In discussions with a friend after Monday’s free agency blitz, I was asked, “Are the Stars better than they were at the end of last season?”

It’s a great question, and one that can have some real teeth when you consider they have to replace the contributions of both Chris Tanev and Joe Pavelski. But my eventual response, and what I feel might be just as biting, is this question: “Are the Stars better than they were at the start of last season?”

That one, I think, helps stir the discussion pot a little more.

Gone from the Stars is a significant group of contributors. Pavelski was second on the team in scoring at 67 points (27 goals, 40 assists) in 82 games. Tanev was a horse in the playoffs and offered the perfect right-handed complement to Esa Lindell. Ryan Suter was a solid player during the regular season with 17 points and a plus-14 while playing 18:56 in all 82 games. Craig Smith (11 goals, 9 assists), Radek Faksa (7 goals, 12 assists) and Ty Dellandrea (2 goals, 7 assists) were all a part of a nice rotation on the fourth line that was a big part of the increased scoring depth.

There’s no doubt they will all be missed, but Pavelski is turning 40, Suter is 39, and Tanev was only with the team for 19 games in the regular season. Jani Hakanpää is gone, as well, but the Stars were a little worried about his recovery from a knee injury, so they needed to look for someone else to do the same job.

And that’s where the comparison debate makes a little more sense from management’s perspective.

Are Matt Dumba, Ilya Lyubushkin and Brendan Smith better than Suter, Hakanpää and Joel Hanley? I think you can make the argument that they are. At the very least, they are different. Dumba is 29, 10 years younger than Suter, has averaged 20:37 per game in his career and was over 20 minutes a game with Arizona last season. He’s not a big scorer, but he has some skill. He also has a bit of an edge, which Stars fans saw in the Minnesota series. That can be a bad thing, but it also is an element the team is missing. Dallas was 32nd in penalty minutes last season. The Stars were second to last in hits. That self-control is part of what made the team good, but it was also something you would have liked to see bumped up a little bit.

The Florida Panthers are a different team with a different strategy, but the Panthers were first in both hits and penalty minutes. Had the Stars played Florida, that would have been a huge talking point.

Both Dumba and Lyubushkin are right shots, so that also allows the defense to possibly fit together better.

Smith is the ultimate veteran and GM Jim Nill knows him well from their days in Detroit together. Smith averaged 16 minutes a game in 63 games with New Jersey and had 15 points (5 goals, 10 assists). He’s left-handed, but can play the left or right side, and can certainly buy time for either Nils Lundkvist or Lian Bichsel to mature. If those young players do take a bigger chunk of the lineup, it should be easier to carve out space than it was when Suter and Hakanpää were there.

Clearly the team wanted to keep Tanev, and you can’t blame them for that, but the interesting thing about the 34-yeat-old warrior is they didn’t get him until late in the season. If they manage the cap well there is a chance that the Stars could go fishing again for a trade deadline pickup who could push the blueline up a notch. But right now it seems like the Dallas defense is actually in pretty good shape.

When you consider Miro Heiskanen, Thomas Harley and Esa Lindell as the core, working in the extra pieces seems fairly easy.

Up front Pavelski will be missed in a lot of ways. The veteran has been a huge piece on the top line with Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson, but it became clear in the playoffs that maybe a new combination was needed. Pavelski had just 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists) in 19 games. The opportunity is out there for a player like Wyatt Johnston, Logan Stankoven or Mavrik Bourque to jump into a great role, and that’s very exciting. When you consider Dallas could have three “top nine” forwards 22 or younger, the potential for improvement each season seems very real.

Johnston went from 41 points (14 goals, 17 assists) his rookie season to 65 (32 goals, 33 assists) last year. Is he ready to challenge 80 next season? Can Stankoven or Bourque be 20-goal scorers in their respective rookie seasons? It certainly looks like a chance to get younger and faster.

Losing Faksa is tough because he was such a good penalty killer and a big body, but Sam Steel basically took the minutes of both Faksa and Dellandrea last season. That’s the harsh reality of pro sports, but it is what it is.

Now, the $3.25 million that was going to Faksa can help pay for a big raise that will be given to Harley. Again, that’s business.

Dallas added 31-year-old Colin Blackwell on Tuesday to fill out the forward depth, and there is a group in the AHL that can definitely push in camp to maybe make the opening night roster, but the bottom line is that roster should be pretty solid in October. Yes, there have been some changes, and yes you can bemoan some of the losses, but the Stars seem to have navigated some pretty extenuating business challenges and wound up in a pretty good place.

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.

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