Nothing is ever simple with Dallas Stars hockey.
Everything the Stars accomplished and all the pitfalls they fell victim to in the 2021-22 season have to be graded on a spectrum.
Their demise at the hands of the Calgary Flames in the opening round of the playoffs can only be viewed as a disappointment because of the expectations, the potential and the quality of the roster.
The Stars don’t quite have the delusions of grandeur that say the Toronto Maple Leafs have every season, but they also wouldn’t stand for down seasons like the Buffalo Sabres turn in year after year.
So when the Dallas Stars didn’t make the playoffs last season, the disappointment surrounding the franchise was deserved, especially considering the magical run to the Stanley Cup Final the previous season.
There were many factors hindering the Stars’ success last season. At the top of the list has to be the tough draw they had in the reorganized Central Division with Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay along with the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes — three teams still playing in this year’s playoffs.
The Dallas Stars were a combined 6-12-6 against that trio and right behind that stiff competition as the Stars’ primary reason they didn’t make the playoffs was their ineffectiveness in overtime.
The Stars racked up 14 overtime losses last season, including five to the Nashville Predators, who edged out Dallas for the final playoff spot by just four points.
If Dallas could have managed even an average overtime record, it would have made the playoffs.
You might be asking, why am I spending so much time talking about the Stars’ lackluster performance in 2020?
Because it’s important to keep in mind when you look at the 2021 season.
What Went Right
There was so much that went right for the Stars this season and despite the Game 7 loss to the Flames ending the season on a sour note, Dallas showed incredible resolve to edge into the first wild-card playoff spot by a point over the Nashville Predators.
First and foremost, Dallas solved its overtime issues, going 15-6 overall.
The Stars showed they could hang with the elite teams in the NHL, posting winning records over playoff teams in Carolina, Pittsburg, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles and Minnesota.
Dallas showed it could beat the good teams throughout the season and posted a 27-18-5 record against the Western Conference and were 14-8-4 against the Central Division.
That prowess in the most crucial games of the season cannot be overlooked.
The Stars were lethal when scoring first, posting a 33-10-2 record, and also managed 13 wins when their opponent scored first. For comparison, the Colorado Avalanche also had 13 wins when allowing the first goal of the game.
Dallas was dominant at home, going 27-10-4 at the American Airlines Center and after a dreadful start on the road, the Stars battled back to finish 19-20-2 away from the AAC.
Now that all of the rigid records have been discussed, let’s dive into the broad perspective on the Stars.
Jake Oettinger has to headline the Stars’ bright spots. His performance against the Flames put an exclamation mark on what was an incredible rookie season for the 23-year-old as he finished with a sturdy record of 30-15-1 — good for the 12th-most wins in the NHL.
Jason Robertson showcased his budding potential and posted 41 goals and 79 points in his sophomore season after coming in second in the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) race last season and was a team-best plus-16 this season.
Robertson isn’t the biggest or fastest player on the ice, but his blend of skill and high hockey IQ helped the Stars’ top scoring line become one of the best in the league.
Just that pair of players alone was not only the foundation of this year’s squad, but will surely figure into the Stars’ success for many years to come.
Robertson’s counterpart Roope Hintz had his best season of his career as well, netting 37 goals and 72 points — both career highs.
Finally, the final piece the Stars’ go-to trio in Joe Pavelski, continued to defy father time. Pavelski had a career-high 81 points, a career-best 54 assists and played in all 82 regular-season games for the seventh time in 13 seasons. Pavelski only seems to be getting better with age.
Dallas tried splitting the troika up to distribute some of that scoring, but in the end, it became clear they were the Stars’ best, consistent scoring threat.
Finally, the Dallas Stars have to be very pleased with Jani Hakanpaa’s season, who turned in a solid defensive campaign on the cheapest full-season salary deal at a measly $1.5 million contract. His physicality was welcomed with arms wide open after the Stars had to let Jamie Oleksiak go to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft.
While the Stars fell short of every team’s goal of winning the Stanley Cup, there are 16 other teams that would have gladly traded spots with Dallas. Yes, the Stars shouldn’t be content with just making the playoffs, but it’s important to see the forest for the trees. You have to walk before you can run and the experience some of the younger players gained this season and in the playoffs will pay off down the line.
What Went Wrong
You couldn’t go many places in the hockey paradigm without seeing the fact that the Stars were the only team that qualified for the playoffs with a negative goal differential. Dallas was minus-8 on the season.
Dallas went 13-6 in one-goal games this season, but when the Stars did lose, they did so in frustrating fashion.
Dallas had a knack for playing both up and down to its competition. The Stars went 0-2 against the Ottawa Senators and were average against the NHL’s bottom feeders.
The Stars could never avoid those large dips of play in the season, recording a five-game and four-game losing streak along with multiple three-game losing streaks. Great teams don’t go through prolonged periods of poor play.
