Jason Spezza is unlikely to play like a $7.5 million guy for the Dallas Stars this season, but it’s tough to imagine things getting worse than they did last season.
Spezza mixed with Ken Hitchcock about as well as wolves get along with sheep in 2017-18, seeing his ice time plummet from 16:10 minutes per game in 2016-17 to a pitiful 13 minutes per night. To put things mildly, Spezza’s numbers suffered, with just 26 points in 78 games. Excluding the 2012-13 lockout (when he generated five points in as many contests), you’d need to go as far back as Spezza’s rookie season to see such a poor point total, and Spezza managed his 21 points in just 33 games all the way back in 2002-03.
Waning confidence could be seen in a number of areas, including a 5.8 shooting percentage, easily a career-low and just the second time Spezza’s endured a sub-10 shooting percentage over 15 seasons.
Brutal stuff, right?
The good news is that his shooting percentage is almost certain to level out, and the even better news – for Spezza, if not the Stars as a whole – is that Jim Montgomery replaced Hitchcock as head coach. That said, at 35, you wonder how much Spezza really has left in the tank.
If nothing else, Spezza told Mike Heika of the Stars website that he has a “fire in his belly” after that miserable 2017-18 campaign. A mixture of pride and the motivation of a contract year should make it certain that, if Spezza has anything left, he’ll show it this season.
“I’m here to play,” Spezza said. “I’ve produced my whole life and I want to do that again. I don’t want to just hang around for intangibles and being a good locker room guy. I’m here to produce — that’s what I expect of myself.”
Amid struggles that could prompt an existential crisis in a less confident athlete, Spezza continued to succeed in the faceoff circle last season, a sneaky-impressive area of his game. The former Senators center won 55.8-percent of his draws in 2017-18, while his career mark is a strong 53.5.
Such successes weren’t lost on Montgomery, who told Heika that he expects Spezza to take more faceoffs in the defensive zone this season. (Spezza began 43.4-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone last season.)
That’s an interesting idea beyond leveraging Spezza’s ability to win draws.
Most obviously, it could open the door for Radek Faksa to enjoy more favorable opportunities. The stealth Selke candidate began just 33.4-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and one cannot help but wonder if Faksa could enjoy a Sean Couturier-like leap if his workload was relaxed to a substantial degree. The Stars’ top centers (Faksa, Spezza, and Tyler Seguin) were all pretty effective at winning faceoffs last season, which would hopefully inspire Dallas to focus more on landing advantageous matchups, rather than obsessing over who might win or lose a draw.
Of course, Spezza wasn’t talking about faceoff wins when he was discussing production; he wants to put up points and land another NHL gig after this contract year.
The veteran center truly stands as a crucial make-or-break player for the Stars, especially if Dallas continues to load up with a top-heavy first line of Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov.
Through one preseason game, Spezza primarily lined up with Valeri Nichushkin (another Stars forward who could go either way, really) and Mattias Janmark. Via Natural Stat Trick, Janmark stood out as Spezza’s most common linemate last season, so we’ll see if that combination sticks even with coaching changes. You could do worse than Spezza with Janmark and Nichushkin, a trio that would have a lot to prove, even if Spezza’s in a very different phase of his career.
It’s important to remember that Spezza’s not that far removed from being the productive scorer he hopes to be. He generated 50 points in 2016-17, and that total came in 68 games. Before that, Spezza rattled off three consecutive seasons with at least 62 points.
Considering his age and the possibility that Faksa and others might push Spezza for power play reps and other opportunities, it might be too much to ask for Spezza to hit 60+ points in 2018-19. Despite that $7.5M clip, the Stars would probably be quite happy if the veteran landed in the 50 range, especially if he can juggle that with increased defensive duties.
That would make him “good in the room” and on the ice.
Sometimes it’s enjoyable to boil your favorite things down to their most basic components, channeling what made you fall in love with that hobby in the first place.
Such thinking probably explains part of the reason why arcade-style sports games can be so fun. Instead of aiming to be a realistic simulation of 5-on-5 basketball, NBA Jam pitted the two best players (licensing pending) against the two best from other teams, throwing in a fiery net or three for good measure.
Picturing hockey simplified to posters for boxing or pro wrestling main events can be fun, particularly as we enter September, when things can sometimes get bogged down in granular details.
Don’t get me wrong, training camp battles are absolutely worth discussing. PTOs can sometimes work out so well that you wonder why the players involved didn’t instead command a bidding war on the free agent market. These are worthy endeavors, particularly for us NHL obsessives.
Still, seeing John Tavares go to the Toronto Maple Leafs brings back that childlike “Pokemon” urge to watch superpowers form. With that in mind, it’s tough not to be tantalized by the mere mention of Artemi Panarin someday joining the Dallas Stars.
