Jim Nill

Stars give Rick Bowness another chance at Stanley Cup glory

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As Ryan Callahan made his way back into the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room after the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, he caught a glimpse inside the Tampa coaches room. There his eyes were drawn to assistant coach Rick Bowness, and it was clear how much the series loss to Chicago was hurting.

Four years earlier, Bowness was an associate coach with Vancouver when they fell in seven games to the Boston in the Cup Final. The image of a crestfallen NHL lifer missing out on another opportunity at a championship is one that has stayed with Callahan.

“I wanted to win it for him because I knew he’s been in the league for so long and how much he wanted it,” said Callahan, who is now an NHL Network analyst.

Callahan’s experience playing for Bowness is similar to that of many others. The coach is genuine person who cares deeply for his players. He always keeps an open line of communication. Criticisms come from a good place.

“You kind of scratch your head and wonder why he wasn’t a head coach in this league,” Callahan said. “You felt like he had so much to give and he was so passionate about the game and about the players.”

Bowness gets his third shot at winning a Cup beginning Saturday night against his old team, the Lightning. He arrived in Dallas as an assistant coach and was put into the interim role after Jim Montgomery’s surprise dismissal in December.

It’s been a long journey for the 65-year-old Bowness, and no one has more experience with over 2,500 NHL games coached. It’s been a career of ups and downs. But there’s a large fan club of current and former players who are rooting for him to finally hoist the Cup.

The start in Winnipeg

The relationship between Bowness and Stars general manager Jim Nill goes back to the early 1980s. The Winnipeg Jets were vying for a Smythe Division crown and the 29-year-old Bowness was in his first season as an assistant. On the wing, albeit for 20 games in 1984-85, was Nill, then a 26-year-old winger who came over from Boston in a midseason trade.

The two would spend the next few seasons together in the organization before linking up as few years later in Ottawa. Bowness had been hired as the expansion franchise’s first-ever head coach and Nill working as a pro scout.

Bowness would last four seasons as the Senators got off to a rough start, while Nill left for a long run with Red Wings following the 1993-94 season.

Nearly three decades later they would reunite, but under unique circumstances. When Nill fired Montgomery as Stars head coach due to “unprofessional conduct,” he turned to Bowness, who had spent the last two seasons as an assistant. 

From playing for him and seeing how players reacted to his approach, Nill knew that given the Stars’ situation Bowness’ personality would be a fit. The match was there, and the comfort level between the players and their new coach was perfect.

“Hey, listen: He’s the main reason I came to Dallas [from Tampa] in the first place two summers ago,” Bowness said of Nill. “His character, his honesty — you know where you stand. He’s an honest, hardworking man committed to winning.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The young assistant

What’s changed in Bowness 36 years after coaching the Jets? There are a few more grays, sure, but not a whole lot, according to Nill. How he deals with players remains an attribute that’s played a role into his staying power as an NHL coach.

“He’s the same person back then as he is now,” Nill said. “He’s a great person, on and off the ice. It’s all about respect. And with respect sometimes there’s tough conversations. Sometimes you have to have conversations with players and say you’re either not playing good enough or maybe you need more time and need to get send down and play in the minors or you’ve got to get your game better or you’re not going to be in the lineup. Those decisions aren’t easy, but Rick has always been very upfront and truthful about it. That’s what getting him success so far.”

When Bowness took the Ottawa job, the hockey wasn’t great. The expansion Senators won just 39 times in his 235 games in charges. Despite the lack of success, Nill saw the work ethic of a coach who was doing everything he could to improve the franchise’s fortunes.

“That’s not a great situation for a coach,” Nill said. “But he came to work every day, was the same guy every day, tried to make guys better, tried to make the team better, and was about the team first. Sometimes to judge guys in those situations isn’t totally fair.”

If Bowness thought his time in Ottawa was bad, he could not have been prepared for what was to come next.

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Finding his niche

Mike Milbury brought Bowness in as an associate coach with the New York Islanders ahead of the 1996-97 season. He only held that title for 45 games before Milbury resigned and Bowness took over head coaching duties.

