Where Dallas Stars fit in NHL's crowded Central Division

One of the things I’ve seen a lot in the past couple of weeks is the idea that there’s some debate about whether the Dallas Stars should be considered Stanley Cup contenders.

That seems a bit much considering they needed .929 goaltending to finish three points ahead of the cut line last season, but the persistence of these just-thinking-out-louds really makes me wonder.

We’ve heard a lot, for instance, about how they were a goal away from eliminating the Cup champions (albeit only in the second round). This is a very optimistic way to look at things, because I’m trying to remember if any other teams in recent years have famously been a goal away from eliminating the Cup champs and then underperformed collective expectations the following year. Can’t think of any.

Dallas obviously isn’t Ottawa. On paper, the Stars have a lot of the qualifications you need to be considered an elite team: Good (perhaps very good) coach, four high-end forwards, a couple of very good defencemen and a goalie who is often above average. That’s definitely going to put you in a position to compete.

Of course, they had all of that — minus one high-end forward, as Joe Pavelski only came over this summer — last year and, again, needed Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin to play out of their minds to even get to 93 points. That total was tied for 15th in the league last year — pretty much right down the middle.

The Stars earned a wild-card spot last year, and will be looking to improve on that positioning this time around. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth, File)
The Stars earned a wild-card spot last year, and will be looking to improve on that positioning this time around. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth, File)

We of course can understand that there’s not much of a chance Bishop and Khudobin combine to beat their expected-goals-against total by a combined 26.4 again this season, but we must also keep in mind that the Stars were one of the better defensive teams in the league last year. They allowed just 222.9 expected goals in all situations, the eighth-lowest total in the league. Pretty much everyone ahead of them had better seasons (save for Minnesota, which led the league in defensive efficiency), and they added Andrej Sekera as a reclamation project I think can work out pretty well to shore up the bottom half of that defence.

That means even if Bishop and Khudobin regress — and at .934 and .923, respectively, they both punched well above their weights — Dallas is still likely to play well enough to make them at least look good. Not world-beating, but good. Both goaltenders are now 33, and Bishop in particular has a well-documented history of injury. The idea that such a goaltender could see the bottom drop out on him one summer is one we have to consider. Not that you’d wish for such a thing, but it’s not an uncommon occurrence. Khudobin has never played more than 41 games in a season, the mark he set last year because, you’ll never believe it, but Bishop missed 17 games due to various injuries.

It’s a battery you can potentially believe in even if regression is highly likely, but that comes with a big note of caution.

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As for the offence, well, it was tied for third-worst in the league last season. Worse than Minnesota, as bad as Arizona, and only ahead of LA and Anaheim. Part of that was underperformance; the “horsebleep” rant from Jim Lites seems like it was a hundred years ago, and yet they still ended the season scoring 22 goals fewer than they “should have” by xG. Pavelski obviously helps bridge that gap, and gives them what they didn’t have last year: a legitimate second scoring threat when the Benn-Seguin-Radulov line is off the ice.

Their power play was good last season, but they didn’t draw enough penalties. That’s another thing Pavelski does well, and it’s another reason this was a good signing. But is it enough to juice the offence to the point where Dallas becomes an elite team, or even close? I’m not so sure. The Stars’ attack was 16th in the league in expected goals last year and the Pavelski-for-Spezza swap certainly bumps them up, though perhaps not into the top 10. I’m not sure the Corey Perry add does anything for them, but if it does, that’s all well and good.

Still, if you’re just outside the top 10 in expected offence and well within it for defence, that’s probably enough to get you where you need to go, in terms of making the playoffs. And once you get in there, well, anything can happen, as we’ve seen so often.

I think this is a fine team, one which actually outperformed its expected-goal difference very slightly last season (plus-0.67). I don’t trust that depth at all, and while Pavelski, Perry, and Sekera are a mixed bag of additions, they do help collectively.

That said, they did overperform last season and it got them to 93 points in what everyone acknowledges was a tough division. That division got even tougher over the summer, with Nashville adding offence, Colorado having probably the best off-season in the league, Chicago marginally improving, and Winnipeg maybe bouncing back. Also, St. Louis isn’t going to spend half the season in the toilet.

Where does that leave the Stars? Probably right around where they were last year, if we’re being honest. A good, and perhaps even very good team. But will they be great, or even elite? It’s not the most likely scenario.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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