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Insider debate: Which Stars player has surprised the most this season?

Mike Heika, Brien Rea, Owen Newkirk and Bruce LeVine tackle 5 questions about the Stars and NHL at the midseason break

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

We've reached the midseason break, which means it's time for a little midseason debate.

In this edition of our "Take 5" roundtable, the guys revisit their start-of-season predictions, take a look inside some of the key storylines around the Stars and the league through the first half of the campaign and reveal their pick for who got snubbed for 2020 NHL All-Star Weekend in St. Louis (cough, Ben Bishop, cough).

 

As we head into the bye week, the Stars are in a good position to make a run to the playoffs. With all that has happened through the first 48 games -- both on and off the ice -- has your opinion changed about this group since October?

Mike Heika, DallasStars.com Senior Staff Writer: I've been all over the map on this one. The amazing resiliency and mental toughness that this team has shown is exactly what you need to survive the grind that is the Stanley Cup playoffs. In addition, history shows you benefit greatly from being a top five team in goals against average if you want to win the Cup. So, in that regard, I honestly would not be surprised if the Stars won any series against any team in the NHL. They are that good defensively.

That said, teams that are bottom five in scoring typically do not win a Cup or even make it to the Final. You need key goals to get through these series and to not get out-matched against a certain opponent. I kept thinking that these players would break out of whatever slump they were in and would start to score at a more "normal" rate, but we have a year and a half of declining numbers as evidence now.

On one hand, the potential is there for a huge uptick if every player simply ups his numbers by a goal or two. On the other, there seems no sign that Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, John Klingberg or Joe Pavelski is going to have a "good" scoring season. If the Stars cannot convert scoring chances and have to continue to rely on a .930 save percentage, I just don't think that's sustainable.

Mix in the fact there is a very good chance they would have to face Colorado and St. Louis in the first two rounds, and I don't see them getting to the Conference Final. If we're placing bets, it seems this team could very easily make the playoffs and lose in the first round.

 

Brien Rea, FOX Sports Southwest Host: Which part of October ... ?

Has my opinion changed since Oct. 1 and the end training camp? No. I thought going into the season this was a team capable of making it to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and potentially beyond that.

Has my opinion changed since mid-October when they started 1-7-1 and looked completely lost? Absolutely. I think we all feared the worst, or mentally were writing an obituary for this team, before their third-period comeback against the Minnesota Wild that sparked a turnaround.

 

Owen Newkirk, Dallas Stars Radio Host: The first half of the season has been an emotional roller coaster full of drama for the Dallas Stars. Due to the circumstances that have arisen, I think all of our opinions of the team have changed multiple times. Like many local and national NHL media members and broadcasters, I had the Stars slated as a preseason Stanley Cup contender. That changed dramatically after their paltry 1-7-1 start in early October, making many pundits, including myself, question their opinions of this team.

Then the squad found its form, going 26-8-3 in their next 37 games, and completely flipped the script. For a while, I kept remarking at what an amazing turn-around the Stars had accomplished. But then my opinion changed again, or rather it reverted back, as I realized the awful start was the anomaly and this team really is the Stanley Cup contender we all predicted in back in September.

That has started to alter just a bit over the last few weeks, because the offensive side of Dallas' game has begun to erode. This may be the best defensive team in the league, and the Stars boast the top goaltending tandem, but it's hard to win games if you cannot score goals.

Limping into the bye week/All-Star break with a 1-3-0 record, and scoring just five goals during that span, is less than ideal. But perhaps this group will conjure up another strong post-break surge, like the six-game winning streak they rattled off after Christmas.

We will see what happens over the final two and a half months of the regular season. I think it's safe to say it won't be dull.

 

Bruce LeVine, Dallas Stars Radio Analyst: From a theme park point of view, the Dallas Stars' first 48 games would be the scariest ride at Six Flags. If you have a heart condition, bad back or may be pregnant: Please Stay Away. But the most impressive factor about this club has been their mental toughness and resiliency.

Rebounding from a 1-7-1 start to go 14-1-1 in their next 16 games was more than expected. Then, the bombshell of the Jim Montgomery situation could have destroyed a more emotionally fragile team. Yet the Stars will go into the All-Star break in playoff position and one of the top teams in the Western Conference. 

I thought this team had good chemistry and locker room culture, but this group is beyond anything we've seen in a long time. I'm most impressed by their ability to move past the bad and focus on what needs to be done to be a winning unit. When you consider the mental and physical grinder that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, this team has already been season-tested and passed the trial.

I wrote in September the Stars would not win the division but were set for a playoff run, and that has not changed. They have the mental toughness to overcome the hard times and persevere. This may be their strongest attribute for what lies ahead as the team needs to figure out how to improve offensively and what roles need to change.

Video: DAL@TBL: Seguin rifles wrister home for overtime win

 

2. Which Stars player has surprised you the most this season? Who do you think still has the most to prove entering the stretch run?

