After falling just short of Stanley Cup Final, Dallas Stars face painful reality

Tribune Content Agency

FRISCO, Texas — Exit interviews took place at Dallas Stars headquarters on Wednesday. First up to meet with head coach Pete DeBoer was goalie Jake Oettinger.

The year in review file featured plenty of positives. The 24-year-old former first-round pick completed his first full season as the team’s undisputed top goalie. He appeared in 81 games and had a .919 save percentage during the regular season. As DeBoer later pointed out, he won a playoff series against his hometown team and won a Game 7 for the first time.

The positives of this season, however, weren’t on Oettinger’s mind in his exit interview, DeBoer said.

“This guy’s hungry,” DeBoer said. “He wants to be the best — the best in the world. He wants to win a Stanley Cup. That’s all he talks about.

Case in point: “What are the long-term individual goals you have for your career?” one reporter asked in part on Wednesday.

Oettinger: “Win the cup. No. 1. That’s the only thing that matters … Boston, for example, they’re going to have multiple award winners and all the individual stuff, obviously had a great season, but every single one of those guys would trade it to be playing on June 3.”

That’s what made this juncture so difficult for the Stars to digest.

The days following a playoff exit can be tricky. There’s the emotion of a season ended mixed with the promise of more things to come. The Stars, for example, were one of the last three teams left. They have a young core and a lot of returners. If some players continue their upward development, if older ones sustain the production they had this year, and if general manager Jim Nill pushes the right buttons in the offseason, then the Stars could certainly build upon this season.

The theory makes sense, and plenty of Stars played have agreed with it, but there’s a factor that makes it less comforting right now: the Stars already believed they had a team capable of winning a Stanley Cup, even though it didn’t happen.

“I think I’ll have some time to reflect on it,” DeBoer said of his first season in Dallas and his trip to the conference finals with his fourth different team, “but the taste of that game — really, the two games in the final series: Game 3 and then the final game — that’ll start to fade. I still think it hasn’t yet.”

Consider the championship recipe this team possessed. The Stars were top-five in both penalty kill and power play during the regular season. Seventh in goals scored, and third best in goals allowed. They have a young goalie in Oettinger they hope will continue to improve, a core of Jason Robertson (7th in points in the regular season), Roope Hintz (currently the leading point scorer in the playoffs) and defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who DeBoer and Co. believed should’ve been a finalist for the Calder Trophy.

Take away the debacles of Game 3 and 6, where they were outscored 10-0 by Vegas, and the Stars had a plus-one goal differential against the Knights, with three of those four games decided in overtime.

Surely there are places Dallas needs to get better. They have some imminent holes with free agency, including the potential losses of forwards Max Domi and Evgenii Dadonov, as well as defenseman Joel Hanley, among others. DeBoer said they need to have more depth scoring, and defensively he pointed to the two teams still standing as inspiration.

“There’s not a lot of offensive defenseman contributing this time of year,” DeBoer said.

But no team is immune to potential improvements when the offseason starts. And the Stars, still digesting the start of their offseason, believed this year could’ve resulted in a Stanley Cup.

Still, having the chance to win the cup and actually doing it are two different things, and the chasm between those two things is vast.

“I genuinely believe that we had the group to do it this year,” said Domi, who expressed interest in re-signing with Dallas. “But obviously we came up short. We’re going to have to let that soak in and I think it’ll be a good thing in the long run. A lot of these young guys, too, it’s going to show them how hard it is and keep them hungry, or keep the older guys so hungry. Everyone’s going to know that we’re so, so close, but we have to get back next year. I think that’s something that, as much as it sucks right now, it’s going to pay off in a big, big way next year.”