Core Values: Stars' turnaround led by Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn
The Dallas Stars ended a five-year playoff drought last season and are looking well positioned to become a much more competitive team in the loaded Central Division.
In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.
With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.
The Dallas Stars are becoming one of the most exciting teams in the entire NHL with the maneuvering of general manager Jim Nill over the last two seasons. Having overhauled the top of the roster to create a potent top-six forward group, the Stars went very quickly from afterthought to playoff team to a Central Division contender in relatively short order.
The Stars erased a five-year playoff drought by earning a wild card spot last season with a 40-31-11 record. It was a short stay in the postseason, but Nill went out and got Jason Spezza to become the team’s No. 2 center and added playmaker Ales Hemsky in free agency to bolster the top two lines this summer. Combine that with strong drafting and some additional roster tinkering and you’ve got the makings of a possible future Western Conference powerhouse.
Captain Jamie Benn and top center Tyler Seguin were among the NHL’s top-10 scorers last season and could be in for an even bigger year with an improved second line to help draw some attention away from the Stars’ big guns.
This is a different team. They may not be Stanley Cup contenders yet, but with the aggressiveness shown by Nill in two short years at the helm, a willingness to think outside the box and an influx of young talent, Dallas is shaping up rather nicely for next season and beyond.
Core Values: Dallas Stars
Players (Age, term remaining on contract): C Tyler Seguin (22, 5 years), LW Jamie Benn (25, 3 years), C Jason Spezza (31, 1 year), G Kari Lehtonen (30, 4 years), RW Valeri Nichushkin (19, 2 years), D Alex Goligoski (29, 2 years), D Brenden Dillon (23, RFA)
Total cap hit for 2014-15^: $32,425,000 (47% of salary cap consumed by seven players)
^ - Includes estimated cap hit of $3 million for Brenden Dillon
Average age: 25.5
Total point production in 2013-14*: 97 goals, 159 assists, 256 points (40.8% of team’s total production)
* - Does not include Jason Spezza’s 23-43—66 stat line from the Ottawa Senators
About the core
Tyler Seguin: To say Seguin made a splash in his first year with his new team would be a massive understatement. The young rising star finished fourth in the league with 84 points. He put up career bests in every major category with 37 goals and 47 assists. Perhaps concerns about his maturity and how he fit with the Boston Bruins were warranted, and maybe the change of scenery was as well, but Seguin appears to have all the makings of a genuine superstar in the league now. Giving the Stars a top-line center and captain Jamie Benn a peer in skill level and production worked in spades in year one. There’s a lot of pressure on Seguin to repeat his incredible 2013-14 performance, which earned him sixth place in Hart Trophy voting, but it feels as though Seguin’s career has turned the page in the Lone Star State. Change of scenery and a change in role has really benefited Seguin who is till just 22 years old. This guy may just be getting started. How he was acquired: Traded from the Boston Bruins with Rich Peverly and Ryan Button for Loui Eriksson , Reilly Smith , Joe Morrow and Matt Fraser on July 4, 2013
Jamie Benn: From the second he first put on a Dallas Stars jersey, Benn has been helping to move the organization forward. Now that he has grown even more as a player and now has the supporting cast to help him flourish, Benn is helping move it forward faster. Thanks to the arrival of Seguin to center his line, Benn posted career highs with 34 goals, 45 assists and 79 points, which tied him for eighth in league scoring. Having also been named to the Canadian Olympic team in 2014 and winning the gold medal in Sochi, Benn’s 2013-14 season was quite memorable. The arrival of new players to the team helps, but without Benn there as the foundation already in place, it wouldn’t have meant nearly as much. In 344 career NHL games, the 25-year-old has 272 points. The Stars have their captain locked up at an extremely affordable $5.25 million cap hit for the next three seasons, but that is bound to go up a great deal when the contract expires. One of the things that makes Benn unique among league stars, particularly those under 25, is that he is a former fifth-round draft pick. It used to be commonplace, but more recently it's pretty rare to see a guy at his age playing a starring role on his team despite being a low-round pick. What a find for the Stars. How he was acquired: 2007 NHL Entry Draft, fifth round, 129th overall
Jason Spezza: The arrival of Spezza in a surprise trade with the Ottawa Senators on the opening day of free agency signified that the team’s front office understood what was already plainly obvious. What the team currently had wasn’t enough and probably wasn’t close. Grabbing Spezza after the veteran forward had a strong (and mostly healthy) campaign with 63 points was a statement to the rest of the league and particularly the Western Conference: get ready for an even bigger challenge every time you play the Dallas Stars. Spezza is 31 and on the last year of his contract. The team is expected to try to work out a deal, perhaps at a lower annual rate than he made on his previous deal. If this move pays off in 2014-15, the team will probably want to get out of Spezza whatever he has left on a multi-year deal, despite having dealt with injuries in three of the last five seasons. A point-per-game player over his 686-game NHL career, Spezza is a legitimate producer. Having that kind of production on the second line is huge. He’ll take away some of the offensive burden currently on Benn and Seguin and force other teams to defend an awful lot. The Stars weren’t deep enough to compete with the heavyweights of their own division last year. Adding Spezza and also Ales Hemsky in free agency adjusts that. How he was acquired: Traded from the Ottawa Senators with Ludwig Karlsson for Alex Chiasson , Nicholas Paul, Alex Guptill and a second-round pick.
