In the NHL—and really all professional sports—the offseason is meant to be a time when general managers reflect on the state of their respective teams and formulate a plan to get better. After all, the name of the game is improvement. No team wants to stay stagnant and miss the postseason year after playoff-less year. But that’s been the story for the Dallas Stars. Only two trips to the playoffs in the past decade is a disaster for a team’s fanbase. It’s a long and arduous 82-game year, and to not enjoy the thrills of playing hockey deep into April and May is frustrating to say the least.
It’s Dallas general manager Jim Nill’s job to ensure that when the Stars hit the ice, it’s the best 23 men he’s got. And despite a relatively quiet offseason for Nill and the Stars, the team has gotten decidedly better than the 10th-place team of yesteryear or the below-.500 squad from 2016-17, both of which failed to secure a spot in the postseason. This season will have a different outcome. This season will ice the best Stars team since the 50-win season of 2015-16.
This season the Stars will make the playoffs. Mark my words. Here’s the decidedly more optimistic follow-up to my piece from last week.
A New Bench Boss – Jim Montgomery
I once more took to Twitter to ask some of my followers some reasons to be optimistic about this year’s Stars team. All of the responses named Jim Montgomery as one of the reasons fans should get excited. For example:
The success of a team always starts at the top. Who is steering the ship? Who is leading the charge? Who is forging a new identity for a team that’s been known for mediocrity for the last decade?
Despite being an unproven, first-year NHL coach, Montgomery is just what the Stars need. The 48-year-old is coming off of a very successful five-year tenure as the head coach at the University of Denver. A resume that includes a cumulative 125-57-26 record and an NCAA national championship looks great and all, but zero experience in the NHL is always a risky bet for GMs and front office officials.
This is relatively unfamiliar territory in the NHL. Montgomery stands to be just the fifth coach to make the jump directly from the NCAA to the NHL. And again, for “Monty,” it’s a huge leap from coaching kids in college to NHL players at the top of their game. But is it really that different? Last season, the Stars had one of the youngest teams in the NHL, with an average age of right around 27. Monty’s DU Pioneers had an average age of about 21. A six-year difference isn’t really all that much, though the level of play from NCAA to NHL is. The point is, Dallas’s new coach can handle the likes of some of the Stars’ young guns and can help mold them into successful young men. It’s something he’s already been doing for the last five years.
I think having a younger head coach is actually better for a young team. The Stars’ previous two coaches were 66 and 58 years of age, respectively. While, sure, as coaches age they give off the mature, sagacious wise-older-man mentality, it can also cause somewhat of a rift or superiority complex between player and coach. This was one of the problems with the Stars’ most recent head coach, Ken Hitchcock. With a young coach, there’s a greater ability to connect to his players and relate more to the lives of a youngster in today’s America. Monty has already spoken about coaching Millennials and all that entails.
Youth aside, Montgomery is a proven offense-first coach, which is just what the Stars need with the team Nill has built. Dallas is a highly-offensive team that is built on speed and skill. To compare it to a coach in recent history for the Stars, Lindy Ruff preached offense-first and a “score more goals than the other team” attitude, and it worked for a little. Under Ruff, the Stars recorded their first 50-win season since the 2006-07 campaign. During that season, the Stars led the NHL in goals scored (265) and goals-per-game (3.23). Last year under Hitchcock, a highly-defensive coach, Dallas was tied for 18th in the NHL in goals (231) and goals-per-game (2.82). However, the team did allow the sixth-fewest goals (222) and goals-per-game (2.71).
Monty will take the approach of letting the team create chances for itself, and Dallas certainly has the firepower to put it in the net.
“I think you look at the championship teams that have won in the NHL. The teams play a certain way. There’s structure to their game, but there’s creativity and flair to it, too. You have to let horses run. Everyone should look the same when we don’t have the puck and when we do have the puck, everyone should play to their strengths.” – Jim Montgomery
Monty will provide some youthful exuberance and a notch of naiveté that will give the Stars the offensive boost they’ve so dearly lacked the past two playoff-less seasons.
