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Spezza wants to be more than ‘good locker room guy’ for Stars

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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.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

It’s Dallas Stars day at PHT

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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.

2017-18

42-32-8, 92 pts. (6th in Central Division, 10th in Western Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Blake Comeau
Valeri Nichushkin
Roman Polak
Anton Khudobin

OUT:

Antoine Roussel
Dan Hamuis
Greg Pateryn
Mike McKenna
Curtis McKenzie

RE-SIGNED:

Mattias Janmark
Remi Elie
Devin Shore
Stephen Johns
Gemel Smith

It’s been two years since the Dallas Stars topped the Central Division with their 50-win, 109-point regular season, good for second-best in the NHL in 2015-16.

Since then, it’s been a little bit of free fallin’ in Texas.

Last season was better than the year previous, so there’s a bonus. Of course, it had to be because the Stars were atrocious in 2016-17. The addition of Ben Bishop in the crease last offseason helped, but the Stars had a single line that was able to score with regularity. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov (also added last offseason), one of the best lines in hockey, each accounted for nearly a point-per-game. Of Dallas’ 231 goals last season, the lined combined for 103 of them and 229 of the Stars’ 609 combined points.

It’s a great line, but no one outside that trio had more than 20 goals or over 35 points. In fact, it was a defenseman — John Klingberg — who nestled in behind them as the team’s fourth-leading scorer. It was a hell of a season for Klingberg, take nothing away from that. But the gap between scoring is substantial and a big reason why the Stars couldn’t cobble together more wins. If their first line had an off night, the team lost. It was a simple formula for opposing team’s to key in on.

The Stars will have a new bench boss this coming season after Ken Hitchcock retired. Jim Montgomery and his puck-possession mindset take over the reins and one of his first tasks will be trying to find Jason Spezza‘s game. Spezza had an awful year, so much so he was made a healthy scratch in the wake of its terribleness. Father time hasn’t been kind to the 35-year-old over the past two seasons. He has one year left on a four-year deal that’s paying him $7.5 million per season.

The Stars do get a bit of a boost with the return of Valeri Nichushkin, who makes his return after two years spent back home playing in the KHL. Thus far, the Russian is the Stars’ biggest addition of the summer. Nichushkin seems primed to move into a second-line role and could be a part of Spezza’s revitalization.

Two scoring lines are better than one, so if Nichushkin can shock Spezza back to life, then the Stars might work themselves back into the playoff conversation.

It’s not the same type of hype train as, say, the additions of Bishop and Radulov in years’ past. Perhaps the quiet summer will bode well for Dallas.

The good news is Klingberg seems to be skating into his prime. He made a case for the Norris this year and has seen his game on the incline for a couple years now, becoming a vital part of Dallas’ offense with 67 points last season. There’s no reason to think that will change. Klingberg rebounded from a down year in 2016-17 to put up career highs, and when he played on Dallas’ good team three years ago, he put up solid numbers in just his second year in the NHL. That sky is the limit for Klingberg.

A new system put forth by Montgomery might spell good things for the Stars, who played under Hitchcock’s aging coaching style. A turnaround by the club this season might just help the Stars keep hold of Seguin, who is set for unrestricted free agency after this year.

Prospect Pool

Miro Heiskanen, D, 19, HIFK Helsinki (SM-Liiga) – 2017 first-round pick

The third-overall pick a year ago enjoyed a solid campaign in his native Finland, posting 11 goals and 23 points in 30 games while averaging the most ice-time of any player in the league with 25:06 per game. That all added up to a league all-star team nod and an award for Liiga’s best defenseman. Heiskanen looked the part at the Olympic Games in South Korea as well with one goal in five games and played in the world hockey championships and the world juniors to boot. A trifecta of sorts:

Jim Nill said he’s coming to North America this season. Some say he’s NHL ready. That could be a big boost for the Stars if he is.

Roope Hintz, LW, 21, Texas Stars (AHL) – 2015 second-round pick

The Stars like themselves some Finns. Hintz is another prospect from Finland who could make his NHL debut this season. He had 35 points in 70 regular-season games in his first pro season in the American Hockey League. In the playoffs, where the Stars were Calder Cup runners-up, Hintz had a further 12 points in 22 games.

“Roope has taken some huge strides,” Stars coach Derek Laxdal told NHL.com. “One of his assets is his speed. He is a big body (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) who can skate at a high speed, make plays at high speed. His biggest challenge throughout the year has just been playing with that consistency and playing a little heavier.”

