Trying to make sense of the Dallas Stars

Dallas Stars
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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.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Flames becoming contenders; Predators struggling]

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.

They also have a trio of scorers at the top of the lineup in Joe Pavelski, Jason Robertson, and Roope Hintz playing exceptionally well.

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.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

    Kris Letang Penguins
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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

    Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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    TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

    The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

    The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

    The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

    The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.