Heika: The easy answer is Denis Gurianov. He really has shown the same kind of boost in confidence that Roope Hintz showed last season, and that's an incredible mental door to bust through when you have the speed and skill that those two possess. That said, I'm going to go with Anton Khudobin as my pick. Sure, Khudobin was very good as a backup last season when he went 16-17-5 with a 2.57 goals against average and a .923 save percentage, but he's been even better this year.

Khudobin is seventh in GAA at 2.30 and tied for fourth with Ben Bishop in save percentage at .929. He has taken on some very tough assignments and come through with huge victories. His 11-7-1 record is solid, but if you dissect it further, he has probably stolen six points for the Stars this season. That's the difference between them being in the playoffs and not being in the playoffs as they enter the mid-season break. And if you believe in the theory that he provides both rest and competition for Ben Bishop, then the scrappy back-up might be one of the most valuable players on the team.

As for need to step up, I think it all comes back to Jamie Benn. The captain has a lot of responsibility, but these numbers are so far below expectations that it's alarming. Benn ranked 94th in scoring last season with 53 points (27 goals, 26 assists). He currently ranks 196th in scoring with 23 points (12 goals and 11 assists). He is on pace for 20 goals among 40 points. That would be the worst season in his career. He just turned 30, he should be in his prime.

 

Rea: Denis Gurianov is a great story. This is a player who was a healthy scratch in the AHL's Calder Cup Finals two seasons ago, to scoring one goal in a 21-game, NHL taste last season, to earning a full-time roster spot this year -- and already adding 11 goals.

There are still some growing pains with Gurianov, but it looks like he's turned that corner from a prospect that you thought, "Will he ever figure it out?" to a legitimate NHL forward.

I'm intrigued to see where the rest of Joe Pavelski's season goes. He's only scored eight goals this season, but I think he has a second-half push in him. Hopefully, comfort with his new surroundings has settled in for himself and his family. Over the last 10 games, the Stars power play seems to have found a rhythm. Does part of that emergence open a door for Pavelski to find his offense? As Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov continue to find their groove, does Pavelski find a way to co-exist when he's on the ice with those two speedsters? I think the next 34 games will be big for Pavelski.

 

Newkirk: Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak has surprised me the most so far this season.

When he returned to Dallas via trade from Pittsburgh last January, he was a different player than the one who was initially sent to the Penguins in December 2017. Oleksiak came back to DFW and quickly earned a spot in the third defensive pairing under then-coach Jim Montgomery. He was an impact player in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs against Nashville and his absence was clearly noticed when an injury forced him to miss the second round against St. Louis.

Entering the 2019-20 campaign, it looked like he was a solid choice for the left side of the third pairing. However, his play has grown to new heights over the course of the first 40-plus games.

The "Big Rig 2.0" is a more confident player, simplifying his game, using his size well, gaining the trust of his teammates and coaches. This new version of Jamie Oleksiak has proven to be a very nice complimentary piece alongside Miro Heiskanen in the second pairing. I definitely did not expect the Rig to be a mainstay in the top four at the beginning of the season. In the long run, the Stars might be a better team if Oleksiak is playing in the third pairing -- perhaps Stephen Johns skating with Heiskanen to form a natural left-right pair. But Oleksiak's growth this year has been a pleasant surprise.

The second part of the question is more complicated. At the risk of being accused of punting this one, my answer is all of the Stars' big names.

While the goaltending and the collective team defense have been the strengths this year, scoring -- particularly 5-on-5 -- has been the biggest weakness. The additions of Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera have really bolstered the leadership group of veterans like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, Alexander Radulov, Blake Comeau, Andrew Cogliano and Roman Polak. But it hasn't translated into the offense.

The entire group will want a much better showing in the goal-scoring department in the final 34 games of the regular season.

 

LeVine: During the dark days of the early season, no one seemed like a bigger disappointment than Denis Gurianov.

The Stars' top pick from the 2015 draft had not emerged as a full-time NHL player. He had yet to shoot a puck into the net as a Dallas Star and had a less-than-stellar preseason. Many observers believed if he had not been a high draft pick, Gurianov would not have made the roster for opening night. Showing little confidence or improvement, the young Russian went from in the lineup to healthy scratch to a demotion to the Texas Stars. 

This is when the light bulb went off and Denis took off. 

After scoring three goals in two games, Gurianov earned a recall and has proven to be NHL caliber ever since. He is one of only five Stars players scoring more than 10 goals this season and has proven to be an offensive threat every time he steps on the ice. Using his speed and skills as primary weapons, the rookie has earned a spot on the power play.

There is still work to be done as Gurianov occasionally struggles with defensive and in-game decision making. But considering how things started for Denis and where he is today, this is the biggest surprise to date.

As for the player with something to prove, it falls on a veteran brought in to add offensive punch to the team. Joe Pavelski has been an outstanding leader in the locker room and a role model for the younger players with his work ethic and professionalism. However, the goal scoring has not yet been seen on a regular basis.

