Dallas Stars’ contention window remains open – but they need more than a few tweaks

      The Stars have the pieces in place to remain competitive. But will a lack of cap space prevent them from making meaningful improvements?

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      Where do the Dallas Stars go from here?

      After a rock-solid 108-point campaign during the regular season, Dallas won two Stanley Cup Playoff rounds and earned a trip to the Western Conference Final. But after several lackluster outings, the Stars fell to the Vegas Golden Knights in six games.

      A look in the mirror provides a pretty clear picture as to why Dallas was successful up until that disappointment. Hiring head coach Pete DeBoer during the 2022 offseason was a big win for Stars GM Jim Nill. And forwards Roope Hintz and Jason Roberston continue to blaze the path to stardom. 

      Miro Heiskanen deserves to be in the running for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defender. Wyatt Johnston scored 24 times in his rookie year – as a 19 year old. And despite growing pains during the 2022-23 Stanley Cup Playoffs, goaltender Jake Oettinger is still just scratching the surface of his potential.

      Captain Jamie Benn – more on him later – had a resurgent season, scoring 33 times and chipping in 78 points overall. Even 38-year old Joe Pavelski found the back of the net nine times in 14 postseason games.

      I could keep going through the Dallas roster and providing examples of why the team should be good for years to come. Which I believe is likely. The Stars have a roster laden in young talent, a testament to how well the team has drafted in recent years.

      But make no mistake, there are holes. And with a projected 23.2 percent of Dallas’ 2023-24 salary cap space being chewed up by the contracts of Benn and fellow forward Tyler Seguin, it won’t be easy rounding out a roster that simply didn’t have the depth to compete with the Golden Knights.

      That problem? Depth? Yeah, it’s not going away just yet, either. As it stands, Nill only has about $7.4 million in cap space to work with ahead of the 2023-24 season. And the way I see it, he needs to fill out at least three roster spots.

      Dallas has eight forwards under contract next season. Nine if you include RFA Ty Dellandrea, who I expect to be retained. But with 28 points during the 2022-23 campaign, Dellandrea won’t be a bargain. His new cap hit will be in the low millions.

      Basically, unless the team decides to move on from Radek Faksa and his $3.25 million contract, I think Dallas is looking at about $5 million to spend between three forwards. In other words, Nill and company will need to find some serious value on the open market. Or trade for a player with a lesser cap hit that is under team control for a few seasons. Which wouldn’t be cheap.

      Against Vegas, the lack of depth was striking. On both sides of the puck. Dallas had no answer for the Golden Knights third line centered by William Karlsson. And in Game 6, it was Vegas’ fourth line that controlled the first period. Goals from William Carrier and Keegan Kolesar helped Vegas race out to a 3-0 lead after the first frame.

      That’s despite Dallas bulking up at the 2023 trade deadline with forwards Max Domi and Evgenii Dadonov. Both of whom will be unrestricted free agents on July 1.

      Dallas is in a good spot with young talent currently on the roster. But with the next wave of prospects a few years away from NHL duty, with the possible exception of Logan Stankoven, it behooves the team to spend wisely in free agency. Especially considering Benn and Seguin’s contracts are likely immovable.

      Forward is the position most in flux for Dallas. But I’m curious to see if Nill doesn’t shake up his defensive core. The Stars have seven NHL-level defenders under contract next season. Two of which – Thomas Harley and Nils Lundkvist – are on entry-level deals.

      While the expectations for Harley and Lundkvist are high, asking either to play top-four minutes next year would likely be a step too far. And that’s exactly why I think Nill has to pursue any opportunity to help his team on the back end.

      Dallas gambled two years ago when they signed veteran blueliner Ryan Suter to a four-year contract. And for the most part, the deal has worked. But he’s 38 years old now, with two more years remaining on the pact. And at times during the 2022-23 Stanley Cup playoffs, Suter was lost defensively. 

      Is he still capable of playing top-four minutes? I think that’s a real debate that needs to take place in Dallas. And I don’t see teams lining up to take the remaining two years of his $3.65 million contract without being paid to do so.

      Suter wasn’t the only Stars defenseman that struggled. Esa Lindell was minus-10 during the 2022-23 Stanley Cup playoffs. Which was really surprising considering how good Lindell has historically been in all situations for Dallas.

      Against a team like Vegas that has one of the best six-man defensive units in the NHL, Dallas’ shortcomings on the back end were exacerbated. Especially considering how much of an emphasis DeBoer places on defensive mobility.

      One area that won’t be changing in the near future is goaltending. While Oettinger may not have been the postseason x-factor that myself – and many others – expected him to be, he’s not going anywhere. And Scott Wedgewood did a nice job in the No.2 role this season. At $5 million between the two netminders, Dallas has value in net.

      It’s not like the Stars are far off. With DeBoer behind the bench, and young talent growing into bigger roles, Dallas should be competitive for years to come. But while I don’t think the team’s window has closed by any stretch, I do think some roster surgery is in order.

      The Stars took positive steps this year. Nill and company should be pleased. But until Benn’s contract finishes up after the 2024-25 season, the team’s cap crunch will always be a difficult hurdle to overcome.

      Dallas has work to do in free agency. Value pieces need to be added. And I think the defensive core needs a rethink with DeBoer in charge. But as long as Robertson, Hintz, Heiskanen, and Oettinger are in Dallas, bet on the Stars to remain near the top of the Central Division.



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