The Dallas Stars returned to the postseason, after missing for five straight years, and appear to be a team on the rise with two of the game's best under-25 forwards leading the way.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Stars team that is trending in the right direction, but likely needs an offensive boost to take the next step.
The Stars were a strong puck possession team, that made the playoffs despite below-average 5-on-5 goaltending results (more a reflection on backups than starter Kari Lehtonen) and were carried offensively by Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, who combined for 163 points on 231 Stars goals.
They were also the only Stars forwards to finish with more than 35 points, so that could be the next area on which to focus for improvement -- boosting the secondary scoring so that the weight doesn't fall so heavily upon Benn and Seguin.
"I think if you want to be a contender, you have to be deep down the middle," GM Jim Nill told the Dallas Morning News. "That's something we've talked about over and over again."
Having needs is not a big deal -- every team can get better -- but the Stars are in a good position because, after last summer's additions of Tyler Seguin and Valeri Nichushkin, they've added building blocks that give the team a reason to have a positive outlook. Now, it's a matter of finding the right pieces for the supporting cast so that the Stars are ready to make noise in the postseason, taking the next step to compete with the powers of the Western Conference.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
Jim Nill/Lindy Ruff
Acquiring Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins last summer shifted the Stars' franchise. They landed a premier young scorer around whom they could build and Seguin responded to an increased role in Dallas by finishing fourth in the league with 84 points. Signed to a team-friendly deal for five more years? That's icing on the cake.
Seguin paired with Jamie Benn on the Stars' first line and they were a formidable tandem. Only Anaheim's duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, with 128 points, were teammates with more points than Benn and Seguin, who had 116 last season. Benn is a model power forward complement to Seguin and at 24-years-old, is hitting his prime. Over the past four seasons, Benn has been an elite offensive performer, ranking second only to Evgeni Malkin, in points-per-60-minutes during 5-on-5 play (minimum 3000 minutes). Seguin, still in the infancy of his career, ranks 14th on that list.
An undrafted free agent out of Brown University who climbed through the Central Hockey League, ECHL and AHL before reaching the NHL, Ryan Garbutt is blue collar, yet surprisingly productive. He was one of four forwards to record at least 30 points and 100 penalty minutes last season and, since arriving in the league, this grinder has been generating shots on goal like a scorer.
Over the past couple seasons, Rich Peverley has been one of the lowest-percentage finishers, among players that have generated at least 200 shots, but he's generally an effective and versatile forward who can move around the lineup as needed. The primary issue for Peverley is that he collapsed during a game last season and there is the possibility that the cardiac event will prevent him from playing again. There's a lot of uncertainty regarding Peverley's future, so the Stars will need to have some options ready if Peverley can't make it back.
After his rookie season, even though he scored one goal in 24 regular season games after the Olympics, it sure appears that the Stars stole Valeri Nichushkin with the 10th pick in last summer's draft. He has a huge frame and has high-end skill; it's just a matter of harnessing that talent and getting the most out of it. Nichushkin spent much of the year riding shotgun with Benn and Seguin and if the Russian teenager develops quickly, that line could be unstoppable.
Alex Chiasson burst out of the gate, with nine points in nine games, before points and shots on goal dried up, and his ice time declined. A 6-foot-3 winger with some skill and a solid two-way game, Chiasson was one of the unluckiest players in terms of goaltending save percentage when he was on the ice.
35-year-old winger Erik Cole is two seasons removed from a career-high 35 goals, but that seems like eons ago. His production has fallen the past couple seasons and, with one year left on his deal, Cole could be a buyout candidate.
Shawn Horcoff was a spare part for much of the season, playing under 12 minutes a game from January through April, and he wasn't terribly effective when he did play, but raised his game in the playoffs and the last year of his contract pays $3-million (compared to his $5.5-million cap hit).
Cody Eakin provides a solid two-way game, but may not yet score enough to capably hold down a top-six role. At the same time, he's 23, so it's possible that his offensive game could continue to grow, particularly if there is a skill upgrade on his wings.
Agitator Antoine Roussel is becoming even more annoying to play against because, in addition to his in-your-face style of play, he's chipping in offensively. Since 2006-2007, there is one other forward (Steve Downie, 2009-2010) who, while accumulating more than 200 penalty minutes, had more than the 29 points that Roussel contributed last season.
Picked up on waivers from Pittsburgh, Dustin Jeffrey is battling for his NHL life. He has 31 points in 124 career games, and last season's 34 games represented a career-high, but with only 9:34 average time on ice.
If the Stars were to seek another scoring centre, they could try for Paul Stastny or Mikhail Grabovski in free agency but, aside from those two, might be looking to the trade route for a bigger fish like Eric Staal or Jason Spezza. Those won't come cheaply, either, but that might be the kind of move to push the Stars to a new level.
Free Agent Defence
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
It hasn't been the easiest ride for Alex Goligoski in Dallas, as he's so frequently compared to the package (James Neal and Matt Niskanen) sent to Pittsburgh to acquire him, but Goligoski is coming off a season in which he played a career-high 24:19 per game, finishing with his second-highest point total (42) and favourable possession stats despite facing quality opposition.
Trevor Daley was handling a reduced workload for the first three quarters of the season, before he ended up playing top pair minutes down the stretch. That's a bit of a step up from what Daley has provided normally, thoughout his career, but the 30-year-old held his own, so it's not unreasonable to expect that, next season, he could pick up where he left off.
While it would be easy to pin a nepotism label on Jordie Benn holding a spot with the Stars, since his brother is a franchise player, but Jordie has earned his own place, making steady improvement and he averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time per game after the Olympic break last season. On the Stars, only Brenden Dillon has more hits and blocked shots combined than Benn's 240 last season.
