Roman Polak

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.

NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

***

Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

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: Preds shouldn’t bring back Simmonds; Who will Rangers buy out?

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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.

• The Dallas Stars signed Mattias Janmark to a one-year contract extension. (NHL.com/Stars)

• The Stars also brought back Roman Polak on a one-year deal. (NHL.com/Stars)

• Preds GM David Poile acquired Wayne Simmonds at the trade deadline, but he shouldn’t re-sign him. (Predlines)

• Trading Jesse Puljujarvi makes no sense for the Edmonton Oilers right now. (Oilers Nation)

• It’s time for the Winnipeg Jets to give Jack Roslovic a shot to be a bigger part of their roster. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• Sinbin.Vegas breaks down how the Golden Knights will likely hand out some ice time next season. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Over the last few years, teams have avoided drafting goaltenders early. (Flames Nation)

• The Vancouver Canucks are reportedly interested in acquiring Wild forward Jason Zucker. (Vancouver Province)

• Despite the controversial call in Game 5, you won’t find a Blues fan that feels sorry for the Bruins. (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman isn’t interested in building a team through free agency. (NHL.com)

• Will the Rangers buy out Marc Staal and Brendan Smith? (Blue Shirt Banter)

• Even though they don’t have much cap space, the Leafs should totally go after Dougie Hamilton. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Is Phil Kessel overrated? Raw Charge says there are new metrics that suggest he might be. (Raw Charge)

Vladimir Tarasenko knew he needed to do more in order for the Blues to win the Stanley Cup. (Sportsnet)

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 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.

Dallas Stars in good place despite season finish

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DALLAS (AP) — Goaltender Ben Bishop talked somberly about the end of the season. Defenseman John Klingberg described his emotions as pretty empty.

After a double-overtime loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, it was hard for the Dallas Stars to reflect on just how far they had come in coach Jim Montgomery’s first season and the positive effect it should have moving on to next season.

”Yeah, I’m sure it can,” top-line center Tyler Seguin said, though the sting was still fresh after a 2-1 loss in St. Louis.

Bishop had a career-high 52 saves Tuesday night before a puck that ricocheted off the post and the back of his mask fell into the crease and was knocked into the net. That was right after captain Jamie Benn‘s wraparound attempt that came oh-so-close to being a series-clinching goal for the Stars.

”I know a lot of people wrote us off when it was the All-Star break, and we grew, and we overcame a lot of adversity. So there’s a lot to like,” Montgomery said. ”I think that next year we’re going to be able to start in a real good place because there’s going to be a lot of familiarity starting next year.”

The Stars will still have Bishop, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy that goes to the NHL’s top goalie, along with Seguin, Benn and Klingberg. There are several young standouts as well, including 19-year-old defenseman Miro Heiskanen and fast-skating 22-year-old forward Roope Hintz.

Heiskanen and Hintz will no longer be NHL rookies next season, and neither will their coach. Montgomery led the University of Denver to an NCAA championship in 2017 and also was part of a title as a college player.

Montgomery was the third coach in three seasons for the Stars, following grizzled and veterans Ken Hitchcock and Lindy Ruff with their differing philosophies.

There were plenty of adjustments and acquaintances to be made with another new coach, and things didn’t always go smoothly at first.

Right after Christmas, long-time team executive Jim Lites profanely ripped high-priced forwards Seguin and Benn about their play. Then in January, Montgomery called out his team over a ”culture of mediocrity.”

All those feelings have certainly changed after a season that unexpectedly stretched into May, when their 95th game was the longest of the season at 3 hours, 49 minutes. They went to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, when they also lost to the Blues in Game 7 of a second-round series.

”I appreciate how much we grew together as a group, and the effort and sacrifice that they put together,” Montgomery said. ”We’re only going to be better because of this playoff run. That’s for sure, we are. The valuable experience that some of our young players got in their first year, and some of the guys that hadn’t been to the playoffs … It’s a good building block for next year.”

SEGUIN STAYING

Seguin, a five-time All-Star at 27, would have been an unrestricted free agent this summer if he hadn’t signed a $78.8 million, eight-year contract extension last September. That deal through 2026-27 starts next season. He was not named to the All-Star Game for the first time since 2014, but Seguin still matched his career high with 47 assists and his 80 points were the most since 84 in his Dallas debut. He had four goals and seven assists in the playoffs.

STAYING SECOND

The Stars acquired forward Mats Zuccarello on Feb. 23 from the New York Rangers for a conditional second-round draft pick in this year’s draft. That would have become a first-round pick had Dallas beaten St. Louis and made it to the Western Conference finals. That deal also included a conditional third-round pick in the 2020 draft. That could still become a first-rounder if Zuccarello, a 31-year-old center who is about to become an unrestricted free agent, re-signs with the Stars. Zuccarello had four goals and seven assists in 13 playoff games.

IMPRESSIVE DEBUTS

Before a goal and an assist in his first NHL playoff game, Heiskanen had four game-winning goals while playing all 82 regular season games. He led NHL rookie defensemen with 12 goals and 23 minutes per game, and also had 21 assists. Hintz had five goals and 16 blocked shots while playing 16 minutes a game in the playoffs. Montgomery called him the best forward in the finale.

”He’s going to be a great player for us for a long time,” Montgomery said.

FREE AGENCY

Veteran forward Jason Spezza and defensemen Ben Lovejoy, Roman Polak, and Marc Methot join Zuccarello as potential unrestricted free agents. Forwards Mattias Janmark, Brett Ritchie and Jason Dickinson, will be restricted free agents, along with defenseman Esa Lindell.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports