The Colorado Avalanche’s stretch of regular season dominance finally culminated in the Stanley Cup Finals. Widely regarded as one of the best teams, if not the best team in hockey, there are many lessons to glean from their run. With free agency quickly approaching, let’s reflect on four takeaways that the Dallas Stars need to apply to their franchise.
Dallas Stars Lesson 1: The Stars Show Up
Basking in the glow of victory, captain Gabriel Landeskog was asked about what other teams should borrow from the Avalanche’s success story. He responded, “Find a Cale Makar.”
There’s good news and bad news for the Stars with this. The good news? They have a Cale Makar and his name is Miro Heiskanen. The bad news? They use him as a crutch rather than a boost.
Despite being hindered, Heiskanen shows up and especially when it matters. He had 9 points in series-clinching games in the 2020 bubble run, putting him just behind Makar’s record-setting 11 points this year.
Makar plays with Devon Toews and they complement each other so that he is able to be more offensive. In comparison, Heiskanen plays on his weak side and now primarily with Ryan Suter. He takes the bulk of defending and this takes time away from potential offensive creativity. It should be a priority for the Stars to optimize their best player, which is Heiskanen.
Beyond defense, the Avalanche have several threats in the forward group. Nathan MacKinnon notably had 13 goals and 24 points in 20 playoffs games this year. Nazem Kadri played the best hockey of his career despite missing four games and getting surgery. Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog both averaged over a point a game.
A team’s success is fueled by its star players and Dallas will need to find a way to unlock more scoring from their forward group. It’s not enough to have one stellar top line. That barely got them into the playoffs. There needs to be push from all the major players and successful combinations to create several scoring lines.
Dallas Stars Lesson 2: Good Depth
Hockey is a game where one goal can often decide the outcome. And those moments are where the quality of depth players can either help or hurt a team. For the purpose of this section, let’s look at players beyond the known “stars” of Colorado mentioned before.
That’s a stark contrast to his 2022 playoffs output of 9 goals and 15 points in 20 games. The point of this is not to wallow in the past, but rather to show how having that kind of output can really benefit a team. According to dailyfaceoff, Nichushkin played on the second line with Kadri and Landeskog who are both accomplished players. The lesson for the Stars is that they need their second line to be a force, and the second line should not be considered depth.
Good depth in the bottom-six of the lineup is important. There was no designated checking line just for the sake of having one — something Dallas has clung to for several seasons and sorely needs to move beyond.
Young and old players worked together. On defense, the third pairing of Bowen Byram and Erik Johnson allowed Byram to develop and contribute. In contrast, young talent Thomas Harley did not play a single minute during the Stars and Flames first round series. This can’t continue and Dallas must let the youth play.
Dallas Stars Lesson 3: Trade Acquisitions Matter
When the trade deadline hits, an honest assessment of the team can go a long way. If the front office truly believes there is potential for a long run, filling in the gaps in the smartest way possible becomes paramount. Free agency is almost here and a similar idea can be applied.
Arturri “Big Goal” Lekhonen was traded for a minor leaguer and a second-round pick, which was viewed as quite a bit at the time. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and his contributions far outweighed the cost of acquisition.
He scored the overtime winner to send Colorado to the finals and scored the game winning goal that secured the Avalanche’s victory against Tampa.
More than that, Colorado was able to acquire Lekhonen, Andrew Cogliano, Josh Manson, and Nico Sturm were all added at the deadline. They missed out on a big piece like Claude Giroux but ultimately that did not matter.
The elite of Colorado were still the same, and the pieces added were smart moves that didn’t cost much. In order to acquire all four of those players only draft picks, a prospect, a minor leaguer, and only one roster player (Tyson Jost).
Regarding Cogliano, his experience was spoken of highly. He gave a speech after the disappointing game 5 loss and rallied the team to ultimately win the series in game 6. That leadership proved helpful.
All of this points to making smart trades at the deadline. The Avalanche were able to fill in the gaps and elevate the team’s depth with players that contributed. In comparison, the Dallas Stars trade acquisitions were Scott Wedgewood and Vladislav Namestnikov.
Wedgewood was a necessary move and has worked out well for the team especially after re-signing, but Namestnikov just pointed to more of the same “safe” heavy style of play the team has been stuck in. He was elevated to the second line over Jacob Peterson despite being less productive.
Colorado did not put players in places where they would be unproductive, and Dallas needs to be careful with this when looking at how to construct second and third scoring lines. In free agency, this will be even more key.
Dallas Stars Lesson 4: No Turtling Allowed
What stood out the most by far was the way Colorado played in the third period of Game 6. The Avalanche were up by one goal, and they had nine shots on goal in the third period. The Tampa Bay Lightning had four shots on goal in the final period as they faced elimination. Those numbers aren’t too striking but watching that period will show a relentless offensive pressure from Colorado.
As a Stars fan, this felt foreign. Dallas used to have pride winning tight games. But lately, going into the third period with a one goal lead was always connected with a feeling of inevitability. The inevitability that the team would give up that lead and lose.
The Dallas Stars tend to fall into score effects in these situations and play defensively in fear of losing the lead. But Colorado played wanting to score another goal until the very end. The Stars do have enough talent to make their best defense a good offense in these situations, and a change in types of offseason acquisitions may help this.
This would also have another benefit: easing the burden on the goaltender. Colorado did this well as neither goaltender was spectacular, but they still won decisively. Jake Oettinger has proven he has the talent and work ethic, but if the Stars could help alleviate some of the pressure he faces it would only be to his benefit and longevity. The easiest way to do this is to keep the puck away from him and in the offensive zone.
With a new coaching staff, and Pete DeBoer making his desire for offense very clear, perhaps the Dallas Stars will make some philosophy changes. Who the team picks up in free agency will help point to what direction they plan on going in.