24-year-old Kevin Connauton was a part-time player in his first NHL season and while he didn't play a big role, or stand out especially, he was effective at getting pucks to the net. There appears to be competition available for the 5-6-7 spots on the Stars' blueline, so Connauton might have a chance to earn more minutes.
Veteran Sergei Gonchar was something of a free agent bust, with diminishing ice time, and just four points in his last 35 (regular season plus playoff) games. He still has a year left on his contract, but it would come as no surprise if the Stars sought a team to take the 40-year-old off their hands. At his salary, it may not be easy.
Aaron Rome has played 52 games for the Stars, since signing as a free agent a couple of summers ago, and he hasn't done anything to suggest he's worthy of more than a part-time role.
A rising young shutdown defender, Brenden Dillon has size, toughness and improved his skating enough to get signed as a free agent out of junior. He's come a long way since scraping into the league as an undrafted free agent and, as a restricted free agent this summer, is likely due for a health pay raise. Dillon has been among the most effective Stars defencemen over the past couple seasons and, at 23, he should continue to get better.
If the Stars are going to take a step forward, they could use another top-four defenceman, effectively to make up for the departure of Stephane Robidas, who was traded to Anaheim last season. Maybe that's prospect Jamie Oleksiak, or maybe it comes via free agency, where Matt Niskanen, Anton Stralman, Tom Gilbert or Andrei Markov would be among the potential free agent upgrades.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
Over the past three seasons, Kari Lehtonen has been one of the game's better starting goaltenders, with a .919 save percentage in 160 games, and a .926 5-on-5 save percentage. Just as importantly, given the injuries in his past, Lehtonen has appeared in 160 games over that span.
If Tim Thomas is prepared to handle a backup role, he might be good for the Stars to re-sign but, if not, they can seek out inexpensive free agent options.
||5-18, 23, +8, 69 GP
||22-26-48,+14, 68 GP
||1.49 GAA, .942 SV%, 16 GP
||32-31-63, +11, 54 GP
||14-29-43, +13, 35 GP
||11-17-28, +8, 50 GP
||26-52-78, +42, 68 GP
||21-27-48, -9, 59 GP
||3-7-10, +19, 37 GP
||Michigan (Big 10)
||12-13-25, +5, 31 GP
||2.65 GAA, .907 SV%, 52 GP
||27-38-65, +7, 75 GP
The 14th pick in 2011, 6-foot-7 Jamie Oleksiak should have a chance to crack the Dallas lineup next year. Even with outstanding size, he's not very physical and has been relatively mediocre in 23 career NHL games, but a 21-year-old with his size and mobility should have a good chance at success.
A 6-foot-4 power forward Brett Ritchie finished the regular season strong, with 16 points in his last 16 games before suffering a lower-body injury. He's recently returned to the lineup for the AHL playoffs, and while Ritchie could start in the AHL next season, his upward trajectory should have him knocking on the door.
Overhyped since he was picked 11th overall in 2010, Jack Campbell has struggled to perform at a high level consistently enough to know if he's going to make it to the NHL. While he missed a bunch of time with injuries this year, it is promising that he had a .942 save percentage in 16 AHL games. The 22-year-old could likely use another year of seasoning to show that he is ready.
Drafted in the fourth round in 2007, Colton Sceviour has steadily improved to the point that he's on the cusp of the Dallas roster. He scored nine goals and 15 points in in 32 (regular season plsu playoff) games with Dallas, performing effectively in his first legitimate NHL look.
A second-round pick in 2012, Devin Shore had a terrific sophomore season at Maine and his offensive upside puts him above some of the other Stars prospects. If Shore has a big junior season, as the Black Bears' captain, he may be ready to turn pro.
Picked in the fifth round in 2010, John Klingberg is a smooth-skating offensive defenceman who is coming off a strong season in the Swedish Hockey League. The 21-year-old should be ready to challenge for an NHL job quickly.
Jason Dickinson is a skileld centre who was the 29th pick in last summer's draft. He's enjoyed a strong season on powerhouse Guelph team, scoring 102 points in 88 (regular season plus playoff) games. He'll need time to fill out, and get stronger, but he will be intriguing a couple years down the road.
The 13th pick in 2012, Radek Faksa hasn't put up big scoring numbers, which limits his upside, but he has the size and conscientious play to make it in a checking role.
Taken in the second round in 2010, Patrik Nemeth is a big, stay-at-home defenceman, and while he battled injuries last season, he struggled in eight games with Dallas; perhaps an indication that more time on the farm is needed.
A third-round pick in 2010, Alex Guptill had 94 points in 110 games over three seasons athe University of Michigan, and now embarks on his pro career. He has size and offensive ability, but will need some time in the AHL as he gets accustomed to a pro schedule.
Drafted in the second round last summer, Philippe Desrosiers is a promising, athletic goalie, but it's goign to be years before it's reasonable to have any expectations on his pro prospects. So far, so good.
Curtis McKenzie was a sixth-round pick in 2009 and had four unremarkable seasons at Miami-Ohio, but had a superb first pro campaign, finishing second on the Stars' AHL team in scoring.
Stars advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
14th - Kevin Fiala, Alex Tuch, Dylan Larkin.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Stars have approximately $50.2M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 16 players.
Check out my possible Stars lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Two top six forwards, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender.
What I said the Stars needed last year: Two top six forwards, one top four defenceman.
They added: Tyler Seguin, Alex Chiasson, Valeri Nichushkin, Rich Peverley, Shawn Horcoff, Sergei Gonchar
Erik Cole, Alex Chiasson, Sergei Gonchar, Aaron Rome, prospects.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.