Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

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.

Will all this drama derail the Stars?

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The drama just never seems to stop for the Dallas Stars, although things do get kind of boring when this team actually tries to score goals. Worse yet, the Stars aren’t piling up PR losses alone any longer, as Dallas is now mired in a four-game losing streak.

The latest drama

Thursday presented the latest episode of “As the Stars Turn,” with embattled Stars coach Jim Montgomery deciding to bench Alexander Radulov – one of the team’s precious few actual scorers – for the remainder of the first period after an argument.

Such a tactic clearly isn’t about X’s and O’s, but instead about sending a message. If the message was sent, perhaps it was taken by carrier pigeon, as the results weren’t immediate. The Stars dropped a sad 2-1 loss to the lowly Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. During this span (all regulation losses), the Stars have scored a measly three goals. Total.

As Matthew DeFranks of the Dallas Morning News and others report, Radulov was able to cool off from his argument with Montgomery, eventually saying that his benching was “the right decision.”

Plenty of other people in the hockey world aren’t so easily convinced, and judging by Montgomery’s comments, even the coach might (deep down) have some second thoughts.

“Every decision we make is what’s best for the Dallas Stars, and at that moment, I thought that was best for the Dallas Stars,” Montgomery said. “When you’re struggling to score goals, it’s hard to do with a player of that caliber.”

In isolation, maybe Radulov did need to be reprimanded. The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro (sub. required) and others point out that Radulov had been drawing criticism for mental errors, including taking too-long shifts.

The questionable decisions and self-inflicted wounds really pile up when you look at the bigger picture, though. And that picture isn’t pretty.

Passing the buck

Ever since Stars CEO Jim Lites absolutely trashed Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn before the end of 2018, the Stars have suffered an almost unending run of embarrassing moments, and most of management’s wounds seem resoundingly self-inflicted.

After all, Lites went out of his way to throw Seguin and Benn under the bus, chiding bloggers to “write this!”

Since then, there’s been a steady stream of mistakes, and it doesn’t really seem like management is ever turning the discussion inward, at least on the record. Honestly, I almost picture Stars management transforming into Principal Skinner at some point.

Back in November, Montgomery discussed the Stars’ challenges in depth during a PHT Q&A, and it’s difficult to tell if anything’s changed for the better.

“Where we’ve got to get consistent is valuing our details that allow us to have success on nights when we don’t have legs. That’s where we have, I think, not embraced the process enough.”

All of the messaging seems to be about effort or “character.” Montgomery recently railed against a “culture of mediocrity,” but the thing is, that culture of mediocrity might just be plaguing the Stars’ front office more than the locker room.

This is a franchise that’s frequently failed when it comes to drafting, even whiffing on some crucial first-round picks. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn aren’t the ones who have bungled their way through a procession of three different head coaches in three seasons. GM Jim Nill and his staff were the ones who made mistakes like crossing their fingers that Martin Hanzal would somehow become a healthier player as he got older.

Maybe all of this bluster is an attempt to create a smokescreen around something that’s pretty obvious: management has failed to surround Benn, Seguin, Radulov, John Klingberg, and a few others with the proper supporting cast to succeed when they “don’t have their legs.”

Not hopeless yet

All things considered, it’s actually pretty amusing that the Stars would land in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began today.

In fact, the Stars aren’t so far off from the Colorado Avalanche, who currently rest as the third seed in the Central Division (27-18-8 for 50 points in 47 games played, 21 regulation/overtime wins).

Sure, the West’s wild card races are starting to feel like that year in the NFC where the Seattle Seahawks made the NFL playoffs with a 7-9 record, but if the Stars can stumble their way into a playoff berth, maybe they should start to take a more positive approach?

After all, it sure doesn’t seem like anyone’s having fun. From a per-game perspective, the Stars are the third weakest scoring team in the NHL, but they’ve been able to grind out wins thanks to fantastic goaltending and pretty solid special teams work.

Walking such a tight rope can lead to frayed nerves, yet failing to support the players doing the balancing act may throw everything out of whack.

A four-game losing streak, and a tiny margin for error to maintain a playoff spot, sends a message. While management seems to believe that they need to push and humiliate their players, maybe they should instead provide them support with an upgrade in trades — and a pat on the back?

