Hovering just over .500, in the middle of the division and with a slightly negative goal differential. At this point, the 2017 Dallas Stars are thoroughly mediocre. They look better and definitely look like they have a system in place, but the lack of depth production is holding them back severely. Looking to the trade market, should the Stars decide this is a team worth salvaging, is one route for fixing the issues that plague them, but juggling the lineup a little could make a significant difference, too.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup two years ago after scuffling through a half-season of up-and-down play despite having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel. Those three aren’t the entire team, but that trio is certainly the core of what they had going on. Around the middle of the year, the Penguins built three scoring lines, one around each player.
Head Coach Ken Hitchcock moved captain Jamie Benn back to center for the first time in years. Tyler Seguin is still patrolling the middle of the ice. Alex Radulov has been excellent in his first season with the Stars playing with the top two. Even with the Stars attempting to split the offense up, they’ve still had Radulov with the top two despite the usually-sturdy Jason Spezza struggling playing wing down the lineup. If you take the Penguins’ approach and form lines around Benn, Seguin, and Radulov, you can spread the scoring around and potentially pull Spezza into the fight by having Radulov on his wing. He’s getting 13 minutes a night and the man is creeping up on 1,000 points. He may not be the player he once was, but there’s no justification for him getting less ice time than Martin Hanzal.
Speaking of, Hanzal is a problem. The Stars are fixated on Hanzal playing center since that is all he has ever played. He kills penalties and takes faceoffs while making more money than he should given his production. Do you risk irritating him by consistently bumping him to the fourth line or making him play on the wing some to try to generate more offense, or do you leave it alone? It’s an interesting question to be sure, but there does come a point when the Stars have to be willing to consider it if the offense continues scuffling.
Moving the top guys around alone isn’t going to fix the issues. It will provide opportunities for other players to step up and contribute. Devin Shore, Gemel Smith, and Brett Ritchie have gotten chances to show what they can do. Smith is a guy to keep an eye on for sure here, but Jason Dickinson is another. There’s not much going on in the AHL for the Stars at this point, so any help beyond those two is likely coming from outside the organization. There are few reasons to believe those two won’t be quality NHLers given decent ice time though.
If the Stars do have the key pieces in place in the form of Benn, Seguin, and Radulov, the only thing limiting how they fill out the rest of the roster going forward is their imagination. The cap is complicated, but as the season winds down surely they can find a taker for Kari Lehtonen if they’re willing to pay. Jamie Oleksiak’s remaining money could be cleared. If they get to the point that they accept that Hanzal is a sunk cost, maybe they explore moving his money. The point is if they really want to get crazy they can move some money around for other acquisitions.
Guys like Carl Hagelin and David Perron are moved at or near the deadline every year. Heck, the Vegas Golden Knights have 3-4 of these guys or better who could conceivably be moved, including Perron himself. You would like to see the guys the Stars have step into these roles sooner or later, but without the opportunity to do it they never will. Feed Smith, Dickinson, Shore, and maybe Ritchie ice time with the top three guys split across three lines for a while. If they don’t work out fine, but what do you really have to lose? Benn, Seguin, and Radulov are going to get theirs regardless.
The Cup window for this group as constructed is small. Scuffling along at .500 isn’t going to cut it. It didn’t for the Penguins and look how they responded. If they can, the Stars can too.