The stars’ test drives are about to get tough. Should they start selling if they fail?
Despite the recent four-game winning streak against league dregs, Dallas is a mediocre road team. But the route they are taking as an organization is also in doubt. Their immediate future could be one without their most dynamic defender in the person of John Klingberg. Their top paid players are declining at a rapid rate, and everyone has bought into a system that still hasn’t solved the problems.
Yet despite the drama, Dallas is in a generic place. Premature panic and indignation? I do not know. I think panic and outrage can serve as strong clues that something is wrong. Dallas can certainly surprise us here. But what do the markers say? Right now, the Stars are nearly 10 points behind Central’s top three. Even their wildcard spot is in question. Despite retaining eighth place, Calgary is just one win away from tying Dallas with three games in hand, giving them a higher points percentage. If you dig deeper in Dallas expected more/less, they are where they should be: at the cutting edge. Essentially, Dallas has to hope Anaheim or LA are playing above expectations to be more comfortable (they are, but really good teams don’t depend on that to make the playoffs).
It’s not a referendum, although a recent 5-3 loss at home to the Montreal Canadiens, the league’s worst team, seemed to require an autopsy report midway through the season. Additionally, they are among the league’s top six teams at home, alongside the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs with 14 wins. Roope Hintz along with Joe Pavelski and Jason Robertson is one of the best lines in all of hockey. Add Miro Heiskanen and a few good to decent goalkeepers, and you wonder: why so many unanswered questions?
Predicting the future is not difficult. All it takes is a healthy respect for the past. The Stars also struggled on the road last year. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds this season, but they were 10-12-6 on the road last season with six losses after settlement. Why? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: they couldn’t score. They were 27th in goals scored evenly. On the literal road ahead, they have two games to wrap up before the next two months. Why is this important? Well, have you seen the next two months?
In March, Dallas gets 10 road games and just four at home. February is no joke either, with six of 10 games against Central Division opponents (specifically two against Colorado and two against Nashville). It’s a tough road to travel, and it will be even tougher without Klingberg, should a trade finally go through.
Before we go any further, it’s worth talking about the Stars at the American Airlines Center. Surely the wheel will come back and they will get more wins on the road? It’s possible. They scored 5-4 wins over the Buffalo Sabers and Detroit Red Wings for their first straight road wins of the season. Then they beat the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils to extend their winning streak to four. If we’re being a bit unfair these were paved roads. Dallas scored four goals on six shots on their PP against Buffalo; Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi missed an empty net to put Dallas back in the game; Philly had just lost 10 straight; and New Jersey goaltender Akira Schmid averaged more than four goals before being drilled by Joe Pavelski. Dallas’ victory is all that matters if all that matters is making the playoffs. But that was never the goal here.
Here’s the thing: what if they regress at home? Montreal was only one game, but it’s worth pointing out how Dallas is doing at home versus on the road. Below is a table comparing their home/road splits at even strength rates for the following (in order): shots, unblocked shots, shots on net, chances to score, goals scored and goals that they should expect to score. Numbers are color-coded to indicate ranking, with green for top 10 material, yellow for average, and red for not good. Since Dallas’ problem is lack of offense, I focused only on what they create rather than percentages.
Unfortunately, their track record tells us they are what we thought they were, even with the recent streak. Whether it’s low danger shots, medium danger shots or high danger shots, Dallas generates no amount Where quality, ranking as a mediocre team across the board. The real plus is that there’s nothing special about their home performance either. The only category where they stand out is their penalty shootout, where they are ninth at home. What makes the magic difference? They are eighth in home shooting percentage and last in the league on the road. What is most likely to regress? Their away shooting percentage, where they don’t perform well enough to be lucky, or their home shooting percentage, where they shoot well but just perform well?
With the hiring of Steve Greeley, I’m sure Dallas has its own internal analytics that look at both the macro level and the micro level. How can you look at these numbers and think anything is going to change without some kind of change, whether it’s a change in philosophy, deployment, or roster building? With all due respect to the team for picking up a few wins, isn’t it “will they or won’t they?” situation why the organization has historically struggled? If Dallas makes the playoffs, great. But no Cup winner since the cap was introduced in 2005 has ever been outside the top three in their division. Making the playoffs shouldn’t be a blue ribbon for a two-man team (Robertson and Pavelski) overproduction Connor McDavid at even strength.
If so, what does that say about Dallas’ figurative road ahead? Isn’t it a concession that it’s not the year? How do you go all-in without all your best weapons, assuming Klingberg is traded? If you’re like me and fortunately money isn’t at stake to play Armchair GM, you’re suddenly presented with a very interesting proposition: why not trade everything?
Most teams have to hit rock bottom and wear a paper bag over their head to turn things around. Toronto did it to land its core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Edmonton did it to land McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The table is set for Dallas to do the same this season, if they choose. Jim Nill has one of the most dynamic offensive defensemen in the game to help a team’s offense in all three zones, and it will technically only cost a little over $2 million until the end of the season. ‘year. They have Pavelski, a veteran forward producing more than a point per game with a strong playoff pedigree and no term to fear. And what would Nill’s old friend Ken Holland be willing to pay for a cost-contained former Cup winner like Braden Holtby in Edmonton? There’s no halfway rebuild, and Dallas is able to do that without hitting rock bottom.
While the 2022 draft isn’t seen as particularly strong, some pundits believe pandemic shutdowns could lead to players overperforming – as Stars hopefuls Wyatt Johnston and Logan Stankoven did – in addition to the fact that there is a lot of depth of perspective on the blue line. Dallas already has a young core producing and playing like veterans between Hintz, Robertson and Heiskanen. Their future core of Johnston, Stankoven, Thomas Harley, Riley Damiani and Mavrik Bourque is approaching the door. The expression all-in does not necessarily mean all-in now. What’s wrong with going all-in later?
Such a decision would not be popular. But Texas hockey fans aren’t stupid. They know what you’re selling because what you’re selling is so rarely sold in the South. They know the difference between tearing it down to rebuild it and pretending to build. Hockey even has half-baked slogans built around weaponry failure: Sour for (Owen) Power, Lose for (Jack) Hughes, Falling for (Rasmus) Dahlin, and what should have been Zero for Miro. in 2017 (I ignore Cale Makar for lack of better bars).
Not being able to commit in the first place is how we got to the point where Klingberg becomes an never-maximized asset in a season with too many questions to answer at once. But let’s keep things in perspective. This is not an autopsy report. The Stars could make a magic run, which they have done before. The problem is that they also failed. Getting a solid return on Klingberg could be the answer, but it can’t just be him. This season, more than any other, presents a unique opportunity to decide the fortunes of the current roster against the fortunes of tomorrow’s core. Dallas may be mediocre on the road, but it’s the road not taken that could make everything better today, worse tomorrow, or vice versa. Whichever way they choose, as Omar Little says, it’s better not to miss it.
David Castillo covers the Stars for StrongSide. He wrote for SB Nation and Wrong side of the red line,…