Anton Khudobin

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.

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.

Stars have cap space to make big moves

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After years of being on a bargain contract, Tyler Seguin‘s finally going to get paid – to the tune of $9.85 million per year – starting next season.

With Jamie Benn already at $9.5M per pop, and the two once being called bleeping horsebleep by a high-ranking executive, you’d think that the Dallas Stars would be headed for a painful cap crunch this offseason.

As it turns out … nope, not really. The Stars actually stare down a Texas-sized opportunity to surround Benn and Seguin with some premier talent, whether they use a surprisingly robust amount of cap space to land free agents or if the Stars target yet another splashy trade. (They went the trade route to brain the Bruins out of Seguin, after all.)

Let’s take a look at the Stars’ larger situation to see how promising it could be, with copious help from Cap Friendly’s listings.

[For another breakdown of a Central team with promise, consider the Avalanche’s situation.]

A ton of bad money clearing away, or soon to clear

Jason Spezza isn’t as washed up as his lowest moments would make you think but … $7.5M was an agonizing cap number to hang on him, nonetheless. When you look at Spezza’s $7.5M basically being forwarded to Seguin’s bank account, it makes that raise more palatable, and also is a first step in understanding how the Stars are in a pretty solid salary situation.

The Stars will also see Marc Methot‘s $4.9M evaporate, along with the $1.5M buyout to Antti Niemi. After 2019-20, they can say goodbye to the mistake that was the Martin Hanzal deal ($4.75M), assuming they don’t do something sooner.

Heading into the offseason, Cap Friendly estimates the Stars allocating a bit less than $60.8M to 15 players. If the cap ceiling reaches $83M, that gives the Stars approximately $22.2M to work with, and some decisions to make.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

To Zucc or not to Zucc?

There’s another salary expiring in the form of Mats Zuccarello‘s post-retention $3.1M, and the Stars face a riddle in deciding what to do with the near-instant cult hero.

On one hand, Zuccarello is rad, and easy to like. His creativity clearly opened things up for his linemates, at least once Zuccarello is healthy. There won’t be a ton of comparable options on the free agent market, and he seems interested in sticking around.

On the other hand, Zuccarello is 31, will turn 32 in September, and has dealt with some lousy injury luck. Allow me to jog your memory about Zuccarello suffering a skull fracture in 2015, an injury that briefly impaired his ability to speak. It’s pretty stunning that Zuccarello ever played professional hockey again after that injury, let alone playing such a high level.

So, again, Zucc is rad … but there are red flags. And then, of course, there are the conditions of that trade from the Rangers. If the Stars re-sign Zuccarello, they’d cough up a first-round pick to the Rangers, instead of a third-rounder.

Maybe the Stars should look at it as a win-win situation: you either bring back Zuccarello, or keep that first-rounder and reduce your risks? One thing seems clear: Stars fans already love him … and can you blame them?

[More on the Zuccarello dilemma.]

Old and new

Like the Avalanche, I’d argue that the Stars have incentive to be aggressive while they still have some bargain contracts. Dallas diverges a bit from Colorado in that the situation screams even more for additions sooner, rather than later.

While Benn and Seguin total close to $20M in cap space, other key Stars rank as bargains.

  • John Klingberg provides Norris-caliber defensive play for just $4.25M, and that cap hit runs through 2021-22.
  • Ben Bishop was otherworldly, and even if slippage is basically unavoidable, the 32-year-old clocks in at less than $5M per season through 2022-23. That may eventually be a problem (big goalies only tend to get hurt more as they age, not less), but he was probably worth $9M in 2018-19 alone.
  • Anton Khudobin was almost as impressive as Bishop, and with $2.5M for one more season, he buys the Stars some time to find a younger future goalie option, and also provides insulation from potential Bishop injuries.
  • Miro Heiskanen jumped almost instantly into heavy-usage as a rookie defenseman, and the Stars get the 19-year-old on his dirt-cheap rookie contract for two more seasons.
  • Roope Hintz looked like a budding star during the playoffs, and the power forward’s entry-level contract runs through 2019-20. That gives the Stars time to try to hash out an extension, and also time to figure out what he’s truly capable of.
  • Alexander Radulov has been fantastic for the Stars, and the 32-year-old’s $6.25M cap hit looks more than fair today. Maybe it will start to get dicey (it expires after 2021-22), but so far, so good.

