Stephen Johns and Kari Lehtonen. Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Dallas Stars have potential to win a Stanley Cup in 2016-17. But their young defense and questionable goaltending make their possible outcomes highly variable.
Ending a season with a 6-1 home loss in a Game 7 obviously leaves a bitter aftertaste. But it could've been worse for the Dallas Stars.
The lopsided letdown in the Central Division final was embarrassing but hardly signified the end of something. Quite the opposite. The Stars are beginning something: an era of what might be sustained dominance. There's an excellent chance we merely look back on 2015-16 as their warmup act.
The Stars jumped from out of the post-season to second overall in the NHL and first in the Central Division. They got a second straight MVP-caliber year from captain Jamie Benn. Tyler Seguin continued to score at an elite pace. Sophomore D-man John Klingberg busted out for 58 points. The versatile Cody Eakin has become one of the game's best third-line centers, and Jason Spezza's 33 goals were one short of his career high. The Stars led the league in scoring and finished second in 5-on-5 Corsi For Per 60. They were an offensive juggernaut, and they have room to grow in that regard. Power winger Valeri Nichushkin hasn't realized his potential yet but is still just 21. Prospects Jason Dickinson and Brett Ritchie lurk on the roster bubble, with Denis Gurianov on the way eventually.
The Stars also came within one victory of the Western Conference final without Seguin, who missed all but one playoff game with an Achilles injury. So they have a lot going for them, especially on offense. Their best players remain in their 20s. Franchise cornerstones Benn and Klingberg are signed long term. This team has as high a ceiling as any in the NHL. That's why we picked Dallas to reach the Stanley Cup final in our 2016-17 THN Yearbook.
Note that we didn't pick them to win it all, however. The Stars are a strange beast in that, for all their upside, they have a significant amount of downside in 2016-17, too. Or they at least raise a truckload of questions.
First and foremost, of course, what to do with the goaltending? General manager Jim Nill inked Antti Niemi for three years at a $4.5-million cap hit a year ago, forging a $10.4-million tandem with Kari Lehtonen. The idea was to reduce the wear and tear from one of the league's toughest travel schedules and deploy two healthy 1A netminders. The result was rather disastrous. Lehtonen and Niemi finished 38th and 40th, respectively, among qualified NHL leaders in save percentage. Instead of painting a playoff masterpiece, they delivered a splattered inkblot of good games, great games, horrible games and DNFs from being pulled by coach Lindy Ruff. Both stoppers shared the crease and the blame in Game 7 against St. Louis, combining to allow five goals on just 18 shots.
The natural question, then, is whether a Cup-contending team can risk wasting a year with mediocre goaltending again. Rumors have run rampant about Dallas targeting a big-ticket goalie in a trade. Ben Bishop and Marc-Andre Fleury make sense or, if you're feeling really ambitious, Henrik Lundqvist. Nill let out a hearty laugh as soon as I broached the goaltending topic, as he knew it was coming, but he's not overly worried about it. He isn't going out of his way to make a major move just yet, mainly because he's not convinced his goalies are subpar.
"We’re into August here, and it’s not like I’ve actively looked to make a change," Nill said. "If there’s something there that makes you better at any position, you’re always looking to do it. But right now we’ve got two goalies that came in and, say what you want, but they got 50 wins for us and we got second overall in the league, so something had to go right.
"Unfortunately, all anybody’s really remembering is our last game of the year against St. Louis. Nobody remembers the game before that where Kari stood on his head to get us into Game 7. There were definitely times in the season where they would’ve liked some games back. But that’s kind of on our whole team. Every team goes through that. I really think they’re going to be better this year. It was kind of a feeling-out process last year, and now they’ve both settled in. We’re status quo, and they’ve got the ability to be better than last year, which I hope turns into even more wins for us next year."
So Stars fans should postpone the orders on their Bishop or Fleury jerseys. Maybe it's something the Stars revisit later this season if Lehtonen and Niemi continue to struggle, especially since the price to acquire Bishop or Fleury might drop several months from now as the expansion draft inches closer. The Lightning and Penguins have the younger, cheaper Andrei Vasilevskiy and Matt Murray on hand and can only protect one goalie apiece when Las Vegas takes the podium to pick its team.
Also important to remember: trading for a new starter would mean sending Lehtonen or Niemi the other way. Neither has maximized his trade value right now given last year's spotty statistical efforts, and both carry decent-sized cap hits, so they aren't the easiest pieces to move.
Even if Nill's prophecy comes true and he gets bounce-back years in net, the Stars have another major wildcard for 2016-17: their defense corps. Gone are half the members of the top six: Alex Goligoski to Arizona, Jason Demers to Florida and Kris Russell to…we'll let you know. Dallas signed unrestricted free agent Dan Hamhuis to fill the Goligoski void but, after Hamhuis, Klingberg and Johnny Oduya, things get pretty muddy.
Not that muddy has to mean bad. Not at all. The good news is the Stars have one of the league's most promising young stables of blueliners. There's Stephen Johns, acquired last summer as part of the Patrick Sharp trade. Johns, a towering, do-it-all type, stuck with the team and was a fixture during the 2016 playoffs. Nill loves John's all-around game and attitude and leadership. The franchise believes it found a diamond in the rough, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Johns break out in 2016-17. He could be the next Colton Parayko.
Two gifted puck-moving Finns, Esa Lindell and Julius Honka, are big reasons why the Stars have such a high ceiling. Lindell in particular has a great shot to make the Stars in 2016-17. He's repped Finland in two straight world championships, he made the World Cup squad, and Nill calls him "one of the top defensemen in the American League." Lindell also brings good size at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. Honka, a first-round pick in 2014, is the prized prospect of the bunch, a guy Nill would love to see make a big leap in training camp. With Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak also in tow, we should see a lot of competition. Only Klingberg, Johnny Oduya, Hamhuis, Johns and Jordie Benn look locked into the starting lineup.
"All these guys, we knew their time was going to come, but we just had to be patient," Nill said. "And now it’s time for them to grab it. We think they have the capability. They’re all big, strong men. They skate well. They move the puck well. And whatever the combination of these guys is, they’re going to give us the opportunity for the next five or six years to have a real strong defense on the back end.”
The next five or six years? Very likely. But what about the next year? That's the defining question of Dallas' season, perhaps even more so than goaltending. There's no guarantee the young defensemen are ready to be impact NHLers, and that's why this year's team has a lower floor than last year's, which had a stronger veteran presence. But if even one or two from the prospect group proves himself worthy, look out. It's also worth noting the Stars were far from elite defensively last year anyway. Their total possession numbers look strong, but that's because their excellent offensive output hikes up the overall stats. They finished 19th in 5-on-5 Corsi Against per 60, so it's not like the existing veteran group was excelling as a shutdown unit.
Maybe, then, a younger Dallas team will be a better one in 2016-17. And maybe it can improve on last year's showing. Does that mean a Stanley Cup is a realistic goal?
“We’re a bigger and faster team because of the young kids coming, but will there be a little bit of a dip because of the young kids? That I don’t know," Nill said. "Our goal is to be one of the top teams in the league, to get in the playoffs and have a good run and go from there.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin