Alexander Radulov

Dallas Stars questions: goaltending, aging, and new faces

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

Let’s run through three questions for the Dallas Stars heading into 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in?

During the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, we saw how formidable the Stars could be when Mats Zuccarello helped their second line chip in a bit more offensively, supplementing Jamie BennTyler Seguin, and allowing Ben Bishop to do the rest.

They waved goodbye to Zuccarello during the offseason, but hope to boast an improved offense after making a hefty investment in Joe Pavelski.

Along with Pavelski, the Stars also took some interesting reclamation projects in Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera. If those two deliver above their (newly modest) levels of play, then things could really pick up for a Stars team that looks to be competitive in the Central Division.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-Factor | Under Pressure]

2. Will the Stars get elite goaltending again?

Last season, you might have expected slightly above average work from the tandem of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. Instead, the Stars enjoyed the second-best even-strength save percentage last season, and Bishop managed the difficult task of carrying that outstanding work into the playoffs.

As stingy as Stars head coach Jim Montgomery’s defensive system was in 2018-19, it’s tough to imagine Bishop and Khudobin pulling that off again.

Bishop only played 46 regular season games last season, and was limited to 53 in 2017-18, so we’ve already seen how much the big goalie can be hindered by health. Bishop – Khudobin is a veteran goalie combo, opening the door to a decline related to aging, not just injuries.

Beyond all of that, goalies are just flat-out difficult to predict from year to year. It’s the most important position in the sport, yet also a very tough one to forecast, so relying too much on your netminders is very risky.

3. Can the Stars avoid being hit too hard by the aging curve?

Young talent supplies some of the Stars’ excitement, as John Klingberg (26), Miro Heiskanen (20), and Roope Hintz (22) are all key contributors. At 27, Tyler Seguin is in the meat of his prime, too.

The Stars are still slated to tussle with Father Time in a big way in 2019-20, however.

Jamie Benn is slowing at 30. It’s surprising that Joe Pavelski is 35, and Alexander Radulov is 33, yet maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if they suddenly look their ages. Bishop is 32, and Khudobin is 33. Corey Perry seems like a very old 34, and a reminder of how steep an age-related decline can be.

If enough Stars veterans hit the aging curve in a bad way this season, things could go sideways. Some teams like the Bruins get a little bit lucky when it comes to avoiding these drop-offs, in part because they’re able to shift some of the burden to younger players, and the Stars could pull that off too. Other teams aren’t so lucky, and the Stars haven’t even enjoyed the same peak years as the Kings, Ducks, or Blackhawks.

There are a lot of variables going on with the Stars (and other NHL teams), but the potential results of aging could be huge.

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.

What Devils can expect from Gusev

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There is a very strong argument to be made that Nikita Gusev has been the best hockey player in the world that was not already playing in the NHL.

Now that he is officially a member of the New Jersey Devils we will finally get a chance to see what he is capable of in North America.

Anytime a player makes the jump from a European league to the NHL there is always some uncertainty as to what they will be able to do, and that always carries some risk when teams are investing millions of dollars in them. Sometimes the gamble works, and sometimes it does not.

If you are a Devils fan and looking for reasons for optimism that Gusev will be one of the success stories, it is that the players that are most similar to him in terms of age and production in the KHL have mostly succeeded in the NHL.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The table below is a quick breakdown of some similar players.

It looks at what each forward did in their two previous seasons in the KHL (sorted by points per game) and what they then produced after signing in the NHL. As you can see, the players most similar to Gusev have, for the most part, been extremely productive.

Radulov and Kovalchuk are, admittedly, not completely perfect comparisons here because they both had NHL experience before they went to the KHL (Kovalchuk was an NHL superstar) and there was at least some sense as to what they were capable of.

But Gusev’s production is right in line (or better) than what Artemi Panarin, Evgenii Dadonov, Radulov, and Kovalchuk did before making their jumps back to the NHL. All of them are currently top-line forwards.

Kovalchuk’s return to Los Angeles this season is viewed as a disappointment, but he is also significantly older than the others in that group and still managed to score at a 20-goal pace on a miserable Kings team that lacked any offensive creativity around him. The only comparable player that did not have any success in the NHL was Vadim Shipachyov, and the circumstances around his failure in Vegas are still a mystery as that relationship seemed destined for a divorce before it even had a chance to begin. We still don’t know what he could have been capable of with a real shot.

The only other players that really flopped in making the jump (Sergei Plotnikov, Valeri Nichushkin) were not even close to the same level of production in the KHL.

There are still no guarantees, but given his age and what he did recently in Russia there is at least reason to believe he can be closer to a Panarin, Dadonov, or Radulov than a Plotnikov or Nichushkin.

