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What’s holding back the Dallas Stars?

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Since taking over the Dallas Stars’ front office in the spring of 2013, Jim Nill has been one of the most aggressive general managers in the NHL when it comes to swinging for the fences in trades and roster movement.

Big trades. Big free agent signings. They have become the champions of the off-season almost every summer, thanks to the additions of Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and Patrick Sharp among many others. They not only seem to get the big names, they always seem to win the trades themselves. The Seguin trade with Boston has turned out to be grand larceny. Nobody given in the Spezza trade ever really amounted to anything in the NHL with Ottawa. Chicago turned its return for Sharp into nothing more than Rob Scuderi’s bad contract in just a few short months after refusing to play Trevor Daley.

They were at it again this past summer when they went big-game hunting and landed starting goalie Ben Bishop, free agent winger Alexander Radulov, center Martin Hanzal, and defenseman Marc Methot.

Those were pretty much some of the top names available on the free agent market, with Bishop acquired in a trade and signed in May. When added to a core that was already built around star players Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg there was plenty of reason for excitement and optimism that this could be a big year for the Stars. Just like there is every year when they make a big splash in free agency.

The results still have not been what you might expect given all of that.

[Related: The Stars are winning another offseason, will the results follow?]

The Stars have made the playoffs in just two of Nill’s four full seasons as GM and they’ve won just a single playoff round. This season, even though they have already exceeded their point total from 2016-17, they are a fringe playoff team, holding on to the first wild card spot as of Friday with a two-point cushion over the first non-playoff team, the Colorado Avalanche.

Given their financial investment and the talent they have, is this good enough?

More importantly, what is holding them back from being a more prominent team? It is really confounding to figure out.

They are a cap team. They have a superstar duo of forwards in Seguin and Benn and a Norris Trophy contender in Klingberg on the blue line. When it comes to the latest round of additions, Radulov has proven to be worth every penny that the Stars have paid him so far, while Bishop has helped to solidify a goaltending position that had been a complete disaster in recent years.

Hanzal’s signing has not worked out as his season has been derailed by injuries, and it officially came to an end on Friday due to back surgery that will sideline him for the next six months (at least). Not exactly a great sign for the future.

In terms of their style of play they have done a complete 180 from where they were a couple of years ago, going from a run-and-gun, all-offense, no-defense team to one that is now a middle of the pack offensive team and a top-tier defensive team. As of Friday they are fourth in the NHL in goals against, are allowing the fourth fewest total shot attempts per game, are sixth on the penalty kill, and a top-10 team in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage.

Given that they went with a Ken Hitchcock reunion behind the bench, that change in style is not all that surprising.

Just about the only two things they don’t do well on paper are a power play that probably isn’t as good as it should be given the talent that exists on the roster, and the fact they have only been a .500 team on the road.

Overall there is a lot of good here, and the team itself this season is pretty decent.

But is pretty decent good enough? In terms of actual results they are still only a slightly above average team compared to the rest of the league, are not even a guarantee to make the playoffs at this point (though the odds seem to be in their favor), and they haven’t had any postseason success to speak of in a decade.

At some point you have to wonder if Nill’s seat might start to get a little hot if more success doesn’t soon start to come, especially after a quiet trade deadline where the team did nothing to improve its roster while pretty much every team around them (at least as far as the Central Division is concerned) loaded up.

It’s not that Nill has done a bad job. Again, if you look at all of the roster moves on an individual basis many of them are clear wins. But the results still aren’t coming on the ice and eventually someone pays the price for that. Over the past five years the players have changed, the coach has changed, and the style of play has changed, but how long will an owner be content to spend to the upper limits of the salary cap for a team that is 11th or 12th place in the league and doesn’t do anything in the playoffs?

It is a question that is probably worth asking.

At some point winning the offseason won’t be enough anymore.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Hutton shuts door for Sabres; Pastrnak’s pasta day

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Three Stars

1. Carter Hutton, Buffalo Sabres

Are the Sabres for real? Time will tell, but it’s clear that Hutton is on fire.

