The Stanley Cup Playoffs began last night and the Dallas Stars are once again not in the race. That’s becoming all too regular of a thing and has the team fumbling for answers yet again. But it’s also beginning to put the entire franchise in a compromised spot.
“Maybe next year.”
It’s a familiar saying in the lives of all sports fans. When the season doesn’t pan out the way they expect and their team is one of the 29, 30, or 31 not hoisting the championship trophy, it’s easy to resort to this phrase. “This season didn’t work, but there’s always next year.”
Some teams are more used to saying this than others with each passing season, and it’s even become a staple for some franchises. And as crazy as it may seem, the Dallas Stars are beginning to become one of those teams.
As the Stars cleaned out their locker stalls on Monday morning following a game 82 victory on Saturday night, there was a familiarity in the air around the locker room. That familiarity was the feeling of coming up short. But it’s not just coming up short of a Stanley Cup championship; it’s coming up short of even having a shot at competing for one.
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“As many of these guys have said, it’s disappointing,” said Stars defenseman Stephen Johns on exit interview day. “We were in a playoff spot for 80 percent of the year and to wind up not being in the playoffs, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It sucks.”
Another interesting factor about exit interview day is that everyone had their own “script” and stuck with it. General manager Jim Nill answered countless questions talking about his plans to heavily evaluate the team over the next few weeks and make some crucial decisions from there. Head coach Ken Hitchcock repeatedly talked about his desire to study the “big dogs” in the NHL and learn from them so the Stars can chase them next season. And for the players, “disappointing”, “frustrating”, and “it sucks” were common in the bundle of quotes.
“It’s for sure frustrating,” added forward Radek Faksa. “We were expecting to be in the playoffs and now we’re going home. It’s disappointing for sure.”
The bottom line is that the Dallas Stars missed the playoffs due to a late-season implosion mixed with a reluctance to fill certain needs down the stretch. Two simple, avoidable mistakes (among some minor other ones). The players knew it, the coaches knew it, and the management knew it. And now, they are paying the price for it.
The Stars have now missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a second straight year. It is their first time to miss the postseason in back-to-back years since the 2012 and 2013 playoffs, but that’s nothing to hang their hat on. The team has now missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. The franchise as a whole has missed the postseason in eight of the past ten years. It becomes a harsh reality when you look at the big picture.
And when reality cuts, it cuts deep. This wasn’t a season for the faint of heart. It was a season that started as an uncertainty, transitioned to a hopeful one with a powerful surge in the middle 50 games, and concluded in nightmarish fashion.
There were positives, though. Tyler Seguin hit the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career, Alexander Radulov proved to be the steal of the 2017 offseason, Radek Faksa continued his progression as a versatile NHL player, John Klingberg beefed up his resume as a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate, and the defensive group was one of the best in goals against around the league. Those are great factors that helped shed some positive light on this year.
But there were negatives, too. The Stars lacked competent depth scoring for a majority of the year, lost consistency across the board down the stretch, posted a 4-8-4 record in March, and singlehandedly removed themselves from the playoff race. And most of all, they missed the postseason again. That’s a stinger for a team that carried so much hope from games 20-65.
It’s not just that, though. Missing the playoffs this year involves more than just bursting a bubble of hope and painfully living through another Stanley Cup Playoffs. It also contributes to a larger problem that is infecting the franchise. The “next year” mentality is rapidly decreasing the Stars’ effectiveness and putting them in a tight spot. That tight spot revolves around the value of their roster.
At the moment, the Dallas Stars’ Stanley Cup window is pretty much open. In fact, it’s as open as it has been in the past ten years. That’s due in large part to their skilled and talented young players.
The problem? Their young talent isn’t so young anymore and is quickly ascending the age ladder.
Remember when Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn first came into the league and turned into a fifth-round sensation practically overnight? That was almost a decade ago. Benn just completed his ninth season with Dallas and will turn 29 over the summer. That’s typically the age where most hockey players hit their “peak performance” level.
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Tyler Seguin just recently turned 26, so he still has time before reaching that peak. But he is still almost a member of the 600-game club (he currently sits at 590).
“It’s almost unsettling,” said Seguin at exit interview day in regards to his number of games played. “I feel like I just started, well not just started, but I’ve won [the Stanley Cup] once and been there [to the Stanley Cup Final] twice. Now I’m seeing how hard it is to get there and I’m already at 600 games here. You want to win, but for the most part you at least want to compete, so hopefully we can do that next year.”
John Klingberg is another example. Though he’s only 25 (and will be 26 in August), he has been in the league for four seasons. In those four seasons, the Stars have qualified for the playoffs once.
And it doesn’t just go for young talent, either. Kari Lehtonen just finished up his ninth year in a Dallas Stars uniform. He was the primary goalie for seven of those nine years and got to the playoffs twice. Even though he’s not considered an elite starter, he still got the job done and worked with what he had in front of him. Now it all seems to be wasted as Lehtonen will be a free agent this offseason and is unlikely to be re-signed.
Jason Spezza is also climbing up in age. After signing a four-year extension with Dallas in 2014, the 34-year-old tallied back-to-back seasons with 60+ points. He receded slightly last year before taking a major dip this season. He’s not as quick or sharp as he used to be and it’s causing the coaching staff to not trust him with big roles anymore.
The problem with the Dallas Stars missing the playoffs isn’t that it is emotionally draining; it’s that the team is wasting the best years of their best talent. A team with any combination of Seguin, Benn, Klingberg, Radulov, and Spezza should not miss the playoffs in any situation. The Stars have all of them and still could not punch their ticket.
As you look through the lineup, there are a few faces that you might remember as young and energetic that aren’t so young anymore. It comes with the passing of the years, and the lack of success in those years is frightening. The worst kind of potential is the type that is obviously and disappointingly wasted.
The players are getting sick of it, the coaches are getting sick of it, the management is getting sick of it, and the fans are getting sick of it. So who is to blame if everyone is unhappy? Does everyone deserve a share?
Regardless of who is blamed, a solution must be found and fast. There seems to be a new excuse as to why a year wasn’t the Stars’ time with each passing season. Injuries, defensive inefficiencies, running out of gas, depth scoring, a young and maturing lineup. The list keeps piling up.
A list like that has to go or else the players will start going. No NHL player wants to play in the league for 20 years and never compete for a Cup. That being said, it’s up to each team to provide their players with a chance to compete every year. Some are better at doing that than others, and the Stars are slipping into that “others” category.
42-32-8 is a good record, but it wasn’t good enough this time around. They have to get where they are always good enough to at least compete for the Cup, as Seguin said. That’s proving to be quite the challenge.
Something needs to change, and that is what the offseason is for. But after a few summers of significant change already trailing them with little to show for it, is even the offseason not enough to turn the Stars’ misfortunes around? Is this a long term issue? Only time will tell.
The Dallas Stars are heading home early for the eighth time in ten seasons. That must change starting next year while the window is still open. Otherwise, they will only find more confusion and disappointment down the road. The offseason is now in full swing for Dallas, and it’s up to Jim Nill to find the solution. There’s no more time for error. This season was the final straw.
Maybe next year.