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils acquire Gusev from Golden Knights, sign him for two years
One big question remains for Devils after busy summer

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Pavelski, Perry missing pieces for Stars?

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In a lot of ways it’s pretty remarkable that the Dallas Stars were a double overtime, Game 7 loss (to the eventual Stanley Cup champions) from reaching the Western Conference Final.

In early December the organization looked to be a dysfunctional mess after the team’s CEO publicly put his best players on blast for not doing enough (even though they were carrying the team), while the roster around them was lacking in several key areas.

Even as the team turned it around in the second half and went on its run through the playoffs there was a pretty significant weakness throughout the roster.

Depth.

The 2018-19 Stars were the very definition of a “top-heavy” team that relied almost entirely on the top trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov, two elite defenders (John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen), and an outstanding goalie (Ben Bishop).

There were a few developments along the way that helped (the late season emergence of Roope Hintz, as well as the acquisition of Mats Zuccarello once he was healthy come playoff time), but the lack of forward depth was still a pretty significant Achilles Heel that was always going to hold them back when it mattered most.

General manager Jim Nill tried to address that on Monday with the free agent additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, adding to his extensive list of offseason victories that goes back to his first year on the job in Dallas.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Both players come with their set of risks.

In Perry’s case, he is 34 years old, played just 34 games in 2018-19, and has watched his production take a cliff dive over the past three years. In 2015-16 he was still an elite goal-scorer and topped the 30-goal mark (he scored 34) for the fifth time in six years. In three seasons since then he has scored just 42 goals. It is clear he is no longer a top-line player and given the Ducks’ willingness to buy him out, and the fact he had to settle for a one-year deal with a significant paycut shows just how far his value has dropped across the league.

The hopeful angle here is that it is a low-risk deal and that perhaps Perry can be capable of a bounceback season as the Stars catch lightning in a bottle.

It’s a long shot, but there is virtually no risk with it.

Pavelski is the player that provides the most reason for optimism because he is coming off of a monster season with 38 goals in 75 games. On a per-game level it was the most productive goal-scoring season of his career, and for the Stars to get him on a $7 million salary cap hit seems like a pretty strong deal.

The risk here is that Pavelski is entering his age 35 season and is coming off a season where he shot at a career-high 20.2 percent. That is important to keep in mind because he is highly unlikely to come close to that number in 2019-20, which means you should be expecting a pretty sharp decline in his goal production.

If he had shot at his normal career level in 2018-19 on the same number of shots he would have been a 23-goal scorer, which is the level he scored at in the two seasons prior.

The other factor here is that it is almost unheard of for a player that age to shoot at such a level. Pavelski was just the fourth different player in NHL history (at least as far back as we can track shooting percentage numbers) that scored on at least 20 percent of his shots (minimum 150 shots) in their age 34 season or older. Hall of Famer John Buyck did it three times (age 35, 37, and 40), Jim Pappin did it twice (age 34 and 35), and hockey legend Mario Lemieux did it once (age 35).

So there is not a lot of precedent for that sort of performance this late in a player’s career.

But the Stars don’t really need Pavelski to play at that level for him to make an impact.

They don’t need him to be a 40-goal scorer, they don’t need him to be a top-line scorer, they don’t need him to be the player to carry the offense.

They need him to be a secondary option that teams have to at least account for and worry about so they can not load up on trying to stop the Seguin, Benn, Radulov trio. Even if his shooting percentage regresses and he falls back to a 23-25 goal output that is still going to be a substantial upgrade for the Stars.

Just to get a sense of how thin the Stars’ forward depth was in 2018-19, they only had four forwards top the 30-point mark all season, and one of those players (Radek Faksa) had exactly 30 points. That was by far the lowest total of any Stanley Cup playoff team (the next lowest team had six such players).

They were also so bad that when none of Seguin, Benn, or Radulov were on the ice during even-strength play the Stars were outscored by an 84-65 margin, controlled just 48 percent of the shot attempts, and were outchanced. In other words, they were a bad team when the three best players were sitting on the bench. Every team will see a drop in that situation, but this was an extreme drop. It was not until Zuccarello showed up via trade (and was then healthy) that they finally had at least the threat of a second-line option.

The Stars have the most difficult pieces to find when it comes to constructing a championship roster: Impact players at the top of the lineup, and as long as Seguin, Benn, Radulov, Klingberg, Heiskanen, and Bishop play even close to the level they were at this past season the foundation will continue to be in place.

They just needed the secondary options to complement them.

Perry is going to be a lottery ticket that may or may not work out. But Pavelski, even if he regresses and declines should at least give them one or two more years of high level play and be just what they need.

Related: Ten things we learned from crazy first day of NHL free agency

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Stars splitting up top trio to jumpstart offense vs. Blues

Jim Montgomery admitted on Tuesday that breaking up his top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov is something he contemplates every game.