A struggling team and a continued lack of success after his four seasons in Ottawa brought plenty of frustration. Bowness was unable to turn the Islanders around in his season and a half, no matter how hard he tried. Milbury then decided to take on the head coach role again 63 games into the 1997-98 season.

“When ‘Bones’ would get behind the bench he’d so fired up, he’s screaming and yelling at everything he could,” said Bryan Berard, who played two seasons for Bowness with the Islanders. “Whether it was the refs, whether it was us, whether it was the opposing team, you could just tell he was pumped to be behind the bench.”

Aside from a 20-game stint as interim head coach in Phoenix, Bowness’ resume since the Islanders job has been filled with assistant or associate coaching gigs. From Berard’s experience, that role is where Bowness excels.

[2020 Stanley Cup Final schedule]

“For me, ‘Bones’ kind of found that niche, and I think he liked being an assistant coach because he likes being in the locker room and around the players,” he said.

Dallas is the latest example of a team in need turning to Bowness in the middle of a season.

“The general managers, when they have to fire a head coach, they know that guys like Rick,” Berard added. “They know they’ll play for him. I think this is pretty obvious with the way [Dallas] rallied around him and each other and are having a lot of success.”

As Berard has watched the Stars this postseason, it’s clear to him why there’s been a turnaround. Bowness took over an older team, one that was created to be a contender now. Gone are the days where he’s yelling at everything in sight all the time. Now, he’s letting his players play and it’s working.

“For ‘Bones’ to stick around it just shows that he loves being in the locker room and he’s a true hockey guy,” Berard said.

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Getting the chance again

The Stars players were familiar with Bowness when he assumed the interim role. He knew them well and they knew his approach. The relationships may have slightly changed given his new responsibilities, but he was still the same old “Bones.”

“He’s a coach you just want to do everything for, lay your body on the line for,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “It’s been a crazy year for all of us, and especially for him. To come in halfway through the year, jump into a head-coaching role, can’t be easy.”

That kind of endorsement reverberates inside a dressing room. The Stars had no choice but to respond when Bowness took over. Given the abrupt change of leadership, they had to rally for one another and rally around the coach.

[How Dallas Stars built their Stanley Cup-contending roster]

One of Bowness’ biggest strengths — honed by his many years as an assistant — is communication. He likes to keep the atmosphere positive and light and his players know he’s available to talk any time. It’s a two-way street of of course, and he’s upfront if criticism is warranted. That kind of honesty and openness stays with players and helps them buy into what he wants to do.

The level of respect for Bowness isn’t just contained to the Stars’ dressing room. While colleagues and former players will sing his praises, opponents want to see him finally reach his Cup dreams.

After the Stars eliminated the Avalanche in the Second Round, Bowness met with Nathan MacKinnon in the handshake line. The Hart Trophy finalist had a simple message for his fellow Martimer.

“Go get it. Go get it,” MacKinnon told Bowness. “We’re all cheering for you back home now, eh?”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Lightning’s Stamkos ruled out for start of Stanley Cup Final

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Captain Steven Stamkos is out, Brayden Point is hurting and Anthony Cirelli is hobbling, too.

The Tampa Bay Lightning enter the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars with several key players dealing with injuries the team somehow was able to withstand during an impressive run to the Eastern Conference championship.

Stamkos, a two-time Richard Trophy winner who’s been chasing a NHL title for 12 seasons, has yet to play this postseason because of a lower-body injury.

He finally got on the ice for Game 6 of the East final, but only to celebrate the Lightning advancing to hockey’s biggest stage for the first time since 2015.

”You need a lot of good players to get to this point. And resiliency,” general manager Julien BriseBois said Friday.

”Once you have a good enough team to get into the playoffs, it’s who’s going to find a way,” BriseBois added. ”At this point you have two teams that have found a way to get to the Final, and one of us is going to find a way to lift the big trophy.”

Stamkos has been skating with teammates, however there’s no definitive timetable for his return.

