The last glimpse we saw of Dallas Stars hockey was watching the Tampa Bay Lightning skate the Stanley Cup. In what was already an unprecedented season for the NHL and sports world as a whole, it concluded with an effort from the boys in Victory Green that no one will soon forget.
Today, aside from the rare and frankly bizarre surroundings that was the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the replays simply serve as a reminder of the 21-year championship drought that continues to linger. Of course, with a new season (whenever that may be) comes new opportunities.
Fresh off a campaign that included successfully hosting (and winning) the second-most attended game the sport has ever seen in the Winter Classic, followed by the first trip to the Cup Final since 2000 and a new third jersey — Stars fans are beyond anxious to drop the puck.
But what if further delays in the start of the 2020-21 season actually benefit the reigning Western Conference champions? Let’s be honest, few things are missed more than “#IsItOctoberYet?”
The hashtag, while useful for baseball fans alike — reminds us of a time of clarity, a time of certainty, a time where NHL schedules are well-established and the opening puck drop brings new hope for all 31 teams.
As of now, clarity or certainty doesn’t quite exist, as the hockey world looks to continue adjusting and adhering to the unknown for an unforeseen amount of time. Meanwhile, appreciation for normalcy such as driving to the rink for a game or grabbing a beverage in between intermissions with family and friends grows more and more each day.
While the players, coaching staff and (virtual) fans will be eager to defend their conference title run, there are still plenty of positives that lay ahead with a delayed puck drop. The Stars, who remained in the bubble and away from normal civilization longer than any Western Conference team, continue to nurse ailing injuries from the deep postseason run and will need to get off to a fast start to reclaim a playoff spot in the West.
The club’s abysmal 1-7-1 record to begin to the 2019-20 season proved to be a small footnote in what was to come, but any delay in finding their game could be fatal in a season that expects to cap at less than 60 games in 2020-21.
Let’s face it, we’re all ready for hockey, but there are reasons to remain optimistic from a Stars’ perspective if the indecision of opening night and season as a whole continues to keep us at a standstill.
Bishop, Seguin Continue to Rehab
Goaltender Ben Bishop (knee) and forward Tyler Seguin (hip) both sustained injuries during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs that required surgery following the season-ending loss to Tampa Bay.
Bishop, who appeared to be ailing throughout the playoffs, was limited to three forgettable appearances where he allowed 12 goals on 77 shots. Never fully healthy, he was consistently deemed “unfit” to provide backup duties to goaltender Anton Khudobin.
Seguin, who only sat out the third preliminary round-robin game, played in the other 26 postseason games for the Stars, recording 13 points (11 assists), and has not missed a regular-season game since 2015-16.
Stars general manager Jim Nill revealed Bishop had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee on Oct. 21, while Seguin had right hip arthroscopy and labral repair on Nov. 2. Both are an expected four-month recovery.
It’s just really time [with Bishop],” Nill said. “Where his injury was at in his knee, there’s not a lot of blood flow in that area, so it just takes a lot of time for it to heal. But he’s doing well and looking forward to getting back at it.”Source: Dallas Stars
The timeframe puts the Stars’ highest-paid forward and goaltender on the mend until at least mid-March, as Khudobin is expected to continue carrying the load for the Stars after a stellar Cup Final run in Bishop’s absence.
Bishop, 34, is only a season removed from a robust .934 save percentage (SV%) and 1.98 goals against average (GAA) that led to a second-place finish in Vezina Trophy voting for the NHL’s best goaltender in 2018-19. A season in which the Stars were a Game 7, double-OT goal away from eliminating the eventual Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
Seguin, 28, is coming off a quiet 2019-20 for his standards where he saw career lows in goals (17), assists (33) and points (50) despite six consecutive seasons with at least 70 points.
The Toronto native has not scored a goal since Aug. 26 against the Colorado Avalanche, but played through the nagging hip injury and accounted for five crucial assists in the Cup Final for the Stars, who struggled mightily to beat Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Both Seguin and Bishop’s injuries should be the main culprit to the recent struggles and a bounce-back season will be in play once they are fully healthy. While the Stars do possess excellent forward and goaltending depth for a short-term fix, they would benefit from having their two superstars at full strength for as many games as possible.
Limited No. 1 Goaltender Experience
Khudobin, who signed a three-year extension with Dallas on Oct. 9, is also ailing due to surgery to fix a nerve issue in his right arm. Nill confirmed on Nov. 20 that he is expected to be available for the start of training camp.