Return of Valeri ‘Nuke’ Nichushkin
When Valeri Nichushkin fell into Jim Nill’s lap at No. 10 in the 2013 NHL Draft, it was a pleasant surprise, as many expected the lanky Russian to be a top-five pick. For Stars fans, it was a dream come true. The expectations for Nichushkin were nothing short of the second-coming of Sergei Fedorov or the Stars’ own version of Alexander Ovechkin. But great expectations can breed even greater disappointment.
For Nichuskin and the Stars, it never really worked out how it was supposed to. The affectionately nicknamed “Nuke” actually had a pretty solid rookie season during the 2013-14 campaign. The then-18-year-old Nichushkin notched 14 goals and 20 helpers in his first 79 games on North American ice en route to helping Dallas to a postseason berth, in which he added another goal and assist in the team’s first-round exit. An offseason hip injury sidelined the sophomore Star for almost the entirety of the 2014-15 season. Only able to suit up for eight games, it was a season to forget for both Nichushkin and his admirers.
The 2015-16 season is where things got a little hairier. Though Nuke was able to manage 29 points—only five fewer than his rookie campaign—there was more than just the statistical regression happening. A reported rift between then-head coach Ruff and the third-year Star was the final nail in the coffin for the Nichushkin experiment in Dallas. The Chelyabinsk, Russia native returned to the motherland on a two-year deal in the KHL. The belief from Nill and the rest of the Stars brass was always that Nichushkin would return. I certainly didn’t expect to see him back in a Stars sweater, but when the Stars announced a two-year contract for the now-23-year-old Russian winger, I was all for it.
Related: Val Nichushkin Rejoins the Stars
The return of Nichushkin may have been the biggest offseason “addition” for Dallas. The hulking 6-foot-4 right wing will immediately bolster the Stars’ second line. The added depth of regaining Nichushkin is something I think a lot of fans overlook. He may not be the flashiest of players, but he’s a very serviceable winger. He’s not known for his speed but rather his ability to protect the puck using his tall and lanky frame. Puck possession is something new head coach Jim Montgomery is well-known for and is another reason why I think Nichushkin is poised to have a breakout year this season under the new bench boss.
The Stars are a better team with Nichushkin on the roster. Dallas has only made the postseason twice in the last decade. Coincidence or not, Nuke was on the team both seasons. His rookie campaign in 2013-14 was the first time the team made the postseason in six years. Nichushkin sat out the 2014-15 season with a hip injury and the Stars failed to secure a playoff spot. He returned during the 2015-16 campaign andwouldn’t you know it—Dallas won 50 games and reached the playoffs for a second time in the three years. The following year, Nichushkin returned to Russia and the Stars posted a 34-37-11 record. Just a weird coincidence is all I’m saying.
Either way you look at it, the Stars are a better team with Nichushkin on the ice. Though he may not provide a huge boost in scoring, his puck-possession play can not be overlooked and the depth he provides on the second line and the power play is key. With Nuke back in Big D, expect the Stars’ second line to improve and for Nichushkin to help Dallas to just its third postseason berth in 11 years.
Miro the Hero
Perhaps the biggest reason for excitement and optimism for the Stars—as each response to my Twitter post would name—is their young Finnish defenseman, Miro Heiskanen. Based on what he’s done in Finland, the No. 3 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft has the potential to have that “generational talent” qualifier stamped on his name. Yes, Heiskanen is that good.
Heiskanen is one of the best prospects in the hockey world right now. The kid was on another level last season. He tallied 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 30 games with HIFK in Finland’s Liiga, the highest level of professional hockey in the country and one of the most competitive in the world. He finished first in goals and points among defensemen on HIFK as an 18-year-old on a team that has an average age of 27. Not only did Heiskanen lead in goals and points on his team, the youngster led the entire Liiga in average ice time with 25:06.
Despite a busy and fruitful season with HIFK, that was only the tip of the iceberg of Heiskanen’s 2017-18 campaign. The Finn also suited up for Finland in World Junior Championship, the Olympics, and the World Championships, making him just the seventh player to ever accomplish such a feat. The stats are too numerous to write out, but let’s just say he performed very well in each of the aforementioned tournaments. So well in fact that at the conclusion of the Finnish season, Heiskanen was awarded the Pekka Rautakallio Award, given to the best defenseman in Liiga. In winning, Heiskanen became the youngest recipient to ever earn the distinction.
