Parker Michaels continues his NHL Season Preview series in reverse to first order according to his projected standings. Be sure to bookmark our Season Previews home base here where links to all 31 teams will appear as they’re posted. Today at No. 15, the Dallas Stars.
Many believed the Dallas Stars were going to be a playoff team last season after the summer acquisitions of Alex Radulov, Ben Bishop, Martin Hanzal, Tyler Pitlick and Marc Methot. Add in a return for head coach Ken Hitchcock and the Stars made a trendy pick for Stanley Cup Futures.
While Dallas did not make my cut of final teams last year, I did believe they were significantly improved and found myself finding them undervalued throughout the season, betting on Dallas to win 20 times (fourth-most in the league) and only against them four times (least of any team in league).
While the Stars did prove to be an improved team, increasing their regular season point total from 79 in 2016-17 to 92 last season, my numbers on a game-to-game basis were consistently off and the Stars cost me more money than any other team in the league.
One of the biggest problems I had with this team was dealing with the change in goaltending from Antti Niemi to Ben Bishop. Niemi was my worst rated goaltender from the year prior and Bishop was quite high entering last season and admittedly, maybe a bit too high. Hopefully with the stability of Bishop in goal again this season, my game-to-game numbers on the Stars will be better adjusted.
This year’s team is projected for a 15th place overall finish but you will note that does not qualify them for a playoff spot, thanks to the Washington Capitals who sneak in with a lower point total thanks to an overall weaker Eastern Conference. Dallas is the ultimate bubble team for me right now but the standings in not only the Central Division, but the Western Conference as a whole are a complete logjam in the middle. The good news for Stars fans, even though I currently have them just on the outside, they are just 1.7 points from jumping over the next two Central teams ahead of them and into third place in the division.
Record: 42-32-8 (92 points), 6th in Central Division, 19th Overall
Playoffs: Missed by 3 points
Dallas was coming off a disappointing 6th place finish in the Central in 2016-17 and were optimistic of improving that position with several key additions to the lineup. The Stars did have a much better season, increasing their final point tally by 13 in the standings and finished – in 6th place. The Central Division became the best in the NHL from top to bottom, with six teams finishing with at least 92 points and the other being the Chicago Blackhawks, a team considered to be a rare dynasty this decade.
The Stars thrived under the defensive-minded Hitchcock system, finishing seventh-best in the league with just 225 goals allowed (2.74 per game), a stark contrast to the year prior where Dallas gave up 262 goals, the second-most in the league. The improved defense also did not have to come at the cost of the offense, who only fell from 18th overall with 223 goals (2.72 per game) to 19th with 235 (2.87 per game).
Dallas looked to be in a solid playoff position for much of the season but like many teams who fall down the stretch, key injuries derailed their chances throughout the season. Martin Hanzal was brought in to stabilize the fourth line at the center position, a trouble spot for the team, but ankle, hand, back and hip injuries limited him to just 38 games and he was ineffective when healthy. Spinal fusion surgery finally ended his season in March.
Marc Methot was a veteran blueliner brought in to help lead a young and inexperienced defensive group, but mid-season knee surgery held him to just 36 games.
Then the kicker, goaltender Ben Bishop with a knee injury in March saw him play only 72 minutes over the final 16 games, leaving the bulk of responsibility to Kari Lehtonen who played admirably but was not enough in the end.
Dallas endured a 2-7-4 stretch in March which included a difficult 0-4-2 road trip mid-month to completely sink their season. A 4-2-0 finish was too little too late.
The Stars were a curious team at the trade deadline, looking as if they needed another piece to get over the hump and into the playoffs but General Manager Jim Nill was quiet and did not pull the trigger on any major moves. Shortly after, Martin Hanzal was shut down for the rest of the season and the Stars bottom-six suffered.
After the season, Hitchcock announced his retirement from coaching but will remain with the franchise as a consultant. Hitchcock retires as the third-winningest coach of all time with 823 victories and the winningest coach in Stars history. He went 319-186-20 in two stints with the Stars, winning a Stanley Cup with them in 1999.
On May 4, the summer kicked off with the hiring of new head coach Jim Montgomery who spent the previous five seasons as head coach at the University of Denver, taking the Pioneers to the NCAA Frozen Four in 2016 and then an NCAA Championship in 2017. Montgomery has earned an early rep as a player’s coach over the summer, with several Stars players speaking highly of him.