Kari Lehtonen: Despite having posted a .918 save percentage over five seasons with the Dallas Stars, Lehtonen's value to the club may be a bit undersold. Over the last four years, only four goaltenders in the NHL have made more appearances and only two have seen more shots than Lehtonen. Last season, Lehtonen made a league-leading 65 appearances in net for the Stars and posted strong numbers with a .919 save percentage and 2.41 goals-against average. Lehtonen isn’t an all-world goaltender, but he is a pretty darn good one and gives the Stars a genuine No. 1 backstop. He’s particularly helpful due to the fact that the Stars tend to give up quite a few shots. With a defense that is likely to be even younger next year, he’ll be as important as ever. If he holds up health wise and plays solidly in net over the season, it gives the Stars a fighting chance in a very difficult Central Division. He is an expensive netminder and now that he’s 30, it’s fair to start wondering when his numbers will decline in earnest. They haven’t started yet, but general goaltending trends suggest they probably will over the last four years remaining on his deal. In the meantime, he can be an important factor for Dallas as he has been since he arrived. How he was acquired: Traded from the Atlanta Thrashers for Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth-round pick on February 9, 2010
Valeri Nichushkin: This may be a bit of a premature addition, but there’s little doubt that Nichushkin has a chance to be a big part of the Stars’ future. Having fallen into the club’s lap at the 2013 NHL Draft thanks to a draft day slide to 10th overall, Dallas has one of the more exciting players under the age of 20 in all of hockey. Considering he made the Russian Olympic team at age 18 for a tournament they were hosting says a lot about the way Nichushkin is viewed throughout the hockey world. He had 34 points last year. That doesn't blow you away, but considering all of the issues that faced Nichushkin that other rookies didn't, it’s a great showing. Speaking no English, Nichushkin lived with a family in Dallas and had to adjust to the North American game after playing exclusively in Russia. He did this at 18 years old, too. That's a lot to take on. Nichushkin likely remains in Dallas’ top six for as long time as he has an exciting blend of an enormous frame, explosiveness and a high-end skill level. As Nichushkin grows into the NHL, he could become a real force. If the Stars are lucky, it’ll start happening next year. How he was acquired: 2013 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 10th overall
Alex Goligoski: Finishing third on the team with 42 points hasn’t allowed Goligoski to escape criticism as part of a somewhat suspect defensive group for the Stars, but he’s very much an integral part of Dallas’ ability to control play. Goligoski is also a bit of a lightning rod for debate due to what he cost the Stars in a trade four years ago – James Neal and Matt Niskanen. That said, he’s been a solid contributor despite the high price. With good distribution skills and a keen offensive sense, Goligoski is the 14th most productive defenseman in the NHL since he joined the Stars in 2010-11. Goligoski has averaged just over half a point per game over the course of his seven-year NHL career. That’s pretty good for any team’s scoring depth and with even more weapons to get the puck to this season, the 29-year-old could be in for a big year in Dallas. He only has two years remaining on his current deal, which means there may be a tough decision in the Stars’ near future, but Goligoski is an asset for the team as currently constructed. How he was acquired: Traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins for James Neal and Matt Niskane on February 21, 2011.
