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Insider debate: Is Stars' window to win Stanley Cup now open?

Mike Heika, Brien Rea, Owen Newkirk and Bruce LeVine tackle 5 burning questions as the new season nears

by Mike Heika, Brien Rea, Owen Newkirk and Bruce LeVine / DallasStars.com

Hockey is coming.

No, seriously, we're less than 60 days from the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins dropping the puck to open the 2019-20 regular season at American Airlines Center.

Before we get to Oct. 3, there's still some lingering offseason topics to discuss -- and the guys have those hot takes covered in the latest edition of our "Take 5" insider debate from summer signings to dreaming of snow (?!) at the Winter Classic.

Happy reading.

 

1. After grabbing veterans Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera in free agency to fill some key holes in the lineup, expectations are seemingly sky-high for the Stars around the league. Is it smart to say the window is now open for this group to take its next step toward a Stanley Cup?

Mike Heika, DallasStars.com Senior Staff Writer: I think they have been pushing to open this window for a few years, and they have reached that point with the peak of players like Tyler Seguin, Ben Bishop and John Klingberg. Mix in some good free agents, and that creates opportunities that weren't there last season. Then, I think finding the right coaching staff brings it all together.

Every team is trying to do the same thing, but on paper, it looks like the Stars have all the pieces to be a contender in 2019-20.

 

Brien Rea, FOX Sports Southwest Host: The window has been open going back to the 2015-16 team with the best record in the Western Conference. After Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg, Jim Nill built up the core adding Alexander Radulov, Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell and Ben Bishop. Now, can Nill finish off the puzzle with the secondary ingredients to elevate this team. After last year's playoff run, hopefully Pavelski, Perry and Sekera are the final pieces.

On paper, the Stars are a contender. The question is whether they take that next step on the ice and not suffer a setback, like they did in the years following that 2015-16 campaign.

 

Owen Newkirk, Dallas Stars Radio Host: In mid-July, Jim Montgomery came on The Ticket for Bruce and my fill-in show "The Last Resort" and said the Stars were a half a puck away from the Western Conference Final (referencing Jamie Benn's agonizingly close wrap-around attempt in double overtime of Game 7 in St. Louis).

Being mere inches away from the NHL's final four would suggest the window is already open. Adding Pavelski, Perry and Sekera in free agency, while also potentially getting a healthy Stephen Johns back into the mix and sprinkling in the added experience to youngsters like Heiskanen, Hintz and Dickinson and it's safe to say the window is wide open.

Not including Martin Hanzal, the Stars currently have a projected roster with 11 players at or above the age of 30. The time is now for this group.

 

Bruce LeVine, Dallas Stars Radio Analyst: The window is open and ready for the Stars to break through to the other side.

This team found its identity after the All-Star break and showed what they were capable of achieving. Going into next season the culture is in place and the players know how to perform in Jim Montgomery's system. The tandem of Bishop and Khudobin might be the best in the league and gives the Stars a chance to win every night. The offense, which struggled through most of last season, should be improved and the additions of Pavelski and Perry. Those two should bring new life to the power play that is capable of much bigger things.

Miro is no longer a teenager (even though he never played like one) and the top three on defense can match up with any team in the conference. HOWEVER ... before any victory parades are planned, remember Dallas plays in a division with the defending Stanley Cup champion and a Colorado team that is poised to be great for a long time.

The opening is real, but climbing through will not be easy.

Video: Stars' Stanley Cup expectations starting next season

 

2. Which summer signing do you think will have the most impact for the Stars?

Heika: I think hands down it is Joe Pavelski. I actually think that Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera will be highly motivated and have a chance to be great successes, but Joe Pavelski is a real superstar and leader who is coming off a 38-goal season.

From everything that I've heard and read, Sharks fans are upset to lose Pavelski. They love his ability and his passion, and I think Stars fans will love him, too.

 

Rea: Corey Perry. Joe Pavelski can score goals, and he will. Andrei Sekera won't need to anchor the blueline because of the team's depth, but Perry could be the real payoff. Between his ability to add offense and agitating physicality, he could provide genuine scoring punch to a second and third line that needs it. Also, given how tough life in the Central Division is, Dallas could use an agitator. Perry annoys opponents in a variety of ways. It could be a major impact.

 

Newkirk: All due respect to the other two, but it's undoubtedly Joe Pavelski.

We could all see the impact that Mats Zuccarello made with the Stars after his trade deadline acquisition from the New York Rangers last season. Along with the elevated play of Roope Hintz and Jason Dickinson, Zuccarello helped give Dallas two dynamic scoring lines. This was previously the biggest hole in the Stars' lineup, having only one line that could consistently generate offense. Pavelski is not the same style of player as Zuccarello, but he will have at least the same impact to this roster, if not greater.

Regardless of how the top six shakes out, you can comfortably expect the Stars to roll out two dangerous scoring lines, an elite shutdown line and then a fast and reliable fourth line. That's very encouraging.

 

LeVine: There was some consternation among a certain corner of Stars fans when the signing of Corey Perry was announced. But just because you despised a player when he lined up for the opposing team does not mean that same player won't become be a fan favorite when he joins your squad.