Again, it’s crucial to remember that a trade is by no means imminent. Shapiro noted as much, also bringing the discussion back to the belief that Panarin’s greatest preference might be to sign in New York.
1. This core has already shown it can be very, very exciting.
If you were to give one NHL team the most credit for the league’s hope-instilling push toward a faster, more skilled style, you’d probably point to the Mike Sullivan-era Pittsburgh Penguins.
Love them or hate them, the Penguins opened the door for teams to take something closer to a “Let’s out-score our problems” approach, as Pittsburgh won back-to-back Stanley Cups even as they didn’t necessarily play lockdown defense. Winning that second consecutive title with Kris Letang on the shelf had to send a message to at least some teams that, hey, maybe it’s smarter just to load up on offense and hope you can just overwhelm your more conservative-style opponents.
The success of the Penguins might obscure other contributors to The Cause of Watchable Hockey, and the 2015-16 Dallas Stars were a shooting star across a sometimes-bleak sky during their all-too-short run as the must-watch team of the NHL.
Things went off the rails for Lindy Ruff after that, to the point that management over-corrected by putting their system in reverse by rolling the dice on a second tour for Ken Hitchcock. Their roster and his coaching philosophy mixed as well as oil and water, so there’s already hope that this team will be way more fun under incoming head coach Jim Montgomery.
2. No longer “wait for Benn-Seguin?”
For better or worse from a W-L standpoint, Hitchcock decided to load up the Stars’ high-end talent by frequently putting Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov on the same line.
Watching those three befuddle opponents could be a lot of fun, but with all due respect to quality players like Radek Faksa, it also made watching a Stars game sometimes feel like a chore when the big guns were on the bench.
Adding a dynamic talent like Artemi Panarin wouldn’t just make the Stars better in just about any instance, even if it meant landing him in a trade. It would also make them way, way more fun to watch.
There’s a scenario where the Stars could have one of Benn, Seguin, Panarin, and Radulov on the ice at all times. That’s a grab-your-popcorn scenario.
Seriously, imagine adding this skill to an already-impressive top-end.
3. Making it work would be nerdy fun, too.
One prevailing thought – yes, it’s OK if you’ve been screaming this at your screen during this entire post – is “Yeah, but how will they pull it off?”
That’s a pertinent question whether the Stars would, hypothetically, land Panarin either in a trade or by convincing him to come to Dallas in free agency. Such thoughts undeniably force this into daydream territory, rather than being a reality the Stars should realistically pencil in.
(The Rangers? They might want to put together a Trapper Keeper full of Panarin plans. Just saying.)
Even so, it would be entertaining for us “franchise mode” types to see if GM Jim Nill could pull off this balancing act.
After all, Panarin isn’t the only star forward who needs a new contract – one way/place or another – after the 2018-19 season. The Stars’ star forward Seguin needs one too, and that situation sure seems murky at this moment. Imagine the juggling act that would be required if the Stars found a way to get Panarin and Seguin on the books from 2019-20 and on; the best-case scenario would probably call for the pairing to cost $20M, as much as management would instead love for Jamie Benn’s $9.5M per year to remain the peak price.
Benn – Seguin – Panarin – Klingberg would be right up there with the cream of the crop for teams like Toronto and Tampa Bay, but you might only be able to afford old cartridges of “NBA Jam” after paying all of those guys. That’s a challenge, but it would be one to watch for team-building dweebs such as myself.
To reiterate, Panarin to Stars isn’t reported to be imminent.
For all we know, the Blue Jackets might find a way to pull a rabbit out of a hat and convince Panarin to stay in Columbus, after all. It’s also plausible that, while Dallas is a big market, it might not be where Panarin really wants to play.
Still, the Stars have their advantages. There are the tax breaks that would allow Panarin to retain more of the bread from a new deal, the weather’s warmer than some other locales, so that Tampa Bay tanning tampering wouldn’t win out as much.
The most fun advantage is that Panarin would play with other star players if he somehow ended up with the Stars. Honestly, it would be a crime if that happened and Dallas found a way to be not-so-fun to watch.
Such events will probably only happen in alternate realities and daydreams, but they’re fun scenarios to picture, realistic or not.
What are some other fun Panarin possibilities that come to your mind? And, yes, it’s OK for Blue Jackets fans to blurt out “Just stay.”
Throughout the month of August we examined different aspects of all 31 NHL teams. We looked back at their 2017-18 season, took a dip in their prospect pool, pointed out a player/coach/executive under pressure, highlighted a player coming off a breakthrough season, and asked questions about the future.
Thanks for reading and for the feedback on each post. Below are links to every team day post from the last month to get you ready for the 2018-19 campaign. Training camps open in two weeks!
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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.
