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It’s Dallas Stars day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

2017-18

42-32-8, 92 pts. (6th in Central Division, 10th in Western Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Blake Comeau
Valeri Nichushkin
Roman Polak
Anton Khudobin

OUT:

Antoine Roussel
Dan Hamuis
Greg Pateryn
Mike McKenna
Curtis McKenzie

RE-SIGNED:

Mattias Janmark
Remi Elie
Devin Shore
Stephen Johns
Gemel Smith

It’s been two years since the Dallas Stars topped the Central Division with their 50-win, 109-point regular season, good for second-best in the NHL in 2015-16.

Since then, it’s been a little bit of free fallin’ in Texas.

Last season was better than the year previous, so there’s a bonus. Of course, it had to be because the Stars were atrocious in 2016-17. The addition of Ben Bishop in the crease last offseason helped, but the Stars had a single line that was able to score with regularity. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov (also added last offseason), one of the best lines in hockey, each accounted for nearly a point-per-game. Of Dallas’ 231 goals last season, the lined combined for 103 of them and 229 of the Stars’ 609 combined points.

It’s a great line, but no one outside that trio had more than 20 goals or over 35 points. In fact, it was a defenseman — John Klingberg — who nestled in behind them as the team’s fourth-leading scorer. It was a hell of a season for Klingberg, take nothing away from that. But the gap between scoring is substantial and a big reason why the Stars couldn’t cobble together more wins. If their first line had an off night, the team lost. It was a simple formula for opposing team’s to key in on.

The Stars will have a new bench boss this coming season after Ken Hitchcock retired. Jim Montgomery and his puck-possession mindset take over the reins and one of his first tasks will be trying to find Jason Spezza‘s game. Spezza had an awful year, so much so he was made a healthy scratch in the wake of its terribleness. Father time hasn’t been kind to the 35-year-old over the past two seasons. He has one year left on a four-year deal that’s paying him $7.5 million per season.

The Stars do get a bit of a boost with the return of Valeri Nichushkin, who makes his return after two years spent back home playing in the KHL. Thus far, the Russian is the Stars’ biggest addition of the summer. Nichushkin seems primed to move into a second-line role and could be a part of Spezza’s revitalization.

Two scoring lines are better than one, so if Nichushkin can shock Spezza back to life, then the Stars might work themselves back into the playoff conversation.

It’s not the same type of hype train as, say, the additions of Bishop and Radulov in years’ past. Perhaps the quiet summer will bode well for Dallas.

The good news is Klingberg seems to be skating into his prime. He made a case for the Norris this year and has seen his game on the incline for a couple years now, becoming a vital part of Dallas’ offense with 67 points last season. There’s no reason to think that will change. Klingberg rebounded from a down year in 2016-17 to put up career highs, and when he played on Dallas’ good team three years ago, he put up solid numbers in just his second year in the NHL. That sky is the limit for Klingberg.

A new system put forth by Montgomery might spell good things for the Stars, who played under Hitchcock’s aging coaching style. A turnaround by the club this season might just help the Stars keep hold of Seguin, who is set for unrestricted free agency after this year.

Prospect Pool

Miro Heiskanen, D, 19, HIFK Helsinki (SM-Liiga) – 2017 first-round pick

The third-overall pick a year ago enjoyed a solid campaign in his native Finland, posting 11 goals and 23 points in 30 games while averaging the most ice-time of any player in the league with 25:06 per game. That all added up to a league all-star team nod and an award for Liiga’s best defenseman. Heiskanen looked the part at the Olympic Games in South Korea as well with one goal in five games and played in the world hockey championships and the world juniors to boot. A trifecta of sorts:

Jim Nill said he’s coming to North America this season. Some say he’s NHL ready. That could be a big boost for the Stars if he is.

Roope Hintz, LW, 21, Texas Stars (AHL) – 2015 second-round pick

The Stars like themselves some Finns. Hintz is another prospect from Finland who could make his NHL debut this season. He had 35 points in 70 regular-season games in his first pro season in the American Hockey League. In the playoffs, where the Stars were Calder Cup runners-up, Hintz had a further 12 points in 22 games.

“Roope has taken some huge strides,” Stars coach Derek Laxdal told NHL.com. “One of his assets is his speed. He is a big body (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) who can skate at a high speed, make plays at high speed. His biggest challenge throughout the year has just been playing with that consistency and playing a little heavier.”

Ty Dellandrea, C, 18, Flint Firebirds (OHL) – 2018 first-round pick

Dellandrea is the newest addition to Dallas’ prospect pool after being taken 13th overall in June’s draft. A center, Dellandrea stood out in Flint of the Ontario Hockey League despite his team’s rough season. He led the team with 27 goals and had 59 points in 67 games and models his game after Jonathan Toews, both on and off the ice. What’s not to like?

“Ty is an extremely talented two-way centerman with explosive speed, hockey intelligence and willingness to do whatever it takes to help his team succeed on the ice,” Stars director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell said. “Over his two seasons with Flint, he has continued to improve every facet of his game and exhibits the character and work ethic that it takes to succeed in the National Hockey League.”


