Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the Dallas Stars.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Dallas Stars
The 2015-16 season was one of great success and happiness for the Dallas Stars; the only thing missing was the Stanley Cup. They finished in first place in what is arguably the hardest division in the NHL, finishing with an impressive 50-23-9 record, the second best record in the league. Another impressive line was that they went 28-11-2 in Dallas, turning the American Airlines Center into a fortress.
Along with the fact that they won the Central Division, beating out the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, they also had a potent offense. They finished atop the league in goals for during the regular season with an astounding 265. To add to that, they also finished fourth in the NHL with a 22.1 percent proficiency on the power play. If only the defense could have been as rock solid as the offense was, a very different story may have been written.
Another bright side to the season was that they had some of the most impressive individual play in the league. Jamie Benn finished second in the scoring race, behind Patrick Kane, with 89 points on the season. Benn played an integral role in the best offense in the league and once again proved he is an elite scorer with 41 goals, good for third in the league. Tyler Seguin also had a great year on the offensive end of the ice, scoring 33 goals and finishing with 73 points on the year.
Despite all of the positive notes to the season, the Stars went home with the same amount of hardware as 28 other teams. They impressed many with their offensive ability, winning the Central Division and posting the best regular season record in the Western Conference, but that means little without the Stanley Cup coming back with them to Dallas. They were, however, able to make it to the conference quarterfinals, where they lost to Central Division rivals St. Louis Blues in seven games.
A major point of contention was who would be the starting goalie every night for the Stars. The system they ran with Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen didn’t pay the dividends they wanted it to. Niemi had a relatively subpar season with 25-13-7 record, .905 save percentage, and a 2.67 goals against average (GAA). His record was, by far, the shining star on his stat line for the season. Much of the same could be said for the season of Lehtonen, who finished with a 25-10-2 record, a .906 save percentage, and a 2.76 GAA. A strong point can be made that the play of the two Finnish-born netminders was masked by the offensive output from players like Benn and Seguin.
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) September 7, 2016
The off-season started off for Dallas much the same as it did for most organizations, and the Stars secured some of their top prospects coming off entry-level contracts. They signed their first round draft choice in 2015, Denis Guryanov, to a three-year, $5.025 million contract. After that they proceeded to sign two promising blueliners to contracts in 21-year old Niklas Hansson (a three-year, $2.775 million deal) and 24-year old Stephen Johns (a two-year, $1.45 million contract). They then went on to sign young forwards Chris Martenet and Mattias Backman to a three- and one-year contracts, respectively.
After the dust cleared from the contracts for the prospects and AHL-level players, they started making moves to change up the look of their roster for the 2016-17 season. The first, and arguably most notable, was trading Alex Goligoski to the Arizona Coyotes for a fifth round draft choice in the upcoming draft. Another blueliner left the scene later in the off-season when Jason Demers signed a five-year, $22.5 million deal with the Florida Panthers.
Another point to take notice of is that the Stars only had two picks in the first three rounds of the NHL Entry Draft, picks 25 and 90, and opted not to take any of the promising defenseman on the board at those points. They didn’t take a defenseman until the 176th pick when they took Swedish-born Jakob Stenqvist.
The Stars did, despite letting other defenseman pass them by, re-sign Jordie Benn to a three-year, $3.3 million contract, not a bad contract for a 29-year-old who has produced 85 total points over 215 games in the last three seasons. They also added depth to their blueline with the signings of Dan Hamhuis and the re-signing of Jamie Oleksiak. The other two blueliners they signed, Dustin Stevenson and Andrew Bodnarchuk, are more than likely to be playing in the AHL with the Texas Stars.
Along with the additions in depth to the defensive end, they managed to add a few names of note to bolster the bottom six forwards as well.
They brought in veteran right wing Jiri Hudler on a one-year, $2 million contract. For a veteran presence that can still add a bit of scoring to your bottom six, that’s a great signing. Hudler had 16 goals and 27 points last season in 72 games for the Calgary Flames and Florida.
Along with Hudler, they brought in Adam Cracknell (one-year, $600,000), who won’t produce much else other than depth to the bottom lines. Cracknell had five goals and 10 total points last season in 52 games for the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. They also re-signed depth forward Patrick Eaves to a one-year, $1 million contract. Eaves had a relatively solid season himself last year, posting 11 goals and 17 points in 54 games for the Stars as a bottom six forward.
