In two years, Jim Nill has turned the Dallas Stars, from a team always on the outside looking in, to a franchise on the up and up, with the potential of a deep Stanley Cup run.
Not since the 1-2 punch of Mike Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk, have the Stars had the talent down the middle of the ice. Tyler seguin and Jason Spezza, give Dallas the centres needed, to compete in the Western Conference, where strength down the middle of the ice is paramount to success.
Add to Seguin and Spezza, three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks, Patrick Sharp. Sharp was traded to the Stars, alongside defensive prospect Stephen Johns, for forward Ryan Garbutt and stalwart of the Stars D, Trevor Daley. The trade was Nill’s third blockbuster trade, in as many seasons, since leaving Detroit to become GM.
Nill’s recruitment drive for the upcoming season, started at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, when Dallas traded only a 7th rd pick, to the San Jose Sharks, for the rights of Goaltender Antti Niemi. Niemi was signed at 3yr-13.5 million, before his contract expired on July 1.
With a top 6 boasting Sharp, Seguin, Spezza and reigning Hart Trophy winner, Captain Jamie Benn, the Stars top forward core, match those of any top 6 in the National Hockey League. Add to that, a young defensive core, bolstered by another multi-Stanley Cup winner with Chicago in Johnny Oduya, give the Stars, on paper at least, a very strong chance of making their first Stanley Cup finals since 2000.
But not everything in Dallas, is full of sunshine and lollipops. The new recruits have to gel with their new team-mates quickly, to avoid falling behind early in a strong Conference. Sharp in particular, will need to hit the scoresheet early in the season, to be the support for Benn and Seguin, the Stars desperately need.
The main problem with the Stars, especially last season, was at the back end. Once known for having a very stingent defense during the days of Zubov, Sydor, Hatcher and then-GM Bob Gainey, in recent days, Dallas have been more known as the Allas Stars, due to the lack of D being played inside the American Airlines Center. Some of that could be put down to a young, inexperienced defense, still learning the trade of playing at a consistent level in the NHL, however, the major part of the Stars’ flaws in D, is their starting Goalie, Kari Lehtonen. Lehtonen, and his merry band of backups, had a season in which most people would describe as a shocker. Outside of Ben Scrivens at Edmonton, Lehtonen had the worst SV% (.903) of all Goaltenders who played at least 40 games or more, conceded the second most amount of goals (181), with Lehtonen’s backups last season, gathering a total of just eight wins.
Enter Antti Niemi. Ironically, another previous Cup winner with the Blackhawks. Niemi answers the problem that the Stars have had for years, solid goaltending to help Lehtonen, or to jump in when Lehtonen’s groin decided it doesn’t want to work anymore. Even though last season, was the first in many, where’s Lehtonen’s groin didn’t play up, he was still nowhere near his best.
So, where will the Stars end up next season?
With franchises such as Chicago, and the Los Angeles Kings, looking like taking a step back this season, and the likes of Winnipeg and Calgary, looking to prove to the world that they aren’t one-hit wonders out West, Dallas will be looking to be back in the playoffs, after missing out last term. Sharp should add to the scoring depth from the top 6, but they are still missing a top 6 right wing, which would allow Ales Hemsky to go on the third line and add more depth alongside Cody Eakin.
Scoring wasn’t the issue last season, nor will it be in the upcoming season. However, defense and goaltending will have two big question marks hovering over it the entire season. If the young core doesn’t take the next step in 2016, I don’t see Oduya or Alex Goligoski or Jason Demers becoming that elite guy, that the Stars are hoping John Klingberg becomes. If there are still struggles on the back end, then they need to hope that Niemi is the solution to their problems in net, otherwise Jim Nill will have to pull out another blockbuster, in order to bring in that elite top 2-4 defensemen that the Stars will need to be successful in the Western Conference.
If the Stars can have more 4-1 victories, as opposed to scraping away with a 5-4 win, the confidence of the young Stars will skyrocket, which will take the pressure off the front end to score, allowing them to relax and do what they do best, then they will be contenders in the West. A lot of things have to gel and go right straight away in order for the Stars to contend, but there is no reason to believe that the Stars won’t miss the playoffs. Perhaps even a Cup run.