There’s a case to be made that the Dallas Stars just endured the most painful Stanley Cup final defeat of all-time.
Any team that fights all the way to the final after a long, gruelling season only to lose experiences the crushing disappointment, sure. But it felt different seeing members of the Stars dropped to one knee after falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the final. The 2019-20 Stars will forever be known as the team that stayed in the COVID-19 bubble for two months and walked away with nothing. It’s no wonder star players like center Tyler Seguin and defenseman John Klingberg were so visibly emotional when addressing media after the defeat.
“It hurts,” Klingberg said in the Zoom press conference following Game 6. “It hurts a lot. It’s your dream to play on the biggest stage in the world, and you end up losing. It stings. It’s hurting.”
The Stars lost many important players to injury along the way in the 24-team tournament, from starting goalie Ben Bishop to key two-way forwards Radek Faksa and Roope Hintz. As Seguin put it Monday night, even the guys who remained in the lineup were so banged up that they would form a line to visit the trainers just to get iced down.
“Anyone who’s ever won a Stanley Cup will tell you that to win the Cup you’ve got to be lucky and you’ve got to be healthy,” said Stars coach Rick Bowness. “I’m proud of our players. I am. They gave us everything they could. Was there enough in the tank tonight? No. There wasn’t. But it’s a credit to them, it’s a credit to our players that they were able to get to Game 6. I’m very proud to be their coach.”
“(It was) the biggest grind and hardest time of our lives as professional athletes – and also the most fun,” Seguin said. “We had so much fun up until this point on this run. It’s fun being on this stage, and a lot of guys in this league and this business don’t have that opportunity to feel this pressure, and we had a lot of fun with it, and it was great. But other than that, there was nothing positive you can take from the bubble life. It definitely sucked, and we’re all looking forward to seeing family and friends now.”
So Dallas rode the highs and lows of bubble life and fell just short of winning a Stanley Cup. But this team did so with (a) goaltender Anton Khudobin, a 34-year-old career backup and pending UFA, playing out of his mind at times in relief of Ben Bishop; (b) captain Jamie Benn turning back the clock and playing at his highest level in years; (c) mid-30s veterans such as Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry providing crucial lifts as the playoffs progressed. Dallas was the underdog in Round 2 against the Colorado Avalanche and Round 3 against the Vegas Golden Knights and persevered nevertheless. It all raises the question: was it a fluke, a miracle run reminiscent of the 1996 Florida Panthers or 2006 Edmonton Oilers? Or can we expect Dallas to make a strong run at a championship again in 2020-21?
It’s a matter of perspective. Let’s examine the reasons why the Stars can or cannot replicate this season’s success story.
GLASS HALF FULL: The Stars should have better injury luck next season
The Stars only got three (ugly) games from their starter Bishop in the post-season tournament. He was clearly not himself and was declared unfit to play after the Avalanche blitzed him for four goals in 13 minutes Aug. 31. Bishop will be 34 by the time next season starts, and injuries have been a recurring problem throughout his career, but he remains one of the game’s better netminders when healthy, He finished second in the 2018-19 Vezina Trophy vote and, this season, posted a solid .920 save percentage and sat a respectable 23rd out of 53 goaltenders in goals saved above average per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (min. 1000 minutes). With a capable backup who can play 30 games or so in the Khudobin role again, Bishop can be fresh and effective next season. The condensed tournament was just not built for a big man like him who needs recovery time.
The Stars also lost defenseman Stephen Johns to an undisclosed injury early in the post-season and were without forwards Faksa, Hintz and Blake Comeau by the end of the final. All were deemed unfit to play. Who knows how things might have played out with a healthy lineup? All the back-to-backs added up and did Dallas in. Simply having better injury luck next spring could alter the Stars’ fate for the better.
GLASS HALF EMPTY: The Stars are old and will be even older next season
Among their forwards, four of the Stars’ top four goal-scorers during the post-season were 30 or older: Pavelski, Benn, Alexander Radulov and Perry. Perry is UFA, so we don’t know if he’ll return, but Pavelski, Benn and Radulov will be 36, 31 and 34 when next season starts, and Seguin will turn 29 in late January. Dallas’ key defensemen are still on the right side of 30, of course, but the forward group is greying and will enter next season with additional mileage after the bubble tournament.
