What went wrong: 2020-21 Dallas Stars

What went wrong: 2020-21 Dallas Stars
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PHT’s “What Went Wrong” series aims to analyze why each team missed the playoffs. The “What Went Wrong” series continues with the 2020-21 Dallas Stars.

Heading into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, few expected the Dallas Stars to finish two wins shy of a championship. Yet, there they were, making the Lightning sweat.

Such a run can set expectations too high, especially when you fight through injuries that sometimes require surgery. Add COVID and other variables on top, and as disappointing as the drop-off was, it’s difficult to totally blame the 2020-21 Dallas Stars for missing the playoffs.

Even so, the goal almost certainly was to make another run. So, what went wrong, right, and in between for the Stars in 2020-21? Let’s dig in.

What went wrong before the Stars’ 2020-21 season

During that unexpected run, Tyler Seguin and others piled up serious injuries. Understandably, Seguin went under the knife, and his recovery window extended to cover virtually all of the Stars’ 2020-21 regular season.

(Seguin scored two goals in three games in 2020-21, logging about 51 minutes for the Stars.)

The Stars lacked Ben Bishop for most of that run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, and the big, bruised goalie didn’t play a single game this season.

Considering those injuries alone, Dallas faced serious challenges. But you can rank the Stars among the NHL teams hit hardest by COVID in 2020-21, with players such as Anton Khudobin sharing alarming details about struggling with symptoms.

Long story short, the Stars faced a tough lot heading into 2020-21 — even compared to other teams who struggled after losing in a Stanley Cup Final series.

What went wrong during the Stars’ 2020-21 season

Again, COVID disrupted the Stars’ season in a big way. So did those injuries.

If that wasn’t enough, the Stars (a team that plays in an indoor rink, generally shielded from the elements) experienced bizarre weather disruptions. The culprit? Snow … in Dallas. Yeah, it was that kind of year.

Between COVID and other issues, it was a trying year for Anton Khudobin, who occasionally landed in Rick Bowness’ doghouse.

Eventually, those COVID and weather factors forced the Stars to deal with a compressed schedule. As in: even by the trying standards of this compressed season, Dallas needed to squeeze in a borderline-dangerous stretch of games as they tried to make up ground in the Central Division playoff race.

You probably don’t need a spoiler warning that the Stars couldn’t make it.

What went right

You don’t have to be outrageously generous to give the Stars credit for hanging in there, though.

Just imagine if the Stars were merely average in overtime/shootouts. (They lost 14 games in overtime and/or shootouts.)

Even with all that went wrong, the Stars ranked third in the NHL in expected goals percentage (54.05), ahead of the puck-hogging Panthers and Hurricanes. Of the top 10 teams in that Natural Stat Trick metric, only the Stars and Flames missed the playoffs. You don’t need Charlie Kelly to map out his conspiracy theories; the Stars’ “What if?” questions for the 2020-21 season aren’t all that delusional.

In particular, the Stars were really cooking with an improvised top line of Calder finalists Jason Robertson, amazing-when-healthy Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski. If you want an idea of how good Pavelski was for the Stars in 2020-21, consider that he was my top Selke Trophy choice.

Among other strengths, the Stars boasted a productive power play that converted at a 23.57-percent success rate.

Credit the Predators for being scrappy against the Hurricanes, but the Stars might have been a more dangerous upset threat if they made the playoffs.

You can absolutely talk yourself into the Stars rebounding in a big way next season.

What’s next?

That said, the Stars have some questions to answer, including how to handle the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

There are also some fair questions about aging curves. Pavelski was astoundingly good, but he’s also somehow 36. Plenty of ink has spilled about the decline of 31-year-old Jamie Benn. Alexander Radulov, 34, experienced a tough season. It’s fair to wonder about 34-year-old Ben Bishop and Khudobin, who’s 35. Even Seguin is no longer fresh-faced at 29.  That might be an additional aspect of the Stars’ 2020-21 season being so painful: could their window close?

That said, they have room to maneuver, and reason to hope that Hintz can get healthy, and Robertson could remain a top-line forward.

And, hey, they could use their 2021 first-rounder to either target another youthful presence, or make a move to win now. They’re currently slated to pick 14th after the 2021 NHL Draft Lottery.

Overall, this is a team to watch this offseason — and one who is hard to predict.  Time will tell if next season’s Stars are closer to the 2020-21 version, or the 2019-20 group that turned many heads.

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.