Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars need a banner year this upcoming season. Benn and Seguin’s primes will only last for so long, and the Stars need more success (namely, playoff success) before their elite talent runs out. A team that’s often been surprisingly difficult to garner expectations for, Dallas has a rather bizarre history since Jim Nill took over the team. Two playoff appearances, including one as the top seed in the Western Conference, have given this team a taste of success. But lacking is the consistency required to become a true contender - it has been over a decade since the Stars made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, recently enduring a handful of heartbreaking seasons that saw their playoff hopes end in the last week of the regular season. The team needs to take a step forward sooner rather than later, or else heads may begin to roll.
The most significant offseason change for Dallas comes behind the bench. Jim Montgomery will serve as the latest Stars’ head coach, replacing Ken Hitchcock who retired after one year. Well-known for his ability to work with young players and his tenacious system reliant on speed, Montgomery has the difficult task of providing Dallas with a flexible system that works and that the players can buy into. Lindy Ruff, the coach prior to Hitchcock, had a very wide open and creative system that allowed offensive players to flourish but provided little defensive framework. Hitchcock’s system was the polar opposite - everything was done within a system with little room to stray from it. Montgomery hopes to bridge the gap and bring out the best of both systems, allowing his players to excel at both ends of the ice.
So far, signs look good. The team looked ready to play for Montgomery in the preseason, although there will definitely be some kinks going forward as they learn the system. There were times where the fast pace was evident, and others where the team looked lost and discombobulated. Overall, though, things look promising. Montgomery seems to enjoy being around the team and has a great personality, but ultimately his success will be determined on the ice in the coming seasons.
As for the roster, things haven’t changed much since the end of last season. Valeri Nichushkin and Blake Comeau have been added up front, along with Roope Hintz earning a spot in the NHL after a strong AHL playoffs and a terrific preseason performance. On defense, the biggest new name is Miro Heiskanen, the much anticipated star Finnish defender. He’ll start in a top 4 role and is expected to shoulder a solid amount of work. Roman Polak and Connor Carrick have also been acquired to add more depth, although should see much playing time barring multiple significant injuries.
For the first time in quite a while, Dallas’ defense looks formidable. Finishing in the top 10 last season, they’re certainly on the upswing and only look to improve. Heiskanen is a real wildcard - the strength of the defense will lie in his success. If he performs well, the defense could be amongst the best in the league, but struggles could have them closer to the middle of the pack. Offensively, though, the team has seen better days. Dallas still lacks a true second line forward. Mattias Janmark can play a top six wing position reasonably well, but is probably best suited for third line duty. Spezza doesn’t appear to have improved any from his miserable last season, and Nichushkin doesn’t look to have improved much either, pegging him at a blah 2nd liner at best.
The hope is that Hintz steps up and can take over the 2C role early in the season, and that a revolving door of wingers can maintain some offensive prowess behind the top line of Benn, Seguin, and Radulov. A trade is also possible - Mark Stone and Matt Duchene’s names have been thrown around by fans, but neither appears available currently. That could change quickly, though, and Nill is not known to let a trade pass by without giving it a test. The depth on offense is certainly strong, though, with a number of players capable of playing a quality 3rd or 4th line role.
Overall, the atmosphere of expectations surrounding the Stars seems to be one of hushed enthusiasm. Montgomery brings a very different feel to the team than it has possessed in the past, and his potential as a coach could be a major game-changer for Dallas. But NCAA coaches jumping directly into the NHL haven’t had huge amounts of success in the past, and the roster hasn’t changed significantly for the better. It remains to be seen just how much this team has improved.
The first ten to twenty games should reveal a great deal about the Dallas Stars, and a reevaluation of the team and its stature at that point would provide a great deal of insight into its future.