Jim Lites

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg sitting at three points (after Thursday’s goal and assist).

Things should improve to some extent, even if it’s foolish to count on all-world goaltending once again. With six of their first nine games on the road, maybe Dallas is having some trouble bringing its small-margin-of-error style out of Dallas.

While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving, so Dallas needs to shake out of this funk as soon as possible.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

[MORE: What’s wrong with the Stars?]

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

Benn, Seguin are still Dallas Stars under the most pressure

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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.

$26.5 million. That’s the combined salary for Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in 2019-20.

Such big money would mean big pressure for any duo in hockey, but it could be especially tense for Seguin and Benn. After all, Seguin and Benn can’t feel too confident that the Dallas Stars have their backs if they suffer through cold streaks. Quite the opposite seems to be true, actually; Stars CEO Jim Lites memorably threw them under the bus with a profane diatribe last season, and the Seguin – Benn duo is even more expensive with Seguin’s Super Mario extension kicking in.

If one or both of them suffer from bad puck luck, guess what? Such excuses are just a [stream of expletives] to the Stars’ execs, apparently.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-Factor | Three questions]

You can spread the tension out to other top players, but it’s unclear if that will make things a whole lot better.

Joe Pavelski‘s first year comes at a cost of $8M, while Esa Lindell‘s asking price is especially steep for 2019-20 with a $7M salary. While Ben Bishop figures to be a bargain at $5.5M if he plays near his 2018-19 level, the overall picture is that the Stars are still a very top-heavy team.

With bigger paychecks come bigger responsibilities, leaving these top stars – particularly Benn and Seguin – under pressure.

On the bright side, the makeup of this Stars team might just relieve some of that burden.

Pavelski’s had plenty of experience at center, and can also move over to the wing, giving him the potential to line up with one or more of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov. Benn, in particular, could benefit from taking on lesser matchups against middle pairing defensemen, as Benn has slowed a bit with age, as plenty of other power forwards do once they hit age 30.

If Roope Hintz blossoms as some expect, and Corey Perry rebounds as the Stars hope, then even better.

In a sense, Lites’ comments shine a light on another element of the Stars that’s under pressure: management.

GM Jim Nill has “won” or made the Stars one of the winners of plenty of summers, with shrewd trades and bold free agent gambits, yet Dallas has stumbled as much as its made strides. Along the way, they’ve spent plenty of money, and are estimated to scrape close to the salary cap ceiling next season. It’s easy to look at young players like Hintz and Miro Heiskanen and think of a bright future, but there’s a lot of “now” pressure with a team that’s expensive, and that much heavier on pricey veteran talent after adding Pavelski.

Last season, the Stars managed a delicate balancing act thanks to brilliant goaltending, and getting enough scoring from Benn, Seguin, and Radulov. The hope is that an offseason of promising tweaks will make it easier to manage this juggling act.

Even so, it seems like this team will still lean heavily on Benn and Seguin, which could mean even more drama if they buckle under the pressure.

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.

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.

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.

NHLPA comes to defense of Seguin, Benn in statement

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The NHLPA has come to the aid of two of its players, labeling comments from the mouth of Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites toward forwards Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn both “reckless and insulting.”

In a written statement released to the media on Sunday, the players’ union said that saying Lites’ conduct is unprofessional would be a “gross understatement.”

The full statement can be read here:

The NHLPA’s defense of two of its own stems from comments that emerged out of Dallas on Thursday.

In an interview with Sean Shapiro of The Athletic, Lites went on a tirade, using several expletives to describe the play of Seguin and Benn this season, including saying they have been “f—— horse s—” and that team’s owner Tom Gaglardi is “pissed” about it.

The comments have been the talk of the league since.

As surprising as they were to hear on Thursday, it’s not surprising at all to see the NHLPA stand up for its players. Regardless of who’s right here, the NHLPA was always going to take the side of those they represent.

The debate surrounding the public nature of the outburst will rage on, but it’s hard to argue that the comments were not unprofessional. It’s almost unprecedented to hear something like that coming from the top of the food chain in any sport.

That being said, it sure seemed like it worked, with the message getting across to the lackluster Stars, who won 5-1 against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday in their first game since the tirade.

It’s not the next couple of games that will determine whether or not Lites’ words were heard though, but rather the next few weeks and the coming months.

That’s the real test.


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