Game 1 is Saturday night.

”He’s still rehabbing. We haven’t ruled him out,” BriseBois said. ”I don’t expect him in the lineup (Saturday).”

Point was injured during Game 2 of East final against the New York Islanders. He missed Games 3 and 5, while playing at less than 100 percent in Games 4 and 6.

Cirelli, meanwhile, scored the series-clinching goal in overtime Thursday night after earlier appearing to injure his right knee in a second-period collision with Islanders captain Anders Lee.

Cirelli returned in the third period and delivered the winner, as coach Jon Cooper described it, while playing ”basically on one leg.”

”Obviously, I was in a little bit of pain there,” Cirelli said, ”but I was fine and was fortunate enough to finish the game.”

Point shrugged off a question about how he’s feeling.

”I think everyone on both sides has something they’re dealing with,” Point said. ”You don’t get here without getting dinged up a little bit. It’s just about competing.”

BISHOP STILL OUT

Injured Stars goaltender Ben Bishop probably isn’t getting the net back even if he’s healthy given the way Anton Khudobin is playing, and the team still doesn’t have an update on him. Bishop skated Thursday, coach Rick Bowness said, and is still rehabbing.

”Ben’s been a big part of our success since he’s come here and unfortunately he’s injured,” general manager Jim Nill said. ”We’re going to take that day by day. But he’s a big part, he’s been in the dressing room with the guys, he’s cheering them on, he’s working hard in practice and that’s where we’re at right now.”

Also out for Dallas are defenseman Stephen Johns and winger Radek Faksa.

CUP CONNECTIONS

Beyond Bowness facing a team he was an assistant for under Jon Cooper for five years, there are plenty of connections between Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Bishop was the starter for the Lightning in 2015 when they went to the Stanley Cup Final and lost to Chicago and was replaced in net by Andrei Vasilevskiy when he got injured. Tampa Bay’s Barclay Goodrow and Dallas’ Joe Pavelski also played together in San Jose and went to the 2016 final. When Pavelski was a free agent in the summer of 2019, the Lightning and Stars were among his final choices, and now he’s facing the team he didn’t pick in another chance to win it all.

”It was one of those moments where if I was going to be leaving San Jose, I wanted to go to a place I was going to have a good chance to win,” Pavelski said. ”One of the things I liked, for me, was just I like the goalies here, I like the structure defensively. … There’s also some high-end talent on this team, as well.”

NICE TO BE BACK

Pavelski and Corey Perry both spent well more than a decade with their original NHL teams, facing each other constantly as division rivals.

Perry’s NHL debut came with the Anaheim Ducks in 2005-06, a year before they won the Stanley Cup. That championship season for Perry came the same year Pavelski was a rookie with the San Jose Sharks.

Both remained with those West Coast teams until last summer, when both signed with the Dallas Stars in free agency. They sat at a podium together Friday, the day before getting to play in another Stanley Cup Final.

”It’s been awesome,” Pavelski said. ”We competed against each other for a long time.”

The Sharks lost in the Stanley Cup Final four years ago, Pavelski’s first season as their captain. This is also Perry’s first time back to a final.

”There’s lots of battles that we’ve gone through,” Perry said. ”There’s been a lot of hockey played between us, and it’s nice to be sitting here beside him right now doing this.”

One other team Pavelski considered last summer was Tampa Bay – the team the Stars are facing now.

”For me, it was one of those moments where if I was going to be leaving San Jose, I wanted to go to a place that was going to have a good chance to win,” he said. ”I identified a few places. There were a few places that had interest, and then we went from there.”

How Tampa Bay Lightning put together a Stanley Cup contender

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As we await Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final (Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC: livestream), let’s reflect on how the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning put together playoff rosters.

Earlier on Friday, we broke down how the Dallas Stars were built by GM of the Yeafinalist Jim Nill.

Now let’s consider the Tampa Bay Lightning, built by another GM of the Year finalist, Julien BriseBois. (With ample credit also going to Steve Yzerman, of course.)

