Many times in hockey, we see the torch passed down from one generation to the next, both league-wide and within each of the 31 organizations, and the Dallas Stars are no different. Currently, the most obvious and perhaps captivating passing of the metaphorical torch is happening with the league’s greatest superstars. While Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin continue to excite, one can’t ignore the fact that they are on the back nine of their legendary careers. To ease the pain from the departure of an all-time great rivalry and two of the most dominant players of their generation, we look to the future, where Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews invite us into a new era of hockey.
The league would be foolish not to capitalize on the poetic nature and marketing potential of simultaneously harboring departing heroes in Crosby and Ovie and the eye-popping talent of McDavid and Matthews by constantly comparing their stats and performances on the big stage. Although it may be less glamorous and obvious, this turnover also takes place within the context of each team.
A well-run team usually begins ushering in the next generation of players before the veteran talent expires, giving the kids time to absorb information and learn from the weathered professionals. Dallas Stars did this when America’s greatest goal-scorer, Mike Modano, the always scrappy Brenden Morrow, and three-time Selke Trophy winner Jere Lehtinen played alongside a 20-year-old Jamie Benn in the 2009-10 season.
Their fans may not have known it then, but Benn would go on to become captain four seasons later, effectively marking the beginning of a new generation of Stars hockey. Now, after nearly a decade with Benn behind the wheel, the Stars’ future is taking shape right before our eyes, and it all started on June 23, 2017, at the United Center in Chicago.
Miro Heiskanen – 3rd Overall
The Stars were coming off a second straight year where they missed the playoffs, and the team lucked into the third overall pick in the draft lottery, where they selected young Finn Miro Heiskanen. Being such a mature player at his age meant the Stars were prepared to utilize Heiskanen’s skill set immediately in Dallas, and it didn’t take long for the 19-year-old to impress. In his rookie season, he played in all 82 games and finished with 12 goals and 33 total points, making a name for himself as a formidable two-way defenseman.
In his first season, he was named an all-star. The Stars capitalized on their new weapon to become the second-best defensive team in the NHL with just 202 total goals against, a number that propelled them into the playoffs and deep into double overtime before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues. Although Stars fans and players alike felt the agony of a game seven double-overtime loss, it was an important learning opportunity for the club, and in particular for young Miro.
Now, Heiskanen is finishing his third campaign with the team and has nearly 100 career points in 201 regular-season games, and boasts a remarkable career mark of 30 points in 40 playoff games, all before turning 22 years old. The Stars are a perfect fit for Heiskanen, often relying upon his elite skating on the backend to generate offensive rush chances and manufacture goals.
In last year’s Edmonton bubble, Heiskanen racked up 20 assists and six goals, good enough to finish third in scoring only behind Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. He was the Stars’ best player throughout the entirety of the playoffs, breaking multiple records on the way, and was a large reason the team was able to come out of the Western Conference and compete in the Stanley Cup Final. Had the Stars won the cup, there’s a decent chance we’d be talking about a 21-year-old Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Although they are in grave danger of missing the playoffs in this shortened season, they have yet to miss the tournament since the Espoo native made his debut in 2018.
The 2017 first-rounder has been nothing short of a slam dunk so far in his tenure on the Stars’ blue line and will be their cornerstone defenseman for years to come. His rookie deal will expire after this season, and locking him up for the long haul should be Jim Nill’s top priority, as there is no player more valuable on the roster than Heiskanen — his impact is obvious, and his skill is jaw-dropping.
Jake Oettinger – 26th Overall
The Stars were back at it 23 spots after picking up their defenseman of the future and decided to grab their netminder to go with him. A 6-foot-4 Jake Oettinger heard his name called to become just the third goalie taken in the first round of the draft since the team drafted Jack Campbell back in 2010. Unlike Heiskanen, the young American needed time to develop, and with the league’s best goalie tandem in Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, the club could afford to give it to him. With that, the Boston University product finished his third year of college hockey and spent 44 games playing for the Texas Stars, the Stars’ AHL affiliate, over the course of two seasons.
Eventually, Oettinger got the call to make the trip with the team to the Edmonton bubble to help them chase a Stanley Cup. With the injury to Bishop, Oettinger spent a majority of the tournament backing up Khudobin and actually made his unofficial NHL debut in relief of Khudobin in game two of the Western Conference Final. Oettinger would come in during one other game and finish the postseason with eight saves on as many shots.
This season, however, with the stakes not as high and with Khudobin struggling at times, Oettinger has split time in the net with his older counterpart. He recorded his first NHL win in his first start against the Detroit Red Wings on January 28th, saving 20 of 23 shots. Then on March 6th, in a game against Columbus, he recorded his first career shutout in a 21-save effort at American Airlines Center. Since stepping into the crease, he has a .918 save percentage and a goals-against-average of 2.23 this year in 27 games, which are remarkable numbers for a rookie. He remains calm, cool, and collected in net and gives the Stars his best effort whenever he is called upon, and has shown that he can be the team’s goalie of the future.
Jason Robertson – 39th Overall
The kid hailing from Arcadia, California, heard his name called during the second round, becoming the first forward for the Stars in the 2017 Draft and the final puzzle piece after Heiskanen and Oettinger. Jason Robertson made his NHL debut in the 2019-20 season, appearing in three games and averaging about 12 minutes of ice time. In those games, he nabbed one assist and looked underwhelming. This year, though, the script has flipped.
After a slow start to the season that saw Robertson left out of the lineup on occasion, he started to find his NHL stride. The slender 6-foot-2 forward started piecing together some decent offensive performances following his first NHL goal against the Blackhawks on February 7th. Then, on March 23rd, Robertson got put on the wing on a line with Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski.
Since being put together with Hintz and Pavelski, Robertson has catapulted himself into the Norris Trophy discussion with 25 points in 24 games, including a nine-game point streak. Robertson finds himself with the second-most goals and points on the roster, with 16 and 26 respectively, only trailing Joe Pavelski in both categories. With big-time performances and 18 points, Robertson earned himself rookie of the month honors for April. In his brief stint as a first-line winger, Robertson has shown his knack for finding the net and the soft spots on the ice and has even shown an ability to up the intensity in playoff-type games and play a physical brand of hockey.
The kid Robertson is always smiling when he’s on the ice, and you should be too because he is just 21 and is going to be a great player for years to come in Dallas.
A New Era
With Robertson, Heiskanen, and Oettinger, the Stars bolster some of the league’s best young talent at each position of the ice. Their early success indicates that the sky’s the limit for the team and calls for optimism moving forward. As Benn and Seguin, who have led the club for many years, begin to suffer the consequences of aging and the physical toll of the NHL, they have a great cast of young Stars to pass the torch to and who can carry the franchise into a new era of hockey, full of exciting end-to-end rushes, glove saves, and bar down snipes.
Peter is a Dallas Stars writer at THW. He grew up playing hockey in Los Angeles and Dallas and has followed the Stars closely for over a decade. He currently studies psychology at Stanford University and plays on the hockey team. You can find more of his work at MuffinHockey.com and weekly NHL recaps at the Stanford Daily Newspaper. To make article requests or ask questions, contact him on twitter @MuffinHockey.