Free agency is vital to a teams’ success. It can easily be the difference that leads an NHL club to a championship. However, it can also be the reason they fail. In their history, the Dallas Stars have made some transactions through trades, drafts, and free agency that have changed their franchise. In particular, there are five free-agent signings that stand out. Each of these players not only made a huge impact on the team, but some of them helped the Stars win their first and only Stanley Cup.
5. Alexander Radulov
Alexander Radulov has had a strange career since coming into the league in 2006. He played two seasons with the Nashville Predators before moving back to Russia to play in the Kontinental Hockey League. After his eighth season in Russia, he returned to the NHL for one season with the Montreal Canadiens. He had a solid season, scoring 54 points in 76 games with the Habs. In the summer of 2017, the Stars were looking to fill some holes offensively, so Jim Nill took a chance, signing the Russian winger. The move worked out perfectly for the Stars and him as he found instant success in Texas. Similar to when Tyler Seguin was traded to the Stars, Radulov found instant chemistry and friendship with the captain, Jamie Benn.
The NHL was then introduced to the “super line” of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov, which was one of the best lines in the league. Radulov racked up 72 points in 82 games in his first season with the Stars, a career-high. The following season, he duplicated that number, doing so in only 70 games. His production dipped a bit the following two seasons as he battled injuries and the Stars had trouble scoring as a team.
Where he really shined though, was in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In 2018-19, he tallied four goals and five assists in 13 games before the Stars were eliminated in Game 7 of the second round by the St. Louis Blues. In 2019-20, he was one of the best players in the Edmonton bubble. During the Cinderella run to the Final, Radulov scored eight goals, including four game-winners. His most memorable came early in overtime of Game 3 of the Western Conference Final.
He also added 10 assists in the 27 games of the playoffs, finishing fifth on the team in scoring. Radulov enters the final year of his contract in 2021-22 and will be coming off of a core surgery with a lot to prove after missing most of last season.
4. Joe Pavelski
Joe Pavelski was a hero and captain for the San Jose Sharks until 2019. He played 13 seasons with the Sharks before making the first move of his career. The Stars knew what he was capable of and believed he still had more left in the tank, even at the age of 35. It was a slow start in Dallas for the multi 40-goal scorer, but once he became acclimated, he shined. Going into the COVID-19 stoppage in 2020, he had found his game and was producing at a much higher level. When the teams returned in the Edmonton Bubble for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he showed how impactful he can be.
In the 27 games on the Stars’ run to the Final, Pavelski scored 13 goals and added six assists. He scored his first playoff hat trick in a crucial late comeback win against the Calgary Flames in round one. Dallas was 12 seconds from falling behind 3-1 in the series when Pavelski scored his hat-trick goal to tie the game. It was the theme of the playoffs for the club and he was a huge part of that. It seemed that every time they needed a late goal, he was the one to deliver.
In the 2020-21 season, he was the Stars’ best player. He began the season on a tear, scoring seven goals in as many games and racking up 14 points. Even though the offense struggled for Dallas, Pavelski did not. He finished the season with 25 goals, 13 of which came on the power play, which led the entire NHL. He was also a part of the emergence of a new top-line featuring Pavelski, Roope Hintz, and the rookie Jason Robertson. The three of them became one of the top lines in the NHL and look to improve on what they did next season. With one year remaining on his contract, he will be a big part of an important 2021-22 season for the Stars.
3. Anton Khudobin
Anton Khudobin is a rare NHL goalie. He stands only 5-foot-11 making him one of the shortest in the league. However, he makes up for his size with his energy and athleticism. A career backup goaltender, Khudobin played for the Minnesota Wild, Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, and Anaheim Ducks before making his way to Dallas in 2018. The Stars were looking for a versatile backup to Ben Bishop that was able to play the tough games but also could perform as a starter when Bishop was out with injuries. The Russian filled that role better than they could have ever imagined.
The Bishop-Khudobin duo was one of the best across the league. Khudobin played in 41 games as the two goalies combined for a .930 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.30 goals-against average (GAA) in their first season in 2018-19. It is no coincidence that Bishop had one of the best seasons of his career either (.934 SV%,1.98 GAA). During the following season, the trend continued. In the shortened 2019-20 season, Khudobin led all goalies with a .930 SV% while Bishop had another fantastic season.
Khudobin made his biggest contribution to the team in the Edmonton bubble during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Bishop sustained another serious injury, and it was unknown when he would be able to return. Khudobin ended up playing 24 of the 27 games during the Stars’ run to the Final. He was the Stars’ best player through the first three rounds and finished the playoffs with a 14-10 record, just two wins short of the Stanley Cup. Without his spectacular play, the battered and bruised Stars likely would not have made it out of the second round.
In 2020-21, he was forced to play a starting role again, with Bishop missing the entire season after knee surgery. He struggled in this role, having the worst season of his career and paving the way for Jake Oettinger to shine. With Bishop looking ready for the 2021-22 season, Khudobin hopes to excel in his backup role once again.
2. Brett Hull
Brett Hull was the missing piece in the 1998-99 season for the Stars. A proven goal scorer with multiple teams in his career, Hull was signed to play alongside Mike Modano on the top line. Those two caught fire and helped the Stars get over the hump in the playoffs.
Modano was a point-per-game player during their run while Hull added eight goals. His most memorable goal will forever be the Stanley Cup winner in Game 6 against the Buffalo Sabres. One of the most controversial goals in NHL history, Hull found the rebound of a Jere Lehtinen shot in triple overtime and beat a sprawled out Dominik Hasek to give the Stars their first and only Stanley Cup in franchise history.
While this will forever be his shining moment in a Stars jersey, he was even more instrumental in their run to the Final the following season. In 1999-2000, Dallas came within two wins of repeating as champions before falling to the New Jersey Devils. In 23 games, he scored 11 goals and added 13 assists, a large improvement from his playoff performance in 1999. This time, he will be remembered for an assist rather than a goal. His shot from the point in triple overtime of Game 5 (I sense a theme here) was deflected by Modano past Martin Brodeur to give the Stars the 1-0 win and keep their season alive. Hull was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008 and will forever be a hero to Stars’ fans.
1. Ed Belfour
Eddie “The Eagle” Belfour was a savior for the Stars. In an era where NHL goalies included Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr, Tommy Salo, and more, Belfour had a tough task if he was going to get the Stars to the ultimate goal. After coming to Dallas in 1997, he put up heroic numbers in his first two seasons, finishing near the top in GAA (1.88 & 1.99). When it came to the playoffs though, he reached a new level. During the 23 playoff games in 1999, he held a 1.67 GAA and a .930 SV%, starting every game. He was constantly up against the best goalies in the league and during this season, he would have to beat four of them. On their way to the Stanley Cup, he out-dueled Salo, Fuhr, Roy, and eventually Hasek.
To add to his resume, he was perhaps even better the following season. Even though the Stars fell short of the Stanley Cup, he was a huge reason for being so close. Once again getting through Salo and Roy, he recorded four shutouts and increased his SV% to .931 in 23 games. Unfortunately for Stars fans, Dallas was unable to solve Brodeur on the other end and the run fell just two wins short. Belfour was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011.
It is amazing what bringing in one player can do for an NHL team. Sometimes, a team is just one piece away from a championship run and the key is finding which piece. Belfour and Hull were the missing pieces for the 1999 Stanley Cup, who will be the next piece to bring a championship to Dallas? Perhaps, that player is on this list.
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!