How the Tampa Bay Lightning built a roster that reached the 2020 Stanley Cup Final

Two huge first-round stars, but a sneaky-high number of misses

The Lightning’s reputation for shrewd drafting is well-earned. When it comes to the first round, though, they didn’t always find the mark.

That said, they did when it mattered the most. Landing Steven Stamkos (first overall in 2008) and Victor Hedman (second in 2009) was instrumental in turning the Lightning around.

Of course, the Lightning got this far with Stamkos on the shelf, so they didn’t only live off of being in the right place, at the right time.

Again, though, the Lightning can feel the Stars’ pain in biffing a few first-rounders.

Slater Koekkoek (10th, 2012), Jonathan Drouin (third, 2013), and Tony DeAngelo (19th, 2014) all ended up on other teams, with only Drouin netting the Lightning a big-time return in potential star defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.

But the Lightning are where they are today because of what they did outside of the first round, and sometimes outside of the draft altogether.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Lightning made huge draft (and undrafted) gains, largely with small players

Old-school types feasted on a perceived lack of toughness when the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning. Yet, you kind of wonder if there’s a defensiveness there. After all, the Lightning feasted on old-school obsessions with size over skill and production.

From Nikita Kucherov (58th in 2011) to Brayden Point (79th in 2014), the Lightning unearthed its top stars by looking below the 6-foot-mark. Ignoring height when it came to Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson allowed the Bolts to unearth undrafted gems.

Not every Lightning draft steal boiled down to different cover songs of finding Martin St. Louis, mind you.

But either way, the Bolts paralleled the Red Wings dynasty era by finding diamonds in the rough.

Potential future Selke winner Anthony Cirelli slipped to 72nd in 2015. If you want a seventh-rounder, consider Ondrej Palat (208th in 2011). From Alex Killorn to Mathieu Joseph to Cedric Paquette, Tampa Bay outfitted its roster with draft picks.

Like Brayden Point dangling around helpless defensemen, sometimes the Lightning made their peers look silly in the process.

[MORE: How the Dallas Stars were built.]

Building around Vasi

If you want to follow some of the most interesting Lightning-related team-building debates, follow the career of Andrei Vasilevskiy.

During a time when teams were timid about picking goalies in the first round, the Lightning snatched Vasilevskiy at 19th overall. Generally speaking, the “smart money” is not on picking a goalie in the first round, but it worked out in a big way for Tampa Bay.

That’s because, if you get it right and that goalie develops reasonably quickly, you can save money. The Lightning really only started paying Vasilevskiy big money ($9.5M cap hit) this season. Before, he was making just $3.5M per year.

Paying a goalie that much also flies in the face of “smart money,” yet Vasilevskiy’s been an ace for the Lightning. At 26, his prime years are ahead of him — although goalies are voodoo, so that $9.5M could still end up looking bad.

Overall, Vasilevskiy looms large as a huge part of the Lightning’s foundation.

Free agency: scraps, and mainly trying to avoid losses

As brilliant as the Lightning are in many team-building areas, they aren’t immune to the salary cap crunch that confounds contenders. (Even if they’ve basically been wizards at convincing stars to take less money. They must love to jet ski.)

But, either way, free agency for the Lightning mainly boils down to finding scraps, and trying not to lose too many important players.

This leaves the Lightning with the amusing distinction of having two Atlanta Thrashers high first-round picks in Zach Bogosian (third in 2008) and Braydon Coburn (eighth in 2003).

Yet, for every marginal depth defenseman (Luke Schenn, who went fifth in 2008), the Lightning sometimes convince quality veterans to accept pocket change to chase a Stanley Cup. Warts and all, Kevin Shattenkirk has been a great value for Tampa Bay. And, now that he’s healthy, Patrick Maroon has been useful during the playoffs.

Again, though: free agency is more an area of desperation than aspiration for GM Julien BriseBois.

Lightning are busy traders

While the Stars are light with trading but heavier on free agency, the Lightning are generally the reverse.

At the very top, this team is built around draft picks such as Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, Point, and Vasilevskiy. Even so, the supporting cast features significant trade additions, often at significant costs.

