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Central Division Preview: Dallas Stars

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The Central Division preview series continues with the Lone Star State’s hockey club.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Anaheim Ducks Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

After being dubbed the “winners” of the 2017 off-season, many pundits predicted the Dallas Stars would not only make the playoffs last season, but would potentially challenge for the Central Division crown. In fact, seven of us picked them to win the division last year.

The idea of Alexander Radulov playing on a line with Jamie Benn or Tyler Seguin sounded like pucks pounding the back of nets, and with Ben Bishop in tow, it appeared their perennial goaltending crisis was solved. In addition, they added Marc Methot, Erik Karlsson’s former defensive partner who’d famously almost had his finger removed by Sidney Crosby. Although their defense still looked weak, it appeared to be “good enough,” especially because Methot and John Klingberg looked like a bona fide first-line defensive pairing.

Then came the injuries.

Both Marc Methot and Ben Bishop, the new sealant for a team known to let goals leak in, spent significant amounts of time injured. Bishop fought through back issues all season before going down with an undisclosed lower-body injury at the end of the season. Due to an undisclosed knee injury, Methot only appeared in 36 games for the Stars and scored a lowly 3 points all season. The defense was bad, Bishop was not himself, and the Stars’ depth offense took a hit with offseason signing Martin Hanzal only appearing in 38 games. Hanzal had to fight off a variety of injuries last season, including back and hamstring problems.

The Dallas Stars are coming back to camp healthy this season. Will new head coach Jim Montgomery have the ability to lead them into the playoffs?

Key Additions

Speaking of Jim Montgomery, he is arguably the biggest change for the Dallas Stars this season. He has a long history of success at every level of coaching and has one incredibly impressive record taking over new teams. In the 2012-13 USHL season he took an expansion team, the Dubique Fighting Saints, to a 37–14–9 record. He then became the head coach of the University of Denver, leading them to a conference championship and NCAA tournament berth in his first year.

His accolades at Denver don’t stop there, though. In his five years as head coach, Montgomery became the fourth-winningest head coach in Denver hockey history. Each season with Montgomery at the helm, Denver made the NCAA tournament. They made the Frozen Four in both 2016 and 2017, capturing the college hockey crown in the latter year. No coach in college hockey enjoyed as much success as Montgomery during his reign at Denver.

NCAA Hockey: Frozen Four-Denver vs Minnesota-Duluth Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

One hallmark of Montgomery-coached Denver was their relentless offense. Last season, Denver finished 9th in the entire NCAA in goals-for per game. Utilizing the stretch pass, Denver players wouldn’t necessarily out-skate opponents, but rather focused on drawing the opposition out of position with pin-point passing. It is hard to imagine that Benn and Seguin would not benefit from such a change in system from the hard-nosed defensive style of Ken Hitchcock.

The short story of it is that Jim Montgomery is going to enable his best players to be the best that they can be. That is exactly how teams should hire new coaches. Ken Hitchcock had the opposite effect, restricting his best players while enabling his lesser players. Montgomery should provide an immediate boost to the Dallas Stars’ performance.

Moreover, prodigal son Valeri Nichushkin, a 2013 first-round draft pick of the Stars, will return from the KHL this season. In his first NHL season, he had 34 points in 79 games. The next two years weren’t as smooth, and he left for CSKA Moscow. In Moscow, he scored 24 and 27 points in his two seasons respectively. With his return, the Stars are gaining a refined young talent that should fit into Montgomery’s system.

Key Losses

The Stars simultaneously did not lose much this off-season and lost a lot. Dan Hamhuis leaving for Nashville is their only key loss. However, Hamhuis was often the top defenseman on their second pairing last season due to Marc Methot’s injury. That Hamhuis will be an anchor on the Nashville Predators’ third pairing this season shows the massive gap in defensive talent between the Predators and the Stars.

The Stars did not go out in free agency and fix any of their defensive woes—acquiring Roman Polak in a fast division does more harm than good. There has been a lot of buzz around prospect Miro Heiskanen making the jump to the NHL, and Ben Gleason could develop into a fine defenseman. However, the defensive outlook for this season is not positive.

Best Case Scenario

After being injured on the back end for most of last season, the Dallas Stars get a full, healthy season out from the blue line. Miro Heiskanen quietly lands a full-time spot on the defense by mid-season and helps stabilize the third pairing. Jim Montgomery’s offensive system translates well to the NHL level and the Stars make the playoffs like everyone expected last season.

Worst Case Scenario

If John Klingberg suffers any long-term injury, the Stars are done for. He is relied on more than any other player on the Dallas Stars and, without him, they could easily fall the way of the Blackhawks and finish dead last. Although Jim Montgomery has an impressive track record, there is also no guarantee that he can manage an NHL locker room or that his philosophy towards the game translates to the NHL level. The Stars finish dead last in the division and General Manager Jim Nill finally is fired after refusing to address the blueline issues that have plagued the Stars throughout his entire time with the organization.

Prediction: 5th in the Central Division

Will 5th in the Central Division be good enough to squeak into the playoffs this season? Considering how bad the bottom of the Pacific will be, it looks doubtful. The Stars have started to take some steps in the right direction with their coaching, but this is still a very flawed team. They will not be as bad as last season, but this is also not a team that has a chance to win the Central Division as many predicted a year ago. The Stars will miss the playoffs by one or two points.