It could have been their year.

After missing the playoffs entirely two years previous, and then getting bounced in the first round a year ago, the Dallas Stars had a genuine chance to win the Stanley Cup. Sure, they’d likely have to get past the defending champion, as well as another imposing Western Conference power, but with a deep, balanced roster; a seasoned head coach; and an elite goal differential, Dallas finished the regular season as a trendy—and entirely credible—pick.

The same Dallas Stars who just lost in the Western Conference Final to Las Vegas? That’s right.

But also the 1997–98 Stars, who lost in that same round to the Detroit Red Wings.

Neither loss was a significant upset. The Stars finished well ahead of Detroit in the standings in ’98, but the Red Wings were the defending Stanley Cup champions and a dynasty in progress. This year Vegas had the West’s best record in a bunched-up group (the Knights had 111 points, followed by Colorado and Edmonton with 109 and the Stars with 108). Both seasons ended in painful 4–2 series losses in which the Stars went quickly from “what might have been” to clearly not the better team—but by no means a bad team.

“There is a lot to be proud of,” first-year Stars head coach Peter DeBoer said after the game-six loss to a Knights team he had coached from 2020 until 2022. “There were only four teams left standing out of thirty-two, and at the beginning of the year there weren’t a lot of people that had us penciled in as one of them.”

Most of the crowd in the American Airlines Center for that game agreed. Despite having just watched a 6–0 season-ending loss, the fans who stuck around paid their respects with a standing ovation for the home team prior to the traditional end-of-series handshake line.

Those fans were honoring a great season and a memorably deep playoff run as well as the Stars’ rousing effort to bounce back from a 3–0 series deficit against the Knights to give Dallas this final home game—even if it wasn’t much of one.

But most of all, the ovation was an expression of optimism. Of belief that next season, the 2023–24 team has every chance to build on this year’s loss (and last year’s early exit) the same way the 1997–98 team built on losing to the Red Wings (and the previous year’s early exit). Because, of course, Dallas won the Stanley Cup in 1999. As longtime Stars beat writer Mike Heika noted, more-recent Cup winners, like the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche, followed a similar path of learning how to win.

“There was a lot of a lot of good things to build on,” DeBoer said at his end-of-season press conference this week. “And that’s the important part, is when you don’t win, you know, have you established building blocks that you can build on for next year? And I think we did that. . . . I would expect we’ll have a hungry group. I think when you get this close and get a taste of it, you want to get back.”

Can past be prologue? It certainly isn’t guaranteed to happen, but it’s possible. Here are five good signs for Dallas’s chances next season.

The Stars have their stars for years to come

Roope Hintz, 26. Jason Robertson, 23. Miro Heiskanen, 23. Jake Oettinger, 24. That’s two forwards, a defenseman, and a goalie—four extraordinary players who are just getting started and are either signed to long-term contracts or not yet close to unrestricted free agency.

Hintz and Heiskanen were core players when the Stars made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in the 2020 COVID bubble playoffs, while Robertson and Oettinger had spent that season mostly with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Cedar Park. Now Hintz and Robertson are shining with veteran center Joe Pavelski on the first line. Oettinger has blossomed into one of the league’s best goalies. And Heiskanen has been an elite defenseman since his rookie year. This is their team—and their time.

Except not quite yet, obviously. While the veteran Hintz (10 goals, 14 assists) is the NHL’s leading scorer in these playoffs (at least until game one of the cup final on Saturday), Robertson and Oettinger were both up and down in their first extended postseason run. Robertson, who had an 18-game scoring streak (21 goals, 13 assists) early in the season and was at one point on pace for more than 70 goals (he wound up with 46, still good enough for seventh in the league), struggled at times and even went scoreless in the Stars’ second-round series against Seattle. He was just starting to show up—big-time—against Vegas, with five goals in five games, but it wasn’t enough. Especially with Oettinger and the defense getting shelled in game three (a 4–0 loss that saw the goaltender removed from action after seven minutes) and game six. But Oettinger also kept the Stars alive for Dallas’s game-four and -five wins (as well as the overtime losses in games one and two), and the team wouldn’t have reached the conference finals without him.

Having great young players doesn’t guarantee a Stanley Cup, but it’s better than not having them. “We’re gonna have that same group, same foundation that got us to the playoffs and got us this far, and some guys are just gonna keep getting better,” said Robertson in his “exit interview.” We’re gonna be a strong team next year.”