Consider Ryan McDonagh the result of the more blockbuster-quality trades Tampa Bay sought as it was growing. As mentioned before, Sergachev for Drouin was another tide-turning trade, and we’re still waiting to see the full impact.

After being swept, and with the salary cap closing in, the Lightning have been selling off picks and prospects in pursuit of that Stanley Cup. That’s meant saying goodbye to J.T. Miller in a trade that, for all its pain, was still pretty brilliant considering the Lightning’s desperation. That also meant paying expensive premiums to land quality depth in Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.

Factoring in all the Lightning’s bumps and bruises — not to mention the Stars’ stingy, exacting style — it wouldn’t be surprising if Tampa Bay leans on Coleman and Goodrow quite a bit during the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning shine as one of the league’s most aggressive, and creative traders. They make things fun even when they’re not on the ice.

Final thoughts on how Lightning built their Stanley Cup-contending roster

To criticize the Lightning blueprint, you really have to nitpick about some first-round misses. Otherwise, they’re lapping all but the quickest of their peers.

They’ve found a great mix of skill and sandpaper, and oh yeah, they also employ one of the best coaches in the NHL in Jon Cooper. For all of the hysteria over that Blue Jackets sweep, the Lightning put together deep playoff run after deep playoff run for a reason.

Still, with the salary cap shackles clamping on, this team was also built to win now, and it remains to be seen if this strong foundation turns into a wobbly Jenga tower.

Then again, we thought it would topple multiple times before, yet BriseBois & Co. keep finding answers.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

How Dallas Stars built their Stanley Cup-contending roster

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As we await Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream), let’s reflect on how the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning put together playoff rosters.

Much like how they play, the Stars and Lightning got to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final building in different ways. Maybe that’s a message to teams trying to figure out how to copy their Stanley Cup blueprints?

Let’s start with the Dallas Stars, built by GM of the Year finalist Jim Nill.

How Dallas Stars built their Stanley Cup roster

The house that fifth-round picks built?

As PHT discussed back in 2018, the Stars haven’t always drafted well. Once you move beyond “obvious” high first-rounders (like Stars phenom Miro Heiskanen, selected third overall in 2017), a team can make or break its fortunes based on getting mid-first-rounders right.

Dallas shows that you can still cobble together a competitive team even if you do sometimes barely make contact.

Take a look at their first-rounders since 2010:

  • Jack Campbell, 11th overall in 2010, never delivered much for the Stars. He’s rebounded to become an intriguing platoon option for the Maple Leafs, but it took a long time.
  • Jamie Oleksiak, 14th in 2011: a legit and large NHL player, but not necessarily a grand slam.
  • Radek Faksa, 13th in 2012: Stars love him, so there’s that. Just don’t look at Tomas Hertl, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Vasilevskiy going 17-19th. (That said, feel free to get people mad debating Faksa vs. 16th pick Tom Wilson.)
  • Valeri Nichushkin, 10th in 2013: found a second life as an analytics Selke darling. The Stars are getting more out of 29th pick Jason Dickinson; not great for two first-rounders, though.
  • Julius Honka, 14th in 2014: *cringe emoji*
  • Denis Gurianov, 12th in 2015: sure, he’s not Mathew Barzal (16th), Kyle Connor (17th), or Thomas Chabot (18th), but Gurianov is rounding into a dangerous and fun forward. Now the Stars just need to loosen that leash. The Stars also drafted Roope Hintz in the second round at the 49th pick, so the 2015 draft was quality-over-quantity with just five picks. (And I’m not just saying that because Chris Martenet’s name makes me think of the dude who does Super Mario’s voice.)
  • Riley Tufte, 25th in 2016: uh.
  • Heiskanen, third in 2017: when you’re wondering if he’ll end up a bigger star than Cale Makar (fourth) or Elias Pettersson (fifth), you’re dealing with what the kids call “champagne problems.”
  • Too early to say about Ty Dellandrea or Thomas Harley. They haven’t played in the NHL yet, though.