NEVER judge a player by how fans or opponents feel about him, go by what his teammates say and how he is in the room. Perry was loved by his fellow Ducks and respected by all who played there. Perry also brings a history of on-ice excellence to the room as he has won a Memorial Cup, World Junior Championship. Stanley Cup and Two Olympic Gold Medals.

Perry may not be the 50-goal scorer he was a few years ago but he still knows how to go to the net and make things happen. Considering his bargain-basement contract, if Perry adds some fire to the power play and a few even-strength goals the signing will be well worth it. If he gets anywhere near 20 goals, Jim Nill will have pulled off the steal of the offseason.

Video: Perry discusses knee injury, being ready for 2019-20

 

3. How would you grade the Stars' offseason moves? Do you think there could be room for more before the season starts?

Heika: I'm impressed with a lot of the decisions, including the little ones.

The Stars in the past have had a tendency to overvalue their own assets, and that had them keeping players who were sort of iffy. Gemel Smith and Remie Elie last season were great examples. By getting rid of Brett Ritchie, Valeri Nichushkin and even Tyler Pitlick, the Stars are opening up space for younger players who don't require waivers. That means that if a player is struggling, he doesn't have to be a healthy scratch, he can go back to the AHL while another young player gets a chance. That's huge.

As for the big three, I think all have the chance to be perfect fits. That said, the Stars will have to have the patience to see if they work.

My guess is there are no more moves before the season, but that a move could be made around January if the team feels the need to upgrade the defense.

 

Rea: A-plus. Jim Nill deserves the credit for managing the free-agent marketplace this year.

On paper, Joe Pavelski was the best (and proven) goal-scorer available. Dallas signed him to a fair-market contract and still has the freedom to expose him in the Seattle expansion draft. Corey Perry could be a true solution to the team's secondary scoring woes on a low-risk, high-reward deal for one-year and $1.5 million. Same with Andrei Sekera. When healthy, he's a true second-pair defenseman, and Dallas once again used a low-risk, high-reward deal of one-year. Nill addressed all three of the team's needs, and he did it without a neck-breaking contract in dollars or years.

I don't expect any other moves to be made before the season starts. Dallas is right up against the salary cap at the moment.

 

Newkirk: A-minus. The only reason I didn't grade higher was because there is always room for improvement (i.e. adding someone like Connor McDavid or Nikita Kucherov). But in all seriousness, I really like what Jim Nill did to address the biggest areas of concern.

Landing Pavelski was huge, then Nill showed a lot of savvy in the acquisitions of Perry and Sekera, both very low-risk moves that could have very big payoffs. He significantly improved the roster without giving up draft picks or prospects. Also, let's not forget signing Esa Lindell to a long-term contract, re-signing defensive depth with Roman Polak and Taylor Fedun and wrapping up all of the RFAs without going over the salary cap.

The fact that the roster looks strong and you still have Martin Hanzal's LTIR to work with down the road, if needed, gives Nill a lot of flexibility to handle any curveballs thrown his way during the season. Plus, how nice is it that for the first time in a while, the Stars did not have to address their goaltending situation at all?

 

LeVine: Signing Joe Pavelski filled a huge gap for the Stars, that acquisition immediately makes the offseason a success. Based on last year's performances of the players acquired, I give the Stars offseason a B with room for upgrade.

If Perry and Sekera can play to their pre-injury forms, then then my grade will be an A. Right now, I'd put the Rangers and Devils as the only two teams getting an A, as their summer should be franchise changers. There are a few small possible moves for Dallas such as what to do with Julius Honka but not much else to be done for now. The Wild Card going forward is the Martin Hanzal situation. The Stars are under the salary cap with Hanzal listed on the active roster. If or when the team decides to move the big Center to the LTIR determines when the next big transaction can be made. If all goes well, look for that to happen near the trading deadline to add one more piece for a long playoff run.

Video: Hradek breaks down Stars' free agent signings

 

4. Turning the page and looking toward training camp and the Stars' exhibition slate, both of which are fast approaching, who do you think has the most to prove entering the new campaign and why?

Heika: If we believe that the team really is serious about developing young players, then they will be the focus this season. Not so much "something to prove," as ability to grab an opportunity, but the group that includes Roope Hintz, Jason Dickinson, Esa Lindell and Miro Heiskanen will all be closely watched this season. Each has the ability to become one of the leaders of this team, and their success will go a long way in determining where this team finishes.

If they can build on their playoff performances, there is a real chance here for the core of the team to start becoming quite a bit younger.

 

Rea: I'm spending a lot of time talking about Corey Perry here… Financially, he took a one-year "prove it" deal with Dallas for low money after being bought out by Anaheim, and this is a guy who was a routine 30-goal scorer in his career. He wanted a chance to win, and he believes Dallas gives him that chance. But, coming off a major knee injury at 34 years old, a year from now may be the last NHL contract he signs.

He needs this season to show the rest of the NHL he is still an impact player. If it pays off, both he and the Stars will benefit.

