On paper, the Dallas Stars are right where they should be.
The 2020 Western Conference Champions have captured the hearts of DFW and hockey fans alike nationally after upset series wins over the top-seeded Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche in the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.
For a team ranking 26th of 31 teams in goals per game during the regular season, endured an eight game losing streak between February 27th and the first two round robin games in August, and without 2019 Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop in net due to injury, the current playoff run seems like an upset.
However, when you take a deeper look at the way general manager Jim Nill and interim head coach Rick Bowness have constructed the roster, the more it makes sense that the Stars are – in the words of rookie Joel Kiviranta and now Anton Khudobin – “Not Going Home.”
WHAT HE SAID! 💪💪💪 pic.twitter.com/qLP69lqUHi
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) September 15, 2020
Nill took over the GM role in 2013 after 1999 Champion Joe Nieuwendyk failed to replicate the success he had with Dallas as a player into the front office. Since then, Nill has seen his job status come under fire several times- specifically after disappointing seasons without a playoff berth in 2017 and 2018.
One could argue Nill’s status has never been more secure than it is today thanks to the way the Stars are producing in their September run.
Look no further than Dallas’ first line and the man that wears the ‘C” on his chest to see the Stars’ drafting hitting a home run. Captain Jamie Benn is playing some of the best hockey in his career at the perfect time. Dallas drafted Benn in the fifth round of the 2007 National Hockey League Draft. Niewenduyk also took defenseman Jamie Oleksiak in the first round of the 2011 draft- who’s scored timely goals and provided a physical presence for Dallas over several seasons with a short stint in Pittsburgh in between.
Radek Faksa was Nieuwendyk’s last first round pick in 2012, and has put together 30-plus points in each of his three healthy seasons. Nill’s first draft selection- Russian winger Valeri Nichuskin- was a huge bust. He never got his footing in Dallas and eventually worked his way to Colorado, where he’s finally reached his potential and even scored two goals against Dallas in the conference semifinals.
Since then, Benn has emerged as the face of hockey in Dallas, putting together (four?) All-Star seasons and picking up an Art Ross trophy as the NHL’s top point-getter along the way. Nill extended Benn with one of the league’s most lucrative contracts in 2016.
Denis Gurianov was a first-round pick in 2015, but spent nearly four full seasons at the Stars’ American Hockey League affiliate, skating in just 22 career games before 2019, Since then, he’s developed in to a bona fide top-six player, tallying a team-high 20 regular-season goals in addition to nine goals in the Stars’ playoff run. He’s also become a more well-balanced player- nearly eclipsing his assist totals in the postseason after racking up just nine in the regular season. Roope Hintz was the Stars’ next pick in that draft, and has battled injuries in the postseason and continued to improve after a 19-goal campaign in the shortened regular season.
Nill’s first draft selection- Russian winger Valeri Nichuskin- was a huge bust. He never got his footing in Dallas and eventually worked his way to Colorado, where he’s finally reached his potential and even scored two goals against Dallas in the conference semifinals. league’s finest. He made up for it in the same round by drafting Jason Dickinson- who’s blossomed into a decent bottom-six scoring wing.
Esa Lindell and John Klingberg are two complimentary pieces that have emerged as elite top-two defensemen. Lindell slipped through the cracks in the 2012 Draft, and has recorded a positive plus-minus in each of his four full seasons. Klingberg earned rookie of the month honors in February 2014, and has since scored many huge goals for Dallas while anchoring the defensive unit for the past five years, including an All-Star appearance in 2018.
Perhaps no draft pick has shined brighter than 2017 No. 3 overall pick Miro Heiskanen. After the Stars regressed by a whopping 31 points in 2016-17, the Stars struck gold in the lottery and jumped up to grab the elite Finnish prospect that could’ve been taken No. 1 overall. He made the NHL All-Star Game in 2019, and, despite a quiet Conference Final, still leads the Stars with 22 postseason points.
