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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Blues eliminate Jets; Capitals, Stars take leads

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  • The Blues advanced to Round 2, and while the Jets made the final score look respectable, it wasn’t a great, complete effort by Winnipeg.
  • The Stars’ top line was downright dominant for Dallas in taking a 3-2 series lead, putting the Central-winning Predators on the ropes.
  • Washington’s biggest names flexed their muscles, and the Capitals took a 3-2 series lead by blasting the Hurricanes.

Blues 3, Jets 2 (St. Louis wins series 4-2)

Jaden Schwartz scored all three of the Blues’ goals, and he gave St. Louis a 3-0 lead in doing so. After a pitiful, 1-shot second period, Winnipeg did make things more interesting in shrinking that 3-0 deficit to 3-2, but that final push was pretty late, and the overall (lack of) effort could stick with Jets fans and management for quite some time.

St. Louis gets to rest up and prepare for the winner of the series right below …

Stars 5, Predators 3 (Dallas leads 3-2)

It would be frustrating for Nashville if this all came down to Pekka Rinne struggling. Instead, Rinne was often quite sharp on Saturday, particularly when the game was close but the Predators seemingly couldn’t get anything going. Dallas dominated much of the proceedings. The top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov was the most overwhelming, yet other players are stepping up for the Stars, who’ve carried much of the play lately in Round 1. The Predators have some serious work to do, or they’ll be another division winner who will hit the golf course far earlier than most expected.

Capitals 6, Hurricanes 0 (Washington leads 3-2)

To be fair to Carolina, this game was closer than the score seemed … at least early on. They even kinda, sorta had a chance through most of the second period, at least before that much-discussed Dougie Hamilton icing gaffe opened things up for the 3-0 goal. Still, the Hurricanes couldn’t score a goal in this one, and players like Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin really imposed their will on Game 5. So far, the home team has taken all five games in this series, so the Hurricanes must maintain that trend in Game 6, and then hope they can flip the script if they force a Game 7.

Note: Isabelle Khurshudyan and Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post report that T.J. Oshie suffered a broken collarbone, and will miss the remainder of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. An official announcement is expected, possibly as early as Sunday. PHT will monitor that situation.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom

The Capitals are only five games into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet Backstrom already has many goals (five) as he had during all of their Stanley Cup run. He’s also only one behind his career-high for a single postseason of six. Backstrom’s known for his passing, and that’s still generally how he leans when attacking, but he’s absolutely on fire sniping-wise lately, and that will only make him tougher to contain.

Backstrom scored the first two goals of Game 5, including the game-winner to help Washington off to a blazing start, and also chipped in two assists for a four-point game. That’s the most of any skater on Saturday.

(Alex Ovechkin deserves consideration for player of that game and of Saturday, too, as he was a domineering physical presence, along with scoring one goal and two assists.)

2. Jaden Schwartz

You could make an argument that Schwartz’s strong Game 6 was just as important as Backstrom’s performance, even if Backstrom gets the edge in total points at four.

Schwartz scored all three of the Blues goals to claim a hat trick, and that’s coming off of scoring the Blues’ Game 5 winner with about 15 seconds left to stun Winnipeg, and maybe partially explain why the Jets seemed to lack a spark on Saturday.

Personally, Schwartz has been one of those Jonathan Huberdeau-type players who’s always signaled serious talent, but has sometimes been lost in the shuffle, in part because of bad injury luck. With that in mind, it’s nice to see a high-quality player such as Schwartz get his moment in the sun, and Schwartz is absolutely shining in the spotlight.

3. Jamie Benn

Consider this a collective Stars’ first line award if you’d like, as Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov were too much for the Predators to handle, too.

Benn had the most points of the trio, generating three assists, with two of them being primary.

Jim Lites’ “blanking horse-blank” roast of Benn and Seguin seemed to ignore a number of realities, such as the impact the aging curve can have on any star player, particularly a power forward such as Benn. Yet, Benn was that irresistible force at times in Game 5, particularly when he used his size and senses to muscle the puck away from Ryan Ellis to set up one of Dallas’ goals. (Benn’s three assists all came during a single period, a rare feat.)

The Predators will try their best to find an answer for Benn, Seguin, and Radulov, but performances like these make you wonder if they can be denied.

More Factoids

Sunday’s games

Game 6: Bruins at Maple Leafs (Toronto leads 3-2), 3 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream)
Game 6: Sharks at Golden Knights (Vegas leads 3-2), 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN (livestream)

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.

After CEO’s criticism, Seguin leading Stars’ turnaround

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The most noteworthy thing to happen to the Dallas Stars this season came at the end of December when team CEO Jim Lites loudly and profanely criticized his team’s two best players, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, and pretty much blamed them entirely for the team’s underachieving.

In doing so he absolved general manager Jim Nill of any and all blame for the team’s shortcomings, and ignored the fact that even though Seguin and Benn were, at the time, having “down” years for their standards they were still by far the best and most productive players on the team.

It was an outrageous rant at the time, and it looks even more outrageous now that the Stars are sitting on fairly solid ground in the Western Conference playoff race thanks in large part to the play of their top players.

Specifically Seguin, who was one of the main targets in Lites’ off the rails rant.

Please do not misinterpret that point.

This is not a commentary about how the criticism inspired their top players to play better.

That is an insult to the motivation of professional athletes and ignores the fact that, again, they were already carrying the bulk of the weight for the Stars early in the season. It is also an insult to their ability as players. They were highly productive NHL players before that, and would have continued to be whether or not those comments were ever made.

Top-tier players have the hardest job, the highest expectations, and the most pressure. When they only fulfill even 90 percent of those expectations they are going to get criticized for underperforming, even if their 90 percent is better than most everyone else’s 100 percent. That is what was happening with the Stars through the end of December.