The one talking point that the organization didn’t seem to make much of a move on during the off-season was the goalie situation, which is still intact from last year. It seems as though General Manager Jim Nill and Head Coach Lindy Ruff are perfectly content with the tandem goalie situation currently at their disposal. Will it pay off with another playoff appearance and a possible Cup contending season? That’s surely what the front office will be hoping for.
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Patrick Sharp
Valeri Nichushkin – Jason Spezza – Jiri Hudler
Trying to come up with the forward lines for the Dallas roster is not the most arduous process for a hockey mind. The hardest task for anyone who follows the Stars is either having Nichushkin or Hudler on the left wing for the second line, and that’s a bit of a toss up, as either could play on both sides. The other one would be to question whether or not they will give players like Brett Ritchie, Guryanov, and Curtis McKenzie consistent chances to prove themselves worthy of a sport on the fourth line.
There is one thing that is for certain when looking at the forward lines for Dallas: The potent offense is sure to show up again in the 2016-17 season. When you take into account that Seguin is healthy and raring to go, and the addition of Hudler to the second line, it’s looking to be a formidable roster again this season. But will the blueline be able to hold up their end of the deal and shore up the holes in the back?
Dan Hamhuis – John Klingberg
Johnny Oduya – Stephen Johns
Jordie Benn – Patrik Nemeth
Much like the story line of the forwards, the pairings for the blueline aren’t necessarily difficult to predict for Dallas. There may be a bit of adjustment throughout the season, primarily due to who is playing better, but this look seems to be the sure thing for how they will be sorted out come the first puck drop on October 13th versus the Anaheim Ducks.
It is an easy statement to say, and a very difficult one to argue, that the lack of defense has been the Achilles heel for the Stars in recent years. Losing Goligoski isn’t the best thing for them either, and replacing him with Hamhuis could either be very good or very bad. Hamhuis is a solid defenseman who produces well, when available. He played in 58 games for the Canucks last season in which he had three goals and 13 total points. Can he do what he hasn’t since 2011-12 and play the entire season as a top pairing defenseman for the Stars? Nill and Ruff will surely hope so, or they might be going home empty-handed again this season.
Much of the pressure will be laid on the shoulders of the one defenseman listed above that can be considered solid, John Klingberg. Klingberg has been something of an anomaly in an otherwise very weak blueline, and he’s a fan-favorite due to that exact reason. As many already know, he has the ability to score a few here and there, as well as creating a great deal of goals as well. And at the ripe old age of 24, he has many years of success to come.
Another question that much of the fanbase will be pondering is whether or not former draft picks like Nemeth, Oleksiak, and Johns can play a significant role in improving the club’s shaky blueline. None of these three will be expected to handle top pairing minutes, but they’ll all have to contribute in their own way to ensure there is enough improvement in the back to give the Stars a fighting chance to challenge for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
It looks like the Stars are set to spend another season with the Finnish tandem rotating in between the pipes. Both had solid records to show for last season, but the save percentages and goals against averages both need to drastically improve this year. There is an argument that either of them could make a case for the starting position, but it will likely continue in the trend of rotating the two of them regularly. Another argument that has merit is that the subpar stats put out by both of them could very well be due to the poor play of the men directly in front of them.
Niemi started just a few more games in 2015-16 than Lehtonen did, and this trend will likely continue with him getting the start on opening night against the Ducks. He is a solid goalie that should get the job done just fine, but will be hoping for vastly improved play from the blueliners. If that’s the case, then he is likely to get a decent run of games before rotating off for Lehtonen.
Neither of the two are spring chickens anymore, as Niemi just turned 33 in August and Lehtonen is set to be 33 as well come November. The rotation option between the two is a good idea for the time being to ensure their health and longevity, but a new name will be something they need in the relatively near future. The possibility of trading one of the two has come up since Niemi was acquired and it would not surprise anyone if it happens sometime before the deadline this season.
Players To Watch
Benn is coming off a phenomenal season in which he finished third in goals and second in scoring. Dallas fans will be expecting much of the same from the captain this year and have made arguments that he is the most well-rounded top forward in the game today. It’s a safe bet to say that Benn will play a massive role in any chance the Stars have in challenging for the Cup, and he’ll likely be among the top five in goals and total points again this season.
John Klingberg and Dan Hamhuis
One of the most promising names on the roster, outside of Benn and Seguin, is definitely Klingberg. Klingberg is primed for another great season in a Stars sweater and is likely going to be tasked with leading the way from the blueline. This task isn’t an easy one to ask of a 24-year-old defenseman going into their third full season in the NHL, which is why Hamhuis will be a player of note for 2016-17 as well.
