Panthers & Stars Show How Teams Can Retool on the Fly

One year ago, the Dallas Stars looked like they were a middling team. They were average and had a low ceiling but still had a good enough roster to avoid the bottom of the standings. After backing their way into the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs and losing their First-Round matchup against the Calgary Flames in seven games, they looked poised for another subpar year in 2022-23.

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The Florida Panthers, meanwhile, won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2021-22 with the best record in the NHL, but they were eliminated in the Second Round by the Tampa Bay Lightning in a four-game sweep. They looked like they had a strong core of players in place to contend in the upcoming seasons, but they went through a surprising roster overhaul in the 2022 offseason.

Fast forward to the Second Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and both teams are contending for the Cup, looking poised to reach the Final. The Panthers have a 2-0 series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Stars, who finished the season with the second-best record in the Central Division, are locked into a 1-1 series with the Seattle Kraken.

Sergei Bobrovsky Florida Panthers
Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Both the Panthers and the Stars proved that a team that makes the right moves can make a big leap in one year. A lot of teams appear stuck in no man’s land with no path to contention next year. However, following the Panthers or Stars blueprint, they can turn themselves into Cup contenders.

Panthers & Stars Coaching Changes

Both teams hired new head coaches in the 2022 offseason and found the right leader. The right hire is integral to success in the NHL, and both the Panthers and Stars appear to have made the right choices after one season.

At first, head coach Paul Maurice looked like a questionable hire. Andrew Brunette was the interim coach for the Panthers in 2021-22 and led them to the best regular season in franchise history with a 58-18-6 record. After Brunette was replaced, he was hired by the New Jersey Devils as an assistant head coach and has helped them put together a remarkable season. Maurice, meanwhile, is a veteran coach but was coming off a rocky tenure that ended poorly with the Winnipeg Jets. His coaching style also appeared outdated for a young, fast-paced, and offensively-driven Panthers team.

Paul Maurice Florida Panthers
Paul Maurice, Head Coach of the Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, Maurice was what the Panthers needed. He balanced out the roster and made them a more defensive-minded team, and more importantly, has been able to fire up his players when needed. Numerous times, he’s gotten hot behind the bench, yelling at his players, the refs, or anyone within shouting distance, but he knows when to do so to get his team to play better. His energy helped fuel the team’s push for a playoff spot and the 3-1 series comeback in the First Round against the Boston Bruins, allowing them to advance in seven games.

The Stars, meanwhile, had great defense and goaltending but needed a spark offensively to round out the roster. Pete DeBoer has a reputation for coaching an offensive-minded system that helps make teams instantly competitive. It led to years of success with the New Jersey Devils, San Jose Sharks, and his most recent team, the Vegas Golden Knights. While his system eventually wears off, he helps turn teams into instant Cup contenders as he led the Devils and Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year behind the bench with both teams.

Pete DeBoer Dallas Stars
Pete DeBoer, Dallas Stars (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

DeBoer has helped catapult the offense, which averaged only 2.84 goals per game last season, to 3.43 goals per game this year. With a great defense already in place, the Stars look like a well-rounded team in large part because of DeBoer’s offensive influence.

Panthers Built Themselves for the Playoffs

After winning the Presidents’ Trophy, the Panthers barely reaching the playoffs seems like a disappointment. They were not a great team this season and had glaring weaknesses that were exploited throughout the year. Their forward unit lacked depth, while their defensive unit struggled, making it difficult for starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and backups Spencer Knight and Alex Lyon to put together strong starts. However, they were built in the 2022 offseason not to be the best regular season but to make a run at the Stanley Cup.

The big move for general manager (GM) Bill Zito was acquiring Matthew Tkachuk. The Panthers gave up a lot to get him, trading top-six forward Jonathan Huberdeau and top-pair defenseman MacKenzie Weegar. The defense, in particular, missed Weegar, as the unit allowed 3.32 goals per game and struggled on the right side all season. However, the team needed an elite top-line forward who could impact all three zones. Tkachuk is a rare breed as a power forward who plays physically but also has elite offensive skills. While he isn’t the best player in the league, he is a difference-maker. He scored 40 goals and 69 assists and carried the Panthers to the playoffs, and helped them win the First-Round matchup over the heavily favored Bruins.

Matthew Tkachuk Florida Panthers
Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Panthers saw how hapless they looked against the Lightning the year before. When the game slowed down, and they had to step up defensively as well as play a more physical game, they couldn’t. With Tkachuk, they have a forward who can control the pace of the game and contribute defensively, making the Panthers more equipped for a playoff run.

Stars Added Depth & Youth to a Veteran-Heavy Lineup

At the end of the 2021-22 season, the Stars looked like a team that was aging out of contention. Joe Pavelski, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Ryan Suter were all in their mid-30s, and the team looked slow and depleted of elite talent. At the moment, the Stars look anything but as they are an explosive, fast, and exciting team. More importantly, they look well-built with experience and youth, along with top-end talent and depth carrying them.

Joe Pavelski Dallas Stars
Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

The biggest boost has been Jason Robertson, who built off a breakout year and emerged as one of the best wingers in the league. At 23 years old, Robertson still has yet to play his best years in the NHL but has already rounded out his game, establishing himself as an elite scorer and passer. This year, he scored 46 goals and refined his passing with 63 assists, a big jump from last season when he only had 38 assists. Additionally, he’s the youthful presence in the top six that the Stars desperately needed.

Along with Robertson, the Stars made a valiant effort to add youth to their roster this season. Wyatt Johnston, who was selected in the first round of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, was called up to the NHL after an impressive 2021-22 season with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Johnston never looked back, playing in all 82 regular-season games, scoring 24 goals and 17 assists, and becoming an integral part of the forward unit at only 19 years old. Ty Dellandrea is 22 years old and has taken on a depth role in the offense. Nils Lundkvist was acquired from the New York Rangers before the season, and the 22-year-old defenseman rounded out the unit, playing 60 games and averaging 16:19 of ice time in a later pairing role.

The youth movement turned the Stars around in one year, but the moves that GM Jim Nill made in the offseason and at the trade deadline put them over the top. Nill didn’t make any splash signings but added depth to a roster that already had a strong veteran core in place. Mason Marchment and Colin Miller were both acquired in the offseason, while Evgenii Dadonov and Max Domi were added at the trade deadline to strengthen the forward unit for the playoffs.

Mason Marchment Dallas Stars
Mason Marchment, Dallas Stars (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In the playoffs, those depth additions have played a big role in the team’s success. Marchment, Dadonov, and Domi, the three forwards acquired since last season, have combined for seven goals and nine assists. Miller has played a limited but crucial role as a third-pair defenseman, helping the Stars win low-scoring, defensive battles.

What Retooling Teams Can Learn from the Panthers & StarsT

The big lesson for GMs is understanding their roster. The type of coach that is hired and the subsequent moves that are made can only be successful if they mesh well with the players in place. The Panthers needed a motivational coach and hired Maurice, while the Stars needed to improve their offense, resulting in the DeBoer hire.

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The other thing is recognizing the small moves that can go a long way. Yes, the Panthers made a splash by acquiring Tkachuk, a move that changed the dynamic of the team. However, the Stars never chased star power in the offseason. Instead, they made a handful of small moves that paid off.

The Jets, Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames, and Pittsburgh Penguins are some of the many teams that look like they are stuck in mediocrity and don’t have a path to becoming contenders. However, the Panthers and Stars showed that there are a few avenues if the right moves are made.

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