How Dallas Stars built their Stanley Cup-contending roster

As we await Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream), let’s reflect on how the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning put together playoff rosters.

Much like how they play, the Stars and Lightning got to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final building in different ways. Maybe that’s a message to teams trying to figure out how to copy their Stanley Cup blueprints?

Let’s start with the Dallas Stars, built by GM of the Year finalist Jim Nill.

How Dallas Stars built their Stanley Cup roster

The house that fifth-round picks built?

As PHT discussed back in 2018, the Stars haven’t always drafted well. Once you move beyond “obvious” high first-rounders (like Stars phenom Miro Heiskanen, selected third overall in 2017), a team can make or break its fortunes based on getting mid-first-rounders right.

Dallas shows that you can still cobble together a competitive team even if you do sometimes barely make contact.

Take a look at their first-rounders since 2010:

  • Jack Campbell, 11th overall in 2010, never delivered much for the Stars. He’s rebounded to become an intriguing platoon option for the Maple Leafs, but it took a long time.
  • Jamie Oleksiak, 14th in 2011: a legit and large NHL player, but not necessarily a grand slam.
  • Radek Faksa, 13th in 2012: Stars love him, so there’s that. Just don’t look at Tomas Hertl, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Vasilevskiy going 17-19th. (That said, feel free to get people mad debating Faksa vs. 16th pick Tom Wilson.)
  • Valeri Nichushkin, 10th in 2013: found a second life as an analytics Selke darling. The Stars are getting more out of 29th pick Jason Dickinson; not great for two first-rounders, though.
  • Julius Honka, 14th in 2014: *cringe emoji*
  • Denis Gurianov, 12th in 2015: sure, he’s not Mathew Barzal (16th), Kyle Connor (17th), or Thomas Chabot (18th), but Gurianov is rounding into a dangerous and fun forward. Now the Stars just need to loosen that leash. The Stars also drafted Roope Hintz in the second round at the 49th pick, so the 2015 draft was quality-over-quantity with just five picks. (And I’m not just saying that because Chris Martenet’s name makes me think of the dude who does Super Mario’s voice.)
  • Riley Tufte, 25th in 2016: uh.
  • Heiskanen, third in 2017: when you’re wondering if he’ll end up a bigger star than Cale Makar (fourth) or Elias Pettersson (fifth), you’re dealing with what the kids call “champagne problems.”
  • Too early to say about Ty Dellandrea or Thomas Harley. They haven’t played in the NHL yet, though.

So … not great.

Fortunately, the Stars nailed some later draft picks over the years. In particular, they found two huge steals in different fifth rounds, nabbing Jamie Benn at 129th in 2007 and John Klingberg at 131st in 2010. Getting Esa Lindell with a third-rounder (74th in 2012) has also been important for making up for some of those first-round follies.

Sorry, Loui: that one big trade

For the most part, the Stars haven’t gone the trade route in putting together this Stanley Cup roster. While the Lightning spent big to improve their depth during the trade deadline, Dallas sat on its hands.

But the Stars changed the trajectory of their franchise when they landed Tyler Seguin in one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history. (At minimum, of the salary cap era.)

Even factoring in his downright baffling playoff puck luck, Seguin’s been one of the Stars’ most important players. During his seven seasons in Dallas, Seguin has generated almost a point per game (514 points in 538 games).

Speaking of Super Mario, Seguin is so good, the Stars put this together when they extended his contract:

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stars scour the free agent market

How Dallas Stars Stanley Cup roster was built Khudobin Bishop
Gotta keep your backup/1B hydrated. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Huge free agent team-building value in net, alone

After biffing it with Antti Niemi, the Stars made incredible free agent investments when it came to goaltending.

To start, they shrugged off skepticism (especially in the analytics community) about Ben Bishop, and they’ve enjoyed incredible value. Although injuries have been a headache — even before the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs — Bishop’s been killer for a smidge under $5M per year. As strong as he was with the Lightning (.921 save percentage in 227 GP), Bishop’s been a brick wall for the Stars (.923 in 143 GP).

When Bishop hasn’t been able to play, the Stars have been able to turn to Anton Khudobin. Again, this playoff run is an amplifier, turning Khudobin’s strong play up to 11.  Khudobin somehow has a .926 save percentage in 71 GP over two Stars seasons, plus this playoff run you might have heard of.

About the only conundrum is that Khudobin is a pending free agent, and may see his value skyrocket beyond the Stars’ comfort zone.

The Stars have been knocking it out of the park when it comes to goalies in free agency lately, overall.

Adding veteran scoring help in free agency

Beyond those goaltending gems, the Stars made some big bets in free agency.

Pushing past fears of the aging curve, Dallas signed Alexander Radulov to a five-year, $31.25M contract that has been a great success. It’s all gravy as he approaches the final season of this deal, which is probably good because Radulov occasionally lands in the doghouse.

Time will tell if the Joe Pavelski investment ($7M cap hit through 2021-22) will pay off. Things went from lousy in the regular season to more promising during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At 36, Pavelski will need to work for it.

Corey Perry, meanwhile, fell in the low-risk, low-reward bin, which makes sense since he cost pocket change.

Coaching

If you count coaches as part of a “roster,” it’s worth at least mentioning that the Stars certainly faced turmoil over the years. First, they cycled through styles and veterans, going from Lindy Ruff to throwback Ken Hitchcock.

Then off-the-ice issues prompted the Stars to move from Jim Montgomery to Rick Bowness this season.

Naturally, it’s tough to tell how much of the Stars’ structure hinges on Montgomery’s system, versus Bowness’ influence. But, the whole “being in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final” thing seems pretty promising. Especially since the Stars beat some true West powers in the Avalanche and Golden Knights.

Final thoughts on how Stars’ Stanley Cup roster was built

It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Stars put together a strong foundation through a mix of some draft and trade deals, plus strong free agent wins.

Maybe most promisingly, there’s room to get better. Cap Friendly estimates the Stars’ cap space at almost $15.5M heading into the off-season. While Hintz, Gurianov, Faksa, and maybe even Khudobin will take up a hearty chunk of that surplus, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Stars ended up with room to get better for 2020-21.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

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