“I think the sky’s the limit for this group,” echoed Oettinger. “I think we’re going to be good for a long time, and now it’s up to us.”

The Bennaissance is probably over, but that’s okay

The Stars’ captain since 2013, Jamie Benn, was no longer expected to be the offensive force who led the NHL in scoring in 2015. But this year the 33-year-old wound up topping thirty goals for the first time in five seasons and was also better all-around—fewer penalties, a superior plus-minus rating—compared to last season. Thus, the Bennaissance.

Going forward, Benn, who has two seasons left on an eight-year, $76 million contract, will likely revert back to being more of a veteran leader and secondary scorer. But against Las Vegas, both of those qualities were literally missing, as the captain received a major penalty for cross-checking the Golden Knights’ Mark Stone a mere one minute and 53 seconds into game three.

That came with an automatic ejection, with the Knights extending an early 1–0 lead to 3–0 during the power play and its immediate aftermath (Stars fans also managed to get the last 21.6 seconds of the second period canceled because they were throwing things on the ice in response to another penalty). The NHL then suspended Benn for two more games. Not allowing that to be the last memory of Benn’s 2022–23 season provided extra motivation for the Stars to win games four and five, but then neither they nor he made anything of the opportunity in game six.

More motivation for next year? It almost has to be.

The Pavelskaissance is not over

Okay, the Pavelskaissance is not a thing. But for Dallas, the 38-year-old Pavelski was the story of the playoffs. First the Stars managed to get out of the first round against Minnesota despite losing him to a concussion in game one. The center returned in the second round against Seattle to score four goals in a game-one overtime loss. He added four more in the series, and he also kept the Stars’ season alive with a sudden death overtime winner against Vegas in game four. Pavelski now leads all active NHL players in career postseason goals, ahead of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

Nicknamed “Captain America” for his Team USA heroics, Pavelski has all the gravitas of a captain without the actual letter; he previously wore the “C” for Stars coach Peter DeBoer when they were both in San Jose, he’s been crucial to the development of Hintz and Robertson, and this year he (somewhat famously) had nineteen-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston live with him and his family.

During Wednesday’s end-of-season interviews, Pavelski said there was a time when he thought this could be his last season, but the Stars have already locked him up with a fresh contract extension for next year. He’ll be back. 

Youth is still not fully served

As young as Robertson, Oettinger, and Heiskanen are, there’s an even younger group of Stars mainstays beginning to emerge. Every team needs that kind of youth, both for its own sake and because in a salary-capped league, they balance out older players’ fatter contracts.

Wyatt Johnston, who turned twenty just before game seven of the Seattle series, was the team’s seventh-leading scorer (24 goals, 17 assists) this year, and he had one of the best goals of the postseason just after that birthday, flipping and chipping the puck in off goaltender Philipp Grubauer’s face.

Other young players, like Ty Dellandrea (who had two goals in game five after Benn’s suspension thrust him back into the lineup), Fredrik Olofsson, and 21-year-old defenseman Thomas Harley also stepped up, and the Texas Stars farm team had a stellar season in the American Hockey League.

Jim Nill is a pretty good GM

There have been times when Nill—an architect of the late-nineties Red Wings team that once vexed the Stars—seemed like nothing special in Dallas. He’s been on the job since 2013, with six mostly disappointing years before the 2020 playoff run. That said, the Stars’ GM position was an out-and-out disaster in the era before Nill, and he has been the team’s stability over the past decade (even as the coaches came and went). In addition to hiring DeBoer, drafting well, and developing the team’s young talent, Nill’s best work in these most recent years has been filling out the roster’s depth through free agent signings and trades while walking the salary-cap tightrope. He’ll need to keep up that good work this offseason if the Stars are going to keep pace in the Western Conference.

So will they party like it’s 1999?

Who knows! Championship trajectories aren’t always linear, and the Stars already know how it feels to go an entire era with unfulfilled Stanley Cup expectations. Dave Tippett, the team’s second-winningest coach, never won a championship over six seasons with a mix of 1999 holdovers and new additions. And Jamie Benn only made the playoffs three times in the first ten years of his Stars career, despite great expectations.

Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. And the competition isn’t going anywhere. But the last Dallas team that played for a championship still has as good a chance as any of the city’s pro sports franchises to be the next Dallas team that wins one.