The NHL playoffs got underway this week, and if you’re the sort of casual hockey fan who doesn’t pay attention until now, you may have noticed something missing: the Dallas Stars.
Texas’s lone NHL franchise is not among the sixteen teams who made the postseason. The club and its fans had faced this possibility for quite some time, though it didn’t become official until the last days of the season, when the Nashville Predators claimed the NHL Central Division’s fourth and final playoff spot. But it was still somewhat surprising. After all, it was only last September that the Stars were in the Stanley Cup Final, albeit on the losing end.
That success earned interim head coach Rick Bowness a full contract and had fans looking forward to 2020–21. Young players would get better. Injured players would get healthy. Backup goaltender turned postseason MVP contender Anton Khudobin did not leave in free agency. And after last year’s playoff “bubble” in Alberta, the Stars would surely enjoy playing in Texas, perhaps even with fans at the American Airlines Center.
In fact, when the NHL season began in January, the Stars were one of just three franchises to allow fans in the stands, at approximately 25 percent capacity. Most of the league’s other U.S. teams (though none in Canada) followed suit over the next three months. Come playoff time, the Stars had plans to be the first team in either the NHL or NBA to welcome back a full arena.
Hockey teams plan, hockey gods laugh. A .500 club for much of the season, the Stars got hot in April, improving their record from 14–14–10 to 21–15–12 (the third number is overtime or shootout losses, and we’ll get back to those). They then lost five games in a row, including a 1–0 overtime loss to Nashville on May 1 that was their last chance to make prey of the Predators. In the end, the Stars finished 23–19–14, with 60 points—4 behind the Predators—and a .536 winning percentage that was seventeenth in the NHL overall. They were the last team out.
What happened? To some extent, there’s only one 5-letter and 2-number answer: COVID-19. As for almost anyone in every walk of life, nothing was predictable or normal or expected for the Stars this year, including the rhythms of the season, the structure of the schedule, and the challenges of mental and physical conditioning on and off the ice. All teams in the NHL dealt with these same circumstances, but some had it worse than others—or were just especially unlucky.
“It was an experience,” Bowness said at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an experience that you grow from, an experience that you learn from, and it’s also an experience you hope you don’t have to go through again.”
Here are five reasons why the Stars are wearing shoes instead of skates right now . . . and also why there’s hope for next year.
1. Neither of these two seasons were normal
It’s not that the Stars’ run to the Stanley Cup Final was fluky—or at least no more fluky than anything else that happens in a best-of-seven elimination tournament where 100-mile-per-hour pucks bounce off of linebacker-size men on ice skates and where goalies often “steal” a series. Even in a normal NHL season, the best team doesn’t always win.
But arguably no team benefited more from the 2020 COVID interruption than the Stars. The postponed season changed both the playoff format and playoff seeding, while also giving Bowness, who had taken over on the fly, an extra four months to prepare and settle in as coach.
2021 was just the opposite. A Stanley Cup “hangover” is fairly common, due to the extra games a team must play to reach the end of the playoffs and the shorter off-season recovery. But with the 2020 playoffs ending on September 28 and practice starting this year on January 4, the break was even shorter than it would have been. As was the season: 56 games instead of 82, with a completely reconfigured, temporary four-division structure. Due to COVID-19 precautions and the need to restrict travel, the NHL’s seven Canadian teams, stretching from Vancouver to Montreal, were in the same division, while the Stars were in a vastly different Central Division, playing eight games each against seven other teams, only two of which (Nashville and Chicago) would be in Dallas’s division—or even conference—in a normal season. The Stars wound up playing the same number of games against the Tampa Bay Lightning this year—eight—as they did last season. But last season, six of those were in the Stanley Cup Final.
With no games against Colorado, St. Louis, or Minnesota, it’s not that the new schedule was necessarily harder. But it’s still pretty easy to imagine that, given 26 more games and the league’s usual conference/wild-card playoff format, the Stars would still be on the ice now.
2. Plus, they actually got COVID
The Stars weren’t the only NHL team to be shut down by a COVID-19 outbreak, but they were the first. Seventeen players tested positive during training camp, a number that accounted for 63 percent of all the positive tests in the NHL during that period. The other thirty teams? Just ten between them. (Cue Alabama: “If you’re gonna play in Texas / You gotta have a little virus on the ice.”)
Most of the players were asymptomatic, but camp had to be stopped for several days, and the first four games of the season had to be postponed.
3. Games called on account of snow
“Game Called on Account of Fog” was the title of the second chapter of Zamboni Rodeo, my book about minor league hockey in Texas. Heat and humidity are the enemies of skating. But canceling indoor hockey on account of snow is something you don’t expect—especially in Texas.
Of course, the February winter storm emergency was much bigger than hockey, and much bigger than just about anything. After an initial moment of resistance and denial, the Stars wound up postponing four more games, at which point the NHL had also not yet rescheduled the games the Stars had already postponed in January.
That turned an already-compressed schedule into a true gauntlet. What would have normally been 82 games over six months had already become 56 in four; but the Stars, having completed just 12 contests as of February 22, had to play 44 games in 78 days.
That made for a worn and torn and tired team, without even the occasional day off or non-travel day for rest or minor injury recovery. Not to mention COVID protocols.