GLASS HALF FULL: Dallas’ young stars will continue their progression
The aging out doesn’t matter as much if the younger cohort continues to develop. We’ve already seen that in a big way on the blueline, of course. Miro Heiskanen was one of the most dominant players in the entire post-season, playing in all situations, tilting the ice in Dallas’ favor and amassing 26 points in 27 games. At just 21, he’s already in the conversation as a top-five defenseman in the world. He has a real chance to become the best blueliner in the franchise’s history, even eclipsing Hall of Famer Sergei Zubov someday. Esa Lindell, 26, is one of the top penalty killers in the sport and should be a go-to shutdown defender for years to come. John Klingberg, 28, has two more seasons before becoming a UFA and remains one of the better offensive defensemen in the game.
Denis’ Gurianov’s progression up front was extremely encouraging, too. His 20 goals in 64 games as a rookie didn’t full do him justice, as he accomplished that feat playing just 12:59 a game. He actually led Dallas in goals. He was one of the league’s most efficient goal-scorers on a per-60 basis. Among 334 forwards who played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5, Gurianov sat 43rd in goals per 60, right behind Brayden Point, and 50th in shots per 60, behind Anders Lee. After Gurianov contributed nine goals and 17 points playing just 13:53 across 27 playoff games, he has a real shot to score 30 goals next season if his role grows.
Hintz is also an important piece of Dallas’ immediate future. He possesses a unique mix of size and speed and can play center or the wing, up or down in the lineup. He’s another nice player to build around.
GLASS HALF EMPTY: It won’t be possible to improve this team next season
Gurianov and Hintz are nice young core members, sure. But they ain’t Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Stars lack high-ceiling prospects among their next generation of forwards. The closest is the Ty Dellandrea, a heart-and-soul center who has done remarkable things on some bad Flint teams in major junior. But he’s not a can’t-miss all-star. Dallas doesn’t have one. In Future Watch 2020, our panel of active NHL scouts and team executives ranked the Stars’ collection of 21-and-younger talent 16th in the league – keeping in mind that rank included Heiskanen. Defenseman Thomas Harley is the top prospect at 30th overall, but Dellandrea is Dallas’ highest forward prospect at merely 43rd.
So we aren’t looking at a high-impact youngster changing the Stars’ team makeup next season. That means GM Jim Nill will have to make veteran improvements if he wants to ice a superior team, and that will be extremely difficult to do with a flat salary cap of $81.5 million. Dallas boasts $15.49 million in cap space and will have to devote most or all of it to RFAs Gurianov, Hintz and Faksa. Will there even be any money left after that to keep Khudobin around? That feels like a stretch, even if Dallas ends up putting Johns’ $2.35-million cap hit on LTIR . On paper, it appears Dallas’ best-case scenario is to keep the current group rather than make any major additions. Last summer was the big spending window.
If the Stars want to change the look of their forward group, then, it may require a trade. Would Nill ever consider moving Klingberg? He’d fetch a mighty return. The Jets badly need a right-shot defenseman. Patrik Laine would be a nice fit in Dallas. Could you build a deal around those two? How about Klingberg and one of Faska and Hintz for Laine? Just sayin’.
GLAFF HALF FULL: The Stars have the coach their players love
The Stars found some magic after firing bench boss Jim Montgomery, who was struggling with alcohol addiction, in December. Bowness got his first shot as a head coach since 2003-04 after a decade and a half in various assistant roles. The Stars went 20-13-5 after he took over and helped maintain the identity that defined them in the post-season as one of the better teams in the league at generating high-danger chances while limiting high-danger chances against.
It’s clear Bowness’ troops absolutely adore him and want to win for him. He is still looking for his first Cup ring after more than 30 years in the NHL coaching ranks, so the “Win it for Bones” factor is a nice motivator.
“What I learned is that I still have the passion to compete,” Bowness said Monday night when asked what Dallas’ run taught him about himself. “I still have the passion to coach. That’s what I’ve learned. I know I’m getting up there, and there’s a lot more behind me than ahead of me, but I still have the passion. That’s the most important thing. I’ve always told my family that the day I wake up and I don’t want to go to the rink, then I know the passion’s gone. And we’re not there yet, so I’m just going to keep pushing.”
GLASS HALF EMPTY: Too many superpowers are rising in the Western Conference
It’s possible the Stars peaked this season, while the teams they eliminated in Rounds 2 and 3 are poised to get even better. The Colorado Avalanche were already a contender in 2019-20, are the NHL’s youngest team by average age, have a farm system ranked No. 1 by the Future Watch panel and have oodles of cap space. They aren’t anywhere close to their ceiling. Meanwhile, Vegas could only be a piece away from having a Presidents’ Trophy- caliber roster. Even the Edmonton Oilers could make noise if they improve their goaltending and defense, as any team built around McDavid and Draisaitl has a shot at a deep playoff run.
So even if the Stars remain a good team in 2019-20, some better teams might leapfrog them in the hunt for the Cup.
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