The 2019-20 NHL regular season is officially over, and the Dallas Stars are still in the fight. They will take part in the 24-team Return To Play format that the NHL announced on Tuesday, slotting in as a top-four seed in the Western Conference and receiving an automatic bid into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After an encouraging 2018-19 campaign that saw them fall one goal short of a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the expectations were high for the Dallas Stars to not only make the playoffs, but also achieve an even greater level of success in the 2019-20 season.
And after more than two months of uncertainty regarding the NHL’s ability to even return to play, it seems as though the Stars may get their chance to live up to those expectations.
While nothing is confirmed and the question still revolves around “if” the year can be completed, significant progress has been made towards a potential return to action if the League gets the ‘all clear.’
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spent Tuesday afternoon detailing that progress, including the structure of a 24-team return-to-play format, details on the NHL Draft and Draft Lottery, and more.
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It was the first dose of significant news and updates about the Return To Play Plan released by the NHL since the League paused its season on March 12, 2020 due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
And while there is still more to be decided and agreed upon between the NHL and NHLPA before the puck can once again be dropped, Tuesday was a promising step in the right direction.
Though they entered the pause on a six-game losing skid (0-4-2), that step bodes well for a Dallas Stars team that had maintained a hold on one of the top spots in the Western Conference for a majority of the 2019-20 season.
So now, the question must be asked: how would this return-to-play format affect the Dallas Stars?
Let’s break it down.
While it had been reported and rumored going into Tuesday’s announcement, the NHL confirmed its return-to-play format and the 24 teams that will be involved. Simply put, the 5-12 seeds (based on points percentage at the pause) in each conference will face off (5 v. 12, 6 v. 11, 7 v. 10, and 8 v. 9) in a best-of-five play-in series, while the top four teams from the East and West will play a round-robin (three games per team) to determine seeding atop each conference.
That should give the Stars, who currently sit fourth in the Western Conference, an early advantage. Not only will they not be forced to stave off elimination in the play-in round, but they also have the opportunity to clinch a higher seed in the West prior to the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (the play-in series will not be considered “playoff hockey” in an effort to keep the record books in-line).
That means that for the first time since 2008, the Dallas Stars are playoff bound in back-to-back years.
However, that chance will only come to fruition if the Stars manage to defeat the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Vegas Golden Knights in a three-game sweep. If there is a tie between teams after the round robin, the seeding will be determined via regular season points percentage (meaning that the Stars would be on the lower end of any tiebreaker).
Still, the round-robin gives the Dallas Stars a chance to get their legs under them, play competitive hockey, and potentially move up in the Western Conference standings before the playoffs begin. Also, while it may be unbalanced in regards to certain opponents, the Stars went a combined 6-3-2 against the Blues, Avalanche, and Golden Knights during the shortened 2019-20 regular season.
The round-robin games will be played under regular season NHL rules, including 3-on-3 overtime and a shootout after five minutes of OT play. Meanwhile, the play-in games will involve playoff rules, including continuous OT until a game-winning goal is scored.
How the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs plot out is still up in the air. The NHL has not decided whether it will use seeding or a bracket formula to determine the matchups in each round, nor have they decided whether the first two rounds of the postseason will be best-of-five or best-of-seven series.
Stars and Sticks
So, while we know the Stars’ first three opponents in a potential return-to-play, we don’t know much more after that.
If you were to play the odds game and assume that Dallas starts the playoffs as a four seed while St. Louis occupies the top spot, it seems as though the Stars and Blues could very well meet up in round two (assuming both win their opening series). And when you consider the Stars’ last two postseason meetings with the Blues (6-1 loss in Game 7 in 2016, 2-1 loss in 2OT Game 7 in 2019), the storyline becomes all the more intriguing for a potential collision course.
Regardless of how it may end up shaping out, the Stars have secured a spot in the postseason. And with their goaltending tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin (who finished the season atop the NHL save percentage leaderboard) and stingy defensive style of play, they could be a tough out when the first round kicks off.
The decision regarding which cities will be used as hubs is still fluid and up in the air. Per Bettman’s announcement, Dallas was one of the 10 cities still in the running to be used as a hub. The official decision on two locations should come in the next month.
In terms of a timetable, no exact dates were given. However, the NHL announced that they hope to get Phase 2 (players returning to team facilities for voluntary small group workouts) underway by early June and to have all 24 teams begin training camp around mid-July. That could leave the start of the 24-team format for early August.
In addition, Bettman also noted that the 2019-20 regular season is “deemed complete” and all statistics are final. For the Dallas Stars, that means that Denis Gurianov finished with the team lead in goals (20), Tyler Seguin owned the team lead in assists (33) and points (50), John Klingberg had the most points on the power play (17), Miro Heiskanen paced the Stars in plus/minus (+14), and Seguin, Jamie Benn, Esa Lindell, and Jamie Oleksiak tied for the team lead in games played with a perfect 69.
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In the midst of all of these announcements and hopes of a return to play, don’t forget that a resumption still isn’t certain. There are more hurdles to overcome and decisions to make before a return can be deemed safe, acceptable, and prudent. But at the very least, Tuesday helped lay the groundwork for some of the important steps.
For now, though, the focus shifts back to the Dallas Stars. The “bad juju” that plagued them during the six-game losing streak that they carried into the pause should be flushed out after two months away from the ice. Will their offense be able to generate more consistent scoring? Can Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz continue to play a significant role in pacing the offensive attack? Will they be given larger roles?
Will the defense and goaltending be able to resume playing their stifling and stingy style? Can Rick Bowness and the coaching staff make the necessary adjustments to better the team, especially in the midst of what could be a chaotic run to the finish line? And how will the 2019-20 Dallas Stars look upon returning to the ice after nearly three months away from it?
These are all questions that will be answered in due time, so long as the NHL safely continues proceeding towards a return to action.
Progress is being made.