John Klingberg

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.

What can slumping Stars expect from Perry’s debut?

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If the Dallas Stars are known for anything during the Jim Nill era, it’s big offseason acquisitions that create hope and increase expectations only to be followed by what is usually a disappointing season on the ice.

With just one win in their first seven games entering play on Wednesday night, you couldn’t possibly blame Stars fans if they were getting a sense of deja vu so far following the offseason additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.

While Pavelski is still searching for his first goal with his new team (he has just a single assist and only 10 shots on goal in seven games), Perry has yet to play after being sidelined with a broken foot during the preseason.

That will change on Wednesday when Perry will make his debut with the Stars when they play the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Will that be enough to make a difference for a team that needs any sort of spark it can get?

The Stars signed Perry to a one-year deal following his buyout from the Anaheim Ducks, and he was always going to be a pretty big wild card with his team.

The biggest problem the Stars had a year ago was that their roster was too top heavy and way too reliant on six players (the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov; defenders John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen; starting goalie Ben Bishop). The complete lack of any dependable secondary scoring was a huge flaw and something that had to be corrected if they were going to be a serious championship contender.

Pavelski, coming off of a 38-goal season in San Jose, seemed like a great starting point to help drive another scoring line to complement the top line. It has not worked as planned just yet, but the season is still young.

Perry, on the other hand, was always more of a question mark in what he could actually provide. His play has obviously declined in recent years as his age climbs into his 30s, and he was limited to just 31 games a year ago due to injury. He scored six goals and four assists when he was in the lineup, production that would have projected out to 15 goals and 25 points over an 82-game season. Not exactly great numbers, and they simply continued the downward trend his career had been on in the two years prior to that. If anything the decline seemed to accelerate even more. How much of that was due to injury and the circumstances on a bad Ducks team remain to be seen. There is still some hope that he might be able to bounce back a little in a better environment.

It is expected he will play on the team’s second line on Wednesday night alongside Mattians Janmark and Roope Hintz, a duo that has been one of the very few bright spots on the team this season.

Perry will no doubt bring a physical presence to the lineup, but what the team really needs right now is some offense because no one — not even the big name players — are finding the back of the net. The Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio has combined for just four goals. Pavelski has the aforementioned goose egg on his stat line. The defense duo of Klingberg and Heiskanen has just one goal (belonging to Heiskanen). The biggest reason depth matters is for moments just like this. Your star players are not always going to be there to carry the team offensively, and when they go cold there has to be someone else to pick up the slack. The Stars have not had that, and the additions of Perry and Pavelski were supposed to help fix it.

Starting on Wednesday Perry gets his first chance to try and contribute to that and begin what the Stars are hoping can be a bounce-back season.

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.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Change or keep current playoff format?

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The topic of the Stanley Cup playoff format has bubbled up over the last few seasons which makes you wonder if we’ll see a change in the near future. After switching to the 1 vs. 8 conference format in 1993-94, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to bring back the divisional concept beginning with the 2014 postseason. While the emphasis on bringing back rivalries has worked in some areas, there has been plenty of opinions out there about moving away from the current setup.

During the NHL Player Media Tour earlier this month in Chicago we asked a number of players their thoughts on the current playoff format and whether they’d keep what we’ve got or make a change. Here’s what they said.

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “I’d probably keep it. Maybe the top seed should play the eighth, but this creates a lot of rivalries between team, so I kind of like it as it is.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “The wild card is perfect like that, but I would do whoever has the most points play against [team with fewer] points.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I think it works right now. I’d keep it.”

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: “I don’t think it’s beneficial for our division because our division is so tough. In my opinion I would like it to be [1 vs. 8, re-seed after Round 1]. First round you play Tampa Bay, best team in the league, and third round you might play Carolina who was number whatever. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I prefer the conference [1 vs. 8] because you have the chance to play different teams every year instead of having to go through the same division team in the first or second round every single year.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I would keep it. I don’t have any issues with it.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “I’d change it. I think majority of the guys are on that side. I do understand the rivalries and what it creates and it has created some great rivalries. I think from our perspective you want to earn that rank and that position you have in the playoffs, 1-8. I’m probably just a little biased, that’s what I grew up with.”

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers: “It is what it is at this point. I do think it should be the top eight teams from each conference. To me, it kind of seems to make the most sense. You’re going to have 32 teams in the league, you want the top 16 teams in the playoffs, right? It’s kind of the way it works. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Maybe go back to the old way [1 vs. 8].”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “I like it. I don’t have a problem with it. I think once you get to the playoffs you’re going to have to win out anyways. Whether you beat the best team in the first round or in the Stanley Cup, they’re the best team, right? You’re going to have to win it all anyway. I don’t mind it.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “I would keep it, I don’t mind it. For me, it doesn’t matter. If you want to win the Cup you have to beat anybody, so I’m good with that.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “I’d change it. It should be No. 1-8 in the conference, doesn’t matter your division, anything. It should just be the top eight teams ranked 1-8.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “I say change it. Either 1 vs. 16 or 1 vs. 8.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I like the current playoff format. I’d also like to see some type of wild card, maybe a three-game play-in series to get a couple more teams. From a business side of it, looking on the other side, you can have a great season and miss the playoffs by a couple of points. Now with adding teams in the league and still being a 16-team format, when you’re the ninth seed and miss the playoffs by two spots, from a fan’s perspective it’s an unsuccessful season not making the playoffs when you were really so close. I think it kind of adds something to support those teams that just missed the playoffs to have some type of play-in series like baseball has now so those market can feel like they accomplished more when they just missed out by a little and the next season the teams a little more ammo when they go and try to sell tickets.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
Most underrated player
2019-20 sleeper team

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Dallas Stars

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: The Stars were one of the most top-heavy teams in the league last season with Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Miro Heiskanen driving almost all of the scoring. Only three forwards on the team managed more than 30 points, and if offense wasn’t coming from the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio, it wasn’t going to come from anywhere. They attempted to address that over the summer with the signings of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry. That should be an improvement. Perry is a bit of a wild card because his career has fallen off so much in recent years, but Pavelski should still be able to drive a second scoring line that the Stars desperately need. How much better remains to be seen, but they are better.

Strengths: Simply put, it is the top of their lineup and it is not limited to any one position. Whether it be at forward where they have a great top line (Seguin-Benn-Radulov), on defense (Klingberg and Heiskanen) or in net (Ben Bishop) each layer of the roster has top-line talent. That matters a lot. You can not compete for a championship without elite players, they are the toughest players to find and acquire, and the Stars have a bunch of them at the most important positions. Seguin is one of the league’s best offensive players, Klingberg is already a Norris contender, Heiskanen might one day join him, and Bishop has been a Vezina finalist three different times.

Weaknesses: If their strength is the top of the lineup, then it only makes sense that their weakness is everything after that. The Stars’ bottom three lines were so bad a year ago that when none of Seguin, Benn, or Radulov were on the ice at 5-on-5 the Stars were outscored by a 77-56 margin and controlled less than 48 percent of the total shot attempts. That is, in a word, bad. If the Stars are going to be more than just a playoff team and become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender that has to improve.

[MORE: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): In his first season behind the Stars’ bench Jim Montgomery had the Stars in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and was a double overtime Game 7 goal away from being in the Western Conference Final. It would take a complete meltdown for his job to be in any sort of jeopardy at this point. So we will go with a 1 out of 10 for him on the hot seat rating this season.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Heiskanen, Pavelski, and Roope Hintz are three players worth keeping an eye on in Dallas this season.

Let’s start with Heiskanen because the expectations for him are beginning to shoot through the roof. His rookie season was sensational and so good that Bishop already declared him to be one of the best defenders he has ever played with and a future Hall of Famer. He just turned 20 years old this summer and seems to have unlimited potential. How big of a step he takes in year two will be a fascinating development to watch.

When it comes to Pavelski the biggest question is what he is going to be capable of producing. He has been one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years and is coming off a monster 38-goal performance (in only 75 games) for the San Jose Sharks. But he just turned 35 years old and had a career-high 20 percent shooting percentage a year ago. He is probably not going to be that efficient with his shooting this season so you should expect some kind of a regression. Even if he is a 25 or 30 goal player that is still a huge boost to the Stars’ lineup.

Hintz took a huge step forward over the final two months of the regular season, recording 17 points in 32 games between the beginning of February and the end of the regular season. He continued that strong play in the playoffs with 13 points (five goals, three assists) in the Stars’ playoff games. Him being able to build off that and become a strong complementary piece would go a long way toward solving some of the depth concerns.

Playoffs or lottery: This is a playoff team, and potentially a pretty good one. The Western Conference is still pretty wide open and there remains a pretty big gap between the playoff teams and the rest of the pack. Depending on how much they can get out of Palelski and Perry, as well as any improvement from returning young players (Heiskanen, Hintz, etc.) this could be a top-three team in the Central and potentially even compete for the top spot.

MORE:
Pavelski, Perry missing pieces for Stars?
• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

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.