Andrej Sekera

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Stars seek playoff repeat after ouster by Cup champion Blues

DALLAS  — Tyler Seguin and captain Jamie Benn are already talking about what they haven’t been able to do in six seasons together with the Dallas Stars: reach the playoffs in consecutive years.

The franchise hasn’t made back-to-back trips to the postseason since a long stretch of Stanley Cup contention ended in 2008, so it’s a topic of conversation elsewhere in the locker room as well heading into the opener Oct. 3 at home against Boston.

With free agent Joe Pavelski potentially adding some scoring punch, a dynamic young defensive group headlined by John Klingberg and 20-year-old Miro Heiskanen and Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop back in net, the Stars are eager to end the on-again, off-again trend.

”That’s the message,” Seguin said. ”We want to be consistent here. We want to have that identity and culture and environment that is a championship environment. That’s year after year. That’s day after day. That’s shift after shift. Made good steps forward last year. Now let’s keep going.”

The Stars lost in double overtime in Game 7 in the second round at St. Louis last season before the Blues went on to win their first Stanley Cup. Dallas also made it to the second round before losing to the Blues in 2016.

When a trade brought Seguin and Benn together in 2013-14 two seasons after Seguin won the title as a 19-year-old rookie in Boston, the Stars immediately made the playoffs, losing in the first round to Anaheim. But then Dallas the postseason three of the next four years.

”It’s hard to get into the playoffs,” Benn said. ”It’s hard to be good every year. So that’s a focus of ours this year. Stay consistent, battle every day and try to keep getting better.”

WHO’S HERE

The 35-year-old Pavelski signed a three-year deal after spending his first 13 seasons in San Jose. Corey Perry is on a one-year contract after a buyout in Anaheim, where the 34-year-old played his first 14 years.

Pavelski is getting $7 million per season to be another threat alongside the top three scorers in Seguin, Benn and Alexander Radulov. The expectations are lower for Perry, who signed for $1.5 million and might miss the opener after breaking a bone in his foot just before the start of training camp.

Defenseman Andrej Sekera was an overshadowed addition in free agency. But the 33-year-old could be an important veteran for a group mostly led by Klingberg, who once was the young phenom but is now 27 going into his sixth season. The new young phenom is Heiskanen, who had a standout rookie season as a teenager and was good in the playoffs as well.

WHO’S NOT

The Stars went with Pavelski rather than trying to bring back Mats Zuccarello, a trade deadline addition who broke his right arm in his first game with Dallas last season. Jason Spezza signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency after a reduced role in his final two seasons with the Stars.

KEY PLAYERS

Lower productivity was the reason for a profane midseason rant by team CEO Jim Lites against Seguin and Benn, who had his fewest points in a full season (53) since scoring 41 as a rookie in 2009-10. The biggest difference was assists, with the 2015 Art Trophy winner as the league’s top scorer getting just 26 coming off five straight seasons with at least 43 each year.

”I had a lot of motivation this summer,” Benn said. ”Obviously with the additions that we have, the young players that we have here are tremendous. The team we have, it’s kind of in the back of my mind that I need to have a better season personally to help this team.”

Bishop had a career year with an NHL-best .934 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average. Anton Khudobin should get plenty of playing time in the regular season again, but Bishop will be the guy in the playoffs again if he’s healthy and the Stars qualify.

OUTLOOK

Jim Montgomery guided Dallas to the playoffs as a rookie coach making the jump from college, and did it despite a tumultuous midseason stretch triggered by Lites’ profane and public ripping of the club’s two offensive stars.

Now Montgomery is trying to get the Stars past the second round for the first time since they lost to Detroit in the Western Conference finals in 2008. At that point, the Stars had made the playoffs 12 of 14 seasons since moving to Dallas, including a title in 1999.

”I think with the success we had, the little bit of success we had in our playoffs, combined with the roster additions, the expectation is we should make the playoffs,” Montgomery said. ”Well, we’ve got to go out and earn it. That’s the way we’re looking at things.”

PREDICTION

The defending champion Blues are also in the Central Division, but the Stars are well-positioned for a run at the division title and the top seed in the West.