It wasn’t three months into Nill’s tenure when the Stars swung one of the biggest trades in franchise history on July 4, trading for beleaguered Boston forward and former elite prospect Tyler Seguin, who was on the heels of shining in the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013. Seguin has truly grown up in Dallas and blossomed into an elite talent, racking up a whopping five All-Star appearances in seven seasons with the Stars. Despite a quiet postseason, he was still led Dallas in points this year.
In a trade with Detroit, Dallas shipped out struggling backup goalie Richard Bachman for a 2nd round pick that turn into Roope Hintz and Mattias Janmark, whose rise started with his ascension as a bottom-six forward on the regular season Western Conference champion Stars team in 2016. Though Dallas hasn’t gotten much offense from him in 2020, his electric speed on the penalty kill has allowed the Stars’ unit to emerge as one of the best in the NHL.
After flunking out of the postseason in 2016 largely due to inadequate goaltending, the team finally moved on from longtime goalie Kari Lehtonen in net in 2018 with a splash- acquiring goalie Ben Bishop from the Los Angeles Kings. Bishop starred with the Stars’ likely opponent in the 2020 Cup Finals in Tampa Bay’s run in their 2015 loss to Chicago. Despite receiving heavy criticism due to poor play in just three appearances in the Edmonton bubble, Bishop still carried an elite Stars defense from 2018-20.
Dallas’ move to acquire Andrew Cogliano at the deadline is one of the more underrated moves in recent Stars history. Cogliano is known for an iron man streak that just recently ended when he gave way to Joel Kiviranta in game seven of the second round, and has shored up Dallas’ penalty kill along with Janmark’s elite speed on the ice.
Free agent signings
Nill initially was a trade-first style of general manager early in his tenure, but since principal owner Tom Gaglardi took over in 2011, Dallas has spent much closer to the cap than usual. It started with signing Alexander Raudlov in 2017 to a four year deal worth $6,500,000 annually after a strong season with Montreal in 2016 following a brief stint in Russia’s Kontential Hockey League. He’s since developed into the perfect linemate for the Benn-Seguin front, and has scored a handful of huge goals for the Stars despite a frustrating feast-or-famine style of play.
Nill’s 2019 free agent class flew extremely under the radar, but has completely rounded out Dallas’ roster. San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski signed a three-year deal worth $7,500,000 annually and brought a veteran presence to a Stars locker room that had varying experience in big games. He led the Sharks to the 2016 Cup Final and routinely was a leader on the US National team. Dallas also signed former Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry, who’s been injured for a large portion of the season, but has given Dallas a competitive edge and a few big goals along the way this postseason. Like Seguin, Perry won a Stanley Cup in his second season and gives the Stars a huge jolt in playoff experience with 38 career playoff goals.
Joel Kiviranta went completely undrafted in the 2019 NHL entry draft, but aided by former Star Jere Lehtinen, Nill scooped up the Finnish forward in free agency. After playing a background role before the pause, Kiviranta burst onto the scene two weeks ago with a hat trick to sink the Colorado Avalanche in game seven of the conference semifinals. He got another big goal in the series-clinching game five win over Vegas and figures to be a large part of the Stars’ future plans.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, where would the Stars be without Anton Khoudobin’s play this posteason? Khoudobin flew under the radar for years, bouncing around between Boston, Minnesota, Carolina and Anaheim before coming to Dallas in 2018 and developing into the league’s premier backup goalie. He’s made a whopping 19 starts in Dallas’ 22 playoff games, and allowed a minuscule 2.62 goals per game with a .920 save percentage. Though Bishop is the more talented goalie when healthy, Khoudobin has turned into a fan favorite and will earn a large payday to be an NHL team’s starting goalie next season.
Through a variety of distinct ways, Dallas has loaded heaps of talent onto one roster- and it’s finally coming together at the right time, definitely in large part due to the team’s belief in interim coach Rick Bowness. Dallas came to the NHL bubble with a clear motivation- to win a Stanley Cup- and now their opportunity is here.
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