The 2021 Dallas Stars’ season was a failure. They were coming off an incredible run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final and wanted to prove they were true contenders once again. Instead, they limped their way through the season, eventually missing the playoffs by four points. While there were plenty of excuses, the organization knows they have work to do this summer to make sure that it does not happen again.
The Stars were crushed by injuries this season. They began before the season and continued all the way until the final whistle. In order for them to be contenders in 2021-22, it is vital that they come into October with a fully healthy lineup. That is where missing the playoffs may actually benefit Dallas as they will have an elongated offseason rather than another quick turnaround.
Ben Bishop was ruled out for the season after he had complications during his recovery from surgery in the offseason. He will continue to rehab and should have plenty of time to regain his strength. The only fear for the Stars is that he is now 35 years old and has struggled with injuries throughout his entire career. He has been one of the top goalies in the league when healthy and is very important to this team.
Alexander Radulov was also ruled out for the season after playing in only 11 games. He had a core injury that worsened as he tried to work his way back into the lineup. He was shut down along with Bishop at the trade deadline and had surgery to repair the injury. Radulov was a dominant player when he was in the lineup, and the Stars missed his offensive talent and high energy. He is expected to be ready for training camp.
Tyler Seguin was expected to return in March after offseason hip and knee surgeries. But the team’s condensed schedule delayed that because they had very little practice time. He eventually returned in May and played in three games before the Stars were eliminated from playoff contention. He scored in his first two games before sitting out the final two of the season.
Seguin is a superstar two-way center that the Stars in all areas of the ice. He was not back to 100 percent when he returned, so the offseason will allow him to fully recover and be ready for training camp.
Radek Faksa broke his wrist in the Edmonton bubble last season and was expected to be fully healthy this season. The injury began to flare up early in the season and affected his strength on his stick. This would affect any player, but for Faksa, who is a strong, grinding third-line center, it took away some of the best parts of his game. He will not require surgery and should be ready for camp.
Roope Hintz was a superhero in 2021. He was playing through an undisclosed lower-body injury and was a game-time decision every night. When he was in the lineup, he was the Stars’ best player, racking up 43 points in 41 games, showing no signs of an ailment flying all over the ice.
After the season, the team disclosed that he had a severe groin injury that occurred during the Stanley Cup Final in 2020. Hintz believed that he could rehab the injury and felt good going into training camp. However, almost immediately, the injury flared up, and he chose to play through it rather than have the surgery, which would likely force him to miss months of the short season. He is scheduled to have surgery this week and should be fully ready for camp this time around.
Nearly every Dallas player missed time due to injury or illness during the condensed schedule that saw the Stars play 56 games in 108 days.
“We had numerous injuries just due to the schedule,” Jim Nill said. “I’ve never seen so many groin pulls and hamstring pulls you usually don’t see during the season, and a lot of that was because of the condensed schedule and the workload. I give our players [credit] for fighting through it.”
Only time will tell, but every player should be fully healthy entering training camp, and it’s hard to ignore the importance of that. This is a dangerous lineup on paper that was simply unable to overcome a plethora of injuries in 2021. Hopefully, for the Stars, they do not have the same issue next season.
This is one of the most interesting situations to watch for this summer. Miro Heiskanen will be a restricted free agent, Jamie Oleksiak will be an unrestricted free agent, and John Klingberg is entering the final year of his contract. Both Heiskanen and Klingberg are worthy of hefty extensions, and Oleksiak has become a staple in the top four.
For Heiskanen, the decision will be whether to sign a large extension (likely eight years) or to sign a bridge contract (likely three years). The benefit of signing a bridge deal is that he can wait out the current NHL salary cap limits and receive a bigger payout when things hopefully return to normal within a few seasons. This would also benefit Dallas, who needs the extra cash to bring back other players such as Oleksiak, Jason Dickinson, Joel Kiviranta, and Klingberg.
“From our end, we have to sit down and we’re trying to project the same thing,” added Jim Nill. “What number works for both parties? We’re open to both ways. The short-term, we’re comfortable and I think they are, too. If it’s long term, what’s the number long-term? We’ll just have to walk through this.”
