Anton Khudobin

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg sitting at three points (after Thursday’s goal and assist).

Things should improve to some extent, even if it’s foolish to count on all-world goaltending once again. With six of their first nine games on the road, maybe Dallas is having some trouble bringing its small-margin-of-error style out of Dallas.

While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving, so Dallas needs to shake out of this funk as soon as possible.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

[MORE: What’s wrong with the Stars?]

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

PHT’s 2019-20 predictions: NHL Awards, free agent busts, overhyped teams

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The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here (Wed. at 6:30 pm on NBCSN) and what better way to kick off the new hockey than with some predictions. Today we’ll look at the various awards and some topics such as overhyped team, first coach fired, whether Nikita Kucherov or the Tampa Bay Lightning will record a higher point total, and more.

Pre-season predictions are fun to read to get a sense of what people are thinking as we head into a new season. There was plenty of change around the league on the ice, behind the bench, and in the executive offices. Lots of teams have reason for hope, while the expectations of others aren’t very lofty, but they’re just hoping to take some positive steps.

Who will take home the hardware in June and what teams and players will be notable this season? Here’s what the PHT staff is thinking at the moment.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

Be sure to give us your picks in the comments!

HART: Nathan MacKinnon (Sean, James, Joey, Adam)
ART ROSS: Connor McDavid (Sean, Adam), Nathan MacKinnon (James), Nikita Kucherov (Joey)
ROCKET RICHARD: Alex Ovechkin (Sean, James, Adam), John Tavares (Joey)
VEZINA: John Gibson (Sean), Andrei Vasilevskiy (James, Joey), Ben Bishop (Adam)
NORRIS: Seth Jones (Sean), Erik Karlsson (James), Victor Hedman (Joey, Adam)
CALDER: Kaapo Kakko (Sean, James, Adam), Jack Hughes (Joey)
SELKE: Aleksander Barkov (Sean), Mark Stone (James), Ryan O’Reilly (Joey), Brayden Point (Adam)

OVERHYPED TEAM

SEAN: An NHL-worst power play was (hopefully) improved by the Matt Duchene addition, but while the Predators will once again be their solid selves, did David Poile do enough to overcome the trending upward Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche in a very tough Central Division? The bottom six could help out a bit more, and they need to find the old Kyle Turris at some point.

JAMES: The Coyotes are spending like a team with legitimate aspirations, but I just don’t see enough dynamic talent to break through.

JOEY: Boston Bruins. Everyone has them locked into the top three spots in the Atlantic, but they’re coming into the year a little banged up. They’re also coming off a long playoff run.

ADAM: Going to go with Nashville. They are still really good, but I don’t think Matt Duchene solves all that much for them and even though their defense is still really good I think they are going to miss P.K. Subban.

UNDERRATED TEAM

SEAN: Staying in the Central, the Avs are rightly garnering a lot of hype, but let’s not sleep on the Stars. Once they figured out Jim Montgomery’s system in the second half, they surged. Add in Joe Pavelski and a lottery ticket in Corey Perry, along with the up-and-coming Roope Hintz, future Norris winner Miro Heiskanen, and old standards Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov and Jamie Benn, and you’ve got a real dangerous team this season. If Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin can repeat their success from last season in goal, watch out for the Stars.

JAMES: The Penguins keep shrinking their margin of error with some head-scratching moves. Even so, they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and a few other valuable players, so reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.

JOEY: Carolina went to the conference final, but I’m not sure they’re getting the respect they deserve. I think they can finish second in the division.

ADAM: Columbus is going to be better than people think. They still have a lot of really good players coming back, and I think Pierre-Luc Dubois has a massive breakout year this season.

UNDERRATED PLAYER

SEAN: Four seasons with double-digit goals, at least 40 points in each of his five NHL seasons, and consistently in the positive when it comes to possession, Klingberg needs to get more due around the league. With Heiskanen and Esa Lindell on the blue line, the Stars’ top defenseman are among the best in the league.

JAMES: Alex Pietrangelo gets mentioned as an underrated player quite often, yet I think Colton Parayko might be even more overlooked. Parayko is a beast AND an absolute unit, to use fancy scientific jargon.

JOEY: Jonathan Huberdeau put together one of the quietest 90-plus point seasons I can remember. I think he’ll have another big year in Florida.

ADAM: John Klingberg shouldn’t be underrated, but I feel like he is. The development of Miro Heiskanen kind of stole a lot of the spotlight in Dallas last year but Klingberg is still the player that runs that defense, and he is outstanding.