 

Newkirk: Both Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera have big prove-it storylines to follow this year, as they return from injury-plagued seasons in 2018-19. Additionally, there will be a massive battle in training camp amongst the young forward prospects trying to crack the opening night NHL roster. All of that should be intriguing to watch unfold.

However, to me the biggest narrative that I'll be following is the comeback efforts of Stephen Johns. He endured a personal hell last year that I can't even fathom. Now, presuming he is fully healthy, Johns has the opportunity to not just get back on track, but to emerge as an impactful top-four NHL defenseman. There were numerous instances last season where you could see the Stars were missing a player on the blue line with Johns' skillset.

If he can return to form, and perhaps take a few steps forward, that would be a huge gain for the Dallas Stars.

 

LeVine: The obvious answer would seem to be Andrej Sekera. Not too long ago he was considered a top-four defenseman, but two injury-riddled seasons have left the 33-year-old with a lot to prove and a perfect opportunity to show what he has to offer.

Simple equation: Good season equals big bucks as a UFA next year.

HOWEVER… (and stop me if you have heard this before) Jamie Oleksiak is at a crossroads in his career. The 6-foot-7 defenseman has shown what he can do when he wants to play using his size and strength as main weapons. He was at his best in the playoff series against Nashville, and his physicality would have been a welcome addition against the hard-hitting Blues. We have seen Oleksiak play this style of defense and then suddenly regress to the point of being a healthy scratch. He has to learn to play to his strengths and remain in that mode to be a solid NHL contributor.

The Big Rig is the third-highest paid defenseman on a team that has an over-abundance of talent pushing for NHL ice time at that position. If Jamie can play the type of hockey asked of him, he will be a valued part of the Stars. If not, defensemen such as Fedun, Bayreuther and Gleason (just to name three) are more than willing to step in.

Video: Mike Heika on Stars signing Pavelski and Perry

 

5. It wouldn't be a debate without a fun hot sports opinion -- or two. What's your wildest prediction for the Stars this year?

Heika: I don't know why this keeps popping up in my head, but I just feel Andrej Sekera is going to be great. He appears to be healthy and over his knee and Achilles injuries. He played very well in the World Championship, and many Oilers fans seemed disappointed when the team bought him out.

The Stars are getting a very motivated player, and Sekera could get a chance to spend a lot of time with Miro Heiskanen on the second pairing. There just seems an opportunity for him to become the steady, skilled fourth defenseman this team has been seeking.

 

Rea: Mark it down. Winter Classic. There's snow in the air…

 

Newkirk: This isn't really wild or crazy, but here's my bold HSO: Ben Bishop is going to win the 2019-20 Vezina Trophy. In the eyes of many, including myself, Bishop deserved to win the Vezina in 2018-19, but the NHL general managers who voted on the award did not agree. The biggest knocks on Bishop's resumé from last season were his games played (46) and wins (27) in comparison to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who won 39 games in 53 appearances and took home the trophy. Allow me to remind everyone that Big Ben's goals-against average (1.98) and save percentage (0.934) thoroughly outclassed his former Lightning teammate (2.40 GAA, 0.925 SV%).

A plethora of pundits both locally and nationally have suggested to expect a moderate regression from Bishop in 2019-20, returning toward his career averages (2.30 GAA, 0.921 SV%). However, I'm going to claim the opposite, that his game will continue to be on an elite, world class level.

Several factors seem to have created the perfect recipe for the towering netminder, including his tandem partner Anton Khudobin and assistant coach Rick Bowness. Khudobin both pushes Bishop to be at his very best, while also spelling him enough relief to maintain his energy throughout a grueling regular season. The reunion with Bowness from their days in Tampa proved very successful last season for Bishop and the Stars, and I would only expect the team defense to be even more in-sync in 2019-20 with their titanic backstop.

 

LeVine: Let's start with some wild predictions for individual players:

  1. Tyler Seguin will set a new career high in goals with 45.
  2. Ben Bishop will win the Vezina Trophy.
  3. The 38 voters who did not have Miro Heiskanen on their Calder Trophy ballot realize they made a BIG mistake. (That's correct, 38 people who cover hockey for a living did not think Heiskanen was a TOP FIVE rookie, go figure)

As for the season, the Winter Classic will be a huge success opening the path for future big time hockey events in the South. Dallas will end the season with more than 100 points and have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Dallas-Colorado rivalry will re-ignite and be just as fierce as it was in the late 1990s with the winner of a second-round matchup eventually representing the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final against Tampa Bay.

Video: Key matchups on Stars' 2019-20 regular season slate

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.

Brien Rea is a contributing columnist for DallasStars.com and the host of 'Stars Live' on FOX Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter @BrienRea.

Owen Newkirk is a contributor for DallasStars.com and the host of Dallas Stars radio broadcasts on Sportsradio 1310-AM and 96.7-FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter @OwenNewkirk.

Bruce LeVine is a contributor for DallasStars.com and the analyst of Dallas Stars radio broadcasts on Sportsradio 1310-AM and 96.7-FM The Ticket. Follow him on Twitter @BruceLeVinePuck.

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