The Dallas Stars are in an intriguing position to do something special as the 2019-20 season begins. A lot of that promise will depend on how Ben Bishop performs and what level of potential he can reach. As a result, what kind of expectations should be set for the starter?
34-37-11 and 79 points is a far cry from where the Dallas Stars expected to finish their 2016-17 regular season campaign. On top of that, it was a long way from where they were predicted and supposed to finish.
And yet, that’s where they found themselves after defeating the Colorado Avalanche 4-3 in the shootout in Game 82 of their 2016-17 regular season. Their 79 points were good enough for second-to-last in the Central Division, set them a significant 15 points from the postseason cutoff in the Western Conference, and left the organization, its fans, and the NHL wondering what had happened to the team that had won the division and conference one year earlier before being eliminated in Game 7 of the second round.
As a result, there were a lot of questions within the organization that demanded answers. Lindy Ruff, who had coached the team since the 2013-14 season and led them to two playoff appearances and a division title after a five-year playoff drought, was not retained following the expiration of his contract.
But that was only the tip of the iceberg. A handful of roster changes took center stage as the Stars tried to revamp and reignite the high hopes that had been established for them just several months prior to the end of a disappointing 2016-17 push. The 2017 trade deadline offered GM Jim Nill a chance to move out expiring contracts in return for young prospects with potential, and he capitalized on the opportunity; but the summer offered another chance at a quick retooling.
And while many remember that offseason for the addition of Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal, Marc Methot, and Tyler Pitlick, there was another name added prior to all of them that quickly became the most significant among that summer’s signings. That name is Ben Bishop.
When the Dallas Stars sent a fourth-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for the goaltender in May 2017, Bishop was in a unique position in his career. He had been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy two times and had led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. He had started in 36 playoff games, had already been to an All-Star Game, and seemed to be entering the peak of his career as a quality NHL starter at age 31.
But he had also cycled through four different organizations from 2011 to 2017. There was a certain aura about Bishop, and it was one that the Stars needed. Dallas had dealt with consistent goaltending issues (at both the starter and backup positions) since 2010 and needed a stable answer that could help their talented lineup contend for a Stanley Cup.
And after being connected to the goalie in trade rumors in the summer of 2016, Dallas landed the rights to the 6-7 star before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final even began. One week later, they signed the pending UFA to a six-year extension.
Now, the goalie is gearing up to enter the third year of his contract with the team. And through the first two seasons, he has yet to fall short of delivering what the Dallas Stars need.
The 2017-18 season, while a bit of a wash and one that many affiliated with the team would like to forget, presented Bishop with his first opportunity to help turn the Dallas Stars back into a playoff contender. And while untimely injuries and an eight-game losing skid in March somewhat derailed his chances of doing so, he still managed to post a 26-17-5 record along with a .916 save percentage and 2.49 goals against average.
While there were plenty of problems that needed correcting (depth scoring being chief among them) after missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season, Bishop managed to produce a decent showing in his first year in Dallas.
But as the 2018-19 season approached, there seemed to be a need for more reverberating throughout the team. With a rookie head coach in Jim Montgomery, young talent cracking the roster, and another refreshed perspective, it seemed as though a step up would be required from every member of the team if they truly wanted to force their way back into contention.
And while certain players did just that and others fell short, Ben Bishop took the memo and ran with it. What followed was a 27-15-2 record along with a .934 save percentage, 1.98 goals against average, and seven shutouts in 46 games played.
He posted the best save percentage and goals against average of any goaltender with at least 41 starts and finished second in shutouts. In addition, they also happened to be the best numbers of Bishop’s career to date.
Bishop did all of that behind one of the worst scoring offenses in the NHL as the Stars finished tied for 28th in goals per game with an average of 2.55. In order for Dallas to win on most nights during the 2018-19 season, the opponent needed to be held to one goal or less. And with Bishop and his counterpart Anton Khudobin manning the crease, they succeeded more often than not.
What followed was one of the best playoff runs of Bishop’s career that included defeating the Nashville Predators, who finished first in the Central Division, in six games in round one, a seven-game bout with the St. Louis Blues in round two that ended with double overtime in Game 7 and 52 saves from the goalie, and a .933 save percentage and 2.22 goals against average alongside a young team with limited postseason experience.
