With the NHL season just weeks away, we continue to look around the league and analyze each team’s off-season moves and look ahead to 2016-17. Today, we focus on the Dallas Stars.
Last season: 50-23-9 (109 points), 1st place in the Central Division. Defeated the Minnesota Wild in the first round (4-2), but lost in the second round vs. the St. Louis Blues (4-3)
Cap Space Remaining: $5.98MM according to CapFriendly
Key Newcomers: D Andrew Bodnarchuk (free agency, Colorado Avalanche), LW Adam Cracknell (free agency, Edmonton Oilers), D Dan Hamhuis (free agency, Vancouver Canucks), LW Jiri Hudler (free agency, Florida Panthers)
Key Departures: D Jason Demers (free agency, Florida Panthers), C Vernon Fiddler (free agency, New Jersey Devils), D Alex Goligoski (trade, Arizona Coyotes), LW Travis Moen (unsigned), D Kris Russell (unsigned), RW Colton Sceviour (free agency, Florida Panthers)
Player to Watch: Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi – If there was a clear leader in goal, then just that player would be the one to watch. Unfortunately for Stars fans, both Lehtonen and Niemi played equally poorly in 2015-16 and thus share the blame and the spotlight heading into a new season. The duo almost single-handedly eliminated Dallas from the playoffs last season, as neither could quite figure it out in the postseason. At a combined cap hit of $10.4MM and a league-low .904 save percentage, many thought that something had to change for the Star’s net-minding situation this off-season. However, neither goalie was bought out or (to this point) traded. GM Jim Nill has little that he can do. There is no market for a goalie upgrade without shedding one of the two, and no one is looking to acquire either of the goalies. It appears as if Lehtonen and Niemi will be given a second chance in 2016-17, at least until they force Nill’s hand into making a move. With a depleted defensive unit now playing in front of them, one of the pair will have to step up and claim the starter job with his strong, consistent play, or a potent Dallas offense could be rendered meaningless this season. The ship that is the Stars’ 2016-17 season is about to depart, and whether it will sink or float depends on the play in net.
Key Storyline: No team in recent memory has lost more talent from their blue line in one fell swoop than the Dallas Stars did this summer. Dallas perhaps overestimated their potential salary cap crunch, as they first traded elite puck-mover Alex Goligoski to the Arizona Coyotes, where he signed a long-term extension worth $5.475MM per year. They then sat back and watched as solid two-way defenseman Jason Demers capitalized on his free agency and signed with the Florida Panthers at a $4.5MM clip. With almost $6MM remaining in cap space (having not yet re-signed RFA winger Valeri Nichushkin), the Stars likely could have found a way to bring back one of the pair. They did go out and sign veteran blue liner Dan Hamhuis though. Hamhuis was first targeted by the Stars at the 2016 Trade Deadline, but a deal could not be worked out and the team instead acquired the stay-at-home shot blocker Kris Russell. The addition of Hamhuis will help to make up for the loss of Goligoski and Demers, though the 33-year-old has had durability concerns and a drop-off in production over the past few years and will not be able to totally replace either of the two departed top defenseman. Assuming that a reunion with the still-unsigned Russell is also unlikely, the Stars will enter 2016-17 with three of their postseason top four now gone. Young stud John Klingberg will have to carry even more weight for the defense this year, while inexperienced players like Stephen Johns, Esa Lindell, and Patrik Nemeth will also be expected to step up their games. Look for veteran defenseman Johnny Oduya to play a bigger role with the Stars in his second season in Dallas as well. If the Stars want to win the Central Division again, and even attempt to reach the Stanley Cup Final, they need their defense to do it’s best to play up to their championship-caliber offense.