FIRST COACH FIRED

SEAN: Boudreau seems inevitable, right? It’s looking like another long year in the State of Hockey and with a new GM in town, he might want to install his own hire, even with Bruce’s history of success in the league.

JAMES: Bruce Boudreau. Bill Guerin didn’t hire him, and the Wild insist on contending with a so-so roster, setting the stage for Bruce’s face to turn the color of a pink slip.

JOEY: Jeff Blashill. The Red Wings aren’t expected to make the playoffs, but I think they get off to an ugly start.

ADAM: I think it Paul Maurice’s time is going to run out in Winnipeg. That team faded last year and looks like it is setting up for a really tough season given the RFA drama and the state of their defense. He has been there long enough that a slow start could be it for him.

FREE AGENT BUST

SEAN: Stralman’s offense has steadily declined since 2014-15, his first year in Tampa, and now at 33 he’s on the back nine of his career. That makes it all the more odd that Dale Tallon decided to give him a three-year deal in the summer, especially coming back from a lower-body injury that caused him to miss most of last season.

JAMES: Tyler Myers is closer to a third-pairing defenseman than a $6M one.

JOEY: Tyler Myers in Vancouver. When it’s all said and done, that’s going to be a pretty nasty contract. He’s a good depth defenseman, but not someone you commit big dollars to.

ADAM: Have to go with Tyler Myers. Just do not see the plan in Vancouver and the amount of money they spent on him.

MORE:
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews
Which 2019 NHL playoff teams are in danger of missing this season?
• 2019 NHL free agency tracker
NHL on NBC television schedule

Stars seek playoff repeat after ouster by Cup champion Blues

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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.

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.

Will the Stars open things up next season?

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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.

The Stars had plenty of reasons to play a … “low-event” style of hockey last season.

While Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn absorbed ridiculous (and profane) criticism from management, the bottom line was that they were generating most of the team’s offense, most of the time. Relying on Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin to keep the Stars in games made a lot of sense, especially when John Klingberg was injured, and Miro Heiskanen was thrown right into the deep end with big minutes and responsibilities.

You could picture Stars coach Jim Montgomery with a devil on one shoulder, and an angel on the other: do we keep going with what “worked” in 2018-19, or should the Stars try to score more goals in this next go-around?

Ultimately, the Stars’ style of play is an intriguing x-factor for 2019-20.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

After all, the team made big investments in improving their scoring depth for 2019-20, as the Stars made a big splash with Joe Pavelski, and an interesting low-risk gamble with Corey Perry. With Roope Hintz showing potential for a breakout, it’s plausible that the Stars could go from a team that scored the third-fewest goals in the NHL (209) to a team that’s far more dynamic.

There are pros and cons to opening things up a bit more.

For one thing, it’s tough to imagine Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin replicating their fantastic work from last season.

Their team save percentage was a resounding .923 in 2018-19, versus a league average of .905, and the Stars enjoyed similar advantages at even-strength. Bishop was particularly brilliant with a .934 save percentage in the regular season and .933 in the playoffs, both marks that few goalies can pull off regularly, and 32-year-old Bishop often faces challenges even staying on the ice after years of wear and tear.

It’s not outrageous for head coach Jim Montgomery to take a “if it ain’t broke” mentality, though.

While the Stars weren’t the most exciting team to watch, they were often pretty effective once you consider certain analytics. Yes, they actually allowed more shots on goal per game (31.6) than they generated (30.7), yet the Stars look better when you drill down to other stats, as they were able to get a better share of high-danger chances than they allowed.

A boost from Pavelski and/or Perry doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the Stars should get into old-west shootouts with teams that have high-end arsenals. You could argue that Dallas may still be closer to mid-range when it comes to firepower, especially if Perry’s as done as he seemed during his darkest Ducks days.

But it’s tough to ignore that the Stars walked a difficult tightrope overall last season, only scoring nine more goals (209) than they allowed (200).

Maybe more than anything else, it’s crucial for Montgomery to avoid going on autopilot.

Injuries, and streaks both hot and cold, can change how you approach given nights during an 82-game season. There might be times when it makes sense for the Stars to be bolder, and also dog days of 2019-20 when they’re better off nursing leads and reducing the burden on veteran players. Montgomery also may want to experiment here and there, particularly if he believes that the top line could transform into two strong scoring lines now that Dallas has Pavelski in the mix.

With Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen providing the Stars with some modern weapons on defense, this team could conceivably succeed if they decide to pursue a frantic pace.

It should be intriguing to see how Montgomery approaches the way this team plays — and hopefully, it will also be fun to watch.

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.