Ty Dellandrea, C, 18, Flint Firebirds (OHL) – 2018 first-round pick

Dellandrea is the newest addition to Dallas’ prospect pool after being taken 13th overall in June’s draft. A center, Dellandrea stood out in Flint of the Ontario Hockey League despite his team’s rough season. He led the team with 27 goals and had 59 points in 67 games and models his game after Jonathan Toews, both on and off the ice. What’s not to like?

“Ty is an extremely talented two-way centerman with explosive speed, hockey intelligence and willingness to do whatever it takes to help his team succeed on the ice,” Stars director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell said. “Over his two seasons with Flint, he has continued to improve every facet of his game and exhibits the character and work ethic that it takes to succeed in the National Hockey League.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Should Seguin re-sign with the Stars?

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Here’s a hypothetical hockey scenario you won’t encounter very often: “What if the Dallas Stars didn’t drop the ball when Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn were dirt-cheap.”

Consider this. From 2013-14 (Seguin’s first season in Dallas) through 2016-17 (the final year of Jamie Benn’s second-most-recent contract), the Stars allocated just $5.25 million in cap space to Benn and a mere $5.75M to Seguin. You could very fairly argue that Benn and Seguin were worth $11M apiece during that span, yet for four seasons, the Stars essentially deployed them at a buy-one, get-one-free rate.

Despite those incredible bargains, the Stars missed the playoffs twice and only won one playoff series during those four seasons. They squandered another bargain Seguin season in 2017-18, too, as they missed the postseason once again.

The Stars now enter 2018-19 with Seguin in a contract year, and GM Jim Nill told Mark Stepneski of the team website that the Stars hope to hammer out an extension, and that there’s “continued dialogue” on that subject.

From here, Nill touched on what should be some good advice for Seguin: he’s probably better off waiting to see if this team will finally put things together. Nill provided that comment when asked if an extension might happen before the season begins.

“I hope so. But I think I have mentioned from Day 1 that I don’t want people to panic if he is not signed when the season starts,” Nill said. “I think the biggest thing is we need to have a good season — get off to a good start. I hope he is signed by then, but I know if he isn’t, we’ll get a good year out of him and go from there. But like I said, I am hopeful we can get it done. We’ll have to see.”

Look, few would credibly question Seguin if he just decided to ink an extension this summer.

The threat of injuries makes an early extension very appealing, and the 26-year-old starring Star should make a bundle of money even if he leaves a healthy chunk on the table, which has to be a concern for a player who’s been sorely underpaid for his entire NHL career.

Seguin is presented with some undeniably relevant peripheral reasons to ink an extension beyond “wanting to swim in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck.” While the Stars have been disappointing during his stay relative to the ceiling many would picture, they have some fantastic supporting cast members, particularly Jamie Benn and John Klingberg. It’s almost certainly not lost on Seguin that Dallas features tax-related perks associated with “non-traditional hockey markets,” and also boasts a more easy-going media atmosphere than one he’d experience in, well, a “traditional hockey market.”

So don’t be surprised if he shrugs his shoulders and votes for the certainty and security that would come from a long-term contract.

It would be far more interesting if he waited things out, though, especially if Seguin values a chance at the Stanley Cup more than anything else. Let’s ponder some of the thoughts that might go through the splendidly talented forward’s head if he was assessing the Stars’ efforts and chances.

This isn’t exactly a “budget” situation – As great as Dallas has been at landing splashy trades and free agent signings, they’ve also made some big blunders. They’ve moved away from more modern-style defensemen (Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers), instead pursuing old-school types (Marc Methot, Roman Polak) who clash with the style that left opponents gasping for air during Dallas’ best moments. The struggles seem to continue regarding finding answers in net; Ben Bishop seems more stable than Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen, yet would the Stars be as excited to sign his risky deal in 2018 as they were merely in 2017?

So, yes, there’ve been some mistakes, but as much as the strikeouts sting, it’s better to swing for the fences than to walk away from possible solutions. It’d be far more dire if Seguin was pondering, say, the Senators’ outlook.

Seguin can confidently state that the Stars tried to leverage bargains like his deal, despite the lack of success. Some of those moves do work out, too, like the signing of Alex Radulov, so that would have to be a pretty big plus.