The Stars will look a lot different under the new coach’s system. Montgomery wants to push the pace and play with tempo, similar to the 2015-16 version of the Stars which led the NHL in scoring at 3.26 goals per game. That version of the Stars though was a free-wheeling group without a lot of structure and that is where Montgomery expects change. An emphasis on puck possession and defensive support has been the biggest implementation in training camp, with a focus on a stronger offensive and neutral-zone forecheck. Standing teams up at the blueline and forcing turnovers in quick transition, it is an aggressive system the Stars previous personnel would not have been equip to handle but with a fresher, younger group on the backend now, the Stars are in better position to play this style.
Nill and Montgomery went to work on shaping the roster and started at the June Entry Draft where they selected center Ty Dellandrea with the No.13 overall pick. Dellandrea will play with the Flint Firebirds in the OHL again this season and is still at least a couple of seasons away from becoming an impact player. He needs to work on building strength and size but could project to be a top-six center in the future.
All of Nill’s additions this summer came July 1 on the first day of free agency. The biggest additions were a pair of forwards brought in to bolster the secondary scoring. Former Stars winger Valeri Nichushkin was brought back after spending two years in the KHL, signing a 2-year, $5.9 million contract. Former Colorado Avalanche forward Blake Comeau was signed to a 3-year, $7.2 million deal.
A questionable signing of veteran defenseman Roman Polak to a 1-year, $1.3 million deal followed to provide depth on the backend and with the team choosing not to bring back goaltender Kari Lehtonen, the team signed Anton Khudobin to a 2-year, $5 million contract to backup Bishop.
The last piece of business for Nill was to lock-up his franchise centerman to an extension. Tyler Seguin is tied for the second-most goals in the NHL with Sidney Crosby over the past five seasons, second to only Alex Ovechkin (teammate Jamie Benn is fourth). With just one more year on his current deal at a $5.75 million cap hit, the Stars made sure free agency would not be an option next summer. The Stars signed Seguin to an 8-year, $78.8 million contract extension which will kick in next season at a $9.85 million cap hit.
With no further business to take care of, the Stars have focused on learning Montgomery’s new system and are ready for the season ahead.
Stanley Cup: +3300 (BetOnline)
Western Conference: +1800 (BetOnline)
Central Division: +1200 (BetOnline)
Regular Season Points: 94.5 (-115, -105) (Bookmaker), 94.5 (-110) (BetOnline), 94.5 (-115) (Bovada)
Make Playoffs: YES -175, NO +145 (BetOnline), YES -165, NO +135 (Bovada)
Current odds as of September 27, 2018
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
*Individual Player Ratings represent how many points in the standings each player is directly responsible for over the course of the full season and is called Point Shares. It involves the base formula created by Justin Kubatko at hockey-reference.com. An explanation of how I further use his methods can be found here with a more detailed methodology by Kubatko himself, here. The average value for a forward is 3.5 and a defenseman is 4.4 Point Shares
*Salaries in green denote entry-level contract
NHL RANK: 9
Dallas boasts a strong mix down the middle headlined by Tyler Seguin who joined the 40-goal club for the first time in his career and with a new contract extension already out of the way, he can focus on leading one of the best top lines in the NHL. Only five players over the past five seasons have more combined points than Seguin and one is linemate Jamie Benn.
Jason Spezza struggled through the worst season of his career last year. Even in his mid-thirties now, Spezza has been a point producer over the previous few seasons, averaging 0.78 points per game from 2014-2017, but only managed 26 points in 78 games last season, a measly 0.33 per game pace.
Spezza did not fit in well with Hitchcock’s system, having to move from the center position over to the wing and saw his ice time drop over three minutes from 16:10 to 13:00 per game, the lowest in his career since his rookie season.
Montgomery realizes how important Spezza’s contribution is to a successful season and will have him back in the second line center spot and Spezza is convinced he still has a lot to offer. Spezza averaged 6.4 Point Shares over the three seasons from 2014-2017 but ended with just 1.5 last year, which really hurts his projection for this season, but back in his natural position and with increased ice time, Spezza could be in line for a huge bounce back year and smash his projection of 4.0 Point Shares.
Radek Faksa has become one of the most dependable defensive centers in the league who no one has heard about. Honestly, I think I have him a bit underrated here at 4.1 Point Shares and expect him to climb closer to the 5.0 number this season. Another potential small bump to the Stars overall point total and you can see why they might sneak into the playoffs if things fall the right way.
The fourth line is currently the only battle still going on in training camp with Martin Hanzal still recovering from back surgery. Hanzal is not slated to return until late November or early December, so the spot is open. I originally had Gemel Smith penciled in this slot who carries a 1.0 Point Shares value, but Jason Dickinson appears to have the inside edge with an impressive preseason. His extra 0.8 of value brings the Stars that much closer to a playoff spot.