So … not great.

Fortunately, the Stars nailed some later draft picks over the years. In particular, they found two huge steals in different fifth rounds, nabbing Jamie Benn at 129th in 2007 and John Klingberg at 131st in 2010. Getting Esa Lindell with a third-rounder (74th in 2012) has also been important for making up for some of those first-round follies.

Sorry, Loui: that one big trade

For the most part, the Stars haven’t gone the trade route in putting together this Stanley Cup roster. While the Lightning spent big to improve their depth during the trade deadline, Dallas sat on its hands.

But the Stars changed the trajectory of their franchise when they landed Tyler Seguin in one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history. (At minimum, of the salary cap era.)

Even factoring in his downright baffling playoff puck luck, Seguin’s been one of the Stars’ most important players. During his seven seasons in Dallas, Seguin has generated almost a point per game (514 points in 538 games).

Speaking of Super Mario, Seguin is so good, the Stars put this together when they extended his contract:

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stars scour the free agent market

How Dallas Stars Stanley Cup roster was built Khudobin Bishop
Gotta keep your backup/1B hydrated. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Huge free agent team-building value in net, alone

After biffing it with Antti Niemi, the Stars made incredible free agent investments when it came to goaltending.

To start, they shrugged off skepticism (especially in the analytics community) about Ben Bishop, and they’ve enjoyed incredible value. Although injuries have been a headache — even before the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs — Bishop’s been killer for a smidge under $5M per year. As strong as he was with the Lightning (.921 save percentage in 227 GP), Bishop’s been a brick wall for the Stars (.923 in 143 GP).

When Bishop hasn’t been able to play, the Stars have been able to turn to Anton Khudobin. Again, this playoff run is an amplifier, turning Khudobin’s strong play up to 11.  Khudobin somehow has a .926 save percentage in 71 GP over two Stars seasons, plus this playoff run you might have heard of.

About the only conundrum is that Khudobin is a pending free agent, and may see his value skyrocket beyond the Stars’ comfort zone.

The Stars have been knocking it out of the park when it comes to goalies in free agency lately, overall.

Adding veteran scoring help in free agency

Beyond those goaltending gems, the Stars made some big bets in free agency.

Pushing past fears of the aging curve, Dallas signed Alexander Radulov to a five-year, $31.25M contract that has been a great success. It’s all gravy as he approaches the final season of this deal, which is probably good because Radulov occasionally lands in the doghouse.

Time will tell if the Joe Pavelski investment ($7M cap hit through 2021-22) will pay off. Things went from lousy in the regular season to more promising during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At 36, Pavelski will need to work for it.

Corey Perry, meanwhile, fell in the low-risk, low-reward bin, which makes sense since he cost pocket change.

Coaching

If you count coaches as part of a “roster,” it’s worth at least mentioning that the Stars certainly faced turmoil over the years. First, they cycled through styles and veterans, going from Lindy Ruff to throwback Ken Hitchcock.

Then off-the-ice issues prompted the Stars to move from Jim Montgomery to Rick Bowness this season.

Naturally, it’s tough to tell how much of the Stars’ structure hinges on Montgomery’s system, versus Bowness’ influence. But, the whole “being in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final” thing seems pretty promising. Especially since the Stars beat some true West powers in the Avalanche and Golden Knights.

Final thoughts on how Stars’ Stanley Cup roster was built

It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Stars put together a strong foundation through a mix of some draft and trade deals, plus strong free agent wins.

Maybe most promisingly, there’s room to get better. Cap Friendly estimates the Stars’ cap space at almost $15.5M heading into the off-season. While Hintz, Gurianov, Faksa, and maybe even Khudobin will take up a hearty chunk of that surplus, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Stars ended up with room to get better for 2020-21.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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, Lightning meet in nontraditional Stanley Cup Final

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EDMONTON, Alberta — The leaves are starting to change color around the NHL playoff bubble, and, at most, seven games remain before the Stanley Cup is handed out.