Seguin and Benn may not have been on their usual scoring pace, but they were still outperforming everyone else on the team by a substantial margin, while also outscoring and outplaying their opponents on a nightly basis. At the end of December when Lites sounded off, the Stars were outscoring teams 24-11 at 5-on-5 play when Seguin and Benn were on the ice together.

The Stars’ goal differential without either of them was a minus-14 (34-48).

Where was the problem again?

In the 18 games since then, Seguin, Benn, and Alexander Radulov have still been the most productive players on the team.

Even though Seguin and Benn have been split apart a lot more often and used on separate lines, they’ve still outscored opponents by an 8-4 margin when they are together at 5-on-5. Without either on the ice the goal differential suffers an eight-goal swing (minus-4 … four for, eight against) in the other direction.

Seguin alone has 22 points in the 18 games since then and has been absolutely dynamite on a line with Radulov and is now on pace to exceed his normal career average for points in a season.

Benn’s offense hasn’t quite picked up, but given how much time he’s spent away from Seguin and Radulov and has been asked to carry his own line that probably says more about the lack of depth the Stars have assembled than anything else. And that, again, falls back on the job of the GM for not assembling more talent around his two franchise players.

After all of that drama caused by the CEO the perception of the Stars immediately became that they were a dysfunctional mess of an organization and a sad-sack underachieving team going that was going nowhere instead of what they actually are. What they actually are is a team that has a handful of high-end, impact players in Seguin, Radulov, Benn, John Klingberg and an emerging star on the blue line in Miro Heiskanen that is probably actually overachieving this season.

The lesson to take away from all of this: Maybe don’t publicly put your best players on blast for ruining your season unless you have a damn good reason for it. Because those best players are probably going to be the ones that end up saving your season in the end.

If Lites was so eagerly willing to call Seguin and Benn “f—— horse s—” for what he thought was them underachieving earlier in the season, he should be just as willing to publicly thank them (and especially Seguin) for the added gate revenue his team will get for making the playoffs on their backs and saving all of their jobs.

More: Stars’ CEO ire should be directed at GM, not Seguin and Benn

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.

 

How have Seguin, Benn responded since being called out?

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Less than two weeks ago, Dallas Stars president Jim Lites called out superstar forwards Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn because they weren’t “getting it done.” The hockey community was stunned when those comments came to light. Why take a shot at your franchise players when your team depth has been a serious issue for years? Even the NHLPA jumped in to stick up for two of their own.

Immediately, many began to speculate that this was going to be the end of one or both players in Dallas. The Stars have said that they won’t be trading either player, so a divorce probably isn’t imminent. So Seguin and Benn had to find a way to get through all the noise.

How have they responded since being called out by their president on Dec. 28? Let’s take a look.

Benn played only 15:07 in a huge, 5-1, win over the Detroit Red Wings. He had just two shots on net and didn’t collect a point in the victory. But he followed that up by scoring in back-to-back games against Montreal and New Jersey. Unfortunately for him, he was knocked out of the game against the Devils after he took a questionable hit from forward Miles Wood.

The 29-year-old missed the following game against the Washington Capitals, but he was able to return the following game against Winnipeg. He finished minus-2 but didn’t register a shot on goal. He was plus-2 in last night’s win over St. Louis but, again, no points and just one shot on goal.

Benn’s possession numbers haven’t been good at all since he came back to the lineup. His CF% was a team-low 31.82 during the game against the Jets. The possession numbers were worse last night (27.59), as he and the rest of the Stars were outshot by the Blues.

The injury clearly came at an unfortunate time, but most of the Stars haven’t posted good numbers over the last two contests.

As for Seguin, he’s managed to be incredibly productive since being called out. He started out by picking up an assist in back-to-back games against the Wings and Habs. In that game against the Canadiens though, he managed to fire eight shots on goal. He took another eight shots on net against the Devils and scored twice.

With Benn out of the lineup against Washington, Seguin managed to put together another two-goal effort in a 2-1 win against the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The 26-year-old registered an assist on Dallas’ only goal against Winnipeg, and he followed that up with a three-point effort (two goals, one assist) versus the Blues last night. So overall, he’s picked up six goals and 10 points in his last six outings.

“It’s good to get him on a roll because scoring has been a problem for us and he’s our best natural scorer,” head coach Jim Montgomery said of Seguin after last night’s win.

Prior to the team’s poor possession numbers in the last two games, Seguin managed to put together CF% performances of 53.85, 59.52 and 44.44 (he scored both of Dallas’ goals in that game).

All-in-all, even though the possession stats don’t necessarily show improvement, Seguin’s put up some positive offensive numbers.

And in six games since Lites’ comments, the Stars have gone 4-1-1. Those nine points have allowed them to climb into third place in the Central Division. They’re two points up on Colorado, five points up on Minnesota.

Whether or not this is sustainable remains to be seen, but it appears as though the comments have given the Stars a short-term boost.

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’ Benn forced from game after questionable hit

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Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn was forced out of Wednesday’s game against the New Jersey Devils after taking what appeared to be a late hit from New Jersey forward Miles Wood in the second period.

Benn had tried to dump a pass off the boards to Tyler Seguin moments before he was crushed. Woods lined up Benn, who had his head turned, and drilled him.

Isolated, the hit itself appeared to be of the clean, shoulder-to-sternum variety. But add in the fact that Benn had already passed the puck away and the hit becomes questionable at best.

Here it is:

Wood was assessed a five-minute major for interference on the play.

The hit also sparked a melee between several players. Esa Lindell of the Stars and New Jersey’s Stefan Noesen each got roughing minors for extracurriculars. John Klingberg was also given a cross-checking penalty for going after Wood.

The Stars announced later in the period that Benn would not return because of an upper-body injury.


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