Esa Lindell

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Benn, Seguin are still Dallas Stars under the most pressure

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.

$26.5 million. That’s the combined salary for Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in 2019-20.

Such big money would mean big pressure for any duo in hockey, but it could be especially tense for Seguin and Benn. After all, Seguin and Benn can’t feel too confident that the Dallas Stars have their backs if they suffer through cold streaks. Quite the opposite seems to be true, actually; Stars CEO Jim Lites memorably threw them under the bus with a profane diatribe last season, and the Seguin – Benn duo is even more expensive with Seguin’s Super Mario extension kicking in.

If one or both of them suffer from bad puck luck, guess what? Such excuses are just a [stream of expletives] to the Stars’ execs, apparently.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-Factor | Three questions]

You can spread the tension out to other top players, but it’s unclear if that will make things a whole lot better.

Joe Pavelski‘s first year comes at a cost of $8M, while Esa Lindell‘s asking price is especially steep for 2019-20 with a $7M salary. While Ben Bishop figures to be a bargain at $5.5M if he plays near his 2018-19 level, the overall picture is that the Stars are still a very top-heavy team.

With bigger paychecks come bigger responsibilities, leaving these top stars – particularly Benn and Seguin – under pressure.

On the bright side, the makeup of this Stars team might just relieve some of that burden.

Pavelski’s had plenty of experience at center, and can also move over to the wing, giving him the potential to line up with one or more of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov. Benn, in particular, could benefit from taking on lesser matchups against middle pairing defensemen, as Benn has slowed a bit with age, as plenty of other power forwards do once they hit age 30.

If Roope Hintz blossoms as some expect, and Corey Perry rebounds as the Stars hope, then even better.

In a sense, Lites’ comments shine a light on another element of the Stars that’s under pressure: management.

GM Jim Nill has “won” or made the Stars one of the winners of plenty of summers, with shrewd trades and bold free agent gambits, yet Dallas has stumbled as much as its made strides. Along the way, they’ve spent plenty of money, and are estimated to scrape close to the salary cap ceiling next season. It’s easy to look at young players like Hintz and Miro Heiskanen and think of a bright future, but there’s a lot of “now” pressure with a team that’s expensive, and that much heavier on pricey veteran talent after adding Pavelski.

Last season, the Stars managed a delicate balancing act thanks to brilliant goaltending, and getting enough scoring from Benn, Seguin, and Radulov. The hope is that an offseason of promising tweaks will make it easier to manage this juggling act.

Even so, it seems like this team will still lean heavily on Benn and Seguin, which could mean even more drama if they buckle under the pressure.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Brind’Amour’s flaw; How much will RFA defensemen make?

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for May 17

• There’s a Bruins fan in Montreal who is enjoying this spring run to the Stanley Cup Final. (Montreal Gazette)

• Now that Esa Lindell has helped set the market, what will the other top restricted free-agent defensemen make this summer? (The Hockey News)

Joel Armia is set to become a restricted free agent. How much is he worth to the Canadiens? (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• The Capitals’ depth on the blue line will be tested because of potential changes over the summer. (Washington Post)

• The New Jersey Devils should target one of the top available free-agent defenders. (All About the Jersey)

• The Flyers have some important decisions to make when it comes to their own free agents. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour has one fatal flaw. (Cardiac Cane)

• Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas isn’t in an ideal spot heading into the 2019 NHL Draft. (Leafs Nation)

• The Florida Panthers need to land Sergei Bobrovsky this summer. (The Rat Trick)

• The Penguins need to find the next Robert Thomas in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. (Pensburgh)

• Coaching Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey helped Ralph Krueger get the Sabres job. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• The four teams that made it to the conference final proved that there’s no specific blue print to making it there. (Bleedin Blue)

• Winning the Calder Cup doesn’t guarantee the NHL’s team will have success. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Lindell earned his new contract with the Stars after a terrific 2018-19 season. (Blackout Dallas)

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.

Stars sign Esa Lindell to six-year, $34.8 million contract

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Esa Lindell has become a cornerstone of the Stars’ blueline over the last couple years, so naturally Dallas wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. The Stars announced that he signed a six-year, $34.8 million deal.

That’s his first big contract after his two-year, $4.4 million deal expired. He would have become a restricted free agent this summer.

The 24-year-old (he’ll turn 25 on May 23) set career-highs with 11 goals and 32 points in 82 games this season. He logged 24:20 minutes per game, including an average of 3:14 shorthanded minutes.

“Esa is a consummate professional who has proven himself dependable in every situation and is just an absolute workhorse,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “When you combine his strength, conditioning, hockey IQ and skill, he has become an integral part of this team. Along with John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, the three make up the foundation of a blueline that will not only be a strength for our club, but one that will be as good as any in the NHL for the foreseeable future.”

Speaking of Heiskanen and Klingberg, the Stars now have the trio signed to pretty reasonable contracts. Lindell’s annual cap hit is $5.8 million through 2024-25 while Klingberg is at $4.25 million through 2021-22 and Heiskanen still has two seasons left on his entry-level deal.

Lindell’s deal isn’t too far off from Shea Theodore‘s seven-year, $36.4 million contract signed in September after he scored six goals and 29 points in 61 games while averaging 20:21 minutes. Nate Schmidt (six-years, $35.7 million) and Jakob Chychrun (six-years, $27.6 million) are two other recent comparable, but they’re not ideal examples because Schmidt was set to become an unrestricted free agent while Chychrun was coming off his entry-level deal.

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

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.