The Dallas Stars have been one of the most oddly fascinating teams in the league over the past two seasons.
Sometimes they look and feel like a team that isn’t as good as it could be or should be.
Sometimes — as was the case early last season when Jim Lites publicly blew a gasket over their performance — that feeling even comes from within its own organization.
Since the start of the 2018-19 season their regular season performance has been the definition of average with a win total and points percentage over the past two years that each rank 15th out of the league’s 31 teams.
They are one of the worst offensive teams in the league, but thanks to a pair of No. 1 defensemen and an elite goaltending duo they are the best team at preventing goals. They have also gone through a pair of coaching changes since the end of the 2017-18 season, going from Ken Hitchcock to Jim Montgomery, and then from Montgomery to Rick Bowness in the middle of this season.
There is every reason to shrug your shoulders at this team with a feeling of indifference, especially when compared to the teams we think of as Stanley Cup contenders in the West (Colorado and Vegas specifically).
Average regular season, great postseason
But here is a wild fact that might shock you: Over the past two years no team in the league has won more playoff games than the Stars’ 22. They were a Game 7 double overtime loss away from reaching the Western Conference Final a year ago (seven wins), and were two wins away from a Stanley Cup this season (15 postseason wins, including the Round Robin phase).
Along the way they beat a Nashville team a year ago that was a top-3 seed in the West, then took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blues to double overtime in a Game 7.
This year they knocked off Colorado and Vegas — arguably the two best teams in the West on paper and the two biggest favorites — in consecutive rounds, and then took Tampa Bay to six games in the Stanley Cup Final.
They did all of that despite getting badly outshot and having an even (112-112) goal differential in those two postseasons.
A lot of it is a testament to the power of goaltending, and the Stars have two outstanding ones lead the way in each of those playoff runs. A year ago it was Ben Bishop (.933 save percentage) taking over, and this year it was Anton Khudobin standing on his head in the Western Conference Final. They also have two sensational defensemen in Miro Heiskanen (a rising superstar) and John Klingberg (still criminally underrated around the league). As long as they have that combination it is going to keep them in games and give them a chance to succeed in the playoffs.
It has gotten them close two years in a row. Now the question becomes how do they not only get back, but also go one step further.
Can they re-sign Khudobin?
Bishop and Khudobin has been an elite duo the past two years and the biggest driving factor in their postseason success these past two years. Bishop is still signed for three more years, but Khudobin is set to become an unrestricted free agent in two weeks.
The Stars have $15 million in salary cap space to work with and three key restricted free agents to re-sign (Radek Faksa, Roope Hintz, and Denis Gurianov). Is there enough to keep the goalie duo in place? And if so, can they still count on two goalies in their mid-30s to keep playing at that level? Given their play the past two years, as well as the fact they lessen each other’s workload there is no reason to anticipate a sudden drop-off. But considering how important they are to the Stars’ success, they need them to maintain that level.
Will they give their young players more responsibility?
The Stars’ top-two goal-scorers during the 2019-20 regular season were Gurianov (20 goals in 64 games) and Hintz (19 goals in 60 games).
Each of them averaged more than one goal per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, with Gurianov scoring 1.08 per 60 and Hintz scoring 1.03 per 60.
Out of the 531 skaters that logged at least 500 minutes of ice-time across the league, both numbers were good enough to place them in the top-60 league-wide.
No other player on the Stars team averaged more than 0.70 goals per 60 minutes. Along with that, each had strong underlying numbers in terms of possession and expected goals. They were highly effective players.
Why does that matter? Among Stars forwards that played at least 10 games this postseason, here is where Gurianov and Hintz ranked in 5-on-5 ice-time per game: 10th (Gurianov) and 13th (Hintz). Is that enough?
To be fair, Hintz left two games early due to injury to drop his average ice time a little (even if you exclude those games he is still low on the roster) and he did miss the final two games of the Final. But even when healthy he was still playing far less than his production seemed to warrant.
Yes, Gurianov went cold down the stretch. And yes, the Stars play a more conservative and defensive-minded game than some other teams. But at some point don’t you have to turn some of these guys loose and try to get an extra goal, because an extra goal or two in the playoffs can be the difference between heartbreak and a banner ceremony.
That’s not to say simply playing either one more would have produced a different result. But they DO need to find a way to create more offense, and they have two pretty good candidates sitting on their roster right now that may not be utilized enough.