Pandemic Punts: Are the Dallas Stars legit contenders in 2020-21?

Pandemic Punts: Are the Dallas Stars legit contenders in 2020-21?
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Different NHL teams come into the 2020-21 season with different expectations. Yet, with COVID-19 looming to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans, PHT asks: what if each of the NHL’s 31 teams had to “punt” their 2020-21 season? Some situations are more realistic than others, but hopefully this serves as an interesting exercise. In the latest edition of Pandemic Punts, PHT looks at the 2020-21 Dallas Stars.

For previous editions of Pandemic Puntsclick here.

Can the 2020-21 Stars continue to thrive with a thin margin of error?

Three goals. During the 2019-20 regular season, the Dallas Stars scored three more goals (180) than they allowed (177). One year before that, a 2018-19 Stars game that finished a goal from the 2019 Western Conference Final only enjoyed a +8 goal differential during that regular season.

True, goal differential is far from a tell-all stat. Bounces — both positive and negative — can really turn such figures on their head. And the Stars looked like a stronger team under Rick Bowness, particularly during their impressive run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

You could also point out that the Stars made it that far, even with key players like Tyler Seguin far from 100 percent. There are a lot of reasons to believe that the Stars are here to stay, particularly for 2020-21.

But people who wondered how good the Stars really are weren’t totally outrageous for asking. And it’s fair to ask if a Stars team that defied those questions might become undone by those flaws in 2020-21.

However things turn out, this Stars team isn’t built with much room to punt.

What if an aging team takes some big steps back?

Look, not every piece of this 2020-21 Stars team is creaky and old. Most obviously, Miro Heiskanen stands out as a plausible future Norris Trophy winner at just 21 years old. If Bowness lets them loose, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz picking up some of the slack, either.

So, you can throw a few “What abouts” out there to counter the notion that the 2020-21 Dallas Stars are mostly an old team. But they’re still mostly an older team.

Both Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin are 34. While they’ve put up tremendous numbers — and goalies sometimes age well — it’s uncommon to enjoy elite netminding year after year in the modern NHL.

All of that mileage, even before a deep playoff run, can come at a cost. Both Bishop and Seguin are expected to miss a significant chunk of the 2020-21 season while recovering from offseason surgeries. It wouldn’t be shocking to see others limp into the season, even if they suit up for the Stars.

Healthy or not, Joe Pavelski‘s already (somehow) 36, and Alexander Radulov is 34. Whether he’s truly been beeping horsebleep or not, Jamie Benn‘s already slowing down at 31.

Between injuries and the aging curve, it’s possible the Stars could take a big step back, or even just stagger. That could be significant if they’re once again walking that goal differential tightrope.

Not much to punt

So, what happens if the Stars drop — and drop hard?

Well, for better or worse, the team’s salary structure doesn’t really lend itself to a pandemic punt.

The players other teams would most likely want (Heiskanen, John Klingberg, etc.) are the ones the Stars must plan to keep. Meanwhile, others may not be too eager to take problem contracts off of the Stars’ hands.

Now, there are some veterans who could draw some mild interest during the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline. If things go sour, 33-year-old Andrew Cogliano could be viewed as the sort of “glue guy” who could help a team during the playoffs. Opposing GMs may have similar feelings about Blake Comeau, another veteran on an expiring contract.

And, yeah, maybe someone would view two runs with Radulov as intriguing. While he’s getting up there in age, Radulov’s $6.25M cap hit isn’t enormous. With some salary retention, there could be interest.

… But a selling scenario is far from ideal for the Stars. They’re likely expecting to be buyers instead, yet time will tell if the 2020-21 Stars can build on the growth from the past couple of years.

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.