That’s a fabulous foundation, and the Stars don’t have too many pressing contracts to deal with this summer, aside from finding the right price for RFA Esa Lindell. (Let me pause for embellishment jokes. Go ahead, get them out of your system.)

The Stars have a pretty nice mix of veterans and young guns, but they should make haste, because those veterans could hit the wall. Again, Bishop and Radulov are both 32, while Jamie Benn’s a rugged player who will turn 30 in July.

Age would linger as a question, in particular, if they bring back Zuccarello (31), Ben Lovejoy (35), and/or Roman Polak (33), considering that they already have Blake Comeau (33) and Andrew Cogliano (31) as veteran supporting cast members.

To me, this all points to an “add now” strategy. Maybe Phil Kessel would look good in green. It couldn’t hurt to see if Dallas is a big enough city for Artemi Panarin. And so on.

***

The Stars booted the Predators and gave the Blues all they could handle as constituted during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so there’s an argument for allowing that roster to simply try to build on 2018-19.

Still, when I look at the structure of this team, I don’t necessarily see the system that, at times, leaned far too heavily on scoring just enough while Ben Bishop saved the day. Heiskanen and Klingberg give the Stars two outstanding (and cheap) defensemen who can play a modern game, and there were times when Seguin – Benn – Radulov looked like one of the league’s most dominant trios. As Hintz and others improve, this roster could also take some of the pressure off of Benn and Seguin.

In sports, you don’t always know how wide your window is going to be open, and I’d argue the Stars should go bold, rather than waiting. A Kessel, Panarin, Matt Duchene, P.K. Subban or perhaps a returning Zuccarello could give Dallas the extra push they need, to say, win those big, double-OT Game 7s.

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.

Stars count on another great Game 7 from Ben Bishop

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With goals being very tough to come by during this Round 2 series, it’s only natural that the goalie matchup of Ben Bishop vs. Jordan Binnington looms large over Game 7 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues.

There are some fun narratives to wrap around the situation, too. Bishop, 32, is no stranger to big games, with 48 career playoff games to his name, and a sparkling .927 save percentage to combine quality with that quantity. Jordan Binnington, 25, only has 45 NHL games combined (33 regular season, 12 playoffs) in his career so far, yet he’s been a revelation for the Blues. It’s a shame that Bishop never seemed to provide Binnington tutelage during his growth as a goalie (as far as I know?), as this situation just begs for a “master vs. pupil” storyline.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also the elephant/Bishop-sized goalie in the room: is Bishop even truly healthy enough to play in Game 7 after being shaken up by that scary Colton Parayko shot that preceded a controversial goal in the Blues’ Game 6 win over Bishop’s Stars?

As with just about any prominent injury during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, those of us outside of a team’s inner circle can only speculate about a player’s health. We can only read what we can from Game 7 itself on Tuesday, and skeptically take the Stars’ word for it about Bishop being OK.

So, let’s play along and believe that Bishop is good enough to go for Game 7.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stars think Bishop could be Game 7 difference-maker

With that in mind, Bishop’s experience comes to play in the very specific, very pressure-packed setting of Game 7s. He’s experienced two such contests during his NHL career, winning both and earning a shutout (and even an assist) in each Game 7 back during the Lightning’s charge to a defeat in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

As Matthew DeFranks reports for the Dallas Morning News, Stars coach Jim Montgomery does indeed believe that Bishop’s experience will come in handy.