On Saturday night, two of the league’s southernmost teams begin a Stanley Cup Final like none other in the great white north when the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning face off in Game 1. The Texas and Florida heat that would have been around in late May and June has been replaced by a chill in the air with teams from nontraditional markets vying for hockey’s biggest prize in the northernmost city in the NHL.

”We don’t know what the temperature is outside because we’re never outside, so it doesn’t come into play,” Stars general manager Jim Nill said from the confines of the bubble. ”We’re 75, 80 degrees here all the time, so it’s perfect – perfect environment.”

The Stars and Lightning would take any environment for a chance to win the Cup. Dallas players, coaches and staff have been here since July 27, and Tampa Bay joined them Sept. 5 after spending six weeks in Toronto and flying cross-country.

Dallas has been waiting since finishing off the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Western Conference final Monday. Tampa Bay won the East on Thursday night by beating the New York Islanders in Game 6 of that series on Anthony Cirelli‘s overtime winner.

It’s a quick turnaround for the Lightning, who don’t mind that for this opportunity.

”This is unlike any other Stanley Cup final where we’d get days rest,” coach Jon Cooper said. ”If you were going to tell me, ‘Hey Coop, you get to play in the Stanley Cup final, you’re only going to get 45 hours to rest before the game, but you’re going to get to play in it,’ I’m taking that all day.”

The Stars coaching staff pre-scouted each potential opponent, with Rick Bowness and assistant John Stevens diving into the Lightning the past few days.

”We’ll be well-prepared,” Bowness said. ”There’ll be no surprises.”

This year is full of surprises. After the Lightning skated off with the Prince of Wales Trophy for winning the East, Blake Coleman was asked about his journey from being traded in February with his pregnant wife two weeks from giving birth through to the bubble and said, ”It’s been kind of crazy, but whose 2020 hasn’t been crazy?”

The NHL is one round from capping its crazy season and crowning a champion. Some things to watch in the Dallas-Tampa Bay Stanley Cup Final:

RUSSIAN GOALIES

It’s the first time in NHL history that the final features two Russian starting goaltenders. The Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy played in the final as a rookie in 2015, while the Stars’ Anton Khudobin hadn’t started a playoff game until this year.

Nikolai Khabibulin is the only Russian goalie to win the Stanley Cup when he did so with Tampa Bay in 2004.

”I want both guys to win, but it’s impossible,” Khabibulin said. ”I know both guys, so I wish them both well and play the best that they can play and show what they can.”

CONN SMYTHE WATCH

If the Lightning win it all, Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov all have strong cases to earn playoff MVP honors. For the Stars, it could be Khudobin or captain Jamie Benn, and their leading scorer is actually defenseman Miro Heiskanen.

The 21-year-old Finn is playing beyond his years and skating circles around defenders.

”When I was young kid, I was skating outdoors, so that’s where it’s coming from,” Heiskanen said. ”I try to use it as much as I can and try to skate a lot with the puck and without it, so it helps in my offensive game and defensive game.”

HEALTHY OR NOT

One thing that gave this unusual postseason the potential to produce some high-quality hockey is the time off to heal injuries unlike the usual grind after an 82-game regular season. The Stars go into the final almost totally healthy, though the Lightning are dealing with some potentially significant injuries to Point and Cirelli.

Cooper said Cirelli returned to Game 6 of the East final Thursday and played ”basically on one leg.” Point didn’t look right after missing Games 3 and 5 with injury and was using a massaging device on the bench between shifts.

Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois also doesn’t expect forward Steven Stamkos to play in Game 1 but hasn’t ruled him out for the series. Stamkos hasn’t played since February.

Stars winger Radek Faksa is among those considered ”unfit to play” for Dallas. Bowness wouldn’t say if a few extra days off would allow Faksa – who could be seen with his left wrist wrapped – to return to the lineup in the final.

Stars defenseman Stephen Johns hasn’t played since Aug. 11. Usual starting goalie Ben Bishop is skating again, though even if he’s healthy, the net probably belongs to Khudobin given the way the 34-year-old is playing.