Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where Last Word On Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers are insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around till the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2018-19 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on the Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2018-19 Dallas Stars.
Puck Drop Preview: 2018-19 Dallas Stars
If there was only one word that can be used to describe the 2017-18 season for the Dallas Stars, “disappointment,” is one that most Stars fans can agree on. What seemed like a playoff-bound team for the first 62 games of the season, with a record of 35-23-4, the Stars flew off a cliff following the trade deadline, stumbling to a 7-9-4 record, in which they missed the final wildcard spot by three points. The Stars finished the season with 92 total points.
There was a sense of optimism and high expectations heading into the season. The return of veteran head coach Ken Hitchcock, coupled with key off-season acquisitions of Alexander Radulov, Marc Methot, Martin Hanzal, and goaltender Ben Bishop, were added to what was already a solid core of NHL talent. The Stars were firing on all cylinders at the beginning of the season. Dallas’ first line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Radulov were driving the offence. The penalty kill was among the top 10 in the league, hovering at 80% efficiency. The goaltending duo of Bishop and Kari Lehtonen kept the Stars competitive for the first half of the season. Dallas was holding onto a top-two spot in the Central Division. They were also in the conversation as one of the top teams in the NHL.
As the season progressed, the team started to regress, as key injuries to Hanzal, Methot, and Julius Honka were felt. The team suffered from a lack of secondary offence, the steady decline of the powerplay. Besides the first line which produced a combined 229 points last season, Mattias Janmark was the only other forward who came close to recording 20 goals. He finished the season with 19. The powerplay was not effective towards the end of the season, dropping to 20th in the league. They ran at just 19.3 percent efficiency, despite all the star power the Stars possess.
The team also got below-average goaltending down the stretch. Injuries to Bishop and Lehtonen were difficult for Dallas to overcome. Overall, it was a frustrating end to what was supposed to be a promising season for the Dallas Stars.
The Stars announced on April 13th that head coach Ken Hitchcock was set to retire from his coaching duties and move into a consulting role for the organization. General manager Jim Nill began the process of hiring a new coach. He would go outside of the box and announce on May 4th that Jim Montgomery, who coached the University of Denver in the NCAA for the past five seasons, was set to become the eighth coach in franchise history. Montgomery is only the fourth coach in NHL history to make the jump directly from the NCAA to the NHL.
The city of Dallas had the honour of hosting the 2018 NHL Entry Draft for the first time in franchise history. The Stars drafted eight players in this year’s draft, with an emphasis on size. The average height of this year’s class was 6-foot-2, and an average of 201 pounds. Four of the eight picks made came from the Ontario Hockey League.
While not as active as 2017, the Stars made depth signings to help fill some holes in the lineup. On July 1st, the Stars agreed to terms with backup goaltender Anton Khudobin, on a two-year $5 million contract. He replaces Lehtonen. The Stars were not done there. They agreed to terms with winger Blake Comeau, on a three-year $7.2 million contract. They also signed defenceman Roman Polak, to a one-year $1.3 million contract. The biggest announcement of the day was the return of former first-round pick Valeri Nichushkin. He agreed to return to the NHL after playing two seasons in the KHL for CSKA Moscow. Nichushkin signed a two-year deal, worth $2.95 million a season.
The Stars also took care of in-house contracts, signing forwards Mattias Janmark, Gemel Smith, Jason Dickinson, Remi Elie, and defenseman Dillon Heatherington to one-year contracts. The most note-worthy extensions went to Devin Shore, who agreed to a two-year $4.6 million contract, and defenseman Stephen Johns, who signed a three-year deal, worth $2.35 million per season.
2018-19 Projected Lineup
The forward group heading into the 2018-19 season is more balanced compared to the previous year. With the additions of Nichushkin and Comeau into the top nine and the continued progression of Radek Faksa and Mattias Janmark, the Stars should improve their secondary offence. With Martin Hanzal set to return by mid-November, there will be more opportunities for Shore, Elie, Smith, or Dickinson to take on a bigger role at the beginning of the season. If Jason Spezza can return to form, this team can be dangerous and cause some damage offensively.
Miro Heiskanen – Dillon Heatherington
John Klingberg is the anchor of the defence for the Dallas Stars. Coming off an impressive 67-point season, the Stars will have to rely on him heavily to produce and carry the load considering Polak, Methot, and Johns are not offensive defensemen. The one ace under Jim Montgomery’s sleeve is the third-overall pick from the 2017 NHL Draft, Miro Heiskanen. He has a chance to make the team out of training camp. If Heiskanen can establish himself within the top-six, it could alleviate the pressure off the likes of Klingberg, Lindell and Honka to drive the offence from the back-end.
Goaltending will once again be the focal point heading into the season. The Stars decided to let Kari Lehtonen walk in free agency and replaced him with veteran back-up Anton Khudobin. Last season with the Boston Bruins, he posted a 16-6-7 record, a goals-against average of 2.56, and a save percentage of 0.913. If he can put up similar numbers, then it could be the difference between being at the top of the Central Division instead of finishing out of the playoffs. Ben Bishop will still be relied on to carry the load. He has to stay healthy and be more consistent in order for the Stars to return to the playoffs.
Players to Watch
There were high expectations on Valeri Nichushkin to produce when he was drafted 10th overall back in the 2013 NHL Draft. As a powerful left-shooting right winger with some offensive skill, the coaching staff, management, and fans expected him to be a top-six forward for many years to come. After spending two seasons in the KHL, Nichushkin will have a chance to establish himself as a solid NHL forward. Nichushkin has the ability to alleviate the pressure of the first line and play a key role on the second power-play unit this season.
Coming off a second-consecutive 33-point season, expectations are higher on Radek Faksa to finally take a step forward. The Stars want him to become an offensive producing second line centre. Even though it might be asking a lot for the 24-year-old to establish an offensive game while still being relied on to play well in his own end, there is the potential for him to improve his production playing with the likes of Nichushkin and Mattias Janmark.
It might be a little odd to have Tyler Seguin as a player to watch for this upcoming season since he always produces at a high level. This season has the potential to be different. Seguin is entering the final deal of his contract. As of now, the Stars have not offered him a contract extension. If this is the case heading into the season, expect Seguin to be even more motivated and carry the team into a playoff position. This is an important season for Seguin and Dallas in terms of their long-term future.
If you look at the Central Division, the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets will be battling it out for the top seed in the division. Realistic expectations for the Dallas Stars should be that they will be battling it out with the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and the Minnesota Wild for the third spot in the division. If the Stars get similar production from the top line as they had last season, the additions of Nichushkin and Comeau can provide a more balanced attack.
The biggest question mark heading into the season is how smoothly Jim Montgomery can transition as an NHL coach. After being a head coach in the NCAA for the past five seasons, he can bring more of an offensive dimension. This was missing last season with Ken Hitchcock, who is more of a defensive coach. It will be interesting to see how the team performs in training camp heading into the season. These early indications could give insight into how smooth this transition will be.
Only time will tell to see if Montgomery can galvanize the team early on and if the secondary scoring and consistent goaltending will show up this season. The Stars have the talent and personnel to make the playoffs this season if things go well.