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

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular season.

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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Trade: Blackhawks send Anisimov to Senators for Zack Smith

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Artem Anisimov‘s name has been floating in trade speculation for more than a year now, and on Tuesday afternoon the Chicago Blackhawks finally moved him.

The Blackhawks announced they have traded Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for forward Zack Smith. It is a one-for-one deal that will probably make a bigger impact on both team’s financial situations than on the ice.

Both players are 31 years old, have two years remaining on their current contracts, and are coming off of somewhat similar seasons in terms of their performance. Anisimov scored 15 goals and 37 points in 78 games for the Blackhawks this past season, while Smith had nine goals and 28 points in 70 games for the Senators.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So what is important here for both teams? Money, obviously.

For the Blackhawks, the Anisimov-for-Smith swap saves them a little more than $1 million against the salary cap as they go from Anisimov’s $4.5 salary cap hit to Smith’s $3.25 number. For a team that is consistently pressed against the cap and still has a ton of big-money players, every little bit of extra space helps. Especially as they have to work out new deals for Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome over the next year.

The Senators, meanwhile, had a different set of problems.

They were still sitting under the league’s salary floor before the trade and are now finally above it.

Anisimov’s contract not only gets them over the floor, but because the Blackhawks have already paid Anisimov’s signing bonus for this season the Senators actually owe him less in terms of actual salary, which is also probably an important factor for a team that is seemingly always in a cost-cutting and money-saving mode.

The Blackhawks have been extremely busy this offseason making multiple changes to their roster after a second straight non-playoff season. Along with acquiring Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in trades to try and upgrade their defense, they also signed goalie Robin Lehner in free agency and brought back veteran forward Andrew Shaw.

This past week they traded former first-round pick defender Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander.

Related: Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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.

Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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When it comes to the NHL’s restricted free agent market this summer most of the attention has been directed at forwards Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Sebastian Aho. They are the stars, the big point-producers, and in the case of Aho, the rare player that actually received — and signed — an offer sheet from another team, only to have the Carolina Hurricanes quickly move to match it. For now, though, let’s shift the focus to the blue line where there are a few more big contracts still to be settled this summer with Jacob Trouba, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, and Ivan Provorov all waiting on new deals from their respective teams.

The two most intriguing players out of this group are Columbus’ Werenski and Boston’s McAvoy because they are already playing at an elite level among NHL defenders.

Just how good have they been?

Both are coming off of their age 21 seasons and have already demonstrated an ability to play at a top-pairing level on playoff caliber teams.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have only been four defenders that have hit all of the following marks through their age 21 season:

  • At least 100 games played
  • Averaged at least .50 points per game
  • And had a Corsi Percentage (shot-attempt differential) of greater than 52 percent at that point in their careers.

Those players have been Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, Werenski, and McAvoy.

That is it.

Pretty elite company.

Based on that, it seems at least somewhat reasonable to look at the contracts Karlsson and Doughty received at the same point in their careers when they were coming off of their entry-level deals.

They were massive.

Karlsson signed a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators, while Doughty signed an eight-year, $56 million contract. At the time, those contracts were worth around 10 percent of the league’s salary cap. A similarly constructed contract under today’s cap would come out to an annual cap hit of around $8 million dollars, which would be among the five highest paid defenders in the league.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Are Werenski and McAvoy worth similar contracts right now? They just might be.

The argument against it would be that while the overall performances are in the same ballpark, there are still some significant differences at play. Karlsson, for example, was coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season when he signed his long-term deal in Ottawa and was already on track to being one of the best offensive defensemen ever (he was already up to .68 points per game!). Doughty, meanwhile, was a significantly better defensive player than the other three and had already been a finalist for the Norris Trophy.

Neither Werenski or McAvoy has reached that level yet, while Werenski also sees a pretty significant drop in his performance when he is not paired next to Seth Jones, which could be a concern depending on how much value you put into such a comparison. It’s also worth pointing out that Jones sees a similar drop when he is not paired next to Werenski, and that the two are absolutely dominant when they are together.

But do those points outweigh the production and impact that Werenski and McAvoy have made, and the potential that they still possess in future years?

What they have already accomplished from a performance standpoint is almost unheard of for defenders of their age in this era of the league. It is also rare for any player of any level of experience.

Over the past three years only 15 other defenders have topped the 0.50 points per game and a 52 percent Corsi mark. On average, those players make $7 million per season under the cap, while only three of them — Roman Josi, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Erik Gustafsson — make less than $5 million per year. Josi is also due for a huge raise over the next year that will almost certainly move him into the $7-plus million range as well.

Bottom line is that the Blue Jackets and Bruins have top-pairing defenders on their hands that still have their best days in the NHL ahead of them. There is every reason to believe they are on track to be consistent All-Star level players and signing them to big deals right now, this summer, will probably turn out to be worth every penny.

Related: Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo

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.