Perhaps the most glaring reason the Stars were so inconsistent was their offensive woes.
Dallas was 21st in the NHL in scoring at 2.84 goals per game and the Stars’ defense wasn’t up to its usual standard as it was tied with Vegas for 18th in the NHL, yielding 2.98 goals per game.
Simply put, the Stars were giving up more goals than they were scoring.
On the personnel side of things, the Stars had several players underperform.
Chief among them were their two most expensive players on the team in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
Benn posted his lowest goal total (18) in a full season in the past nine seasons and struggled defensively, recording a -3.7 relative Corsi for % at even strength. Benn was also minus-13 on the season.
Seguin had a solid season offensively with 24 goals and 49 points, especially coming off a 2020 season that saw him play in just three games due to injury. However, it wasn’t up the standards he set in the 2018-19 season that saw him pot 33 goals and 80 points.
Seguin was one of the least reliable defensive forwards, recording a second-worst plus-minus at minus-21 and a -2.2 relative Corsi for % at even strength.
For comparison, the Stars’ top line of Robertson, Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz all posted relative Corsi percentages north of 7.0.
The duo of Benn and Seguin also didn’t rise to their own playoff standards either as they combined for just three goals and six points against the Flames. With that said, Pavelski was the only Star to register more than four points in the seven-game series so their offensive output has to be taken with a grain of salt.
The Stars’ offense was consistently tepid against the Flames, but Calgary goalie and Vezina-trophy finalist Jacob Markstrom had plenty to do with that offensive ineptitude.
In the first round, Markstrom registered the third-best playoff goals save above expected at 5.2 goals.
Lastly, Alexander Radulov seems to have fallen off a cliff. He posted just 22 points and a gaudy minus-20 on the season and the Stars will move on from he and the final year of his $6.25 million contract. He was also scratched after three games against the Flames, totaling no points.
That brings us to the Stars’ defensive core.
John Klingberg, who is likely headed to a new team after spending all eight seasons of his career in Dallas, was horrid defensively.
Klingberg was a team-worst minus-28 on the season. Offense was never a problem with Klingberg, but it was oftentimes overshadowed by his risk-reward style of hockey.
To be clear, the Stars should try to re-sign Klingberg, but rumors are he is looking for at least $8 million per season, which is too steep for the salary cap-strapped Stars.
Klingberg went on the record saying he wants to return to Dallas after the season ended, but he did ask for a trade at some point in the past year and addressed that in early January. He said, “I don’t feel that I’ve been appreciated.”
Esa Lindell also had one of his worst seasons as one of the Stars’ go-to defensive defensemen. Lindell, who finished with four goals and 21 assists, had one of the worst Corsi percentages on the team at a minus-5.1.
Ryan Suter is one of the more curious enigmas of the season. He led the Stars’ defense with seven goals and had 32 points after being bought out of the final four years of his contract with the Minnesota Wild.
Suter was also a defensive liability and his lack of foot speed was a problem all season long. The Dallas Stars have to hope he can return to the form he showed in the first half of his nine-year stint in Minnesota.
Finally, Suter’s defensive partner Miro Heiskanen is in this category, not because he had a bad season, but because the 22-year-old didn’t come close to his potential.
Heiskanen, who tallied 36 points in 70 games after dealing with mononucleosis in early March, recorded his worst points-per-game season since his rookie year.
Again, it’s not that it was a down season per se, but he clearly wasn’t effectively utilized as the most mobile defenseman on the Stars’ roster that he is.
It was clear from Heiskanen’s first career shift in the NHL in 2018 that he has a unique blend of skating, offense and defense that only a handful of other defensemen in the league have.
The left-handed Heiskanen played on his weak side alongside the fellow left-handed Suter.
If Dallas is going to reinvigorate Heiskanen and lean more on his offensive skillset — something the Stars desperately need to do given their scoring woes and inability to consistently enter the offensive zone — getting him to play on his strong side with a right-handed defenseman has to be at the top of the Stars’ problems to solve in the offseason. Unfortunately, reliable right-handed defensemen don’t grow on trees, especially ones that can be counted on to hold down the fort defensively while Heiskanen makes plays up the ice.
The Stars’ power play was at the heart of both the team’s success and failures this season. Dallas leaned on its 11th-ranked power play throughout the regular season and if it weren’t for its prowess through the first six months of the season, the Stars don’t come close to making the playoffs.
On the flip side, the power play was repugnant down the stretch of the regular season. It struggled to even get set up in the zone, let alone find the back of the net. It oftentimes resorted to dumping the puck in and attempting to forecheck to reclaim possession, but that strategy was exploited by Markstrom and the Flames in the playoffs as his puck-handling nullified any consistent pressure the Stars were searching for. Dallas was 2-of-24 against the Flames in the playoffs and the power play was an obviously-critical reason the Stars were unable to advance.