It’s Edmonton Oilers Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

2018-19
35-38-9, 79 points (7th in Pacific Division, 14th in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Mike Smith
Markus Granlund
Tomas Jurco
Josh Archbald
James Neal

OUT:
Andrej Sekera
Ty Rattie
Milan Lucic
Tobias Rieder
Anthony Stolarz
Al Montoya

RE-SIGNED:
Alex Chiasson
Jujhar Khaira

2018-19 Season Summary

The Edmonton Oilers have the best player in the game in Connor McDavid, but that hasn’t guaranteed them any kind of success. Over the last four years, the Oilers have made the postseason just once and that was in 2016-17.

The Oilers opened last season with a loss to the New Jersey Devils in Gothenburg, Sweden. Edmonton got off to a solid start, as they went 8-3-1 in the first 12 games of the season. Unfortunately for them, things fell apart in November. They dropped six of seven games between Nov. 5-18 and they had just three victories over the last 12 games of the month. That string off poor performances led to head coach Todd McLellan being fired on Nov. 20. He was replaced by veteran bench boss Ken Hitchcock.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

December got off to a much better start. They had a 6-1-1 record in the first eight games of the month. The excitement in Edmonton didn’t last very long, as they ended up dropping the last six games before the start of the new year.

As you’d expect, the high-end players on the roster were pulling their weight, but the supporting cast ended up getting called out by Hitchcock.

“I thought those guys that we go to every game played their hearts out,” Hitchcock said after a 4-3 loss to the Jets, per NHL.com. “McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins played their hearts out, and we need more support for those players. The cavalry isn’t coming for those players. We need the bottom end of our team to start playing better if we expect to get to the next level. We’re covering our own weight at the top, but we need better play from the bottom end of our group.”

The struggles carried into the new year and the Oilers ended up letting go of general manager Peter Chiarelli. In the end, the Oilers finished second from the bottom in the conference. Only the Los Angeles Kings finished below them in the standings.

Changes were made in the offseason. Ken Holland left Detroit to take the GM opening and he hired Dave Tippett as his first head coach. Both men have a ton of experience but rebuilding the Oilers into a championship contender won’t be easy.

“The goal is to build the Edmonton Oilers into a playoff team and a legitimate Cup contender,” said Holland via NHL.com. “Certainly there are pieces there, but you have to be deeper. Those teams that go on those long playoff runs, they’re deep and you have to have depth in your organization and on your farm team. You can’t just be relying on five or six guys over 82 games; as great as they are, they’re just not going to make it.”

Some changes were made during the summer. They signed Mike Smith, traded for James Neal and added some depth pieces up front. There’s still plenty of work for Holland to do to get the Oilers to where they want to be. It may take some time for them to get there, but new management and a new head coach gives the fan base a new sense of hope.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Dallas Stars questions: goaltending, aging, and new faces

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

Let’s run through three questions for the Dallas Stars heading into 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in?

During the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, we saw how formidable the Stars could be when Mats Zuccarello helped their second line chip in a bit more offensively, supplementing Jamie BennTyler Seguin, and allowing Ben Bishop to do the rest.

They waved goodbye to Zuccarello during the offseason, but hope to boast an improved offense after making a hefty investment in Joe Pavelski.

Along with Pavelski, the Stars also took some interesting reclamation projects in Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera. If those two deliver above their (newly modest) levels of play, then things could really pick up for a Stars team that looks to be competitive in the Central Division.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-Factor | Under Pressure]

2. Will the Stars get elite goaltending again?

Last season, you might have expected slightly above average work from the tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. Instead, the Stars enjoyed the second-best even-strength save percentage last season, and Bishop managed the difficult task of carrying that outstanding work into the playoffs.

As stingy as Stars head coach Jim Montgomery’s defensive system was in 2018-19, it’s tough to imagine Bishop and Khudobin pulling that off again.

Bishop only played 46 regular season games last season, and was limited to 53 in 2017-18, so we’ve already seen how much the big goalie can be hindered by health. Bishop – Khudobin is a veteran goalie combo, opening the door to a decline related to aging, not just injuries.

