September 30, 2019 | 10:10am ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period

CUP OR BUST FOR THE STARS

 
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Jamie Benn, captain

 
 

MONTREAL, QC -- If there is one word to define Jim Nill’s tenure as General Manager of the Dallas Stars, “rollercoaster” is as accurate as can be. Never really having one concrete direction, the Stars have been all over the map under Nill’s watch.

Over the course of Nill’s six seasons in charge, the Stars have won just two playoff series, while qualifying for the playoffs in just three of those years. To say the Stars have been spinning their tires in mediocrity would be an understatement.

But as the 2019-20 season approaches and the dust has completely settled on the off-season, the direction in Dallas has never been clear: Stanley Cup.

Coming off arguably the best season of his era, Nill knew he had something special with his current roster. Taking the Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues to the absolute limit, overtime of Game Seven, in their round two playoff series, the Stars showcased just how talented they are.

The star (no pun intended) power up front has never been questioned. Often forming one of the best lines in hockey over the last two seasons, Captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov have provided the lion’s share of the offence. But lacking depth up front, the trio was often split up to help spread the wealth.

Acknowledging the clear lack of forward depth, Nill went out and added Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry on three- and one-year deals, respectively, this summer. While the latter is coming off an injury riddled season, playing in just 31 games and tallying 10 points, a lessened role may help get his career back on track. But Pavelski, who is slated to start on the team’s top line alongside Benn and Seguin, is the addition expected to really push the needle. The 35-year-old former San Jose Sharks Captain has put up 64 points or more in each of the last six seasons, coming off a 38-goal output last year.

Although the Pavelski and Perry additions will be relied upon, the progressions of younger forwards like Roope Hintz, Jason Dickinson and Denis Gurianov will be vital. The Stars have not done particularly well in the drafting department under Nill’s watch (Exhibit A: Valeri Nichushkin), but the aforementioned forwards have proved to be decent picks to date. The Stars’ offense will be riding heavily on the developments of the younger supporting cast.

While being the long-standing Achilles Heel for the Stars, their young defence has quickly become one of the best in the NHL. Carried on the back largely by the rapid development of 2017 third-overall pick Miro Heiskanen, the Stars’ blueline has become something to watch. Heiskanen, 20, put up 33 points in his rookie season in Dallas last season, while grabbing the league’s attention with a stellar post-season performance.

The Esa Lindell and John Klingberg pairing has become one of the most underrated in the entire NHL, with the latter drawing heavy Erik Karlsson comparisons.

Klingberg, 27, has recorded 45 or more points in each of the last four years, and led the Stars in ice time per game last season with 24:32 (11th overall in the NHL). The 25-year-old Lindell, who is fresh off signing a six-year, $34.8 million contract extension, has shown signs into evolving into a top stay at home defenseman in today’s NHL. Lindell led Dallas defensemen by a wide margin in shorthanded ice-time: totaling 265 minutes, second overall in the NHL.

But between the pipes is where the Stars boast their strongest suit with arguably the best tandem in the NHL. Ben Bishop (1.98 Goals Against Average, .934 Save Percentage) and Anton Khudobin (2.57 GAA, .923 Save Percentage) combined for 43 wins last season, with the former finishing as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. The only cause for concern for these two would be age, as Bishop and Khudobin are 32 and 33 years old, respectively. Bishop, in particular, struggled with his health last season. But as long as the duo can maintain their health, the crease should be the least of the Stars’ concerns.

So, where does this leave Dallas? A strengthened forward group, an upcoming and coming defensive corps and a returning elite goaltending duo equates into astronomical potential for a championship-starved franchise. But while the window to take a run at the Cup is wide open this season, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at this roster and realize that this may not last forever.

Benn (30), Pavelski (35), Perry (34) and Radulov (33) are no spring chickens, while the 27-year-old Seguin is blowing through his prime years. The aforementioned lack of forward development within the organization has become apparent and could come back to haunt this team in a few years down the road. Bishop’s health is an everlasting issue and will only continue to grow as he climbs closer to his mid-30s. Though he is among the best when healthy, one has to wonder how many more years he has got left.

Given this, Nill and the Stars’ management must have a sense of urgency to capitalize on the current years left of this group. The seasons of building have long gone, and it is now time to maximize the remaining years of the stars that corner this franchise up front and in goal.

Sure, the defense seems to be in good shape for the foreseeable future, but it won’t mean much if there is nothing to support it. Entering a season of mega-expectations, anything short of a Cup will be considered a failure for the Star-studded franchise.

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Anthony Di Marco is the NHL Correspondent for The Fourth Period.
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