With 50 games down and 32 to go, the Dallas Stars are in playoff position and aware of the challenge to maintain that position in the toughest division in hockey.
Dallas sits at 28-18-4 and are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games before the All-Star break this past weekend. This currently puts Dallas 4th in the Central, three points ahead of Colorado with two games in hand and three points behind St. Louis who has a game in hand over Dallas.
If the season ended today, Dallas would face the Western Conference points runner-up, which would currently be the Winnipeg Jets.
The only thing that separates Dallas from being out of playoff position and a top-5 seed in the Western Conference is a whopping TWO losses.
However, Dallas has been able to fight their way inside the playoff picture despite a couple key injuries like defenseman Marc Methot and forward Martin Hanzal who both missed a significant amount of time earlier in the season.
Neither player is currently 100% with Methot still on the inactive list, which leaves Dallas without a pair of key pieces after the break.
But as well as Dallas has played over the past two months, the Stars are confident behind Ken Hitchcock to make a run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In order to get a better look at how likely a run would be, and what would need to happen, they’ll have to look back to how they played before the all-star break.
Here are the Pre-All-Star Break Report Card grades for the Dallas Stars:
One of the biggest story lines heading into the 2017-18 season was the number of moves that General Manager Jim Nill and the Stars made in the offseason.
Trying to strengthen the blue line and add flexibility on the attack let to the Stars’ hiring of Ken Hitchcock and the acquisition of the following players:
Alexander Radulov (Via Free Agency from Montreal)
Tyler Pitlick (Via Free Agency from Edmonton)
Ben Bishop (Via Trade with Los Angeles)
Martin Hanzal (Via Free Agency from Minnesota)
Mark Methot (Via Trade with Las Vegas)
These five acquisitions have made an immediate impact on the identity and effectiveness at the AAC. And undoubtedly, these five players have made the Stars better than the 34-37-11 record from last season.
Radulov is a top-50 talent in the NHL and is showing why he is more than worth his 5 year, $31 million contract signed this July. He is tied for the team lead in points (48) with 20 goals, and 28 assists, showing that he is more than worthy of sharing the top line with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
Tyler Pitlick has been a solid add to the middle rotations and has helped the third line be just as effective as the top two.
Then of course Bishop being hailed as the top goaltending choice for Hitch despite some strong early play from Kari Lehtonen. Led by a 2.46 GAA, a .217 SV%, and 21 wins, Bishop improves upon a position that was a huge question mark heading into the 2017-18 season.
Despite the injuries from Methot and Hanzal, the trio of Radulov, Pitlick, and Bishop make the Stars better equipped for the playoff push. The overall effectiveness of the video game-like offseason list impels me to give them a decent grade so far.
Over the past half-decade, the Stars have built their identity around the dynamic play of Benn and Seguin on the attack. But that duo has been forced to share the ice with Radulov and ultimately the points total too
However, with the addition of Ken Hitchcock, the focus has been shifted more on to the defensive side and the attack is not as feared as the past few seasons.
Benn was not named to the All-Star team, while Seguin was. Both are over 40 points and 20 goals on the season, but could be the difference between securing or losing a playoff spot.
With 32 games left, the attack doesn’t need to be top-line heavy, but instead with others like Radek Faksa, Mattias Janmark, and Jason Spezza. All three have had a decent season thus far, but have yet to reach the 30-point mark just yet.
The forwards have been decent so far, but with so much room to improve, I just can’t give the unit an A just yet. Check back with me in May.
There is so much to be said for the improvement that the Stars’ blue line has seen over the past year and how much this makes the team a contender.
Last season the Stars were 29th of 30 teams in the NHL for goals against per game (3.17). That number has since been improved to the 7th best mark at 2.64 GA per game.
The turnaround is thanks to the implementation of Hitchcock’s system and the strong play of individuals like John Kilngberg, Dan Hamhuis, and Stephen Johns on the blue line that have helped make the transition easier.
If Dallas can continue to play in the top 10 of the league defensively, then it leaves a realistic opportunity to not only make the playoffs, but even make some noise in the first few rounds.
Much like the defense, there has been significant improvement for Dallas in-between the posts improving from a 2016-17 SV% of .893 (League Worst), to a mark of .911 (17th out of 30).
The biggest reason for the improvement is the addition of Ben Bishop in the offseason and the added presence of some kind of a defense.
There have been games that have been won by goaltending and have been specifically won by Bishop. But, there have also been games that have gone negatively from a goalie perspective. Most recently this past Thursday’s Toronto game.
If the Stars want to legitimately make a run in the Western Conference, consistent goal-keeping is going to be a must. Maybe if they were able to avoid a few losses due to the previous inconsistencies, Dallas would be one of the top three games in the Central division.
Surprisingly, this grade is much higher than even I thought I would give. But with so many injuries and improvement through the first 50 games of the season, I think Dallas is a sleeping giant.
Despite losing a few games to Winnipeg, who is the most likely first round opponent, the Stars have all the different phases that are required for a championship run. Solid defense, scoring, goaltending, and veteran leadership gives the Stars an outside shot at a Stanley Cup title run after the All-Star break.
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