“Yeah, for sure it is a big advantage when your goaltender has been in these games before,” Montgomery said. “He’s been to the Stanley Cup finals, and he’s had success in these kinds of games. … He’s very even-keel. The way he approaches his games, whether it is a regular season or a Game 7, Bish is always dialed into the right mind-set to give him success.”

Again, the Stars are opening themselves up to criticism if Bishop isn’t truly healthy. In years past (see: Martin Brodeur against the Avalanche; Pekka Rinne versus the Predators), a few early Game 7 goals allowed can be lethal in a tightly matched series. The Stars have a highly qualified backup in Anton Khudobin, so if Bishop gives up a regrettable goal or two — maybe top shelf stuff that he, erm, can’t reach right now? — then people will question the decision not just to go with Khudobin.

Yet, when you look at Bishop’s big-game performances, and his dominant work this season (especially lately), it’s easy to see why the Stars would lean on him.

Bishop’s two Game 7 shutouts

Actually, with that in mind, it might be fun to take a trip down memory lane. Here’s a deeper look at Bishop’s two Game 7 experiences from that Lightning run. It gives some insight on how alert and impressive Bishop was, and is also a reminder of how quickly things can change in the NHL. Admit it: this makes 2015 seem like ages ago, although maybe global politics also make those memories seem ancient, too.

April 29, 2015: Lightning beat Red Wings 2-0 in Game 7 in Round 1.

If you remember this game, you might recall it as Tampa Bay being pretty fortunate to get out of that series … and by a lot of indications, that Game 7 looks that way in retrospect.

There was an ice-in-the-veins moment for Bishop, as he went way out of his net, Hasek-style, to try to thwart a Drew Miller chance. It almost backfired, as Miller flipped the puck over Bishop, but it didn’t result in a goal.

Braydon Coburn‘s goal was the only moment where either goalie allowed one, as the second tally was an empty-netter, which Bishop earned an assist on. Bishop pitched a 31-save shutout against the Red Wings, while the Lightning’s goal came on just 16 shots against Petr Mrazek. Natural Stat Trick lists some interesting numbers that back up the Red Wings carrying the play, sometimes glaringly.

Tampa Bay did keep most of the Red Wings’ chances to the outside, as Detroit only enjoyed a more modest 5-4 advantage in high-danger scoring chances at even-strength. That could be a key element to Game 7 between the Stars and Blues; Jim Montgomery’s system (and defenders like John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen) has done a great job of mostly keeping chances to the perimeter, which can make Bishop feel that much more unbeatable when he’s “on.”

May 29, 2015: Lightning beat Rangers 2-0 in Round 3

The storylines were pretty rich with this one.

Heading into this Game 7, much was made about the “mystique” of playing such a big contest at Madison Square Garden, particularly against a very sharp Henrik Lundqvist. That wasn’t just media-friendly hyperbole, either; the Rangers had been undefeated in Game 7s at MSG at the time, and the Rangers won the Presidents Trophy for the 2014-15 season. As impressive as the Lightning were even then, it’s fair to place them as the underdogs in that one, after being the favorites against the stalwart Red Wings in that Round 1 matchup.

The Lightning did a much better job of controlling play against the Rangers in that Game 7 than they did against the Red Wings two rounds earlier. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Bolts generated a 10-4 high-danger chance advantage at even-strength, and Bishop needed only a fairly modest 22 saves to earn a shutout.

Interestingly, in both Game 7s, the score was tied 0-0 through the first two periods. A more “nervy” goalie might have been rattled by the low margin of error, but Bishop seemingly kept his emotions in check.

***

The Stars are a different team than the Lightning were, and Bishop’s an older goalie, but it’s still interesting to ponder the past. If Bishop’s anywhere near full-strength, then the Blues might just have to cross their fingers for a goal or two in Game 7.

At least if the right kind of history repeats for Bishop and the Stars.

Game 7 of Stars – Blues takes place at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday; You can watch it on NBCSN and stream it here.

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.