Conversely, the penalty kill was 19th in the NHL in the regular season, yet bowed up in the playoffs to hold the Flames to an identically stagnant 2-of-24. That speaks to the Stars’ defensive identity stepping up when it needed to and their commitment to find shooting lanes to block shots while taking a host of bruises in the process.
The Stars were also not as good as they should have been at 4 on 4 considering all the speed and skill they had available to them.
Without question, the most controversial aspect of the Dallas Stars season was head coach Rick Bowness and his coaching staff of assistants Derek Laxdal, John Stevens and Todd Nelson — all of whom were “relieved” of their duties on Friday.
Bowness officially said he was “stepping away,” but with the rest of the coaches moving on, this clearly feels like a firing. However, the Stars and general manager Jim Nill have too much respect for Bowness to classify his removal in such crass terms.
Bowness took over for the Jim Montgomery in December of 2019 after he was fired due to “unprofessional conduct.”
There wasn’t much Bowness could do that would end with him returning to coach the Stars for a fourth-consecutive season. He went 89-62-25 in three years as head coach and with his departure, the Stars will be searching for their fifth head coach under Nill after Lindy Ruff, Ken Hitchcock and Montgomery all had their shots to lead the franchise.
Evaluating Bowness can be tricky as the shining moment of his tenure includes leading the team to one of its best seasons in franchise history as the Stars made a run to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in six games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2019-20 season.
Bowness also led the Stars to the playoffs two times in three seasons, but there is no denying the elephant in the room.
Dallas has struggled to score with Bowness at the helm. According to Matthew DeFranks at the Dallas Morning News, the Stars ranked 30th in the NHL under Bowness with 2.13 goals per 60 minutes at 5 on 5.
On the other end of that anemic offense was the Stars’ defense, arguably Bowness’ calling card.
Two seasons ago, when the Stars made their run to the Stanley Cup Final, Dallas was second in the NHL, allowing 2.52 goals per game.
But that defense waned as his tenure progressed and the defense wasn’t sturdy enough to offset the lack of goal production.
In the end, it was time for the Stars to move on from Bowness. Too many facets of the Stars were improperly managed, from the sub-par season Heiskanen turned in to the overuse of the Radek Faksa, Luke Glendening and Michael Raffl checking line. Denis Gurianov and Jacob Peterson were also at the center of Bowness’ coaching decisions, oftentimes playing aging veterans in favor of the defensively unreliable pair of forwards. His strategies when the Stars held a lead certainly also deserve criticism.
Although, the Stars didn’t have too many other options defensively and that goes back to Bowness’ value.
He routinely got the most out of his roster, but his strategies didn’t seem to fit the skillset the Stars currently have.
Unfortunately, the next Stars’ head coach is likely to suffer from the same constraints as Bowness did.
Looking To Next Season
Offense obviously dominates the Dallas Stars’ list of areas to fix next season. The Stars do have an emerging crop of young forwards that include 2021 first-round pick Wyatt Johnston, 2020 first-round pick Mavrik Bourque and 2019 second-round pick Logan Stankoven, waiting in the pipeline and Nill deserves credit for quickly retooling an aging Stars roster.
In the 2021-22 season, Johnston posted 46 goals and 78 assists for a total of 124 points in just 68 games for the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires.
Bourque totaled 93 goals, 143 assists and 236 points in his four seasons for the Shawinigan Cataractes in the Québec Major Junior Hockey League.
Stankoven recorded 45 goals and 59 assists for a total of 104 points in just 59 games in his most recent season for the Kamloops Blazers in the Western Hockey League.
While extremely promising, none of these players are a lock to make the roster next season and are likely a season or two away from providing significant contributions. Managing the present at the risk of the future will surely be a fine line that the Stars will have to walk with these budding prospects.
Defenseman Thomas Harley will surely be leaned on next season to take many of the minutes Klingberg’s impending departure will make available.
Harley, who oozes offensive potential from the back end, played 34 games this season and scored his first NHL in the final regular-season tilt before watching the Stars from the press box during their playoff series against the Flames.
That brings us back to the reasons for optimism with the Stars.
Jake Oettinger was nothing short of magical against the Flames and his performance in both the regular season and the playoffs gives Dallas the homegrown franchise goalie it has been searching for since Marty Turco.
Along with Oettinger and Heiskanen, the top line of Robertson, Hintz and Pavelski gives the Stars hope they can make the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
But the Dallas Stars again head into yet another offseason with more questions than answers.
It will be up to a new coaching staff to piece together a long list of moving parts into a team that has the potential to more than just make the playoffs.
The Dallas Stars have been in “win-now” mode for the past few seasons, but thanks to the emergence of the 2017 draft class, Dallas’ window for ultimate success will stay open for the foreseeable future.