Beyond all of that, goalies are just flat-out difficult to predict from year to year. It’s the most important position in the sport, yet also a very tough one to forecast, so relying too much on your netminders is very risky.

3. Can the Stars avoid being hit too hard by the aging curve?

Young talent supplies some of the Stars’ excitement, as John Klingberg (26), Miro Heiskanen (20), and Roope Hintz (22) are all key contributors. At 27, Tyler Seguin is in the meat of his prime, too.

The Stars are still slated to tussle with Father Time in a big way in 2019-20, however.

Jamie Benn is slowing at 30. It’s surprising that Joe Pavelski is 35, and Alexander Radulov is 33, yet maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if they suddenly look their ages. Bishop is 32, and Khudobin is 33. Corey Perry seems like a very old 34, and a reminder of how steep an age-related decline can be.

If enough Stars veterans hit the aging curve in a bad way this season, things could go sideways. Some teams like the Bruins get a little bit lucky when it comes to avoiding these drop-offs, in part because they’re able to shift some of the burden to younger players, and the Stars could pull that off too. Other teams aren’t so lucky, and the Stars haven’t even enjoyed the same peak years as the Kings, Ducks, or Blackhawks.

There are a lot of variables going on with the Stars (and other NHL teams), but the potential results of aging could be huge.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

It’s Dallas Stars Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

2018-19
43-32-7, 93 points (4th in the Central Division, 6th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in seven games to the St. Louis Blues in Round 2

IN
Joe Pavelski
Corey Perry
Andrej Sekera

OUT
Mats Zuccarello
Jason Spezza
Valeri Nichushkin
Tyler Pitlick
Ben Lovejoy
Brett Ritchie

RE-SIGNED 
Esa Lindell
Jason Dickinson
Mattias Janmark
Roman Polak

2018-19 Season Review

By almost any measure, Jim Montgomery’s debut season as Stars head coach was a big success.

In other words, it wasn’t blanking horse-blank.

After missing the playoffs for two straight years despite GM Jim Nill’s frequent tendency to “win” offseasons, and going through a failed experiment with bringing back Ken Hitchcock, it was Montgomery who finally righted the ship.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that his goalies performed at an elite level — although you could call that a symbiotic relationship, as Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin made the saves, while Montgomery’s system made life easier for both veteran goalies.

Either way, Bishop’s work was especially remarkable in 2018-19. Bishop generated a tremendous .934 save percentage during the regular season, then nearly matched it with a .933 mark in the postseason. While the Stars fell short against the Blues in a tight Game 7 that went beyond regulation, Bishop was stellar, making 52 saves to keep Dallas in the running.

Despite CEO Jim Lites’ comments, the Stars’ dynamic duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were mostly dominant this season and into the playoffs, often with Alex Radulov. Yet, it was an injection of depth that took Dallas to another level during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Mats Zuccarello was a dangerous playmaker once he was finally healthy, and Roope Hintz‘s bulldozer style portended good things for the future.

[MORE: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

As much of a bummer as it must be to let Zuccarello go, the Stars seem poised to make up that difference (and more) by snagging Joe Pavelski from the Sharks. If Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera work out as reclamation projects, then even better.

It will be a lot to ask Bishop and Khudobin to match last season’s brilliance, but perhaps a rising defense will prop them up if they stumble? John Klingberg continues to be a dark horse Norris candidate, who will hopefully play more than 64 games in the 2019-20 regular season, while Miro Heiskanen aims to build off of a brilliant rookie season.

Expectations are only going to rise in Dallas, and Lites can only get away with admonishing his top players so many times, so there’s always the risk that things fall. Bishop and/or Khudobin could struggle mightily, and injuries are a frequent headache for Bishop especially. New players might not jell with the Stars, as both Pavelski and Perry are playing on new teams for the first time in their lengthy careers.

Overall, though, there’s a lot to be optimistic about, especially since we’re really not that far removed from Lites ruthlessly (and foolishly) roasting his best players.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck