We continue on with out weekly series of what to expect from the 2015-2016 National Hockey League season. We have hit the seven week point until the first game of the regular season with the Toronto Maple Leafs hosting the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Center.
This week, we look at which team in the Western Conference is bound to have the best bounce-back season after missing the playoffs in the 2014-15 season. That team is the Dallas Stars.
With a roster that consists of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza, the Stars should be a team that would be up for a playoff spot every year. But injuries and inconsistencies in defense and goaltending hurt the Stars last year, and the team missed the playoffs by seven points.
Dallas opened up its first seven games of the season with a 4-2-1 record, but then hit a rut and lost its next seven games.
At the tail end of the seven-game losing streak, the Stars lost second-year forward, Valeri Nichushkin to hip surgery following a groin injury in October that sidelined him for nearly a month. The surgery would sideline Nichushkin for nealry five months, before making a return for the final four games of the year.
The Stars would continue to struggle through the month of November, and heading into the month of December.
On November 21, the Stars shook up the defense a bit by trading defenseman, Brendan Dillon to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Jason Demers and a 2016 third round pick.
The Stars did finish the 2014 calendar year going 8-2-0 in the last 10 games. On January 1, 2015, the Stars sat at 17-14-5, 39 points, winners of three straight games, and were six points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Dallas was getting contributions from its offense with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin playing well. Seguin, at one point, was in the race for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer, and the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer.
However, Kari Lehtonen and Anders Lindback had problems keeping the puck out of the net on a consistent basis. Lehtonen would have a stretch of games giving up only a goal or two per game, but would give up four or more goals in consecutive games. Lindback could not even buy a win, as he did not win a game until December 21, in which he came in-relief of Lehtonen against the Edmonton Oilers.
January saw the Stars finish below-.500 with a 6-5-2 record, with the problems in net continuing.
In February, the Stars would make a move to try and improve its problems in net by acquiring Jhonas Enroth from the Buffalo Sabres. In return, the Stars gave up Lindback and a conditional third round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. Enroth, who was on a dismal Sabres team, was playing decent for the Sabres at the time with a 13-21-2 record, a 3.27 goals against average, and a .903 save-percentage. At the time, any upgrade at goaltending was needed for the Stars.
A major blow to the Stars season came on February 13 in a game against the Florida Panthers. Tyler Seguin, at the time Dallas’ leading scorer, was hit with a low hip-check by Panthers’ defenseman, Dmitry Kulikov, and sustained a knee injury. Seguin would be sidelined for nearly a month, and the Stars would hit a downward spiral in the standings shortly after.
Without Seguin, the Stars went 3-5-2 and went from just three points out of a wild card spot to eight.
The return of Seguin would help the Stars spring back up the standings, as Dallas would go 8-3-0 heading into the final six games of the season.
The final blow for the Stars could have been the games against the Calgary Flames on March 30 and the St. Louis Blues on April 3.
On March 30, the Stars were on a roll, having won five of the last six games. The Stars faced the Flames at the American Airlines Center hoping to close the gap in the wild card race in the West from six points to four. The Stare would enter the first intermission holding a 2-1 lead with goals from Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin. In the second, Calgary erupted with three goals to take a 4-2 lead over the Stars. Jason Demers would get the Stars within one early in the third, but the Flames would capture the win with an empty net goal with less than seven seconds left in the game.
The Stars were desperate to get a win with five games left to stay in the race for a playoff spot. Dallas needed a win against the Blues on April 3, playing once again at the American Airlines Center. After going down 3-1 in the second period, the Stars stormed back in the same frame to score four unanswered goals to take a 5-3 lead over the Blues. St. Louis added a late goal in the second to make it 5-4 heading into the third period. In the third, the Blues got two goals from defenders Zbynek Michalek and Alex Pietrangelo to give St. Louis a 6-5 lead. Jaden Schwartz’s empty net goal would complete his hat-trick, and spell the end of Dallas’ playoff hopes.
After the Blues game, the Stars would win the remaining four games of the season to finish the 2014-15 season with a 41-31-10 record and 92 points.
While injuries killed the Stars at the wrong time, it was the struggles in net that really sunk Dallas throughout the course of the season.
The Stars gave up and average of 29.9 shots against per game, and averaged 3.13 goals against per game. When a team puts up the totals they do on offense, but the goaltenders cannot keep the puck out of the net, it is frustrating from a coaching standpoint.
Kari Lehtonen, who had an above-average season in 2013-14, could string together some wins to help the Stars, but would come back with a couple of really bad games which stopped any momentum swinging his way. Lehtonen finished the 2014-15 season with 34-17-10 record, a 2.94 goals against average, and a .903 save-percentage along with five shutouts.
And when Lehtonen struggled, his back-up was not able to help stop any bleeding.
Anders Lindback finished his tenure with the Stars with a 2-8-0 record, an abysmal 3.71 goals against average and a putrid .875 save-percentage.
And when Jhonas Enroth came in, he was of little help to the Stars. Enroth went 5-5-0 with Dallas, had a 2.38 goals against average, a .906 save-percentage, and a shutout in 13 games with the club.
Even with the goaltending as disappointing as it was, there were some positives to come out of the 2014-15 season.
The emergence of John Klingberg
Klingberg began last season in the American Hockey League with the Texas Stars. Klingberg, as a defenseman, registered 12 points (four goals and eight assists) in his first 10 games, which earned him his first career call-up.
Klingberg made his season debut with Dallas on November 11 against the Arizona Coyotes, and it did not take long for Klingberg to make his presence known in Dallas. Klingberg registered his first point four games into his NHL career against the Chicago Blackhawks. He scored his first goal two games later at home against the Coyotes with a beautiful toe-drag that brought his hype to a whole new level.
The 23-year old Swede would continue to excel for the Stars as the season went on. Klingberg showed off his fantastic puck moving abilities, his offensive style of defense, his patience, and his clutch play at times which has made people in Dallas take notice of him.
Possibly Klingberg’s game of the year came on Januray 31 when Klingberg scored two goals, and added two assists in a 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets. One of Klingberg’s goals and both assists came on the powerplay, as the Stars went 4-8 on the powerplay in the game.
Klingberg finished this season with eleven goals and 29 assists as Dallas’ leading scorer on defense as a rookie. In addition to his point totals, Klingberg scored three game-winning goals, including an overtime goal, and avergaed 21:50 of total ice-time in 65 total games with the Stars.
In the advanced statistical world, Klingberg was a plus-164 in Corsi-rating, and was heavily relied when the Stars were behind in a game. Klingberg was a player who would be on the ice for a lot of offensive zone draws, and was part of the top powerplay unit on the point.
Shortly after the 2014-15 season was completed, Klingberg was re-signed to a seven-year contract worth an annual cap hit of $4.25 million. The Stars believe that Klingberg will be a top defender on the Stars roster for years to come, and he has not even hit the prime of his career yet.
Stars offense firing on all cylinders
While the Stars struggled in net, the team’s offense showed they can be one of the most dangerous threats in the NHL.
The Stars averaged 31.2 shots per game, which was seventh best in the NHL. Dallas was also second best in the NHL with 3.13 goals per game this season. The Stars also were 19-percent on the powerplay this season, which was good for 12th in the league.
Jamie Benn finished the 2014-15 season as the Art Ross Trophy winner for the most points in the NHL with 87. Benn claimed the award in the final game of the season against the Nashville Predators. Benn netted a hat-trick to tie New York Islanders forward, John Tavares for the lead in points with 86. With 8.5 seconds left in the game, Benn got the secondary assist on Cody Eakin’s goal to give Benn 87 points, and sole possession of the top spot in that category.
If it were not for his knee injury in February, Tyler Seguin could have been in Benn’s shoes as the league’s leading scorer. At the time of his injury, Seguin was the NHL’s third leading scorer with 59 points and fourth overall in goals with 29. Benn only had 50 points at the time of Seguin’s injury.
Jason Spezza was decent in his first year in a Stars uniform. Spezza scored 17 goals and added 45 assists in a full 82-games played this season. It was only the second time in his NHL career Spezza played all 82-games in a season. Spezza was primarily the Stars’ second line center, but saw some time on the first line alongside Benn and Seguin.
Cody Eakin had a career year as the Stars’ third-line center with 40 points (19 goals, 21 assist) in 78 games.
Patrick Eaves had a bounce-back year after having a stretch of injury-riddled seasons. Eaves was injured again and only appeared in 47 games, but Eaves registered 14 goals and 13 assists in that span.
Also, Antoine Roussel has another good year as a bottom-six winger, coming up with 25 points in 80 games, after a 29 point campaign in 2013-14.
With the 2014-15 season over, the Stars were out to try and make some slight adjustments to help them get back into playoff contention for the 2015-16 season.
The Stars have made some moves to bolster its depth in all areas of the ice. Here is a look at some of the key moves the Stars made this off-season:
- Denis Guryanov – Right Wing – 12th overall pick in 2015 NHL Draft
- Antti Niemi – Goalie – acquired by Stars from San Jose Sharks, signed to a three-year, $13.5 million deal
- Patrick Sharp – Left Wing – acquired by Stars from Chicago Blackhawks
- Johnny Oduya – Defense – signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract as a free agent
- Jussi Rynnas – Goalie – signed with Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL
- Jhonas Enroth – Goalie – signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract with Los Angeles Kings
- Shawn Horcoff – Center – signed a one-year, $1.75 million contract with Anaheim Ducks
- Trevor Daley – Defense – traded to the Chicago Blackhawks
- Ryan Garbutt – Left Wing – traded to the Chicago Blackhawks
In addition to the changes on the roster, Dallas also re-signed forwards Patrick Eaves and Curtis McKenzie, and defensemen Jyrki Jokipakka and Jamie Oleksiak to new contracts to stay with the Stars organization.
The Stars addressed its goaltending issues by signing former Sharks and Blackhawks goaltender, Antti Niemi. The 31-year old Niemi spent the past five seasons in San Jose, and had spent two years prior with the Blackhawks.
Niemi has a career 191-100-40 record with 32 shutouts, a 2.39 goals against average, and a .916 save-percentage.
Now, Niemi comes to Dallas to split time in net with his fellow Finnish comrade in Lehtonen. Now if one of the goalies begin to struggle, the Stars have another capable goalie to come in and be able to carry the work load in net.
On defense, Dallas locked up Klingberg long-term, kept on Jokipakka for two more years, and also brought back Oleksiak for one more crack at making the Stars roster in Dallas.
To help the young crop of defensemen grow, the Stars have brought in veteran, Johnny Oduya from the Chicago Blackhawks. Oduya is coming off of his second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons, and still has some step to his game. The 33-year old Swedish defender had two goals and eight assists in 76 regular season games with Chicago this past season, and had five assists in 23 playoff games.
Oduya will serve as a 3-4 defender for the Stars, and also as a mentor for guys like Jokipakka, Oleksiak, fellow Swede in Klingberg, and even up-and-coming defenseman, Julius Honka.
On offense, the Stars went out and acquired one of the most sought after players via trade in the 2015 offseason.
It was July 10th when the Stars swung a deal with the Blackhawks to acquire 33-year old, Patrick Sharp. Dallas also acquired defensive prospect Stephen Johns in the Sharp trade. In return, the Stars shipped out 31-year old defenseman, Trevor Daley and 30-year old left winger, Ryan Garbutt.
Sharp comes to Dallas just after winning his third Stanley Cup in 10 years with the Blackhawks organization. Sharp recorded 43 points (16 goals, 27 assists) in 68 regular season games, and had five goals and 10 assists in 23 playoff games with Chicago this season. Sharp was also a key member of the top powerplay unit for the Blackhawks playing on the point with Duncan Keith.
Sharp still has two years remaining on his current contract with an annual salary cap hit of $5.9 million.
With Sharp now on the Stars’ roster, Dallas may now have its top two lines all set for opening night on October 8th versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.
On the top line, Dallas already has the dynamic duo of Benn on the left wing and Seguin at center. There are a couple of options that Stars coach Lindy Ruff has with the right wing position. The Stars could put Nichushkin on the top line with Benn and Seguin, that is if Nichushkin is ready to take the roll of top line right winger. The Stars could make a “super” top line by moving Spezza from the second-line center roll and move him to the top-line winger spot like in the past. The Stars also have veteran, Ales Hemsky at the right wing position that could be a possibility. At this point, Nichushkin seems like the early favorite to be the top line right winger.
With that, the Stars would have Sharp on the left wing, Spezza at center, and Hemsky on the right wing for the second-line center. If Spezza were to play on the top line, expect a player like Eakin to step into the second line center position.
Here is a look at what all four lines may look like for the Stars at the beginning of the season:
Ja. Benn – Seguin – Nichushkin
Sharp – Spezza – Hemsky
Roussel – Eakin – Eaves
Sceviour – Fiddler – Ritchie
This is what the defensive pairings may look like for game one of the 2015-16 season:
Goligoski – Klingberg
Oduya – Demers
Jo. Benn – Jokipakka
Nemeth – Oleksiak
In net, it would be tough to say which goaltender will get the opening night start. Training camp will most likely determine whether or not Lehtonen or Niemi will play against the Penguins. Both are capable of being the long-term starters for the Stars, but only one of them can start. For now, Lehtonen would probably get the opening night start.
The Stars schedule is a long one, as the team will travel over 48,000 miles throughout the course of the season.
October begins with two of the first three games at home, before heading on the road for a four-game road trip along the east coast. Then the Stars come back home to close out October with a four-game home-stand.
To start November, the Stars go on another four-game road trip, and again against Eastern Conference opponents. The Stars then come home to have six of the last nine games in November in Dallas.
Dallas’ longest road tip is a six-game trip which begins on February 9th in Minnesota, and ends February 18 in the desert against the Arizona Coyotes.
On the other end, the Stars’ longest home-stand comes in the month of March with five consecutive games played in the home confines of the American Airlines Center.
After the five-game home-stand, Dallas will play five of its last nine games on the road. The final game of the year comes on April 9th when the Stars host the Nashville Predators.
With the offseason moves made, and the schedule that faces them, how will the Stars align (pun intended) for the 2015-16 season?
It is no question that the Stars are a good team, and the pieces they added have made them better. It will reflect in the team’s record, as long as Dallas does not hit the injury bug at really bad times like last year.
In 2015-16, the Stars will rebound and return to the NHL playoffs. After projecting out the course of the Stars’ schedule, Dallas will finish with a 45-24-13 record this season, with 37 regulation / overtime wins and 103 total points.
It would also be fair to say that, if healthy, Seguin could contend for the Hart Trophy in the 2015-16 season. Last season, Seguin could have beaten Carey Price for the NHL’s Most Valuable Player voting if Dmitry Kulikov did not put him out of the lineup for 10 games. Expect Seguin to be in the race for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as well for the most goals scored by a player in a season.
Jamie Benn will most likely be towards the top for most points in the NHL once again.
With the talent surrounding Sharp, he could produce in Dallas just as well as he did in Chicago. Sharp could put another 40-50 points on the season with the Stars, and will play a similar roll he did with the Blackhawks.
Also, expect Lehtonen and Niemi to be very close in games played. If the Stars can get some good production from one, or both of the goaltenders in net, Dallas will be a dangerous team heading into the postseason.
As for Lindy Ruff, he is one of many coaches who could be on the “hot seat” this season if the Stars do not play up to standards. If the Stars are only just as good, or worse than how they finished last season, Ruff could be relieved of his duties as coach of the team.
The Stars are bright in the Lone Star State, and Dallas could be hopping come mid-April. The Stars are one of the most offensively-gifted teams in the NHL, and the 2015-16 season is expected to be a bounce-back season in Dallas.
If the Stars are able to reach the playoffs this year, expect them to be one of the underdogs who could make a magical run for its second Stanley Cup in franchise history.
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