The Stars’ promising season came to a sudden end Monday night with the 6-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference finals. Dallas lost the first three games of the series, putting themselves in a place only four teams had ever come back from. Despite winning Games 4 and 5, Dallas ran out of steam.
“We’ll look at everything. Once we take the emotion out of it and look at it there’s a lot to be proud of,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said after the Game 6 loss. “There were only four teams left out of 32. I don’t think at the beginning of the year a lot of people had us penciled in as one of them.”
In DeBoer’s first season, the 2022-23 Stars finished as the fourth seed in the Western Conference with 108 points after milestone seasons by Joe Pavelski, Jason Robertson and Miro Heiskanen. Despite the disappointment of Monday’s loss, the Stars progressed further in the playoffs than the previous season, when they were eliminated in the first round after an overtime Game 7 loss to the Calgary Flames. They took down the Minnesota Wild, defeated the Seattle Kraken, and tested the Golden Knights, who will now face the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Stars didn’t want to pay attention too much to the future after the Game 6 loss, but there are reasons to believe it’s promising. Here are some key questions for the Stars this offseason in order to build upon the momentum:
Should the Stars try to re-sign either of their trade-deadline acquisitions, Max Domi or Evgenii Dadonov, who are unrestricted free agents?
Domi, 28, had just two goals and five assists in 20 regular-season games with the Stars but had three goals and 10 assists in 18 playoff games. Dadonov, 34, had three goals and 12 assists in 23 regular-season games and four goals, six assists in 16 playoff games.
Both acquisitions played key roles in helping the Stars make the conference finals, but can they play roles in the franchise’s future? It will come down to price. The Stars don’t have a ton of wiggle room (more on that later), so a deal might have to come at an annual average lower than what they both made this past season. Domi had a $3 million cap hit, while Dadonov had a $5 million hit.
Other notable unrestricted free agents for the Stars include Joel Kiviranta, Luke Glendening, Joel Hanley and Fredrik Olofsson, who played well in Games 4 and 5 for Dallas. Ty Dellandrea, the hero of Game 5, is a restricted free agent.
The good news for the Stars: their core is more than solid, putting them in the position to play the market. Their homegrown foundation is a luxury, so even if they can’t necessarily splurge on the free agent market, they could find some quality pieces to round out their lines.
Here’s a list of free agents, per Spotrac, so Stars can make their wish list. Just keep this in mind: money is tight, so don’t start envisioning Patrick Kane in Dallas Stars green.
With an estimated $7.3 million in salary cap space to fill seven roster spots, the Stars would benefit if a young player could earn a roster spot. Could this be 21-year-old center Mavrik Bourque (20 goals, 27 assists at Texas)?
The Stars were tempted to start the Bourque era early after Jamie Benn was suspended for two games and Dadonov suffered a lower-body injury in Game 3 that kept him out of the rest of the series. Dallas recalled Bourque and fellow Texas Stars forward Rhett Gardner, but ultimately decided to go with Olofsson.
Depending on free agency, the Stars could be forced into using Bourque, the team’s 2020 first round pick, to start next season.
It’s pretty much the formula for the Stars at this point. Another cost-saving maneuver could be more time for Nils Lundkvist, who played in 60 regular season games this season, but didn’t appear in the postseason.
Dallas’ two goalies, Jake Oettinger and Scott Wedgewood, are both under contract for next season.
If Dallas needs to rely on young, cheaper talent, there should be a good pool to pick from: the Texas Stars and the Idaho Steelheads — two affiliates for the Stars — both played postseason hockey this season.
The 2023 NHL draft will be June 28–29 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The Stars do not have a first-round pick after trading it to New York for Lundkvist. It should be a loaded draft, and Dallas has picks in only two of the first four rounds. Should they package some of their prospects to try to trade into the first round?
That would make next month’s draft a lot more fun, wouldn’t it? It’s also pretty unlikely, considering Dallas’ history. Dallas has traded up only once in the first round since Jim Nill took over. That was in 2017, when Dallas shipped a third round pick and the 29th overall pick — which the Stars acquired from the Anaheim Ducks for Patrick Eaves — to move up three picks and select Oettinger. That worked out pretty well for Dallas.
Dallas could look to trade a veteran for a first round pick, but that would take a contract a team is willing to take, and a player Dallas doesn’t mind losing. That’s not the easiest combination to find for a team that was two wins away from advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.
If Dallas stays where it’s at, then the team’s first pick will be 61st overall.
Should the Stars look for a top-six role for Wyatt Johnston, or is he on schedule as a third-liner at age 20?
Among all the bright spots from this season, Johnston has to be high up there — especially considering how he played in the postseason. He turned 20 the night before Game 7 against Seattle. He then had the eventual game winner, just as he did in Round 1 against the Minnesota Wild. The goal was impressive.
“It’s a world-class play by one of the youngest players in the league,” DeBoer said after the game. “He’s been fantastic all year. He’s a big part of our group. It feels like the deeper we get, the more we rely on him, the more responsibility he wants.”
Johnston failed to score in the Western Conference finals against Vegas, but he also dealt with a lot of change. He was on a line with Benn and Dadonov for a long time. Both of them were gone in Game 3.
In Game 6, when Benn returned, Johnston played next to Benn and Tyler Seguin. That could be a line that Dallas utilizes next season.
Can the Stars build on this momentum? And how much is that tied into Oettinger?
Let’s start with the second question first. The answer in short: A ton of Dallas’ future success is tied to the 24-year-old goalie. Oettinger took another step this season, finishing with a career-best .919 save percentage and five shutouts. He finished the postseason with a 10-9 record, and until Game 6, he had proven to be fantastic in elimination games.
“That game isn’t on him,” DeBoer said. “I feel bad for our group. I feel worse that he ends his season on that because he doesn’t deserve that.
“We put him in some tough spots. We can’t ask him to win that game by himself. He went to that place a lot for us through these playoffs and down the stretch — to get seeding, we had an injury to [Scott] Wedgewood. We asked an awful lot of him. I thought he had a hell of a postseason. He was our backbone all year.”
A betting man would guess that Oettinger is going to take another step forward next season, especially with a potential extension on the horizon after next year. And if Oettinger does take that sept, it should be good news for a Stars team that has the capability to collectively move forward, as well.
The Stars have experienced veterans like Pavelski and Benn, talent as young as Johnston, and plenty of other players in between capable of helping the Stars return to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 2020.
There’s definitely momentum; can DeBoer and Co. seize it in 2023-24?