The NHL may be less than a month away from returning to play and starting an altered Stanley Cup Playoffs. If it does happen, the Dallas Stars will be in for a tough road that begins with a Seeding Round Robin against the top three teams in the Western Conference. How might they fare in the three-game set?
In a typical year, we would be in the midst of wrapping up the Dallas Stars‘ offseason moves right now. The 2020 NHL Entry Draft and the opening of Free Agency would have taken place over the past week, giving the Stars and the 30 other NHL clubs a chance to build and prepare for the future.
Trades would have been made, big-name free agents would have signed extensions with their current team or moved across the continent for a change of scenery, and the League would be entering the usual dormant period of the summer before setting expectations for the 2020-21 season.
But if we’ve learned anything through the first half of 2020, it’s that this year is neither normal nor typical.
And so, instead of spending the next two months looking ahead to the 2020-21 year, 24 teams are gearing up to open training camp in a little over one week with the hope of resuming play. Meanwhile, the remaining seven teams are in the middle of what could end up being a nine-month offseason.
It’s a weird time. And while there is still no guarantee that the NHL’s 24-team Return To Play Plan will get off the ground (plenty still has to be decided, finalized, and agreed upon), the thought of playing hockey deep into the summer is entertaining and perplexing.
What will the level of competition look like after over four months away from the ice? How many upsets will take place in the qualifying round? How differently will the 2020 Stanley Cup champions will be viewed when compared to traditional winners? And how will this affect the League’s calendar and scheduling of events moving forward?
There are many fair and necessary questions that must be asked and mulled over right now, and plenty more will be unveiled as July progresses.
But for now, the primary focus revolves around a hopeful return to action. So, where does that leave the Dallas Stars?
It leaves them (and 23 other teams) with a lot of preparing to do. In a short span of time, they will attempt to regroup, recharge, and get back into game shape while also trying to improve on any inefficiencies that hindered them throughout the shortened season. But with four months having passed since teams last skated together in a formal setting, training camp will be a valuable chance to get back up to speed.
It also provides an opportunity to get their roster in order. With Roman Polak deciding to remain in the Czech Republic and not return to the NHL, the Stars have another spot to fill on what could be a 28-skater roster. That means a taxi squad (otherwise known as the Black Aces) will also need to be created using the top Stars skaters and prospects from the AHL or below.
But when the puck drops on the qualifying round and round-robin play, there will be little time to change or adapt. Each game will carry significance and could be the difference between a team moving on and getting eliminated from contention.
And while we know who the Dallas Stars will face in the round-robin to determine seeding in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, their first round opponent could still be any of the 16 teams in the Western Conference qualifying round.
That’s what makes the round-robin so important for the Stars.
While Dallas won’t have to fight for a spot in the postseason like those teams in the qualifying round, they will be battling for two other important factors: securing the highest possible seed and momentum for the playoffs.
When the 2019-20 season was paused on March 12, the Dallas Stars sat third in the Central Division standings with a record of 37-24-8 and 82 points. That also gave them the fourth-highest points percentage in the Western Conference, trailing only the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Vegas Golden Knights.
As a result, the Stars made the top-four cutoff and earned an automatic bid into the postseason. The only question that still needs answering is where they will land in the seeding.
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Teams in the top four will face off with each other once for a total of three games in the round-robin. Their records will then determine the seeding for the playoffs, with regular season points percentage being the determining factor for any ties.
The top seed will have the advantage of facing off with the lowest remaining seed in each round, so clinching the top seed still holds value (even if it isn’t in regards to home ice).
That means that the Stars, who finished fourth in the Western Conference, will not have the upper hand in any tiebreakers following the round robin.
Even so, they will have an opportunity to secure any of the top four seeds in the Western Conference. But what has to happen for them to move up from their current spot and gain a higher standing?
In the round-robin, there will be a maximum of six wins on the table to be divided amongst the four teams. Obviously, a team can sweep the round robin and max out at three wins. They can also go winless and finish with three losses in regulation or overtime/shootout. There’s also the chance at picking up one win or two wins.
All in all, there are only four combinations of wins that can happen in the Western Conference round robin.
Team A wins all 3 games, Team B wins 2 games and loses 1 game, Team C wins 1 game and loses 2 games, and Team D loses all 3 games
Team A wins all 3 games, Teams B, C, and D all win 1 game and lose 2 games
Teams A and B win 2 games and lose 1 game, Teams C and D win 1 game and lose 2 games
Teams A, B, and C win 2 games and lose 1 game, Team D loses all 3 games
Obviously, the use of a standard NHL regular season format that includes 3-on-3 overtime and shootouts to settle games will add an extra layer of depth to the final standings. Assuming my math is correct (it’s been four years since I last took a math class), there are 96 different possibilities revolving solely around the final rankings and number of total wins. That’s without factoring in potential losses in overtime or the shootout.
It’s a lot of math that we don’t have to dig into right now, so let’s move on.
For the Stars, their chances at clinching the top seed rests on only two possible outcomes: sweeping the round-robin OR winning two games and losing the other in overtime or the shootout while the other team(s) with two wins picks up a loss in regulation.
That may seem like a tough ask for a team that lost six in a row (0-4-2) before the NHL paused its season due to concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic. But with the significant amount of time spent away from the ice, any memories of that skid have long since disappeared.
And while four months away from the ice leaves a lot up to the imagination for all teams involved in the Return To Play, the Dallas Stars are a unique case study.
While their offense once again struggled with possessing the puck and turning it into scoring, their defense posted the second-lowest goals against per games played (2.52) for the second consecutive season. Anton Khudobin led the NHL in save percentage (.930) and had the second-best goals against average (2.22), while Ben Bishop finished ninth in save percentage (.920) and goals against average (2.50) through 44 games played.
Goaltending served as the Stars’ backbone for the second season in a row and gives the team a chance to win on a nightly basis. They also seem to be built nicely for an altered Stanley Cup Playoffs layout.
On top of that, Dallas posted a combined record of 6-3-2 against St. Louis, Colorado, and Vegas (though that does include a 4-0-0 sweep of the Avalanche). The opportunity is there for the Stars to steal a win or two in a condensed format, and they could be built to follow through. A lot of it will depend on preparedness and finding a way to make the extra play after more than four months of rest. That may prove to be easier said than done.
But for the Dallas Stars, this round-robin offers them a unique chance to ascend. They were 12 points behind the Blues at the time of the pause, so the thought of them jumping to the top of the conference with five or six points in a three-game schedule is intriguing.
There is still a long list of topics that must be debated, voted on, and approved (much of which could happen as early as this weekend) regarding the NHL’s Return To Play Plan. But if it does get rolling, training camps play out with few to no red flags, and the teams can safely travel to hub cities and get ready for puck drop, the Dallas Stars know what they need in the round-robin if they want to claim the top seed going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.