 2021-2022 season. It’s not a good argument, but fans might take solace in his preseason performance in some ways: dialing it down signaled, in my opinion, that he has enough self-awareness to calibrate his go-to play patterns. If Harley can continue his upward trajectory — and in the aggregate, I’d argue he’s on the right path — then Dallas could have a blueline that can attack from the backend with each grouping.
Goaltending might be Dallas’ biggest x-factor, and there’s a lot to be said about it. What we’re looking at below is each goaltender from their last full season.
xFSv% refers to a team’s expected save percentage against an unblocked shot. So we get to see the team’s expected save percentage versus the actual performance of the team with said goaltender on ice. Ideally, you want to see blue bars pointing up higher, and no orange bars at all. The two charts for each profile are for the goalies’ performance at even strength, and then their performance shorthanded. Alas, the addition of Braden Holtby begins to make sense (sort of). Of the three healthy goaltenders, only Holtby performed above expectations while shorthanded, and that was on a middling Vancouver unit last season. Conversely, Oettinger was a drag on the team when down a man. In fairness, you can’t talk about Oettinger’s performance without talking about the team in front of him. I hate to sound like a broken record, but all of Dallas’ primary penalty killers put out subpar performances last season. Lindell, Faksa, Comeau: all three let in shots in the areas they were supposed to defend. If Dallas’ PK improves (and it needs to: their average shorthanded rank since 2018 is 19th), Holtby could be a big reason why.
Still, there’s a problem: Holtby was good shorthanded while Oettinger was not, but Oettinger was good at even strength while Holtby was not. There’s a good chance the battle will be between Holtby and Anton Khudobin, who was better at even-strength than Holtby. Unfortunately, like Oettinger, he also got perforated like a Grand Theft Auto NPC when shorthanded. This is the worst-case scenario for Dallas: if Khudobin and Holtby are the one-two punch, Dallas could oscillate between weak even-strength goaltending, and weak 4-on-5 goaltending. Of course, a healthy Ben Bishop, given his strength in all gamestates, would fix everything (well everything except the cap). But that’s assuming Bishop is not only healthy, but whole enough to achieve what he could in his prime. Dallas certainly has a lot of options, but having a lot of options is not the same as having a lot of answers.
When it comes to coaching, there are no other options. This is Bowness’ team for at least the next year. Above we’re looking at Bowness’ tendencies in the broad strokes. How does the team respond when trailing, or when leading? I’ve been as critical (i.e. Sports Mad) a voice as there is when it comes to Bowness, but he’s shown some significant adjustments. In his first season, he couldn’t even poke a stick in Dallas’ tied carcass. I explained why last year. But what equally hurt the team that season is that the coaching staff was oddly ineffectual when down a goal, preferring to further shut the game down (!) than actively try to score. Sift through the rest of league’s coaching staff impacts, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else gameplanning that way. Coaches are more likely to do what Mike Sullivan does for obvious reasons: strike first. However, as you can see with Bowness’s overall shift towards the middle, eventually he settled into a better balance. I’d still like to see a stronger push to score when tied, or down a goal, and it’s odd how overall Dallas got slightly worse at shelling up this season compared to the prior year but at least — even with the injuries — Bowness tightened up Dallas’ overall management of gamestates into a more cohesive dynamic.
There’s still work to be done. There’s a lot more to be said, for example, about the effect the systems have had on Heiskanen and Klingberg: does a conservative forecheck, and lack of creative transition play adversely affect how often they have to defend when they could be pressuring instead? It certainly seems so. You can see a similar phenomenon in Vancouver with Quinn Hughes and how their transition offense has dulled his otherwise effective breakouts from last season. It’s a funny thing though. Dallas gets to the right areas to score: since Bowness took over, Dallas is 8th in high danger shots taken per 60. So why aren’t the goals following? Because it’s harder to turn prime chances into prime finishes if you’re not creating off the rush, or the forecheck. Hopefully this is something Bowness can eventually adjust to as well.
It’s easy to see where Dallas was coming from with their signings. Nill probably looked at his roster, and thought “we were two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup, and that was before we added Robertson, Suter, or had a healthy Hintz.” It’s a nice thought. But it’s also one-sided. They were also a Kiviranta hat trick away from being eliminated by Colorado. And they were twelve seconds away from being down 1-3 against Calgary in Game 4. If we grant that teams make their own luck, then we can’t say Dallas “earned” their trip to the Finals and in the same breath argue they “caught a bad break” missing the playoffs to follow it up. Recall that Calgary missed Matthew Tkachuk, and Colorado missed their top two starting netminders.
If it sounds like I’m ‘down on Dallas’, I’m not. They have two Norris-caliber defenders and two forwards already primed to overtake the Benn and Seguin roles. Stars fans have every reason to be excited about this roster. On the surface, Nill has crafted a team full of resumes. I just question whether Nill has crafted a team full of chemistry. There are as many reasons to be skeptical as there are to be faithful, and thankfully we’re at that part of the year where we get to just shut up and watch.
All data via Natural Stat Trick, Hockeyviz, JFreshHockey, Evolving-Hockey, and Moneypuck.