Buffalo fattened its lead to 3-0 just a few minutes into the second period, and were able to sit on that edge, even as the Kings fired a lot of biscuits at Hutton. The 33-year-old goalie generated a 47-save shutout on Thursday, giving him a two-game shutout streak after he stopped all 25 shots against the Stars on Oct. 14.

Hutton’s now 5-0-0 on the season, and only allowed seven goals so far.

There are some Sabres who are inevitably going to cool down. That’s not meant to be an insult; instead, it’s pretty much unavoidable because they’re playing at such a high level. Hutton is up there with the hottest skaters on that team.

2. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

It honestly might be a little on-the-nose for Pastrnak to have such a great “National Pasta Day” by scoring two goals and one assist for Boston on Thursday.

Then again, it’s really just another day for Pastrnak.

After a quiet start to 2019-20 where he didn’t score any points in two games, Pastrnak’s been boiling lately, with 13 points in his last five contests, and seven points over his last two games.

The only thing that went a little stale for the 23-year-old was that the Bruins couldn’t win, as the Lightning ended up winning via a shootout.

3. Casey Mittelstadt, Buffalo Sabres

Normally, tiebreakers would go to players who are on different teams, but while there were plenty of other strong performances on Thursday, Mittelstadt and Pastrnak were the top scorers with three points.

Like Pastrnak, Mittelstadt managed two goals and one assist. You could definitely make a case that Mittelstadt deserves the second star, as one of his goals ended up being the game-winner for Buffalo.

Either way, it was quite the way for Mittelstadt to make the most of his modest ice time of 12:19 on Thursday. The sophomore has been a feast-or-famine scorer so far in 2019-20, collecting two assists to start the season, going six games without a point, and then managing three points on Thursday.

Most painful moment of the night

The Wild are a mess, but Joel Eriksson Ek showed that they’re still able to show courage. He blocked three shots from Shea Weber, which left Ek in a walking boot, but gained Weber’s respect, according to The Athletic’s Michael Russo.

Those moments were even more painful that these GIFs of unintentional comedy from the Kings.

Highlight of the Night

Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck robbed Islanders rookie Oliver Wahlstrom:

Factoids

 

Scores

TBL 4 – BOS 3 (SO)
MTL 4 – MIN 0
NJD 5 – NYR 2
VAN 4 – STL 3 (SO)
NYI 3 – WPG 1
CGY 5 – DET 1
ARI 5 – NSH 2
VGK 3 – OTT 2 (SO)
BUF 3 – LAK 0

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Things are so bad for Wild, even Boudreau’s getting called out

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The Minnesota Wild suffered through a miserable and embarrassing offseason, and things really haven’t gotten much better through the first two weeks of 2019-20.

Thursday presented a buffet table of badness for the Wild:

  • They fell 4-0 to the Montreal Canadiens, and didn’t muster much of a fight. Carey Price only needed to make 17 saves for the shutout. You’d think there would have been more of a pushback being that Montreal went up 3-0 during the first period, yet the Habs generated an 18-11 SOG advantage through the final 40 minutes despite holding a chunky lead.
  • Minnesota is now 1-6-0. The Wild’s only win was a 2-0 snoozer against the lowly Ottawa Senators.
  • The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that the Wild held a 10-minute players-only meeting, often a telltale sign that tensions are mounting.
  • In a truly rare and juicy moment, Russo points out Jason Zucker is asking more from everyone … including head coach Bruce Boudreau.

“I think more than (a meeting’s) going to have to jumpstart us, to be honest with you,” Zucker said. “It’s going to be each individual guy from Bruce on down. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”

Walking off the ledge in a few ways

So, yeah, the Wild are pretty miserable right now. In falling to 1-6-0, the Wild have been outscored by 15 goals through this young season.

But it is early. The Wild have 74 games remaining on their regular season schedule. They’re not even really alone in the Central Division, either, as the Dallas Stars came into 2019-20 with bigger expectations (and more dollars spent) and find themselves sputtering to a 1-6-1 start.