If Hamhuis can play a majority of the season and stay healthy, and Klingberg and him gel on the top pairing, this will make for a very, very good Dallas team. The missing piece to the puzzle is definitely the performance in the back, and these two are set to take on massive roles in ensuring the Cup goes back to Dallas for the first time since 1999.
This is yet another no-brainer, much like that of Benn being on this list, as Seguin is a phenomenal scorer and will surely continue that trend into the 2016-17 season. For a player who has scored 107 goals and 234 total points in three seasons since coming to the Lone Star State, it’s safe to say he’ll be among the top ten in scoring league-wide again this season. Put him back together on a line with Benn and Sharp and it makes for some very high-paced and high-scoring hockey, something the fans are surely happy to pay to watch.
Despite the fact that he is a household name in Dallas, and much of the NHL, he sometimes gets overshadowed by Benn when talking about elite forwards. This same thing seems to somewhat regularly happen to Benn when putting his name into the conversation with players like Kane, Sidney Crosby, and Alex Ovechkin as well. Seguin is sure to continue his fantastic play since arriving in Dallas, which will do nothing but make his stock rise, making him become even more well-known throughout the league as an elite scorer.
Players on the Rise
Johns will be taking on a role at the NHL level that is entirely unknown to him this season by sitting in the second pairing. The 24-year-old has played a grand total of 14 games in the NHL, all for Dallas last season, but showed he has some solid ability and can definitely contribute a good deal. Last season in the AHL, while playing for the Texas Stars, Johns played in 55 games and had four goals and 24 points to go with his 43 penalty minutes.
Last Word on Hockey’s Top Shelf Prospects has done a thorough scouting report on him and had this to say: “Johns had a solid second season in the AHL, scoring four goals and adding 20 assists for 24 points in 55 games. He also got called up to the big club, scoring one goal and three points in 14 NHL games. Johns did not look out of place and even played in all 13 Stars playoff games.”
On Johns’ skating ability: “Johns has good mobility for his size. He shows decent acceleration and speed in both directions. His edgework and agility can use some work, which means he is sometimes beaten to the outside by particularly quick forwards. Johns has very good strength and balance, helping him to win battles on the boards and clear the crease.”
You can find a more thorough review of Johns, along with scouting reports on Devin Shore, Guryanov, Esa Lindell, Julius Honka, Riley Tufte, and Jason Dickinson at the hyperlink for Top Shelf Prospects, provided above.
Player on the Decline
There are a few names that could be added to this section, but it is hard to say that a player is on the decline when they’ve never been expected to be top line or top pairing player to this point in their career. With the relatively young core that Dallas has for their key players, there aren’t many players likely to make the roster on opening night that can be listed here, something Stars fans should be happy to hear.
When looking at the changes the Stars made to their blueline, keeping the goalie tandem intact, and keeping the bottom six forwards depth on par with last season, it’s hard to not see the Stars as serious contenders for the Stanley Cup. They have nothing short of a potent offense, that will likely be top three this season, a very slightly improved blueline with the addition of Hamhuis and the emergence of prospects, and a solid goalie tandem.
When looking just at the Central Division, it’s very hard to pick between Dallas, Chicago, and St. Louis as an odds-on favorite to win the division. The main key to Chicago challenging for the division will likely be the play in between the pipes from Corey Crawford. As for St. Louis, they will obviously be strong once again this season with most of their team intact. Another team you can never truly count out is the Nashville Predators, who will be strong but are unlikely to win the division with the shaky play of the aging Pekka Rinne.
Prediction for Central Division: Dallas finishes second in the division, behind only Chicago, and just ahead of St. Louis and Nashville. The lack of serious strength on the blueline will cause them to falter at times, but their offense will give them plenty enough to stay close to Chicago.
When taking into account that the Central Division is most likely the strongest division in the NHL, it’s easy to say that the top three will likely be three of the top five or six teams in the league as well. Due to this, it’s easy to say that Dallas will finish in the top three of the Western Conference and will be top-five in the NHL as well.
Season Prediction: Dallas will finish second in the Central Division, as well as second in the Western Conference. They will comfortably glide their way into the postseason yet again and challenge for the Stanley Cup. They will ultimately fall short of this goal again, losing in the Western Conference Final.