By this point in the NHL season we usually have a pretty good idea as to which teams are contenders, which teams are going to the playoffs, and which teams are playing for the future and draft lottery odds.
Even with that, there are still a small handful of teams that just randomly sit somewhere in the middle that make us wonder: “Is this team actually any good?”
So let’s say hello to the Dallas Stars, one of the more confounding teams in the league this season. Depending on when you watch them they either look like a playoff team that could cause some damage for lengthy stretches, or a team that looks like a bitter disappointment for others.
They started the season winning just four of their first 12 games. Then they won nine out of their next 10 games. A stretch that was followed by a 5-9-0 stretch where they won just three games in regulation. Then they went on a 9-3-0 run that seemed to be building momentum, until they needed a shootout to win a 1-0 game in Chicago, and then followed that up by losing to one of the league’s worst teams in Arizona. Seasons are always full of peaks and valleys for teams, but the Stars seem to be taking it to the extreme this season.
All of that has them sitting on the playoff bubble as of Tuesday, three points behind the Los Angeles Kings for the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
It still feels like they should be better than this. They narrowly missed the playoffs a year ago in the reformatted Central Division despite the fact they played almost the entire season without their two best offensive players in Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, and never actually having them in the lineup at the same time. Their returns this season, combined with a deep goaltending position and a defense led by John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen, and Ryan Suter made it seem like they should be a lock for the playoffs, and maybe even an under-the-radar contender.
They have not quite been at that level yet, while Klingberg’s short-term and long-term future with the team remains in question and is a very distracting elephant in the room. He is an unrestricted free agent after this season, contract talks seem slow to non-existent, and he has expressed a desire to be moved if he is not going to be re-signed. That sort of trade is never easy to make when you are in a playoff race and it is going to be fascinating to watch and see where that goes.
But there are some other things playing a major role in their playoff push.
Why you should not count them out
Now that their four-headed goalie monster in the preseason has turned into a duo of Jake Oettinger and Braden Holtby they are getting mostly strong play at the position, with Oettinger really coming on strong since the start of February.
Robertson in particular is a huge development because he is rapidly becoming one of the league’s best players. He is an outstanding possession driver and one of the most efficient point producers in the league at even-strength (his 3.0 points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play are 10th best in the league among players with at least 400 minutes).
Hintz is also having a breakout season, while Pavelski has performed as well as the Stars could have possibly hoped when they signed him to a three-year contract in free agency three years ago. They got incredible value out of that deal. Together, Hintz, Robertson, and Pavelski have been one of the league’s best lines this season, dominating across the board in pretty much every major category.
It has kept them in the playoff race, and could make them a tough matchup if they actually make it.
Seguin, Radulov have struggled at times
Prior to last season the Stars offense — and the team, for that matter — was mostly carried by the top-three forwards on the team — Seguin, Radulov, and Jamie Benn. If that trio was not producing the offense, there was not always much coming from anybody else. That is why the return of a healthy Seguin and Radulov this season seemed like such a big deal. Getting two top-line scorers back on a team that had found some strong complementary players (Robertson, Hintz, Pavelski, Denis Gurianov if they would ever play him) should have been significant.
But Seguin and Radulov have not really performed as expected.
Seguin is having a solid year in the goal scoring department (on pace for more than 25 goals over a full season) and has been much better over the past month, but his line has not produced a ton of offense overall for the season. With Seguin on the ice the Stars are scoring just 1.86 goals per 60 minutes on just 2.11 expected goals. Both numbers are among the lowest of his career.
Radulov, meanwhile, has not been able to buy a goal for himself. An appallingly low shooting percentage (3.5 percent) and a plummeting shot rate (just 1.5 per game) has resulted in a season where he has scored just two goals in 43 games, and like Seguin, the Stars have not scored a ton of goals or generated much in the way of chances this season when they have been on the ice.
When they have been together on a line they have been uncharacteristically unproductive.
It has been damaging to the Stars chances at times. Given the success of the Robertson-Pavelski-Hintz a second scoring line around Seguin and Radulov would have been a game-changer this season. That more than anything has contributed to the inconsistency of the team this season.
If you look at the Stars’ “valleys” this season, when they started losing games in bunches, they all came during the stretches where Robertson-Pavelski-Hintz were not carrying the offense. No matter how good your top players are or how productive they are over a season they will not score every game. Somebody else has to pick up the slack.
The good news for the Stars: Some of that is starting to change over the past month. Seguin’s scoring has picked up since mid-January, and the Stars are scoring more goals with Radulov on the ice. It is not a coincidence that since that happened the Stars have won seven out of the past 10 games. If they can build on that over the next two months, the Stars might start to have something.