Biggest lessons from 2023 campaign that Stars carry into the offseason

May 29, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Stars head coach Pete DeBoer and the Stars team bench watch the game between the Stars and the Vegas Golden Knights during the third period in game six of the Western Conference Finals of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
May 29, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Stars head coach Pete DeBoer and the Stars team bench watch the game between the Stars and the Vegas Golden Knights during the third period in game six of the Western Conference Finals of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

The dust has settled, and our tears have dried as the Texas Summer heat melts home ice away in the AAC. As the ’23 campaign fades in the rearview mirror and the Panthers quarrel uselessly at Vegas’ predestined cup, we set our Starry-eyed sights to the offseason. The Stars did well by most accounts, as proven in the fan view by Saad Yousuf’s fan survey last week. Eluding the reach of this team yet is a championship, the only true mark of success in this league. Before getting into our offseason speculation about free agency, it’s important to audit the strengths and weaknesses of the squad to better shape expectations.

Dallas Stars Lesson 1: The defense needs to be retooled

There’s a reason that Ryan Suter’s hypothetical buyout has been trending on the CapFriendly team builder tool. There is a significantly massive depth issue on the defensive right side. It’s not as easy as sliding Miro to the right as a last-ditch effort to play on his off-side, and it doesn’t fit DeBoer’s system.

On the surface, it looks like a talent surplus on the left has earned the team a luxury in icing Miro for 30 playoff minutes a game out of position with outstanding results. Despite Miro being the best defenseman in the league, his play can’t make Ryan Suter 10 years younger. Good play can only cover up so much bad play.

With Nill stating that no buyouts are on the table, that means that 4 LD spots will be taken next year with Miro, Suter, Lindell, & Harley all being of NHL caliber. As you may have noticed, there are only three left-handed slots to utilize.

Miro Heiskanen played a full season on the left and doubled his career high in seasonal point total, setting a franchise record for a defenseman in the process. Sending Heiskanen back to the right, where he played the last time the Stars missed the playoffs, would diminish one of the best talents the league has seen in a decade. Something or someone has got to give.

Suter to Miro is not the only cinderblock treatment the Stars are forced to endure, as Jani Hakanpaa brought down Esa Lindell’s game a step or two this year. Going from Klingberg to Hakanpaa as a partner has to be the biggest dropoff in franchise history.

A high-flying offensive defenseman that could skate the length if you bought him space, Klingberg benefitted from the gritty game that Esa brings to the table. Unfortunately, Jani Hakanpaa plays that same kind of game. Big, slow, and on a cheap deal, Jani may very well be the antithesis of John Klingberg.

With these dynamics resulting in a 2 seed in the Central and a conference final bid, it can’t be all that bad. The team managed most of that status with the lines below.

Miro – Miller
Lindell – Hakanpaa
Suter – Lundkvist

With the Thomas Harley coming out party in the playoffs, the team cannot revert back to these lines completely. He’s done too much to earn a spot. The Stars need to allocate funds to the right side of the defense when free-agency hits, and with Hakanpaa’s 1 year at $1.5 million, he’ll be easy to ship off for minimal returns. If we get a change of tune on the Suter buyout from Jimmy Nill, the Stars would find themselves with ample coin to grab a middle 6 forward and a top 4 RD.

The resulting lines would look a bit more like this:

Miro – Miller / FA Signee
Harley – Miller / FA Signee
Lindell – Lundkvist

Colin Miller was a huge value add at an efficient $1.8 million cap hit last year, and he proved adequate on Harley and/or Miro’s right. Lindell’s propensity to keep a more offensive-minded partner clean puts him in a prime position to help catapult Nils’ game into better shape next season. Assuming Hanley is brought back to be the 7D since he’s excelled in that role, that leaves the only external decision to be what kind of RD they want to sign.

A bigger Scott Mayfield type would surely slot in with Miro on the top line, and conversely, a stouter Connor Clifton type would play off Harley a bit better. The movements to get here may be a bit of wishful thinking on my part, but new blood on the defensive right is a necessity heading into 2024.

Dallas Stars Lesson 2: Oettinger cannot play 80 games

This one is pretty plain and simple and needs a lot less explanation than my tinfoil hat theories about how to change the defense overnight. The recently engaged goaltender probably popped the question now because he knew that the same workload next year would kill him. I’m not the best zoologist, but the average Otter surely cannot survive that sort of subjection to stimuli over that period of time.