It appears as if the Dallas Stars head coach is going to go through with that thought for Game 4 (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) against the St. Louis Blues. During Wednesday’s morning skate, Seguin was centering Jason Dickinson and Mats Zuccarello, while Benn and Radulov were together with Roope Hintz in the middle.

With the Stars facing the prospect of a 3-1 deficit should they lose Game 4, Montgomery is trying to inject some life into an offense that has mustered five even strength goals through three games. Only one of those 5-on-5 goals have come from a member of that No. 1 line (Seguin). Benn and Radulov each have a power play goal in the series.

“Both lines haven’t been possessing the puck enough,” Montgomery said after Wednesday. “Let’s change up the lineup and see if we can generate more offense and more possession time.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Stars’ top trio have combined for 18 shots at even strength in the series, but they haven’t all been good chances, according to Montgomery, and it’s definitely not been enough in his eyes. According to Natural Stat Trick, in a little over 33 minutes of 5-on-5 play together, they’ve done well possession-wise (53.52% Corsi) but have yet to combine for a goal. Montgomery is hoping the split will lead to improved results across his lines.

Dallas has been down this road before having fallen behind 2-1 to the Nashville Predators in Round 1 before reeling off three consecutive wins to advance. The games don’t get any easier at this points, and Montgomery is hoping the situation his players find themselves in leads to a better showing and result.

“We need to be more desperate,” Montgomery said. “That’s the one area where, it’s two games and both games that we’ve lost, we’ve played good hockey but haven’t played desperate hockey. I thought the Blues were significantly more desperate than us [Monday].”

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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.

Return home could be what Stars’ top line needs

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The Dallas Stars did what they needed to do in St. Louis by splitting the first two games of their Round 2 series.

That is always the goal when a team opens on the road because it swings home-ice advantage back in their favor.

What was perhaps most impressive about the Stars’ ability to take one of those two games is that they did it with almost no production from their top line that is centered by Tyler Seguin. That is the type of development that would have completely sunk their chances just a couple of months ago.

The trio of Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov combined for zero even-strength points in the two games (Benn did score on the power play late in Game 1) while it was the second line, driven by the surprising performance of Roope Hintz and the always underappreciated brilliance of Mats Zuccarello, that did the damage to even the series in Game 2.

The Seguin-Benn-Radulov line going two games without a goal isn’t really a huge deal on its own, especially after they were so dominant in Round 1 against the Nashville Predators. Your best players aren’t going to score every night, and in Dallas’ case they have carried more than their fair share of the weight throughout most of the 2018-19 season. Because of that nobody should be too concerned about how this series has started for them. But if the Stars are going to win the series and pull off another upset that trio is probably going to have to get going again. A return home might be just what they need to get going because of the matchup opportunities home ice creates.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Specifically, it might get them a little more time away from Ryan O'Reilly, the Blues’ top shutdown center.

O’Reilly was a huge addition for the Blues over the summer because he is one of the league’s better two-way centers.

He is not only a top-line scorer (he finished the season as the Blues’ leading scorer) but has a track record of being able to go against other team’s top players and not only limit their damage, but also play them tough without taking penalties. Put it all together and that is an enormously valuable asset that has been a franchise-changer for the Blues in the short-term.

In their head-to-head matchups season he has been a thorn in the side of the Stars’ top line, especially Seguin at the center spot.

Here is a quick look at Seguin’s head-to-head numbers against O’Reilly this season (regular season and playoffs included, via Natural Stat Trick).

Basically, when he has been on the ice against O’Reilly, whether it has been in St. Louis or Dallas, the Stars have spent more time defending in their own zone and giving up chances than they have attacking and creating chances.

That is not what the Stars want from that group.

Getting home ice and the last change could give Stars coach Jim Montgomery more of an opportunity to get Seguin’s line away from O’Reilly, which is something he did in their last home game against the Blues, when Seguin played only three minutes of 5-on-5 time against him.

The matchup game can be an important one in a best-of-seven series, and especially in any one individual game, but it can also tricky one because you don’t want to get so caught up in that you hold your top players back and keep them off the ice because you are afraid of a matchup.

Both players are probably going to play 19-22 minutes each game and it is a given that their paths, at some point, are going to cross. Especially during the flow of the game when teams are changing on the fly. The only time you can really dictate it is during faceoffs. But so far this season it has been pretty clear that O’Reilly has done his part to limit what Seguin and the Stars’ top line can do. If the Stars can avoid that matchup for even a few minutes each game in this series when they have home ice it might help create an extra goal or two that could swing the series in their favor.

MORE:
The Wraparound: Blues feel confident on the road
PHT Power Rankings: The most surprising scorers in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Ben Bishop on Miro Heiskanen: He is going to be a Hall of Famer

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.