Yes, the Heiskanen hype is real. The recently-turned 19-year-old will immediately bolster the blue line in Dallas come this season. And much like an Erik Karlsson or P.K. Subban, Heiskanen will provide solid defensive depth as well as a potent offensive upside for the Stars.
Though it’s always hard to predict how a prospect pans out in the NHL, Heiskanen is probably a safe bet. The kid has been playing amongst men for all of his life and, for the most part, he’s gotten the best of them. Heiskanen has excelled at every competition he’s performed at up until now, there’s no reason he shouldn’t in the NHL either. If Heiskanen picks up where he left off last season, the Stars’ perennially poor blue line will be in pretty good shape.
Related: Heiskanen Set to Shine for Stars
In the sports world, it’s always been said that defense wins championships. In hockey, the last line of defense is the goaltender. If your team’s goalie isn’t playing well, there’s a good chance your team isn’t either. For the Stars, there hasn’t really been any solid goaltending since the Marty Turco era, now almost a decade ago. Sure, Kari Lehtonen was solid and serviceable for the Stars in his decade of duty, but he was only able to backstop Dallas to two playoff appearances during his nine-year tenure. Last offseason, Nill and the Stars went all in on a franchise goaltender, trading for and signing Ben Bishop to a six-year contract.
So far, though only in the early stages of the Bishop experiment, the Stars are 0-for-1 in making the playoffs, although that doesn’t fall solely on his shoulders. Last season, “Bish” was solid, posting a 26-17-5 record with a .916 save percentage and a 2.49 goals-against average. He also posted five shutouts, placing him in a tie for the third-most in the NHL last season. Back-to-back knee injuries in the late stages of the Stars’ playoff push doomed the team’s chances of making the postseason, as their $29.5-million man missed most of March and the rest of the season recovering.
Goaltenders are important in the NHL, though I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that. Aside from Cam Talbot, Henrik Lundqvist, and Bishop, the NHL’s top-16 netminders from last season, statistically speaking, all made the playoffs. From a team standpoint, one exception was the New Jersey Devils, who made the postseason but did not have a goalie in the top-16. There’s no escaping it: Solid netminding is a necessity.
Ben Bishop is solid—here comes the qualifier—when he’s healthy. For the Stars to succeed, Bishop needs to be on the ice and in good health. Having recognized the need for a quality backup, Nill went out and acquired a pretty solid relief option. Anton Khudobin stands to be a good option in the backup role for Dallas. Last season, Khudobin helped the Boston Bruins with a 16-6-7 record while posting a .913 SV% and a 2.56 GAA. While he hasn’t started since his two-year stint with the Carolina Hurricanes, where his performance was rather mediocre, Khudobin is a much better backup goaltender and will be a bit of an upgrade from the increasingly lethargic Lehtonen.
If both Bishop and Khudobin can provide the solid one-two punch that is expected of them, the Stars may have a good goaltending duo to lead them back to the playoffs.
The Stars Return to Postseason Glory
While Nill and the Stars avoided making the big splash during this offseason, there were enough small, under-the-radar moves that will push Dallas to the next level this season. Concerns over depth and secondary scoring have marred the Stars’ increasingly cynical fanbase. However, the return of second-liner Val Nichushkin and the signing of the very serviceable Blake Comeau should help the depth. Heiskanen is ready to prove his worth in the NHL and should be in the conversation for the Calder Trophy come the end of the 2018-19 campaign. And kudos to Nill for nabbing Khudobin to help backstop the Stars to a few more wins and to allow Bishop to rest his weary bones a little more.
All this plus a new head coach whose coaching style is more in line with the roster that Nill has built should be just enough to get the Stars back on track. Most preseason rankings have the Stars outside of the playoffs or just barely squeaking in—but who doesn’t like being the underdog? This team will surprise some people this year. Mark my words.
Growing up an avid fan of the team, Scott joins THW as a contributor for the Dallas Stars. During the 2017-18 season, Scott interned with the Colorado Avalanche and was a contributor for ColoradoAvalanche.com.