In the 2015-2016 season, the Dallas Stars put up 50 wins and sat top in the Western Conference, making it to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. All was well in Texas once again, it seemed. In the 2016-17 Dallas Stars season, though, the star that was shining at the top of the NHL tree, came crashing down. They ended the season at the bottom of the standings, which led to the firing of head coach Lindy Ruff.
This offseason, the Stars did not blow up their team. Instead, they revamped their roster by adding specific pieces that, on paper, should address main weaknesses that should help the franchise bounce back to the playoffs.
Dallas Stars Set to Bounce Back in 2017-18
It usually hard to replace a coach with Lindy Ruff’s stature. A future Hall of Fame coach who has the fifth most coaching wins in NHL history. Dallas brought in the next best thing in Ken Hitchcock, who sits one spot ahead of Ruff on the same list.
The 65-year-old led Dallas to their first and only Stanley Cup back in 1999. The biggest aspect he brings is defensive structure and hard-working mentality. Wherever he’s been located in his career, Hitchcock’s teams have allowed fewer goals and have been a defensive force. Let’s break it down.
In the five full seasons with the St. Louis Blues (2011-2016) and Dallas (1996-2001), Hitchcock was always top four in fewest goals against. In Hitchcock’s first season behind the Philadelphia Flyers‘ bench, they were the best defensive team in the entire league. He even improved the bottom-feeding Columbus Blue Jackets‘ defence so much, they made the playoffs for the first time in franchise’s history.
This is an area the Stars have truly struggled as of late. They ranked in the bottom five in two of the past three seasons. Even when Dallas had the best record in the Western Conference two years ago, 230 pucks found the back of the net, which was the tenth most in the league.
Does Hitchcock’s coaching style wear teams down to a point they drop off a cliff after a couple years? One could say that, but prior to his exits, the teams dramatically improve and contend come mid-April and early May.
Sometimes the defensemen play differently depending who’s between the pipes. They feel comfortable taking chances and more relaxed since they know the goalie will bail them out if needed. Or in the Stars case a year ago, everyone plays nervous in front of them because it appears any shot could hit mesh.
The Stars signed Ben Bishop to a six-year deal worth $29.5 million to solve this problem. The 30-year-old has had over 35 wins in three straight seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning while sporting a .922 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average in his time down south. What’s even more impressive is Bishop’s playoff production. The American backstopped the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and was on his way to do for the second straight year in 2016 before he suffered an injury in the Eastern Conference Finals that kept him out the remainder of the playoffs.
Bishop is Dallas’ first true number one goalie since Marty Turco. The dual attack of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi has been sub-par at best. They combined for a .899 SV% last year and were just over a .900 SV% in the pair of seasons in Texas. It does come down to the team in front of the goalies in some cases, but a true number one takes over games more often than not. That’s exactly what the Stars need in order to become a legitimate playoff contender. Bishop is qualified for the position.
The Other Pieces
Of course, it’s easy to talk about the offensive firepower featured in Dallas. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza were already in town. With the addition of Alexander Radulov, Dallas is one of the scariest offensive teams in the National Hockey League.
The Stars also brought in big defencemen Marc Methot via a trade from the Vegas Golden Knights after he was grabbed in the Expansion Draft. He spent the previous five seasons with the Ottawa Senators logging top minutes some with partner Erik Karlsson. The 32-year-old was assigned to shut down the opposing top line every night. He brings an element that the Stars were missing.
The experience of Methot and Dan Hamhuis to the young blue-line core in Dallas could turn into a perfect mix. John Klingberg (23:21) and rookie Esa Lindell (21:52) were tops on the team in ice time. The defencemen that are projected to round out the roster have size, ranging from 6-foot-1 all the way to 6-foot-7. Hitchcock called it the biggest group of players he’s ever coached.
Mix the size, the younger players’ growth, extra experience, Bishop in the crease and Hitchcock sailing the ship, the defensive side of the puck could become a strength for an offensive juggernaut. All these areas need to come together in order for the Stars to experience a bounce-back season and put others on notice.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images