There’s also the matter of it possibly being better, in the long-term, for the Wild to be really bad in the short-term.

You can also consider context. The Wild have played six of their first seven games on the road, and while they beat a bad team for their lone win, Minnesota’s faced stiff competition overall. Five of their sixth losses came against teams that made the playoffs in 2018-19, and the Canadiens weren’t that far from doing the same.

Those excuses might not do much for a team with frayed emotions. Boudreau and his players would probably roll their eyes at such comments.

Yet, for a team who would probably need some luck to be more than a bubble team, factors like quality of opponents and tough road trips could really make the difference. Especially when you stagger into the season after a bewildering and humiliating summer, and didn’t exactly gain a lot of confidence in the way 2018-19 ended, either.

Things are bleak for the Wild, and it’s possible that they stay that way.

It’s also early, though, so this is a good time for the Wild to gather themselves, and maybe get back on track.

There also still could be a lot of nights like these, although you won’t see Boudreau’s name mentioned like this very often — assuming he can survive the peaks and valleys of this season as Wild head coach, in general. In other words, feel free to break out your cringe-inducing puns about this being a “wild” ride.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers point to power play struggles after loss to Devils

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The Rangers were ecstatic to get back on the ice after a four-day hiatus from game action, but the result was not what they had in mind.

Jack Hughes recorded his first point, P.K. Subban netted his first goal for the Devils and New Jersey snapped several droughts in its 5-2 victory over the Rangers on Thursday.

Tony DeAngelo and Jesper Fast both scored while Alexandar Georgiev made 33 saves in the Rangers’ second consecutive loss.

Rangers power play woes

The Rangers will need their power play to fire on all cylinders if they expect to contend for a playoff spot this season.

Over the past two games, the Rangers have failed on 10 consecutive man-advantage opportunities, including six missed chances against the Devils.

“That’s probably as sluggish as we looked on the power play all year,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “You can’t alter your approach when you don’t score a goal. You can build momentum off a good power play if you don’t score. I just thought we started getting away from the things we have been doing during the exhibition season and the three games we played.”

Seemingly, the momentum can swing the other way, too. The Rangers’ power play failures began to pile up through the course of 60 minutes.

“As the game goes on, the more chances there are, the more the opponent knows what you are trying to do,” defenseman Jacob Trouba said after playing over seven minutes on the PP. It almost gets a little tougher as the game goes on and you have that many power plays.”

Four games and a handful of opportunities provide a small sample size in terms of power play production. But, without consistent offensive production on special teams, the Rangers are going to struggle to win games.

DeAngelo aims to carve out role

DeAngelo notched his first goal of the season to open the scoring at 6:02 of the first period. The offensive-minded defenseman sensed a scoring opportunity and cashed in on the rebound.

This past summer, DeAngelo was forced to sign a one-year contract due to lack of leverage during negotiations. The 23-year-old began the season knowing he would have to prove himself on a daily basis.

A right-handed defenseman with the ability to move the puck and potential to run a power play is a sought-after commodity in the NHL. Teams are often scrambling to fill that need or rearranging other pieces throughout their lineup to cover up an obvious hole.

However, DeAngelo is on a team that has multiple options at the position due to a busy summer. The Rangers acquired Jacob Trouba and added another offensive-minded defenseman in Adam Fox, essentially filling the role DeAngelo was supposed to play.

But the Rangers are doing their part to give DeAngelo an opportunity to dress consistently. In order to make it work, Brendan Smith has been playing as a fourth line forward to give the backend an extra penalty killer.

For DeAngelo, a goal is a step in the right direction, but he will need to continue to demonstrate to David Quinn and the coaching staff that he is worthy of a spot in the Rangers everyday lineup.

Strange schedule

In a game built off rhythm and tendencies, the Rangers have had to overcome a few strange schedule quirks to open up the 2019-20 NHL season.

The Blueshirts have only played in four games over the past 16 days and have had trouble fine-tuning the specific nuances of the sport.