In the case of Radek Faksa, you can probably argue this as a bit of a cheat, as there’s a case to be made that his breakthrough happened in 2016-17. His numbers, both in the simplest terms and if you get into the woods with analytics, are quite comparable. In some cases, he took a step back last season.
That’s actually the point the Stars should consider, though: there’s a chance that Faksa could have taken yet another step in 2017-18. If Faksa and the Stars want to go further, they might both benefit from taking a long, hard look at how they’re using the 13th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.
To put things mildly, Faksa was used in a heavy defensive role these past two seasons, but that went to an extreme during Ken Hitchcock’s lone season (version 2.0) with Dallas. Faksa began a whopping 66.6 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, up from an already hearty 59.3 percent the previous year. The 24-year-old also topped all Stars forwards by averaging 1:59 in penalty kill time per game.
It’s no surprise, then, that Faksa received more underground Selke hype than ever.
To summarize what all of these numbers mean: Despite constantly starting shifts in his own zone against tough competition, Faksa is astonishingly good at stopping the other team from producing shots and scoring goals. Opposing teams simply don’t generate offense when they have to go through Faksa’s line to make it happen.
That’s good stuff, and if you tend to fall down rabbit holes in Hockey Twitter (meekly raises hand), you’ve probably heard some praise – maybe couched in “give my guy attention” – for Faksa during the past year or so.
The tantalizing question, however, is: will Jim Montgomery do a better job getting the most out of Faksa?
It’s understandable that Ken Hitchcock would want to lean so heavily on Faksa. As progressive as Hitch is, he’s probably a bit more rooted in players specializing with certain roles, hence Faksa experiencing an even more extreme defensive burden.
Still, for a Stars team that’s desperately needed help outside of an all-world top line, it’s baffling that Faksa wasn’t given more opportunities.
Most directly, it’s head-scratching stuff that Faksa went from averaging 16:10 TOI per game in 2016-17 to just 15:16 in 2017-18. It’s impressive that Faksa has been able to score 30+ points these past seasons, considering context, but especially so as he scored 17 goals last season.
It’s pretty much impossible – for me, anyway – to avoid a best-case scenario comparison, then: what if the Stars make Radek Faksa their answer to Sean Couturier?
Now, it’s true that Couturier still carried a considerable defensive workload in 2017-18, yet the Flyers frequently surrounded him with better teammates and also gave him way, way more ice time. For three seasons, Couturier had averaged about 18-and-a-half minutes per contest; last season, his ice time skyrocketed to 21:36 per game.
The Stars should absolutely experiment with different ways to get Faksa on the ice more often, ideally rewarding him for doing all of that dirty work by giving him better chances to score. While Faksa would probably struggle to land on Dallas’ top power play unit, it’s probably not outrageous to give him more than last season’s paltry average of 14 seconds of PP time per game.
For years, the Stars have failed to convert “winning the off-season” into regular-season and playoff successes.
Part of those failings can be chalked up to roster issues – they’ve rarely provided Benn, Seguin, and John Klingberg with strong supporting cast members – but you can also argue that the cooks on hand haven’t made the best use of the ingredients on hand.
It’s quite plausible that Faksa could be even better than the already-quite-effective defensive player he is. He’s managed to score in tough circumstances. Why not give him a chance to take off in 2018-19?
Summer summary: A last place finish in the Central Division meant a very early start to the off-season for general manager Stan Bowman. There was a desire for some change, but their salary cap situation prevented any big free agent pursuits. Earlier this month, Marian Hossa’s contract was off-loaded to the Arizona Coyotes along with Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle. As part of the package coming to Chicago, Marcus Kruger, who had been dealt from Carolina to Arizona in May, returns to the Windy City after a season to forget with the Hurricanes in 2017-18.
The draft would bring Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist at No. 8 overall and free agency would see Bowman acquire some depth in all three areas of the ice. Veteran forward Chris Kunitz joined on a one-year deal; defenseman Brandon Manning signed on for two seasons; and Corey Crawford will have a new backup in net with the addition of Cam Ward.
More to do? Bowman didn’t move Hossa’s $5.25 million cap hit to stand pat. Bolstering the blue line and adding a winger could certainly be in the plans, if the price is right, of course. Some rumored names that may be of interest include Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner of the Hurricanes and Max Pacioretty of the Canadiens. Given how many deals the Hurricanes and Blackhawks have completed over the years, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see something else happen this summer between the two teams.
Where they stand? The Blackhawks’ summer feels like it deserves an “Incomplete” grade knowing that Bowman probably isn’t finished reshaping his roster. A lot of their success in 2018-19 depends on the health of Corey Crawford, who was a Vezina Trophy candidate before an upper-body injury suffered just before Christmas ended his season. The team has said they’re expecting him to be ready for training camp, but there’s so much of a mystery around his injury that it’s anyone’s guess at this point.