The 34-year-old is fresh off posting a career high in consecutive starts in relief of the injured Bishop. Headlining the Stars’ Cup Final run by stopping at least 30 shots in six of the final nine postseason games, singlehandedly keeping them alive in most games.
Khudobin’s success overall shouldn’t have come as much surprise, after quietly leading all eligible NHL goaltenders in regular-season SV% (.930) and finished third in GAA (2.22) prior to the league-wide pause. The Bishop-Khudobin tandem allowed the fewest goals in the Western Conference in 2019-20, making them among the elite duo’s in the game today.
Khudobin will enter the 2020-21 season as the clear No. 1 option when the season begins, with the full trust from the Stars organization and fanbase after an incredible effort on the highest stage. Granted, it’s still concerning that the career-backup has only started in more than 34 regular-season games just once in his 11-year career.
“Doby’s” career .919 SV% and 2.46 GAA are numbers that can be trusted for a short-term basis, but the Stars are much stronger with the duo that finished second for the 2020 William M. Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goalie tandem with the fewest goals allowed in the NHL.
Bishop, who signed a six-year, $29.5-million deal in 2017, remains the Stars’ preferred No. 1 goaltender despite Khudobin’s recent heroics and should receive ample opportunities to resume the role upon return.
An extended layoff allows time for both veteran goaltenders to make a full recovery, as the Stars will need to look to young goaltender and former first-round pick Jake Oettinger for primary backup duties to begin the season. Should Khudobin suffer an injury or show fatigue early on, Oettinger elevating to starting duties is a situation the club is ultimately excited about long term, but they’d prefer not to lean on the rookie too heavily this early in his development, as he currently has zero NHL starts to date.
Veteran Forwards Get a Breather
According to Elite Prospects, the Stars have the third-oldest team (29.09) in the league entering the 2020-21 season. Veteran goaltenders, mixed with forwards Joe Pavelski (36), Alexander Radulov (34), Blake Comeau (34) and Andrew Cogliano (33) round out the group that puts them among the most seasoned rosters in the Western Conference.
Pavelski signed a 3-year, $21-million deal with the Stars and followed up with 31 points in 67 regular-season games in 2019-20. He had not recorded less than 20 goals or less than 64 points since 2013, which was a lockout-shortened season.
Following a disappointing debut in Dallas, with perhaps some new-city jitters after spending 13 years with San Jose, Pavelski found his comfort with the club during the 2020 Playoffs, providing one of the more historic postseason performances in NHL history. His 13 goals in 27 games broke the US-born playoff scoring record and he became just the fourth NHL player at the age of 36 or older to score at least 10 goals in a single postseason.
Radulov, 34, is also coming off a career-low point total since he left for the Kontinental Hockey League in 2012, Russia’s top professional league. Since returning to the NHL, Radulov has reached 72 points in two of four seasons, but finished with just 34 points (15 goals) in 2019-20.
Like Pavelski, Radulov thrived in the bubble by redeeming his season with a solid playoff performance in 2020. Finishing with 18 points (10 assists) and playing in all 27 postseason games for the Stars, he reclaimed his elite offensive output in clutch situations with four game-winning goals.
Jamie Benn, 31, isn’t quite in the same age group yet, but does have nearly 900 total NHL games under his belt. The captain has missed just 10 games since the 2013-14 season and continues to play at an extremely high level, providing the Stars with a much-needed mixture of skill and grit.
Cogliano and Comeau, who are primed to resume important checking roles on the Stars’ third line alongside Radek Faksa, both missed four games during the 2020 postseason but are expected to be healthy going into training camp. The duo, however, have combined for over 1,860 career NHL games and should expect to see an increase of playing time this season due to the unrestricted free agent departures of Corey Perry and Mattias Janmark.
All current forwards and defensemen over the age of 32 are nearing the final year, or two years, of their respective contracts, re-inserting the Stars into a “Win Now” mode despite the lingering injuries and just over two months removed from the bubble.
As the logistics of the 2020-21 schedule continue to be ironed out, a Jan. 13 start date has been discussed but hardly confirmed.
We want the goals, the hits, the saves — we want hockey.
Although, considering the long-term injuries and increasing mileage on veteran players, further delaying the start of the season may not be what we as hockey fans truly want, but it surely increases the Stars’ chances to get healthier as each day passes.
Is it… January yet?
Clayton Bailey covers Fantasy Hockey and the Dallas Stars for The Hockey Writers. The Dallas native previously scouted the Texas Stars for DobberProspects, prior to working in various data, statistics and customer relations roles with Sporting News and DAZN-Canada.