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Building off a breakthrough: Radek Faksa

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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 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.

[Looking back at 2017-18]

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.

Back in February, Defending Big D’s Derek Neumeier made a compelling case for Faksa to at least receive more attention:

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?

The Stars could very well break through with him.

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.

Where they stand: Central Division

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As summer rolls on, PHT will examine the four NHL divisions and see how each individual team stands.

Previously: Atlantic Division, Metropolitan Division

Chicago Blackhawks

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.

Colorado Avalanche

Summer summary: The biggest splash by the Avs this summer was acquiring Semyon Varlamov’s likely successor in Philipp Grubauer during a draft weekend trade. Also picked up in the deal was Brooks Orpik, whose legendary time with the team didn’t last long as days later he was waived and bought out.

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.

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Dallas Stars

Summer summary: Two playoff-less seasons meant change in Big D. Ken Hitchcock retired and Jim Montgomery was brought in. Fan favorite Antoine Roussel left for greener pastures in Vancouver, Val Nichushkin returned after two seasons in the KHL, and veterans Blake Comeau, Roman Polak and Anton Khudobin were signed.

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. 

There are some young players expected to take the next step and those like Mattias Janmark and future Selke Trophy winner Radek Faksa expected to continue trending upward to help the likes of Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alex Radulov up front.

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.

Minnesota Wild

Summer summary: It’s been an off-season mostly about retention for new GM Paul Fenton. While the Wild added depth in J.T. Brown, Eric Fehr and Matt Hendricks, they avoided arbitration and re-signed Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba to long-term deals.

More to do? Fenton was reportedly exploring some trades but it’s going to be a very similar roster in October. The new GM is and will be hamstrung by the pricey, long-term contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both 33, and the roster as constructed doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, especially when you consider the competitiveness of the division.

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.

Nashville Predators

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.

St. Louis Blues

Summer summary: Doug Armstrong wasn’t satisfied with how last season ended and spent his summer improving his team. Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson were shipped out in order to bring in Ryan O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres. David Perron was brought back after four seasons away. Tyler Bozak was signed to help down the middle. Hometown boy Patrick Maroon returned home to St. Louis to help on the wing and Joel Edmundson is back to help the blue line.

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.

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Winnipeg Jets

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.

Connor Hellebuyck, Adam Lowry, Marko Dano, Brandon Tanev, Tucker Poolman were among the names re-signed this summer. Jacob Trouba is also returning after an arbitrator awarded him a one-year, $5.5 million contract, but the question becomes how long will he stay?

Helping Cheveldayoff in re-signing some of his stars was the trade of Joel Armia and Steve Mason to the Montreal Canadiens. There’s still $10 million of cap space remaining with Morrissey the last big name to be re-signed. The next year will be an interesting one with Blake Wheeler set to become a UFA next summer, Patrik Laine eligible for an extension as an RFA and whatever the future holds for Trouba.

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.

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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.

Jim Montgomery and his ‘process’ reportedly heading to Dallas Stars

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One year after taking himself out of the running for the Florida Panthers’ head coaching job, Jim Montgomery has found his way to the NHL.

As Chris Dilks of SBN College Hockey reported on Tuesday, the Dallas Stars will be announcing later this week that the 48-year-old Montgomery will be their new head coach, replacing Ken Hitchcock, who retired in April.

Montgomery, who played 122 NHL games, including nine with the Stars, has spent the last five seasons coaching in the college ranks with the Denver Pioneers, leading them to two Frozen Fours and the 2017 national title. He told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman in March that “it would have to be a perfect opportunity” for him to uproot his family and leave his situation in Colorado.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Stars are coming off a second straight season that ended without a playoff berth, but boast a roster with plenty of talent like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov, Radek Faksa and John Klingberg. General manager Jim Nill will certainly be making more changes in the off-season, so Montgomery, who was also in the running for the New York Rangers’ job, can likely expect a refreshed roster when training camp opens in September.

***

“The process gives us a foundation of what our house should look like. If we tidy up those areas of our house, people are going to like what our house looks like on the ice.”

Montgomery likes “simple and boring.” He feels focusing on bigger things can make a team play nervously and not at their best, which is why he’ll likely be bringing “the process” to Dallas with him.

Inspired by Shawn Walsh, his head coach while at the University of Maine, the checklist for success in a game, as Montgomery wrote on The Coaches’ Site in 2016, includes winning 60 percent of face-offs, blocking shots, giving up at most three odd-man rushes, dishing out 50 hits, winning special teams and net front battles, and staying disciplined when it comes to committing penalties.

“If we’re four out of seven in a game, we’re probably going to win that game,” he wrote. “And if we’ve got five or six, the games actually become lopsided in our favour.”

The Stars won 52.5 percent of their face-offs, blocked 1,272 shots, delivered 1,861 hits, scored on 19.3 percent of their man advantages and killed off 80.8 percent of power plays faced last season. Implementing a new system and installing a new culture and approach will take time for any new head coach, but Montgomery’s Denver teams got better as their seasons went on. That kind of improvement is sorely needed in Dallas.

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Dallas Stars at Anaheim Ducks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Friday, as the Anaheim Ducks host the Dallas Stars at 10 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

PROJECTED LINEUPS

STARS
Jamie BennTyler SeguinBrett Ritchie
Remi ElieRadek FaksaAlexander Radulov
Antoine RousselJason SpezzaMattias Janmark
Gemel SmithDevin ShoreTyler Pitlick

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg
Marc MethotGreg Pateryn
Dan HamhuisJulius Honka

Starting goalie: Mike McKenna

[‘Resilient’ Ducks look to extend win streak vs. Stars]

WATCH LIVE – 10 P.M. ET

DUCKS
Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry
Andrew CoglianoRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg
Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase
Jason ChimeraDerek GrantJ.T. Brown

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson
Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour
Marcus PetterssonAndy Welinski

Starting goalie: Ryan Miller

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Dallas Stars at Minnesota Wild

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[CLICK HERE TO WATCH]

Dallas Stars

Jamie Benn / Tyler Seguin / Alexander Radulov

Mattias Janmark / Radek Faksa / Tyler Pitlick

Remi Elie / Devin Shore / Brett Ritchie

Antoine Roussel / Jason Spezza / Gemel Smith

Esa Lindell / John Klingberg

Marc Methot / Stephen Johns

Dan Hamhuis / Greg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Kari Lehtonen

[Stars – Wild preview]

Minnesota Wild

Jason Zucker / Eric Staal / Mikael Granlund

Zach Parise / Mikko Koivu / Nino Niederreiter

Jordan Greenway / Matt Cullen / Charlie Coyle

Daniel Winnik / Joel Eriksson Ek / Marcus Foligno

Ryan Suter / Matt Dumba

Jonas Brodin / Ryan Murphy

Nick Seeler / Nate Prosser

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk