After a mostly tame offseason, many questions still surround the future of the Dallas Stars. The Stars didn’t live up to the expectations last year, but making the playoffs in the upcoming season will reestablish them as a Cup contender. While we assume that core players like Tyler Seguin will be back to full health this season, that doesn’t guarantee the Stars as favorites to make the playoffs.
Last year, Jason Robertson had a late-season run at the Calder Trophy, and Joe Pavelski was on pace to post a 75-point season. The duo provided a bright spot for the team as they struggled to hold leads late in games. The team refrained from making any moves at last year’s trade deadline, and their offseason signings are coming off of mediocre seasons themselves. To get back into the Stanley Cup playoff, the Stars will need these three players to up their games for the 2021-22 season.
Jamie Benn has been on a steady decline over the past few seasons. Long gone are the days of him posting 80-point seasons and competing for the Art Ross Trophy. While the decline has been pretty natural, it’s disheartening to see the team captain fall from the top line to the third line all within one season.
While he is taking on his role as a permanent center, his average time on ice has declined significantly. Considering the injuries the Stars faced last year that removed prominent players from the lineup, Benn’s demotion doesn’t paint an optimistic picture for the Stars’ future.
He also looks to be less of an option in scoring production and more of an extension of the gritty fourth line that includes Blake Comeau and Luke Glendening. Coach Rick Bowness emphasized that Benn will be used more as a center, maybe a 1A/1B situation with Glendening as specialty faceoff guys. The problem with this new role is that Benn’s shot block and hit totals were the lowest since the 2012-13 season, in which he only played 41 games.
Benn said the Stars still have playoff aspirations during an offseason Q&A with Mike Heika. He also reflected that he believes his production on the ice isn’t related to age.
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“Earlier in my career, the goal was probably to make the playoffs and see what we could do. You know, just build step by step. But now, expectations are raised, and we definitely know as players that we have a group that can win right now,” he said. “We have that feeling. I feel good, so I don’t really look at age. It’s all about how you feel out there and how much you believe in yourself. I feel good, and I’m excited for next year.”
Esa Lindell finished in the top-20 for the Norris Trophy in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, ranking as high as 11 in voting. A member of the Finnish Mafia, Lindell is known as a penalty-killer and a defensive defenseman.
His 2020-21 season wasn’t a step backward; it was more of a lateral progression. While he was on pace for career numbers in hits and blocks, the number of points and takeaways has regressed. The addition of Ryan Suter may hurt Lindell’s role if coach Rick Bowness looks to Suter for offensive production. His lack of scoring may cost Lindell ice time and his defensive pairing with John Klingberg.
The Stars’ penalty kill was also not that great last season. They ranked 19th in penalty kill percentage in 2020-21, and only ranked 14th in the 2019-20 season. One elite player on the penalty kill doesn’t make an excellent shorthanded unit, but the Stars can’t be towards the league’s bottom in killing penalties if they want to make the playoffs.
Braden Holtby did not impress last season with the Vancouver Canucks, posting a 3.67 goals-against average (GAA) in 21 games. Holtby is a risky signing for the Stars, who have been giving more prominent roles to youth players in recent years. They plan to tandem him with Anton Khudobin and send Jake Oettinger down to the American Hockey League (AHL). The signing also means that Ben Bishop isn’t going to be healthy by next season, assuming the Stars won’t want four NHL-caliber goalies on their roster.
Holtby is the biggest name on this list that needs to step up. The Stars believe that they are in a win-now position, and hope his addition can solidify the goaltending. Oettinger only played 29 games with the team last year, and presumably showed that he needed to grow as a player before being trusted to tandem an entire season’s worth of games. Holtby has won both the Vezina and Jennings Trophies in his career, and Stars general manager Jim Nill spoke about what the netminder brought to the team through a press release.
“We are excited to add Braden to our goaltending group,” Nill said in the press release. “We’re looking forward to Braden giving us the elite goaltending that he’s shown he’s capable of throughout his career. He has won every major award a goaltender can win, and we are thrilled that a person of his pedigree is joining our organization.”
The Stars goalie situation can go in many different directions. Holtby, for now, seems like he will be trusted to start alongside Khudobin regularly, but Oettinger will be ready to take the position if he falters.
The Stars will have a very telling season this year. Benn will take on a role he isn’t used to, Lindell will compete with Suter for the top defensive line role, and Holtby will need to return to his elite form to make an impact. Many scenarios need to go right if the Stars want to make the playoffs this upcoming season. If they fail to make the playoffs for a second straight year, the messy 2020-21 season will look less like a fluke and more like the current process isn’t working.
If these three players do step up, the Stars will leave last season’s disappointment behind them. The players and coaches have commented on their mentality for next season and seem like they are all on the same page. What made their Stanley Cup run in 2019-20 magical is that the Stars persevered through tough circumstances as a team. They will look to recreate that magic in this upcoming season.
Dallas Stars writer at ‘The Hockey Writers’. I’ve previously covered college sports at the University at Albany. I secretly love to analyze trades from the past and observe the impact on a team’s future.