After all, their competition might be just as much of a mess, but they seem to get that memo.

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.

The Buzzer: Bergeron’s big night, Sens win again, Avalanche in a playoff spot

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Players of the Night: 

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins: Bergeron came into Saturday three points shy of 700 for his NHL career. He reached that mark in the first period, scoring twice and adding an assist as the Bruins put up five against the Carolina Hurricanes. He then put his stamp on the night, burying his hat trick goal in the second frame for good measure. Not bad, Patrice. Not bad.

Ryan Dzingel (and the rest of the Ottawa Senators, really): Dzingel had two goals in the game, giving him four over the past three games. Matt Duchene scored for the third time in two games and the Senators took down the best team in the NHL, a 6-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning after coming from behind for a 6-5 win on Friday night. Not too shabby on the back to back. The Sens blew a three-goal lead in this one as well.

Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars: The Dallas Duo each had three points as the Stars eased past the Edmonton Oilers 5-1.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: Not only did he score a but goal, Giroux had three points to help the Flyers to a 6-3 defeat of the St. Louis Blues in Brayden Schenn‘s return to Philly.

Highlights of the Night:

It’s never too late to score a game-winner:

Two-on-one. Seguin and Radulov. Only one way this ends:

No video here, because this one doesn’t need any:

Factoids of the Night:

Henrik Lundqvist moved into eighth on the all-time win list with this save on a point-blank clapper in the shootout.

MISC:

Scores:

Flyers 6, Blues 3

Stars 5, Oilers 1

Bruins 7, Hurricanes 1

Maple Leafs 3, Canucks 2 (SO)

Senators 6, Lightning 3

Rangers 2, Coyotes 1

Avalanche 7, Wild 2

Flames 3, Ducks 2

Predators 4, Kings 3


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

Radulov says he ‘became a hockey player’ under Trotz

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One of the things people are anxious to see in the upcoming season is how things will go in Washington between Alex Ovechkin and Barry Trotz.

Trotz has said things might get uncomfortable under his watch as he brings a new culture and more accountability to the table. Could that be trouble for Ovechkin? Not if you asked former Nashville Predator, and his Team Russia teammate, Alexander Radulov.

Pavel Lysenkov of Sovetsky Sport shared a quote from Radulov (via Dmitry Chesnokov) about what he’d tell Ovechkin if he asked about Trotz. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s all good news.

“Bad coaches don’t work at the same club for 15 years.” Radulov told Lysenkov today. “When I came to Nashville Trotz helped me a lot. I learned a lot. I became a hockey player. The coach trusted me, called me up from the minors. I have only the best memories of Trotz. This is a new challenge for him [in Washington]. Life changed, he had to go. But he has a lot of ideas that he will be able to realize in Washington.”

In case you’ve forgotten, things didn’t exactly end well in Nashville for Radulov after the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He and Andrei Kostitsyn were benched by Trotz for violating curfew while in Arizona and it caused a major distraction for the Preds as they were bounced from the Western Conference Semifinals in five games by the Coyotes.

It’d be easy for Radulov to hold it against Trotz for things going badly. Instead, he’s talking him up in a big way. Perhaps things will go just fine in Washington.

Former Predator Radulov stripped of captaincy in KHL

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Remember Alexander Radulov? He’s the former Nashville Predators forward who, along with Andrei Kostitsyn, made headlines in all the wrong ways after being busted staying out late partying while the Preds faced (and lost to) the Coyotes in the 2012 playoffs.

While he went back to Russia after that downer of an ending to his NHL season, he’s got something else to be bummed out about. Radulov was stripped of his captaincy of CSKA Moscow in the KHL. As R-Sport reports (via Dmitry Chesnokov), it was GM and former Red Wings star Sergei Fedorov who made the call.

“The last captain had problems with discipline,” said Fedorov, who did not mention Radulov by name. “Will it hurt the previous captain? He shouldn’t and cannot be hurt.”

Taking his spot as captain is former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Alexei Morozov. Seeing that Radulov hasn’t really curtailed his fiery ways and ability to play nice with his teammates should help Predators fans feel even better that the team parted ways with him.