It’s time for another interview with an outsider. Mark Stepneski was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions. Mark provides fantastic coverage of the Dallas Stars for NHL.com and you can follow along at @StarsInsideEdge. Let’s see what the Stars have been up to and his thoughts on the Avs.
Professor Oak: The Dallas Stars improved last year and ended up with 92 points and a winning record, however falling just short of the playoffs. Who were the key players during their season? Who may not have met expectations?
Mark Stepneski: Well, their top guys performed. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov scored 44.6 percent of the team’s goals. John Klingberg had a strong season and tied for second among NHL defensemen in scoring and along with the big three forwards accounted for 48.6 percent of the team’s points. Still, Radek Faksa played exceptionally well. He’s an excellent defensive center and chipped in 17 goals. Tyler Pitlick, who played a lot on a line with Faksa, had a nice season as well and popped in 14 goals and Mattias Janmark bounced back well after missing the previous season with a rare knee condition that required surgery and scored 19 goals. On the flip side, the Stars needed more guys chipping in and some of them came up short. Only seven players reached double figures in goal scoring, which was tied for fewest number in the league. How much of that was players undeperforming and how much was how they were used? Probably a combination of both. Center Jason Spezza stood out here. He struggled with just 26 points (8 goals, 18 assists). Spezza couldn’t find a consistent role and was often buried down the lineup under coach Ken Hitchcock and it was a frustrating season. Brett Ritchie, who scored 16 goals in 2016-17, scored only seven last season, but his ice time was down as well. Some will point to goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who faltered down the stretch when Ben Bishop was injured, and that didn’t help but it was pretty much a team collapse.
PO: The Stars’ big off-season story came in the retirement of Ken Hitchcock and the hiring of Jim Montgomery as head coach. What do you believe Jim can bring to the organization and what type of system could we expect to see from him?
MS: I think Montgomery will bring a breath of fresh air, some new ideas and a lot of enthusiasm and a more aggressive, attacking style of play than last season. He is the third coach in three years for the Stars and following run-and-gun Lindy Ruff and defensive-minded Ken Hitchcock the belief is that Montgomery is going to find some balance between the two. The expectation is that the Stars will stress more puck possession and less of the dump and chase we saw under Hitchcock. (To Hitchcock’s credit, the Stars were a much-improved defensive team last season, finishing sixth in goals against.) Some personnel changes will help with the different style of play under Montgomery, especially on the backend. Top defense prospect Miro Heiskanen, who should be a player this season, and Julius Honka, who hopefully is ready to take a step forward, are both excellent at moving the puck. Throw in Klingberg and the Stars could be a strong team on that front, and it should help with zone exits and entries. That said, the defense will be a little younger and there could be some bumps there. There also are going to be some adjustments under a new coach and that could take some time. We’ll just have to see how it plays out early in the season.
PO: Miro Heiskanen improved on his draft year (10 points in 37 games) by scoring 11 goals, and 12 assists in 33 games for HIFK in the Liiga. Where do you see him in his development and do you expect him to make the jump to the NHL?
All indications are that Heiskanen, who is a talented two-way defenseman, is ready to play in the NHL, but you never know until he gets here and you see him in camp and some preseason games. The plan is to bring him along slowly, let him play through his mistakes and allow him grow into a bigger role. I am looking forward to seeing what he can do. I don’t want to overhype the kid, but he’s an exciting prospect.
PO: The Dallas Stars made a few splashes in free agency this year signing Blake Comeau to a 3-year contract and Roman Polak to a 1-year contract. They also re-signed Valeri Nichushkin for what looks like his return to the NHL. What roles do you see Comeau and Polak playing and do you think Nichushkin can live up to his 10th overall draft status?
MS: Comeau should bring some versatility with his ability to play both wings and up and down the lineup. He should add some scoring depth, penalty killing and leadership. Polak brings a physical element to the backend, can kill penalties and will add some experience to a defense that will get a little younger this season with the arrival of Heiskanen and Honka expected to take on a bigger role. Nichushkin is an
interesting question. He had a strong rookie season in 2013-14, missed most of the next season due to injury/surgery, and then spent the following season trying to bounce back. He played the past two years in the KHL and I’ll be honest, I didn’t see a lot of him. The Stars are expecting a more mature player and they think he can make an impact. He’s got a lot of good tools, but I think the jury is still out. Time will tell.
PO: What do the Stars need to improve to make the playoffs next year in a Central division, that hasn’t gotten any easier?
MS: Well, they can’t rely on just Benn, Seguin, Radulov, and Klingberg to provide offense the way they did last season. More players need to chip in. Spezza bouncing back and having a strong season would be a good place to start. I think he is poised to do that. They haven’t added any big time scoring in the offseason, but the hope is they have enough throughout the lineup to improve over last season. The way they play under Montgomery could help and so could the changes on the blue line. A better power play would be nice, it dropped off late in the season as did a lot of other things. As I said, the defense will be a little younger, so it will be interesting to see how that all comes together. They’ll need a healthy Ben Bishop in goal and good season from Anton Khudobin in the backup role. Even with improvements, as you noted, it is still a tough division and there are some good teams in the Pacific, so it will be a challenge to get into the playoffs. I expect them to be in the thick of things.
PO: The Colorado Avalanche surprised the NHL world last year by not only having a fairly successful season, but getting into the playoffs in a win-and-in game against the St. Louis Blues last year. What did you see as they keys to their success and where do you think they need to get better?
MS: Yes, the Avalanche were a surprise. They often seem to surprise when you aren’t expecting much. Perhaps some addition by subtraction with the Duchene trade and with that distraction gone the team coming together. MacKinnon and Rantanen had great seasons, there was some scoring balance, special teams were strong. Bednar, who was put in a tough spot the season before when he took over as head coach, did a great job getting a young group to play a team game. Looking at some of their numbers from last season, they could play with the puck more.
PO: The Avalanche took three of five games from the Stars in the season series, but over the past couple years, these games have not only been exciting, but seem to be fueled by a mutual hatred. Have you seen the same type of rivalry I’ve seen, and do you think it will continue to grow?
MS: As long as Nathan MacKinnon is playing, I always find the games exciting. Love watching him play. I think there’s a bit of a rivalry there. Who knows, another Seguin-Nemeth scrap and it could grow some more. I still like the rivalry of the late 1990’s/early 2000’s when the Stars, Avalanche and Red Wings were the big three of the West.
PO: During the draft, the Avalanche traded a 2nd round pick for Philipp Grubauer and Brooks Orpik (who was bought out). What have you seen and what can we expect from Grubauer?
MS: Grubauer had an excellent season in Washington, excellent enough that he was the Capitals’ starter heading into the playoffs before being replaced by Braden Holtby after two games in the first round series against Columbus. He’s put up good numbers over his career and he should push Varlamov for playing time this season. Everything points to him being a No. 1 goalie not too far down the road. You never know what you have until the guy actually takes over that job, but I liked that move by Colorado.
PO: The Avalanche signed Matt Calvert and Ian Cole to three year deals during free agency. What insights can you provide on these players?
MS: I’ve always liked Calvert. Nothing fancy, doesn’t put up big numbers but he is a consistent player who can check, kill penalties and chip in some offense. He is a good role player. Cole is a nice add to their blue line. Again, nothing fancy. He hits, blocks some shots. Nothing spectacular, but he’s developed into a pretty good all-around NHL defenseman.
Once again, huge thanks to Mark for taking time out of his summer to answer some questions for us. Stay tuned for another Outsider’s Perspective later this week.