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Key note from exit interviews: 'We all know how important next year is'

Though missing the playoffs this time around was disappointing, the Stars know they have the group to make a run for the Stanley Cup next season

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

Rick Bowness just endured the most disappointing and devastating season in his 36-year NHL coaching career, and yet on Tuesday he was hoping to take a positive approach.

"It was an experience, and it was an experience that will make us all better and stronger as we move forward as a team," Bowness said of the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign that ended Monday with the Stars missing the playoffs. "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."

Video: "It's an experience you grow from... learn from"

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL last season went into a playoff bubble in which the Stars had to quarantine for two months in Edmonton. They excelled by getting to the Stanley Cup Final before losing in six games to the Tampa Bay Lightning. This season, the league decided to hold a 56-game schedule in which teams played in their own arenas and traveled to other arenas.

However, the Stars had the first four games of the season postponed because of positive tests, and then had an additional four contests postponed because of a winter storm in North Texas. That forced them to play the final 44 games over 77 days and eventually created a physical and mental test that left the team exhausted and a few points short of the playoffs.

Along the way, Dallas had to endure injuries to key players, protocols that created travel hardships and a lack of practice time that made it difficult to fix problems as they arose.

And that's why Bowness said simply staying in the fight until the end was an experience that should make the team better in the long run.

"What we went through is unheard of, but I give our players credit," Bowness said. "Even though it doesn't show itself in wins and losses, sometimes you have to look at other measures, and the commitment we had from our players was second to none."

Video: CAR@DAL: Robertson sets up Benn's overtime winner

The Stars players are hoping to grow from this season in a lot of different ways. For players like rookies Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger, it was a chance to step into the league, take a significant role and launch what could be outstanding NHL careers. For players like Stars captain Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski and John Klingberg, it was the chance to dig in, carry extra weight, and show they are leaders. For players like Tyler Seguin, it was a chance to learn something in a new and different way by battling back from surgery to get on the ice.

"I learned a lot about myself and understanding how grateful I am to do the things I love and have this lifestyle and that all came from not being able to live it, not being able to be here with the guys and play the game I love," Seguin said of having two major surgeries in the offseason and then fighting to play three games. "So the biggest thing was just how passionate I was about the game."

Video: "A lot more explosive training" in store for Seguin

Seguin said he still has a lot of work to do in summer to get himself back to 100 percent healthy. He stated that he wants to work on "explosive" training to get his power and speed back, and said he feels great about where he is in his career as he's getting closer to 30. Seguin said he used the down time away from the rink working on mental strength and peace of mind.

"That was my 11th season, which is a little scary to say out loud, but that was one of the things I looked at when COVID hit," Seguin said. "I started to look at the mental side of things, getting into meditation or listening to audio books. It sounds a little corny at times, but I find the benefits in it and I'm going to continue doing it."

Benn was a dynamic leader in the Edmonton bubble, and helped drag his team from one round of the playoffs to the next. This season, he made the move from wing to center and helped his team in different ways.

"I really enjoyed it, actually," Benn said. "I just tried to embrace the role of being a centerman. I got more comfortable with it after a few games and I just really liked it."

Video: "It's nothing you could really prepare for"

Benn said everyone had to get out of their comfort zone, and that helped bring the team together.

"There's a lot of character in that room, and we're obviously very close as a group," Benn said. "Dealing with COVID at the start of the season, and then we get that snowstorm and that schedule after that, we saw a lot of the character on the guys on this team. It's been a pleasure going to war with these guys every game we had."

And that's one of the keys to come out of this season. The Stars battled hard no matter how a game was going. They lost a league-high 14 times in overtime or shootouts, but that was more because of poor execution or even "over-try" during some of the extra sessions. While poise might've been a problem, passion never was.

Those lessons could be important going forward. The Stars have some interesting contracts to negotiate in the offseason, including an extension for young superstar Miro Heiskanen, and also have to deal with the fact they will lose one player to Seattle in the expansion draft. There are UFAs like Blake Comeau, Andrew Cogliano and Jamie Oleksiak who might not return. There are youngsters like Ty Dellandrea and Thomas Harley who might get full-time spots.

It's a lot to digest.

But what players and coaches did say Tuesday is that 2021-22 could be great. The team is getting older and veterans like Pavelski, Klingberg and Alexander Radulov are in the last year of their current contracts. Bowness also has just one year left on his deal and will turn 67 next season.

So there's a lot on the table for these individuals.

And if the team has a healthy Seguin, a healthy Radulov, a healthy Ben Bishop and players like Robertson, Oettinger, Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov stepping into their respective primes, then Dallas could be right back in the mix fighting for the Stanley Cup.

"It's a huge season for the whole organization," Seguin said. "We all bought into this group, we all love each other, and we have a real tight group. And if you sat down with a pen and a piece of paper and tried to write down all of the things we've been through the past two years, it would be quite the list. We all know how important this next year is. Today, we're still disappointed, but we have high expectations of ourselves, and we're going to have high expectations next year and we're going to do everything we can to fulfill them."

Video: DAL@FLA: Seguin scores backhand goal in return game

Bowness spends his summers in Nova Scotia and said he'd like to get up there and put his boat in the water for the first time in two years. He'll also visit his kids and grandkids and spend some time with his family. But during those down times, he said he'll be thinking about what he's learned and how he can use it to make the Stars better.

"We have too much time now," Bowness said of the fact the team went from a tiring sprint to a full stop. "It's one extreme to the other. The thing about this job is you never leave it. You get away from it, but it always stays with you, which is what I love. You're always thinking about the challenge and doing something better."

They believe they can find that something better, and they also believe the ideas will come from what they just experienced.

Victory Club memberships are available now for 2021-22! Beyond season tickets, don't miss your chance to secure the best seats for Stars home games, plus exclusive benefits, members-only experiences and much more. Click here to learn more!

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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