“It’s been a grind,” said veteran Swedish defenseman John Klingberg, who also became a first-time father in the middle of the season. “With the schedule we had, where we were staying in the same hotel for days, and you travel to another hotel and you stay there for days, and there’s rules: you cannot do this, you cannot do that. It’s been different for sure, and then just playing every other day, and back-to-backs as well. It’s weird. It takes a lot of energy on your body but especially on your brain.”
The revised schedule also meant the team essentially stopped practicing—putting out that maximum effort, or putting in a lot of on-ice teaching, was impossible with so few off days.
“We went eleven weeks without a practice, which is unheard of,” said general manager Jim Nill. “It was interesting, talking to the players. When they first saw it, they said, ‘Oh, good, we don’t have to practice anymore.’ Now, after doing my exit interviews, that’s probably the one thing they missed the most.”
Hockey has two great spring traditions: the raising of the Stanley Cup and the press conference where the general manager of every team that didn’t win the Cup recounts the injuries that hobbled the roster. This is especially true during the playoffs, when teams get extra secretive and terms like “lower body injury” get applied to anything from strained quads to blown-out knees to full-on amputations (kidding).
The Stars’ injuries were known but also myriad and very much a product of the two unusual seasons. After last year’s final, Nill listed damage to no less than thirteen players, many of whom hadn’t completely recovered by the time this season began. Starting goaltender Ben Bishop, who had knee surgery in May 2020 and was unable to make a successful return to the team during last year’s playoff run (he appeared in just three postseason games), never made it back at all this season. Star forward Tyler Seguin’s off-season hip surgery kept him out until May 3. Center Radek Faksa played 55 of Dallas’s 56 games, but he never seemed to bounce all the way back from the broken wrist he suffered in the playoff bubble.
Also gutting it out with damage that dated back to last year was forward Roope Hintz, who put up 43 points in 41 games, despite playing through a pelvic injury. In a normal off-season, Seguin might have been back in time to play 30 or 40 games, while Hintz could have had surgery (which he finally did this week) and rejoined the team with months to spare before the playoffs.
The Stars also lost scoring forward Alexander Radulov and defenseman Joel Hanley to core muscle injuries. And then there were the many little dings due to the tough schedule. “I’ve never seen so many groin pulls and hamstring pulls,” Nill said. “You usually don’t see them during the season.”
Injuries are part of the game, but as longtime Stars beat writer Mike Heika observed, the Stars had “the fourth most games lost to injury at 317 and the most ‘points lost’ in the standings at 18.0, according to the website Man-Games Lost NHL.”
5. Working overtime . . . except overtime didn’t work out
“They didn’t play sixty minutes” is what hockey fans say when a team’s effort and execution don’t hold up over an entire game. That was a problem for the Stars inasmuch as they had trouble winning games in regulation—and even more trouble winning in overtime and shoot-outs.
The head-to-head drama with Nashville says it all. The Predators finished the regular season 31–23–2, with 64 points in the standings—2 points for each win (62), and 1 point for each overtime or shoot-out loss (2). The 23–19–14 Stars earned 46 of their 60 points from wins, and a league-high 14 points via overtime or shoot-out losses. The Stars’ record against Nashville was 3–0–5, so if just two of those OTLs had turned out differently, the clubs might have been tied at 62 points—though Nashville still would have won the tiebreaker, based on regulation victories. Of course, it also wasn’t just the Predators. As the Athletic’s Saad Yoosuf noted after Dallas’s all-but-decisive loss to Nashville on May 1, the Stars had at least one overtime or shoot-out loss to every team in the division except seventh-place Detroit.
But the future’s still bright(ish)
Nearly all of the Stars’ woes this season can be attributed to the aforementioned bad breaks, but there were other issues. The Dallas power play was good—fifth-best percentage in the league—but disappeared at times (as it did in 2020 Cup final), while the penalty kill struggled (as it did in the Cup final). In the absence of Bishop, second-stringer Khudobin couldn’t repeat his 2020 success in goal, raising questions about the rest of that new contract. And young star defenseman Miro Heiskanen was not the playmaking or scoring force he had been last fall. He had almost as many points in last year’s playoffs (six goals and twenty assists in 27 games) as he did this season (eight goals and nineteen assists in 55 games). To be fair, though, those numbers are similar to his 2020 regular-season production.
On the bright side, goaltender Jake Oettinger, who made his NHL debut in last year’s playoffs, stepped into the backup role as successfully as Khudobin had before him. Forward Joe Pavelski had another stellar season at the age of 36; Hintz, who’s just 24, had a career-best season despite his injury. The team also had another breakout youngster in Jason Robertson, who was second on the team in scoring behind Pavelski and second in the NHL among all rookies.
“He had an unbelievable season,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “I think he should win the Calder [Trophy, for NHL Rookie of the Year]. He had that good of a year.”
You’ve got to admit, given the setbacks they faced, that the Stars have played hard— and that’s what Bowness chose to emphasize, praising his team’s effort and toughness throughout the season.
Looking ahead to 2022, Nill will have his work cut out for him. With an expansion draft looming this off-season for the Seattle Kraken, a roster with as many aging stars as young ones, and potential salary-cap concerns, the Stars won’t be favored to win the Stanley Cup next year—but in a normal NHL season, with a normal schedule, they should be good to return to the playoffs.
After that, who knows which way the pucks might bounce?