“I think we had a young team and a lot of young guys that hadn’t played much in the playoffs,” Bishop said back in July. “To get that experience just so they know what it’s like, what it takes to get there, and how close we were will be beneficial going into this year. It’s nice to have gotten that far and obviously you want to go further, but it’s a whole new season this year and you have to hit the reset button. I think it was good experience for the young guys. It still hurt a little bit seeing St. Louis go on to win it when we were that close, but this year is a whole new year.”
In addition to helping lead the Dallas Stars into and through two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Bishop was named a finalist for the 2019 Vezina Trophy for the third time in his career. And while his numbers spoke for themselves, the award eventually went to Tampa Bay Lightning starter Andrei Vasilevskiy. But that didn’t deter the starter in any way.
“You want to win it, but Vasilevskiy is a hell of a goalie, so it wasn’t a surprise,” Bishop said. “I would’ve liked to have won it, but I think he was more than deserving and it gives you a little bit more fuel for next year.”
“It’s a great experience to go out there with some of the best players in the world and get a chance to hang out with them. The awards show is what it is, but it’s a fun experience. It’s a big honor to be nominated for that award and to go out there and experience everything. It’s a good time. I’m glad I was able to bring my son there this time, so it was a little different trip. But it was fun.” –Bishop on going to Vegas for the NHL Awards show
And now that the playoff run, NHL Awards show, and a busy offseason are in the rearview mirror, it’s time for the Dallas Stars to turn their attention to the 2019-20 season. And just as he was in 2018-19, Ben Bishop will be another integral part of the formula for success.
But what should be expected out of the 32-year-old in his third season with the Stars and seventh overall as an NHL starter?
From the standpoint of the NHL analysts, fans, and the general media, Bishop is expected to have another big year. It’s why the NHL Network ranked him at No. 3 on their Top 10 Goalies list and at No. 33 on their Top 50 Players list. It’s why Dallas Stars fans are buying into his stock as an elite goaltender. It’s why most regard him as the best goaltender in the Central Division, even though the division owns some of the highest caliber of goalies across the League.
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But goalies can be difficult to predict at times. There are unexpected injuries (as we have seen in Bishop’s recent past) that pop up, lacking performances from other parts of the team, and personal factors that always come into play. Even so, Bishop still seems to be in line for another quality season in Dallas.
With the Dallas Stars spending the 2019 summer revamping their scoring attack with the additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry and a full year of experience for players like Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson, the Stars should be significantly better in the offensive zone this season. That in turn should take off a sizable portion of the load that Bishop had to carry throughout the 2018-19 season as the Dallas offense struggled.
In addition, the majority of the Stars’ 2018-19 defensive cast (which finished the season with the second lowest goals against total in the NHL) is set to return, with John Klingberg, Esa Lindell, Miro Heiskanen, Roman Polak, and Jamie Oleksiak expected to serve in an NHL role in the season ahead.
And finally, Bishop seems motivated and fueled to take his performance to a new level in the 2019-20 season and help the Dallas Stars take the next step in challenging for the Stanley Cup.
“I was there [when the Blues won],” Bishop, a longtime St. Louis native, said. “It was tough to watch, honestly. You’re happy for the guys, but it’s a hard trophy to win. You’re a little jealous, I guess that’s probably the big word. You wish it was you out there. But like I said, we got a good taste of what it takes and we know how close we were. Hopefully, we can use that as fuel this year.”
When you combine Bishop’s three Vezina Trophy nominations, his trip to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, and the fact that he helped the Stars get within one goal of the Western Conference Finals this past season, you have the makings of a determined goaltender. He’s flirted with all sorts of high honors and awards throughout his career as a starter, but has yet to fully grasp them.
And that’s where the 2019-20 season comes into focus. While it may be a stretch to expect Bishop to post another .934 save percentage and 1.98 goals against average, he seems to be at the right stage in his career to make this coming season a special one. He’ll be 33 years old in November, so he’s sitting at the peak of his career at the moment. With that being said, there doesn’t seem to be a better time to capitalize.
Ben Bishop will enter the season ahead with a high expectations bar. After an impressive 2018-19 performance that showcased just how far he can take a team with kinks, the door is open for the Dallas Stars to take things a step further in the coming season.
And if they are destined to do that, Bishop will be the one leading the charge.