Testing out the new coach – Hey, it probably helps the Stars’ chances to move on from Ken Hitchcock. As wise as Hitch is, and even if he’s mellowed a bit with old age, he’d probably fall short of “players’ coach” status.

Jim Montgomery could end up being a taskmaster, too, yet there’s a strong chance he will – at minimum – lean toward a faster style, which would almost certainly appeal to a superbly talented player such as Seguin.

Some reasons to be optimistic – The Stars have a few players who might nudge them toward the sort of supporting cast that can finally give them sorely missing depth.

That’s true if Miro Heiskanen can make good on his potential as the third pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Valeri Nichushkin‘s been a big disappointment, yet with the goal posts moved to a different position during his next Stars tour, he’d be a great find if he can merely fit in nicely on a prominent line. Some other young players may flourish under Montgomery, with Julius Honka standing out as a plausible beneficiary.

(There’s also the Erik Karlsson possibility, though those rumblings have died down for not just the Stars, but everyone else. Then again, the notion that the Stars are willing to spend money to make money might come back into focus there.)

Joyless division – I’d venture a guess that, as tuned-in as NHL players are these days, Tyler Seguin probably doesn’t factor the toughness of the Central Division much – or at all – into his future decision. Such a thought would likely be silly when considering a long-term contract, as things change fast in sports.

(Plus, Seguin might not be as plugged-in as others, considering that he at least claimed to have never heard of a “Gordie Howe hat trick.” C’mon, Tyler.)

That said, the ruggedness of the Central Division might hurt his viewpoint of Dallas’ chances as a contender if Seguin decided to really wait things out. The Stars could conceivably make big gains in 2018-19 and still fizzle out in the postseason simply because just about everyone’s likely to struggle against the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets. It’s conceivable that the Stars leap yet still end up with the third seed, fall in the first round despite a good effort, and still seem disappointing.

If that happens and Seguin hasn’t signed an extension, well, who knows? We could see a John Tavares-type situation, even in an arguably superior situation than the one the Islanders offered.

***

Ultimately, this could end up being a pretty simple situation for Seguin. Maybe he has a sweet spot in mind for term and/or AAV, or merely just some no-trade-type provisions. It would be silly to lampoon him for any of that, especially when he’s cashing checks, playing on what should be a competitive team, and not shivering during the winter.

On the other hand, the Stars haven’t enjoyed a ton of success since braining the Bruins in that Seguin trade, and the second pick of the 2010 NHL Draft might just want to explore the free agent market.

What would you do if you were in Seguin’s shoes?

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.

More bad news in Dallas: Janmark (knee surgery) out 5-6 months

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Earlier this week, we passed along word that Stars forward Mattias Janmark was spotted on crutches at the team’s practice facility.

Now we know why.

Janmark suffered a knee injury that requires surgery, GM Jim Nill said on Thursday. The procedure is expected to sideline the Swedish forward for 5-6 months, putting his return in the neighborhood of February-March of next year.

It’s a big blow for the Stars.

After surprising onlookers by making the team out of camp last year — a “great story,” according to GM Jim Nill — Janmark, 23, went on to have a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

Today’s news compounds what’s been a lousy September in Dallas. The club previously lost Tyler Seguin (heel), Cody Eakin (knee) and Ales Hemsky (groin) to injuries, and saw Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin sign in the KHL.

Looking at the schedule, Janmark projects to miss anywhere between 60-70 games this season, assuming the 5-6 month timeline is accurate. That’s a big chunk of man power to replace.

Another — yes, another — blow for Dallas as Janmark spotted on crutches

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This has been a forgettable month for the Stars.

To say the least.

Having already lost Tyler Seguin (heel), Cody Eakin (knee) and Ales Hemsky (groin) to injury — and Valeri Nichushkin to the KHL — Dallas could now be without versatile Swedish forward Mattias Janmark, who was spotted on crutches Thursday at the club’s practice facility.

Janmark missed Wednesday’s game against Colorado, and was held out of today’s training session.

After surprising onlookers by making the Stars out of camp last year — a “great story,” according to GM Jim Nill — Janmark, 23, went on to have a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that Dallas has arguably the NHL’s deepest forward group. Even with Seguin, Eakin, Hemsky, Nichushkin and Janmark out of action, the Stars can still roll the likes of Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp and Jiri Hudler, and still have one of the league’s premier point producers on defense in John Klingberg.

That said, the team really can’t afford any more guys getting hurt.