The most interesting choice is prospect Roope Hintz who has thrown a wrench into Montgomery’s plans. Hintz has done everything he can to make it difficult to send him back to Texas, impressing all throughout preseason. The fact he is the only player in this group who does not require waivers is a major hurdle for him. Montgomery might have Hintz start in the AHL and would be among the first names called when injuries hit, but he may just play his way onto the team. The Stars would have to risk exposing someone like Smith to waivers if that is the case.
NHL RANK: 11
The Stars are also strong on the left side with the top three spots mostly set and the fourth spot still up for grabs. Only Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane have more combined points over the past five years than Jamie Benn. He often plays second-fiddle to his linemate Seguin in the media, but Benn is every bit as important to driving play on this line.
Matthias Janmark could be underrated here at only 3.6 Point Shares with only two years of data to work with and a major injury involved. Janmark had a good rookie season three years ago but missed all of 2016-17 with a major knee injury. He was average last year with 34 points but struggled in controlling possession and shot shares. Now a full year removed from his injury, Janmark should feel more comfortable and hopefully put up better numbers.
Montgomery has been shifting lines around a lot in the preseason and believes several players are good fits in multiple areas. One of those players is newcomer Blake Comeau who will slot in here on the third line but will also see time on the top line on the right-wing side. Comeau can be an effective player in the bottom-six as he had a very positive impact on shot shares with Colorado and produces offense fine for a third or fourth line player.
The fourth spot has Devin Shore penciled in but will come down to the final few days of the preseason, with Remi Elie being the main contender. Hintz could also open here on the wing if he stays on the team. Denis Gurianov is another prospect getting a strong look but should ultimately be sent back to Texas.
NHL RANK: 19
The Stars rank weakest on the right wing but still have a few very capable options. Alex Radulov showed his first season back in the NHL with Montreal two seasons ago was no fluke with a career-high 27 goals and 72 points, providing a strong complement to Seguin and Benn. He should once again be a dangerous scoring threat.
Valeri Nichushkin made his NHL debut in 2013-14 with the Stars at the age of just 18-years old and had an average season. After spending two seasons in the KHL and producing 51 points in 86 games, the Stars will be counting on a breakthrough season. Nichushkin is reportedly a different player after spending time overseas. Compared to his earlier time with the Stars, he drives the net harder and is a better defender. For Dallas to have a playoff year they are going to need at least one of Nichushkin, Janmark or Faksa to have a big breakout season.
Tyler Pitlick delivered 27 points over 80 games in his first full-time regular NHL role. He was stronger on the defensive end, but the Stars will need him to step up offensively this season and contribute more as a secondary scorer.
The fourth spot should belong to Brett Ritchie who had an interesting season. He was a huge disappointment on the offensive end, failing to build on his 16 goals the previous season and only scored seven times but he was fantastic at controlling possession on both ends. If he can continue the positive shot shares in a fourth line role, the Stars would count that as a win.
NHL RANK: 14
The Stars defense is a slightly above average group as a whole who are only going to get better over the next few years. Esa Lindell is developing into an excellent shutdown defender and the perfect complement for the offensive Klingberg.
Marc Methot was signed to an expensive contract three years ago for having the reputation of a premier shutdown defender but should never have really been placed in that category to begin with. While he certainly was a more capable defender back then, injuries and age have now rendered him to an average third pair defender, at best. Knee surgery and a hand injury limited him last year and that likely worked in the Stars favor. I think his projection of 3.4 Point Shares is high for this season, but Dallas will really need him to bounce back, especially early on.
The need for a strong start from Methot is so rookie Miro Heiskanen can settle in and get up to speed. Ideally, Heiskanen could start on the third pair with a bit of shelter for the first few months but that will depend on Methot’s play and how quickly Heiskanen himself can adapt. Playing in Finland’s top league the past two seasons, Heiskanen was named the top defenseman of the league last year at just 18-years old. He is a very intelligent player who will not light up the league offensively but is highly regarded for his defensive skills and has the potential to become a premier shutdown defender. He is overshadowed among the rookie class thanks to Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin but is not far below him in terms of overall impact. Yes, Heiskanen really is that good.
NHL RANK: 13
The fourth pro season for John Klingberg saw him produce a career-high 67 points, just one off the NHL scoring league among defenseman behind Washington’s John Carlson. If not for the Stars power outage down the stretch, Klingberg would have likely been more in the conversation for the Norris Trophy. He is an elite defenseman and one of the best puck-movers in the game and can still get better. He should be on your radar for this year’s Norris.
Stephen Johns is a solid stay-at-home defender but does not do much in terms of driving offense. He is a physical force around the net finishing 21st in the league overall and tenth among blueliners with 201 hits.
Julius Honka had a very positive impact on shot differentials last season and is an effective puck-mover but could not seem to find his place under Hitchcock and his confidence seemed to suffer. He has the skills to be an excellent third pair defender and is excited for a new season under Montgomery.
And then there is Roman Polak who was brought in as a physical presence and an insurance policy if someone in the top-six falters. He is a liability when on the ice but should be a good locker room guy for the young defense.
NHL RANK: T-18
(Starter – T-18, Backup – T-44)
Ben Bishop has been an excellent starting goaltender when healthy but has had to deal with the injury bug over the past two seasons. A significant knee injury ended his season early last year at the most crucial time of the Stars push for a playoff spot. Bishop says his knee feels great and he has not shown any lingering effects so far in the preseason. If he can stay healthy, Bishop will be a big factor again in the Stars chase for the postseason.
Kari Lehtonen was an effective backup last season but always seemed to give up the easy goal at the wrong moment, so the Stars chose not to bring him back and signed Anton Khudobin to a two-year deal. Khudobin was just above average as a backup in Boston last season with a .913 save percentage and 0.89 GSAA, an advanced stat which measures Goals-Saved-Above-Average. He owns a career .915 save percentage but his best numbers came early in his career in his mid-to-late twenties. Now at 31, Khudobin has only produced a .906 save percentage over the past four seasons with GSAA scores of -12.40, -3.95 and last year’s +0.89 (with a fourth season which does not qualify due to not enough games played). Even so, Khudobin still produced better numbers than Lehtonen last year and should be a solid backup option behind Bishop. Just temper your expectations with him.
The Stars are a really interesting team this season. They have the pieces in place to be a playoff team, but things are going to have to fall into place exactly right. Spezza needs a big year with the move back to center and the secondary scoring which doomed them last season is going to have to come from improved players like Janmark, Nichushkin, Comeau and Pitlick. The defense appears to be a strength but will depend on how quickly Heiskanen can become an effective top-four partner and whether Methot can play well enough to bridge the gap. In goal, Bishop will need to remain healthy, a problem for him in recent years and if he falls, Khudobin will need to play as well as he did last year rather than the general body of work from his past few seasons.
Jim Montgomery is a confident coach who thinks like the new-style NHL with a focus on speed and offense. I really like what he brings to the table and think this team has the kind of foundation he needs to work within his system. It might just take some time for everyone to get used to it.
My point projection of 97.0 is slightly above the 94.5 number currently being offered across the board at offshore sportsbooks with the general agreement of the Stars being a bit better than last year’s 92 points. With the middle of the standings projected to be as tight as they are, I do not see a lot of value betting this number. The “To Make Playoffs” prop bet has Dallas favored to get in and while I have them just on the outside edge, it is so close I am not interested in the “NO” and do not see any value in laying -165/-175 on the “YES”.
Current Stanley Cup Futures list Dallas in the 12th to 17th range so my projection of 15th overall seems right in line with those numbers. This is a team who could sneak into the playoffs and would be an interesting matchup, but I do not see them getting out of the first round and therefore am not interested in any of their Futures at this time.
Regarding prop bets for awards, the expected Stars players are littered across various categories. Seguin is the current fourth favorite for the Rocket Richard at +1200 which is intriguing after his 40-goal season but does not interest me as there are better options at better prices. Benn is also listed at +3000 and while he is consistently good for 30-35 goals it is unlikely he would jump into the 45-50 range which I anticipate will be needed to win this season. Seguin and Benn are also listed for the Hart Trophy at healthy prices of +5000 and +4000, respectively, but it might be hard for linemates to separate oneself from the other (although I would lean to Benn if wanting to choose between the two).
Seguin and Benn are also listed for the Art Ross Trophy for the league’s top point scorer, along with Radulov who makes an appearance at +6000, but it is hard to get excited about anyone winning this category not named Connor McDavid.
Heiskanen is a rookie of the year option under the Calder as the sixth favorite at +850 and the only other defenseman other than Dahlin but does not carry the offensive upside to likely be a factor here.
Finally, Bovada had opened odds for the Norris Trophy but pulled them yesterday after the news of the Seth Jones injury, who was the betting favorite at +650. They will likely pop back up sometime over the next few days. Klingberg was listed as the seventh favorite at +1500 and was a name I had circled as a strong option. He would definitely be worth a recommendation at that price, but we will see what the list looks like when it reopens. I am expecting to have a final article on Monday with all my final prop bets for awards.
Salary numbers from capfriendly.com, stats from hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com