Free agency didn’t see any earth-shaking moves as GM Joe Sakic brought in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole on three-year deals. Both players are familiar with head coach Jared Bednar after having played for him in the AHL.
More to do? Sakic still has $14 million in cap space to play with, per Cap Friendly, but they appear to be done unless something interesting comes on the horizon. The Avs had a great bounce-back year, lead by a MVP performance out of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, one of the league’s most underrated young players.
Where they stand? Ready for their youth to provide support. Outside of Mackinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog, Alex Kerfloot had a solid rookie season, and the expectations are that Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher can build off good years to aid their stars. The health of Varlamov, who’s entering the final year of his deal, is a hanging question, but Grubauer showed last season that he’s capable of taking on the reins of the No. 1 job.
More to do? Nill has to be weary about his cap space going forward seeing as how Tyler Seguin is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and an extension for the 26-year-old won’t come cheap.
Jason Spezza enters the final year of his deal carrying a $7.5 million cap hit and declining production. There was talk of him potentially being a buy out candidate, but it looks like he’s staying with the hope his shooting percentage can go back to normal.
Where they stand? It’s a big season for the Stars. They’ve facedexpectations the last few years and fallen short. Another disappointing season and it could be a change in the GMs chair that happens next spring. A lack of big additions to the roster after losing out in the John Tavares sweepstakes means Nill is betting on improvements from many of his players.
If Fenton can sell high on Staal, who’s coming off a 42-goal year, that will go a long way to alleviating a bit of a cap crunch the Wild are in. They currently have nearly $2 million in cap space left, per Cap Friendly, so any big move(s) would have to see money moving out.
Where they stand? Three straight first round exits and a new boss means head coach Bruce Boudreau is probably feeling some heat for 2018-19. The Wild were middle of the pack offensively and defensively last season, and the health of Parise and Suter are of big concerns on both ends of the ice.
Summer summary: You won’t see much change on the Predators’ roster come October. GM David Poile spent the summer re-stocking their AHL side, retaining Juuse Saros and Ryan Hartman and bringing back old friend Dan Hamhuis.
Other than Mike Fisher retiring again, there are no notable losses on the roster. Given the strength of the Predators, there wasn’t a need for Poile to made a bold move this summer. Heck, he usually saves that kind of thing for middle of the season. He still has plenty of cap room (about $8 million) and could find himself working with defenseman Ryan Ellis on an extension at some point this season.
More to do? Yeah, there’s money to spend, if needed, but after adding Hamhuis this week, the blue line is set and after re-signing Hartman they appear good up front as well. Plus, a full season of Eeli Tolvanen, who played only three games after coming over from Finland in the spring, will be like a new addition.
Where they stand? As Stanley Cup contenders, as they were a year ago. Poile’s never been one to shy away from making a big move where he sees the chance to strengthen an area. There doesn’t seem to be big any holes at the moment, and we’re probably going to be in for another battle between the Predators and Jets for the division crown and Western Conference supremacy.
Carter Hutton, who posted a .936 even strength save percentage in 32 appearances behind Jake Allen last season, left for a three-year deal in Buffalo. Replacing him, Armstrong went out and signed veteran Chad Johnson to a one-year deal.
More to do? With very little cap space, there’s not much to be done unless the right offer comes Armstrong’s way. The Blues were one of the NHL’s lowest scoring teams last season (226 goals for), which is where Bozak, Perron and O’Reilly come in.
Where they stand? The Blues missed out on the playoffs by a point last season. But as he did the previous season with Kevin Shattenkirk, Armstrong saw the signs and traded a star player with an expiring contract (Paul Stastny) and acquired assets for the future. Improvements were made, but it will all boil down to what kind of season Allen has in net. A .918 and .919 even strength save percentage in each of his last two seasons will put the pressure on him to help, not hinder, the team this coming season.
Summer summary: It was a summer about retaining talent, not adding for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. His list of restricted free agents was long and he managed to keep his big names in Winnipeg, while one — Josh Morrissey — is still waiting for a new deal.
More to do? As mentioned, Morrissey’s the final big name left unsigned, but like their division rivals in Nashville, it’ll be a familiar roster on the ice in October — one that didn’t require much change given how strong it is. Cheveldayoff would certainly like to gain some clarity on Trouba’s future at some point this season to determine a path to either keep him in the fold or flip him for something that could either help them for a Cup run this coming spring or for the 2019-20 season.
Where they stand? There’s no reason to believe they won’t again be challenging to represent the West in the Cup Final. The roster is stacked and Hellebuyck took huge strides last season in showing he’s a true No. 1 in the NHL. As long as they remain healthy, it should be another successful season in the ‘Peg.