After a promising start, the Dallas Stars collapsed at the worst possible time. The end result was more of the same: no playoffs.
For the Dallas Stars, it’s not a huge surprise that they missed the playoffs. Heck, eight of the past ten regular seasons bore the same result. But if you follow this team closely, the way they went about wetting the bed this year was especially tragic.
Simply put, this year’s slide back to hopeless mediocrity was historic. As I referenced in this space last week, the Stars had accumulated 80 points in 66 games played. Since the dawn of the salary cap era in 2005-06, 101 other teams had done the same thing. Of all those teams, only this year’s Dallas squad went on to miss the postseason.
The free fall was equal parts horrific and infuriating. How could a team so seemingly solid on paper mess themselves so completely? Well, injuries didn’t help, especially in net. Ben Bishop injured his knee, came back, then reinjured it to the point of missing significant time. Backup Kari Lehtonen had to come in and get starter’s minutes, and the flaws in his game were soon exposed.
The other glaring deficiency in their game was depth scoring. As the season wore on, consistent production from anyone outside the top line dried up almost completely. When an opposing team can concentrate on containing your top line and not worry about anyone else hurting them, it makes game planning easy.
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To be sure, a specific set of circumstances descended upon this team at the most inopportune moment. And by the time it fully manifested itself in the eight-game losing streak, it was far too late to pull it out of the ditch. If they weren’t out of gas physically, they surely were mentally, and it showed. Moreover, there is a unique set of problems moving forward that make the future of the team quite murky. Six weeks ago, this would’ve been unthinkable. But a superstar player and the coaching philosophy of this organization hang in the balance, and there really aren’t any easy answers.
First, it may not be this way now, but it will be soon enough. The elephant in the room is Tyler Seguin. Not only did he perform well under coach Ken Hitchcock, he blossomed into a complete two-way center, wholly willing to commit to defense. The surprising aspect of this is that his offensive game flourished as well. As someone who doubted it would be a good fit, I am happy to admit I was wrong. Tyler Seguin was a true revelation this season, and it was a joy to watch in an otherwise dumbfounding year.
What truly makes the next year interesting is Seguin’s contract situation. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. The conventional wisdom suggests signing him to a long term deal. But the ball is completely in his court on this matter. What if he tells the Stars he wants to test his value on the open market? It’d be completely within his right to play out his time here and wait for the best offer from a contender. And in that regard, there’s nothing the front office could do about it.
Additionally, General Manager Jim Nill is tasked with constructing a deeper team for the 2018-19 campaign. Given the ultra-competitive nature of the NHL’s Central Division, Dallas could very well end up exactly where they are right now, which is sixth in a group of seven. That simply isn’t where this franchise needs to be right now. Wholesale changes are probably necessary in some form, and they might not be popular with the fan base at all.
Then you have the head coach. I’ve seen plenty of grumbling on social media that puts this at his feet. But I also don’t see the front office making that particular change. Not unless Hitchcock himself is discouraged to the point of stepping away. But if they have another year like this one, I think the plug gets pulled in favor of yet another change in philosophy.
In short, this year’s disaster surely presents more questions than answers. For three quarters of the season, the Dallas Stars looked the part of playoff contender. Sadly, the final quarter exposed them for the also-rans they are. As we all know, it’s not how you start, but how you finish. There are no quick solutions as this team picks up the pieces and wonders where everything went wrong. It will be highly interesting to see how then next twelve months play out.