This year has been one exhilarating season for the Dallas Stars. New general manager, new coach, new uniforms, new captain in Jamie Benn, new superstar in Tyler Seguin, and a new rookie phenom: Valeri Nichushkin. With all this change comes excitement.
But does excitement translate to winning?
Almost everyone I am familiar with that covers the Stars on a regular basis is bullish about the future, and they have every right to be. But what I want to do right now is dig deeper as to why the Stars have an exciting future and how long it will take for Dallas to return to the standards of the late 90s championship team.
Today’s championship bar has been set, and set high, by the Chicago Blackhawks. They have two out of the last four Stanley Cups and are once again way ahead of the pack in the Western Conference this year. They are the team to beat. For the sake of this forecast of the Dallas Stars, we will use these Blackhawks as the position to which we need to achieve. After all, if the Stars want to be a championship team, they must first go through Chicago.
I want to preface my Stars forecast by first talking about the Blackhawks. The old mantra of the NHL says that to be a championship contender, you must be physical and achieve a high hit total. You must block a high number of shots. And big, burly defensemen are necessities. The Blackhawks, however, do none of these. The team that Hawks GM Stan Bowman has put together is light (average weight of 200 pounds, 5th lightest team in the NHL), skilled (puck possession, shot accuracy, passing, etc.), and fast (it’s really hard to skate with them. Really hard). The core strategy for the Hawks is to possess the puck. Why? Because when you have the puck, it makes it extremely difficult for the other team to score (hockey is a simple game, kids). In order to accomplish this strategy, they have developed a core group of players through their draft: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Duncan Keith. Despite their recent success and lower draft positions, Bowman continues to find and develop talent through the system.
But ok, everyone knows the Blackhawks are good. I know I’m not breaking any news. The reason I wanted to spend some time highlighting the reasons for Chicago’s success is because I see your Dallas Stars going in the direction of the Blackhawks.
First of all, as far as I know, there is not a reliable way to measure speed. However, anyone that has paid attention to the Stars over the last few years can easily notice a dramatic difference in speed on the ice. Guys like Seguin, Nichushkin, Cody Eakin, Antoine Roussel, and Alex Chiasson would skate complete circles around heavy-footed Stars of recent past such as Adam Burish, Brenden Morrow, and Eric Nystrom. If you want to beat the Blackhawks, you cannot be slow.
Second, puck possession is incredibly vital. Like I said before, puck possession keeps the other team from scoring and also increases your chances of scoring. Another reason: special teams. When a team possesses the puck more often, they are far more likely to draw penalties. Likewise, if the opponent has the puck, the defending team is more likely to commit a penalty. Didn’t I tell you guys hockey is easy?
Dallas’s recent additions to the roster, along with development of their farm system, have done wonders for their puck possession. In order to measure puck possession, there is a widely-accepted stat that hockey analysts use called “close FF%”. I won’t get into the science of the stat; all you need to know is that this stat is unusually predictive of a team’s success. How predictive? The past few Stanley Cup matchups have featured teams who were near the top in FF%. With the changes the Stars have made, they have gone from 19th in the league in FF% (below average), to 9th. This is a dramatic jump. The key reason for this jump is Tyler Seguin, who has been a top 10 player in the NHL this year. Thanks for trading him, Boston.
The Stars are not quite to the point of contending for a championship. There are too many teams like Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis, San Jose, and Anaheim who are already ahead of the Stars in the areas of skill, speed, and possession. However, we should be optimistic because Dallas is noticeably trending upwards.
What will it take to get there?
They are going to need a bit more scoring depth. Currently, the roster is top-heavy. The stars rely on the Seguin/Benn/Nichushkin line for a bulk of their scoring. Guys like Ray Whitney, Sergei Gonchar, and Eric Cole provide a veteran presence, but are on the wrong side of their 30’s. As these contracts expire in the especially near future, the Stars will look to replace these guys with younger players who embody the necessary winning elements (speed, skill, possession).
Also, they will have to be better on special teams. Over the past few seasons, the Stars have finished near the bottom of the league in power play percentage. Correspondingly, they have finished near the bottom in the Western Conference. A few more power play goals here and there would lead to a few more points which would get them into the playoffs.
How do we improve in these areas? I believe as we continue to develop our current young players and acquire more talent in the future, these existing deficiencies will be minimized. In a future article, I want to examine both the upcoming talent in the farm system and who the Stars might be looking to sign in free agency. For the farm system, there are a good number of players that have the front office exceedingly optimistic about their future. As for free agency, the Stars have several contracts coming off the books that will free up cap space and allow Jim Nill to go after some necessary pieces.
If you are looking for a concrete prediction for when the Stars will make a deep playoff run and contend for a Cup, I can’t say for sure. However, I will say this, and this is strictly my opinion:
Worst case scenario: 2016-2017 season.
Most likely scenario: 2015-2016 season.
Best case scenario: 2014-2015 season.