Dallas Stars' best is yet to come ... if goaltending is fixed
Maybe it all happened too fast for the Dallas Stars.
A team that missed the playoff cut last spring, and five of the six springs before that, wasn't supposed to morph into one of the top teams in hockey. And yet it all came together in one magical season. The Stars captured a division title and finished atop the Western Conference with 109 points, their best showing in a decade.
More than that, they were young and fast and fun. The Stars played hockey like it's a game, not a chess match. Others couldn't help but be impressed by their progress.
“They are the future of the NHL," St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "That’s what they are. They are where the NHL is going. We all recognize that. They are going to be a tough opponent for a number of years because of what they got.”
That future is bright, but it's still a couple years away. At least, that's the way it looks after the Stars were pushed around by Hitchcock's Blues in Game 7 of their second-round series on Wednesday night.
Losing the way they did was a kick in the teeth. But it's also part of the process. The Stars, under general manager Jim Nill and coach Lindy Ruff, aren't a contender yet, but they have most of the pieces in place to mount a serious challenge before too long.
It starts up front, with the league's most potent offense. Nine forwards will return next season, including captain Jamie Benn who improved on his 2014-15 Art Ross Trophy-winning totals and is now firmly established as one of the top-five skaters in the game, Tyler Seguin, who was sorely missed in the St. Louis series, and Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp, who together provided 86 goals and 191 points worth of support. Those four players will anchor the top two lines. Radek Faksa, the team's breakthrough star of the playoffs, and Mattias Janmark were brilliant in their rookie seasons and should blossom in depth roles next season. The team is likely to cut ties with UFAs Vernon Fiddler and Travis Moen, but could make room for versatile winger Patrick Eaves and depth forward Colton Sceviour. Brett Ritchie, Curtis McKenzie and Jason Dickinson will challenge for roles in camp.
It'll be interesting to see how the Stars handle RFA Val Nichushkin. The big winger is a bundle of potential, but inconsistency had him in and out of the lineup. He's due a raise on his entry-level deal, but will the Stars offer him enough to sway him from possibly returning to Russia where the ice time and the cash will be abundant?
While there's stability among the forwards, the blueline is due for a major overhaul. Three of their top-six defenders—Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers and Kris Russell—along with part-timer Jordie Benn, are eligible for unrestricted free agency, with Goligoski as the only possible returnee. His high-risk style makes the 30-year-old the preferred whipping boy of the team's fans, but he's also a favorite of Ruff, who relies heavily on his transition skills and his possession numbers. (Goligoski leads the playoffs with a +80 shot differential.)
That skill set ensures that he'll earn a lot of attention come July 1. If he leaves, the Stars defense is likely to skew very young.
Veteran Johnny Oduya will return, and behind him is a kiddie corps loaded with potential but lacking experience. John Klingberg would become the team's de facto No. 1 in just his third season. He should be up to the task. The 23-year-old is the prototypical modern defenseman, a quick, mobile puck mover who drives possession. Stephen Johns, who brought a much-needed physical element to the group in his rookie campaign, is ready to become a full-time top-four. Part-timers Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak will compete with 2014 first-rounder Julius Honka and Finnish World Cup team member Esa Lindell to fill out the roster.
While there's youth and skill in abundance, the Stars could also use some size. If the Blues series taught them anything, it's that they're too small as a unit to survive seven games against a heavy opponent. Nill will look to address that problem, if not over the summer then certainly ahead of the trade deadline.
But his first order of business is fixing his goaltending.
Nill thought he'd taken care of it last summer when he brought in veteran Antti Niemi as the new back up and hired highly respected coach Jeff Reese to work out the kinks, both mental and physical, in Lehtonen's game. As multiple postseason meltdowns proved, that plan failed.
Make no mistake: Lehtonen can be a very good goaltender. He proved that in Game 6, as he has countless times before. But what he can't be is a consistent goaltender. There's not another No. 1 goalie in the league who goes from highs to lows like he does because with Lehtonen, bad goals multiply. He can't shake them off. If one goes in, there's going to be three. Book it. And Niemi, who posted an .865 save percentage and 3.29 GAA in his first postseason with the team, is no better.
Former coach and broadcaster Harry Neale once said that goaltending is 75% of your hockey team, unless you don’t have it ... then it’s 100%. Right now, this is a 100% problem for the Stars, who have committed $10.4 million to the pair of 32-year-olds for the next two seasons. And they can't be taken seriously as a contender until something changes back there.
The solution isn't likely to come this summer, either. In fact, Nill may have to wait another year until a potential expansion draft forces a shakeout of talent.
If that's what it takes, it's O.K. The Stars aren't in win-now mode. In fact, their window has just cracked open. Given what they have on hand, and what's on the way, the best is yet to come.