Klingberg still has one season left on his deal, so the urgency is a bit less, and the Stars feel comfortable that they will find a deal before he becomes a free agent next summer.
“This process doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time,” said Stars general manager Jim Nill. “They’re going to want to see what the market is, we’re going to want to see what the market is, and we’re just going to have to walk through it. John does have a year left, so there is little less urgency there, but still he’s a big part of our team.”
Klingberg has been in Dallas his entire career and is a top defenseman in the NHL. His offensive skill is the best on the Stars’ blue line, and he has developed into a true top defender with a well-rounded game. As with Heiskanen, it is vital that Dallas finds a way to bring him back.
“It’s something that I think about, obviously, for sure,” Klingberg said. “I’ll sit down with Jim and my agent and we’ll see where we’re at. It’s a little emotional, for sure. I can’t really control what happens with the COVID world right now, flat cap and all of that. It’s different times. Ever since I came in the league, I’ve been a Dallas Star, and that’s what I want to be, but it also has to be the right fit for me and my family and for the organization. Take it day by day here and then see where we’re at.”
Oleksiak’s situation is the most complicated. The Stars will be unable to protect him in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, which means that they will not sign him before that occurs in July. This also means Seattle is unlikely to pick him, as they do not want to risk losing him immediately to free agency.
This should give the Stars a week-long window before free agency begins to re-sign Oleksiak. He has become a huge part of the defense, and Nill has expressed his interest in bringing him back.
This is a unique one in that the Stars will not need to add any players in order to increase their scoring. The view of the team is that the return of key players such as Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and a fully healthy Roope Hintz will be enough. As Nill states every year, if there is something that makes sense to add more depth, he is open to it, but he believes that the team is in a good place.
If the Stars play their cards right, they should have a bit of extra cash for a deal if there is one that makes sense. Nill has said multiple times that they need to hold on to as many draft picks as possible, so it will most likely need to be a very good deal for Dallas. While it will not be a big-name player, some names that come to mind are Blake Coleman, Mike Hoffman, and Alex Wennberg, who are all set to become free agents this summer.
Nill decided to stay quiet last offseason and at this season’s trade deadline, believing that the team was in a good spot. While he was not wrong, the injuries this season pushed them to the brink and beyond, and that may influence his decision to add a bit of scoring depth before the puck drops in October.
Solving the Goalie Logjam
The Stars are in a strange position in their goalie room. Bishop looks ready to return next season, Jake Oettinger proved he is overqualified for the AHL, and Anton Khudobin still has two years left on his contract. Before this season, it seemed certain that the Seattle Kraken would select Khudobin at the expansion draft. After a mediocre season, though, that is no longer the case.
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If Khudobin is not selected, the Stars will have three goalies under contract heading into next season. The biggest problem is that there are a lot of “buts” to the situation. Bishop is a top-tier NHL goalie, but he is aging and has injury issues. Oettinger had a spectacular season, but he is still only 22 years old and has only had one season in the NHL. Finally, Khudobin is a true veteran backup but struggled this season, and keeping him could slow down the development of Oettinger.
My best guess is that the Stars will bring all three goalies into training camp to evaluate where Bishop’s health is. If Bishop is back and good to go, they will most likely look to trade Khudobin. If he is not fully healthy, they will keep all three under contract and call up Oettinger as needed. That is simply a guess because they could also decide to drop Oettinger to the AHL and allow him to develop for another full season while they ride one of the best goaltending duos in the NHL. Either way, they need to have a plan, and they need to solve this logjam. It would be in their best interest to solve it before they lose Khudobin and get nothing in return.
If it seems like Dallas has a lot to take care of this summer, it’s because they do. As a team that missed the playoffs, they cannot stay idle and hope for the best, expecting things to change. They need to beef up their roster and bring back their key players if they expect to make another run next season.
Sam Nestler is a Dallas Stars contributor for the ‘The Hockey Writers’. Growing up in New Jersey, Sam has been playing hockey since he was 7 years old. Developing a love for writing in college, Sam uses his hockey knowledge to create analyses and articles on every aspect of the game. Sam also hosts his own podcast on Spotify, the “Slapshot Sammy’ podcast, breaking down action across the NHL and NCAA. Check out the podcast here, and give his latest article a read!