Brenden Dillon: Still without a contract as a restricted free agent, Dillon has the potential to be a long-time staple of this franchise. Over his first two seasons in the league, Dillon has shown some glimpses of top-pairing ability. Sturdy defense with a propensity for physical play and good-enough puck-moving capabilities could allow Dillon to start taking on more and more responsibility as the years go on. Playing a top-four role on a playoff team at age 23 is pretty solid for a guy in just the second year of his NHL career. Considering Dillon has shown an ability to produce at the AHL and WHL levels, there’s reason to believe he could start putting up higher point totals than the 25 he’s posted in 129 career games. As long as he brings his strong defensive game, however, the Stars will be happy with what they’re getting from him. Dillon still needs that new deal and a short-term bridge could be coming at some point, but considering he’ll turn 24 early next season, there’s a lot yet to accomplish in what could be a bright career. How he was acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent on March 1, 2011
Who’s next in line
The Stars have a number of younger players that could be key contributors as early as next season. Cody Eakin seems most likely among the Stars youthful depth forwards to make an impact as he is likely to be the team’s No. 3 center behind Seguin and Spezza next year. He put up 35 points last season and just turned 23 in the Spring. Like Dillon, Eakin is still awaiting a new contract as a restricted free agent.
Others that could step up next season include Colton Sceviour who had 12 points in 26 games with the Stars last season. Antoine Roussel earned himself a four-year extension with his agitating play last season and added 14 goals to that effective physical game. Both are just 24 years old and early in their NHL careers.
The Stars also boast a farm system that has enjoyed great success last season. The Stars’ American Hockey League affiliate won the Calder Cup under the guidance of now Vancouver Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins. Key contributors from that team including defensemen Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak , forwards Brett Ritchie and Scott Glennie , and goaltender Jack Campbell all could figure prominently within the organization for the next few years.
Meanwhile, the club also has some really exciting prospects in the system including first-round picks Jason Dickinson, Radek Faksa and Julius Honka.
The future looks bright in addition to a pretty nice present for the Stars.
Organizationally, the Stars are different than they were two years ago and that’s a very good thing. Bringing in Nill, a longtime executive in the Detroit Red Wings organization, is probably the most important move they’ve made as a hockey club in a long, long time. His work in bringing in Seguin and now Spezza and Hemsky has taken this team to a level it seemed a long way away from before Nill’s arrival.
What he’s done so far will be difficult to eclipse, but the fact that the Stars have an executive with vision and the desire to be aggressive when it comes to improving the team. That’s refreshing after five straight years of missing the playoffs.
The Stars also have a team that is really fun to watch with Seguin and Benn at the top. That should help sell tickets and bringing in another star-caliber player in Spezza only bolsters that. Having made the playoffs last season, the Dallas market has a big reason to come back and support the team. Improving the bottom line will improve the competitiveness, or at least should.
It’s not all sunshine and roses right now, though. The Stars did nothing to address a defense that was only OK last year. Hoping for another step forward from Dillon and adding in some new faces from the AHL could help. Sergei Gonchar may be well past his prime, but is still serviceable on defense and Goligoski’s contributions have already been well noted. The lack of depth is definitely a concern, though and may be something Nill considers addressing further as the season progresses.
The club also has some veteran stalwarts up front to bring experience to an otherwise youthful roster. Players like Shawn Horcoff and Vernon Fiddler help shore up the depth of the lineup, while Erik Cole remains a scoring threat that can spot in on the top-six. If Rich Peverley is able to return after his heart scare last season, that's an added bonus. That remains unclear, however.
As good as all the moves the Stars have made have been so far, they are going to be going up against some of the best teams in hockey right within their own division. That said, they look less like a wild card team this year and more a legitimate contender and perhaps a favorite to land one of the top three spots in the Central to secure a spot in the playoffs. That’s still going to make it hard to get out of the first round next year with what is sure to be a tough draw from within the division.
This organization is noticeably moving forward, though, and with how quickly the team has been turned around by Nill, the sky seems to be the limit. As the young players continue to mature and start bolstering the efforts of the stars at the top of the lineup, Dallas is going to be a really tough team in the loaded West in relatively short order.
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