“We have to understand situational hockey. The good news is we get to play more hockey and understand it better, Quinn said. “It’s tough to emulate it in practice. We are going to be able to draw from what happened today and be better for it tomorrow.”

It is not often a team looks forward to a back-to-back, but the Rangers are eager to play with more regularity. On Friday, they play against the Washington Capitals before beginning a five-game homestand.

“We want to play hockey games, it’s the only way you can really get better in this league,” Quinn said.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

A night of ‘Finally’ for Devils in win vs. Rangers

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It wasn’t always pretty for the New Jersey Devils against the New York Rangers on Thursday night.

The Devils’ first win of 2019-20 wasn’t a work of art. Jack Hughes‘ first NHL point wasn’t all that aesthetically pleasing, either. But the Devils will take it. And being that this came against the Rangers, the sweet will outweigh the bitter even more.

After falling behind 1-0 early, New Jersey fired off three consecutive goals to eventually secure a 5-2 win in front of a mixture of Rangers and Devils fans in Newark. The “workmanlike” nature of the victory really could be summarized by Hughes’ first point not exactly coming as you’d draw it up: an assist that deflected off of Miles Wood‘s backside, essentially.

Let’s work through some of the storylines in this one.

Breaking some droughts, but still some work to do.

Again, the Devils really needed this win, as they came into Thursday at 0-4-2 (now 1-4-2). The Rangers likely felt a little rusty, as they last played on Saturday, and have only appeared in four games, slipping to 2-2-0.

Along with finally getting that first win, and Hughes getting his first point, the Devils finally scored on the power play. New Jersey went 0-for-18 through their first six games, so Kyle Palmieri‘s power-play marker is another source of relief.

Heck, with a long-distance empty-net goal, P.K. Subban also scored his first goal with the Devils.

A pessimist would argue that an empty-net goal only counts for so much, and that Hughes’ assist wasn’t impressive, but those also mean fewer annoying questions during interviews. Like Victor Mete after scoring his first NHL goal, the Devils can just play.

But, yeah, they need to be better. Sure, they finally scored on the power play, but they only went 1-for-7 on Thursday, so they still need to find some answers.

(I hate to say it, but they really need to explore the question of whether Wayne Simmonds is still a top power-play unit guy. He’s struggled in recent years, and while the effort still seems to be there, the “finish” might not be. He has zero goals and one assist through seven games. Maybe it would be better to replace him with Nikita Gusev, who didn’t need much space to score after Artemi Panarin broke a stick on Thursday? A group including Gusev, Hughes, Subban, Palmieri, and Taylor Hall could be lethal.)

An answer in net?

It’s nice to see Cory Schneider possibly being healthy, or healthier, as his free-fall from elite to poor goalie is likely due in part to injuries. The bottom line is that Schneider might just be a backup (or worse) at this point in his career, though. Schneider’s 0-3-0 record and putrid .876 save percentage provide little hope that he’s just going to turn back the clock.

So the Devils really don’t have much of a choice: they need to see how far Mackenzie Blackwood can bring them.

The 22-year-old was off to a rocky start of his own this season, but was sharp on Thursday, stopping 29 out of 31 shots, including six SOG from a Rangers PP that went 0-for-6. After one great stop via the scary one-timer combination of Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, Subban gave Blackwood a tap on the head in appreciation. Rightfully so, I’d say.

Last season, Blackwood generated a .918 save percentage over 23 games (21 of which were starts). That’s not a huge sample size, but being that he was a second-rounder (42nd overall in 2015) and Schneider looks shaky-at-best, the Devils have every incentive to send him out there and see if he can give them at least league-average goaltending.

No.1 vs. No. 2 isn’t there yet

There are moments where it’s already captivating to watch Hughes, right down to nerding out when he does some simple-but-impressive skating, such as using his edges or accelerating with impressive speed.

But if we want Hughes vs. Kaapo Kakko to become a rivalry worth watching, we will have to lean on stronger sequels.

Both the Rangers and Devils seem like works in progress, yet with all of the talent they’ve added, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more fireworks in future meetings.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.