In the conference finals, where one could assume the sharpest goalies would be, Otter had played almost 20 more games than the next closest goalie in usage (Bobrovsky). With Adin Hill starting less than 40 games, playoffs included, one could see where his focus is easy to recapture after a rough night.

This same concept is what hindered us from seeing the same “Playoff Otter” we saw in Calgary last season. The Seattle series was a painstaking exhibition of his mental fatigue, but a strong reminder of his resilience. The capability was there, and we would see it as he continually recovered from what we would consider an off night.

The unfortunate part of this is that it took an off night for that to be unlocked, giving up 4-5 goals and sometimes watching from the bench the rest of the way. To capture Otter in his bounce-back form more frequently, he needs the regular season workload alleviated a little bit.

This isn’t me calling for Scott Wedgewood to get his fair share of starts, but rather an indicator that the Stars need to restock their goalie system. Both of the Cup Final teams have at least 3 trusted starters on their team, allowing both to be flexible for injuries.

With Scott Wedgewood missing close to a month to end the season, Pete DeBoer was forced to push Oettinger past his ideal workload. The team tried to integrate Matt Murray into the rotation, they just couldn’t sustain that sort of defensive stress to keep him clean. Add in that they were fighting to keep their 1-seed and the demand for perfection led to too much strain on Jake.

There are a few solutions to this problem, but it all starts with changing Jake’s deployment. Taking 60% of the starts seems like an optimal spot for an elite goalie to stay sharp and win you the games needed for a playoff spot, but do the Stars trust Wedgewood with the remaining 40%?

Based on the rumblings that Nill was shopping for Jake Allen last offseason, he realized that maybe another goalie to take 30 of that off of Wedgie’s hands would be ideal. Of course, the Stars could graduate Murray or another young goalie after drafting one with their second-round pick. However, 30% of the starts may require someone more proven and force Jim Nill’s hand into the waters of free agency.

Dallas Stars Lesson 3: The forward core is elite

It’s not always doom and gloom in my sports noggin, although you might not get that from reading the pieces I’ve produced. Having Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz is a luxury that is unmatched across the board in local sports, aside from maybe the Texas Rangers’ middle infield. Jason Robertson plays a very smart, clean game that has to be a share of what has been taught by Joe Pavelski.

Because of the soft skills it takes to play that kind of game, Robo has the opportunity to make a very long career for himself in a similar fashion. Finding space, defending well, and having elite scoring touch in numerous ways are something that doesn’t dull over time. The future is bright for Robo and 109 points might just be scratching the surface.

Playoff Roope was a beauty to behold, finishing as the only top 5 playoff scorer that didn’t have an opportunity in the final. While that may be backhanded recognition, it shows what a force Roope can be at full health come playoff time.

The issue with such an energetic player is keeping that healthy and ensuring he can perform in crunch time. Honestly, at the first sign of a bruise next year they should stash him on LTIR until playoff time rolls around (only kinda kidding). What helps with maintaining vitality, as a fountain of youth searchers will attest, is having a crop of continually graduating prospects.

Year one of Wyatt Johnston yields quite an optimistic air about the young centerman. Topping the OHL with 124 points the year prior, Johnston’s game translated into a share of the rookie goals lead at the age of 19. With an impressive campaign, Johnston has the opportunity to take further shape with another run next year before legally purchasing beer.

The Stars have the prospect churn available to create another Wyatt next year with Logan Stankoven waiting in the wings. And if Mavrik Bourque has to stick it out in the “Always Hungry League” for another year, he’d undoubtedly be a Southern Calder Contender in 2025 (making a new designation for Rookies in small TV markets).

The youth movement and the already wicked top line give me more peace in the forward group than any other part of the team. A lot of prognosticators are identifying ways to add depth to the middle six, but the easiest way to inject talent into the lineup is by conquering the NHL draft.

It’s a level playing field and everyone has the same opportunities, Nill has just made the better choices and our talent pool is stocked. While the youth grows into their roles, the fringe can be tinkered with and the Stars won’t need to spend $5 million to get an immediate game changer. The kids are alright and eventually, the team will be too.

Dallas Stars Result: Summertime madness 

It’s important to take stock of what’s on hand before analyzing what’s on the other side of the fence. While the defense needs retooling and goalies need backing up, the forwards are deeper than we’ve seen from this team in almost a decade. A cup contender sleeps in the summer, only to be awakened by next year’s camp. Until then, we’ll have plenty of unsolicited criticism for the impending offseason moves.