In a lot of ways it’s pretty remarkable that the Dallas Stars were a double overtime, Game 7 loss (to the eventual Stanley Cup champions) from reaching the Western Conference Final.
In early December the organization looked to be a dysfunctional mess after the team’s CEO publicly put his best players on blast for not doing enough (even though they were carrying the team), while the roster around them was lacking in several key areas.
Even as the team turned it around in the second half and went on its run through the playoffs there was a pretty significant weakness throughout the roster.
The 2018-19 Stars were the very definition of a “top-heavy” team that relied almost entirely on the top trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov, two elite defenders (John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen), and an outstanding goalie (Ben Bishop).
There were a few developments along the way that helped (the late season emergence of Roope Hintz, as well as the acquisition of Mats Zuccarello once he was healthy come playoff time), but the lack of forward depth was still a pretty significant Achilles Heel that was always going to hold them back when it mattered most.
General manager Jim Nill tried to address that on Monday with the free agent additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, adding to his extensive list of offseason victories that goes back to his first year on the job in Dallas.
Both players come with their set of risks.
In Perry’s case, he is 34 years old, played just 34 games in 2018-19, and has watched his production take a cliff dive over the past three years. In 2015-16 he was still an elite goal-scorer and topped the 30-goal mark (he scored 34) for the fifth time in six years. In three seasons since then he has scored just 42 goals. It is clear he is no longer a top-line player and given the Ducks’ willingness to buy him out, and the fact he had to settle for a one-year deal with a significant paycut shows just how far his value has dropped across the league.
The hopeful angle here is that it is a low-risk deal and that perhaps Perry can be capable of a bounceback season as the Stars catch lightning in a bottle.
It’s a long shot, but there is virtually no risk with it.
Pavelski is the player that provides the most reason for optimism because he is coming off of a monster season with 38 goals in 75 games. On a per-game level it was the most productive goal-scoring season of his career, and for the Stars to get him on a $7 million salary cap hit seems like a pretty strong deal.
The risk here is that Pavelski is entering his age 35 season and is coming off a season where he shot at a career-high 20.2 percent. That is important to keep in mind because he is highly unlikely to come close to that number in 2019-20, which means you should be expecting a pretty sharp decline in his goal production.
If he had shot at his normal career level in 2018-19 on the same number of shots he would have been a 23-goal scorer, which is the level he scored at in the two seasons prior.
The other factor here is that it is almost unheard of for a player that age to shoot at such a level. Pavelski was just the fourth different player in NHL history (at least as far back as we can track shooting percentage numbers) that scored on at least 20 percent of his shots (minimum 150 shots) in their age 34 season or older. Hall of Famer John Buyck did it three times (age 35, 37, and 40), Jim Pappin did it twice (age 34 and 35), and hockey legend Mario Lemieux did it once (age 35).
So there is not a lot of precedent for that sort of performance this late in a player’s career.
But the Stars don’t really need Pavelski to play at that level for him to make an impact.
They don’t need him to be a 40-goal scorer, they don’t need him to be a top-line scorer, they don’t need him to be the player to carry the offense.
They need him to be a secondary option that teams have to at least account for and worry about so they can not load up on trying to stop the Seguin, Benn, Radulov trio. Even if his shooting percentage regresses and he falls back to a 23-25 goal output that is still going to be a substantial upgrade for the Stars.
Just to get a sense of how thin the Stars’ forward depth was in 2018-19, they only had four forwards top the 30-point mark all season, and one of those players (Radek Faksa) had exactly 30 points. That was by far the lowest total of any Stanley Cup playoff team (the next lowest team had six such players).
They were also so bad that when none of Seguin, Benn, or Radulov were on the ice during even-strength play the Stars were outscored by an 84-65 margin, controlled just 48 percent of the shot attempts, and were outchanced. In other words, they were a bad team when the three best players were sitting on the bench. Every team will see a drop in that situation, but this was an extreme drop. It was not until Zuccarello showed up via trade (and was then healthy) that they finally had at least the threat of a second-line option.
The Stars have the most difficult pieces to find when it comes to constructing a championship roster: Impact players at the top of the lineup, and as long as Seguin, Benn, Radulov, Klingberg, Heiskanen, and Bishop play even close to the level they were at this past season the foundation will continue to be in place.
They just needed the secondary options to complement them.
Perry is going to be a lottery ticket that may or may not work out. But Pavelski, even if he regresses and declines should at least give them one or two more years of high level play and be just what they need.