Pavelski had 38 goals last season with the Sharks and a total of 21 points on the power play. While Dallas is a less potent team than San Jose, the hope was Pavelski would increase the Stars' power-play output and make this team better overall offensively. It is not easy to switch teams and systems after 13 years. Pavelski was considered to be the key acquisition of the offseason. The Stars need the acclimation to be complete and the points to start coming in larger amounts.

With the fewest goals allowed in the NHL all Dallas needs more offense to be ready for a long playoff run.

Video: COL@DAL: Gurianov blasts one-timer for PPG

 

3. Considering their body of work over the past season and a half, should the duo of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin be considered the best goaltending tandem in Stars history?

Heika: It's so hard to judge over eras. Ed Belfour and Roman Turek each posted .915 save percentages in the 1998-99 season, but Belfour had a 1.99 GAA and Turek a 2.08. Belfour went 35-15-9 while Turek went 16-3-3. That would be a tough duo to beat. That said, the 1998-99 team had six Hall of Famers, and scored a lot more goals, so they also had an easier job.

I really think with the challenges that Bishop and Khudobin face every night that they are the best regular season duo at this point. They would have to finish out the season with similar numbers to keep that crown.

 

Rea: Not yet, but maybe second-best.

Ed Belfour and Roman Turek are the historical best right now for their two-year body of work from 1997-1999. In 1997-98, Dallas was second in the NHL with 167 goals against. The following year, they were first with 168. The '97-'98 team reached the Conference Finals round, while '98-'99 was that magical Stanley Cup team. Over that two-year stretch in the regular season, Belfour and Turek carried a 1.99 GAA and a .913 SV%.

It's hard to argue with a tandem that was the league's regular season best and won a Stanley Cup. Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin haven't quite reached that level of success yet working together.

 

Newkirk: Not yet, but they are very much in the running for that honor.

Since their arrivals, Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin have quickly turned a team weakness into not just a team strength, but have become one of the top tandems in the NHL. Daryl Reaugh and Mike Heika debated this topic recently on their "Rinky Dinking Podcast" and Razor instantly went to the Cup-winning duo of Ed Belfour and Roman Turek (technically, I think it was the trio of Belfour, Turek and Reaugh). Hard to argue with the guys that hoisted Lord Stanley's chalice. Heika picked the 2001-02 tandem of Belfour and Marty Turco; after all they are the top two goaltending legends in Dallas Stars history.

With all due respect to many great puck stoppers in franchise history, I think the 1999-2000 pair of Ed Belfour and Manny Fernandez take the top prize. Their numbers were fantastic; Belfour won 32 games, with a 2.10 goals-against average and a 0.919 save percentages, while Fernandez was 11-8-3, with a 2.13 GAA and a 0.920 SV%. Additionally, they had to face their opponents' best efforts every single night, since they were the defending Stanley Cup champions.

With all that being said, if Bishop and Khudobin continue their current form through the remainder of this campaign and lead the Stars deep into the playoffs, they could very well take over as the Kings of the Hill.

 

LeVine: I could go on for days about the awesomeness of Gump Worsely and Cesare Maniago, but they never played in Dallas and are omitted from this list. From a career standpoint, the combo consisting of Marty Turco and Eddie Belfour is hard to beat.

Turco owns nearly every team record for goaltending, while Belfour brought Dallas a Stanley Cup and is in the Hall of Fame. (The duo of Turco and Johan Hedberg in 2005-06 would be in the discussion for single-season accolades).

BUT … the current pair of Bishop and Khudobin have been unique in Stars history.

For a team that is offensively challenged at times, these two give Dallas a chance to win nearly every time they step on the ice. But what makes them special is taking last year's heroic numbers and improving on them this season. 

Last year, the Stars finished 2nd in the league in goals allowed. This season, Dallas is the best in the NHL. Last year, Bishop and Khudobin finished first and ninth in save percentage, and going into this week they were first and second in the league. 

As we saw with Bishop against Colorado and Khudobin in Tampa, these guys will flat out steal victories when all the metrics point to a convincing loss. With Dobby able to test the free agent waters after this season, Dallas fans should appreciate what they are seeing now. Goaltending this impressive doesn't come around very often -- and these two are as good as it gets.

Video: CHI@DAL: Khudobin sprawls out to stop multiple shots

 

4. Are we seeing a sort of "Craig Berube Effect" around the league with all the recent head coaching changes? If yes, do you think this is a trend that carries forward into future seasons?

Heika: I honestly thought that when Mike Babcock signed his deal for $6 million-plus that coaches would gain some financial protection and that organizations would start giving them more rope. But that obviously hasn't happened. I'm not sure if it's the drive to win now, the parity of the league, or the fact that players seem to respond to a new voice, but changing your coach really is the easiest way to improve your record. If I had to dissect it, most teams are near the cap and most star players have guaranteed contracts with no-move clauses, meaning the ability to change your personnel in mid-season is very difficult. Changing your coach is not.

I think some teams have gone too far recently, but it's pretty clear that ownership and management are going to continue seeing coaches as disposable. So, yeah, my guess is an NHL head coach at basically any time is not that far away from being fired.

 

Rea: In the short-term, yes, I think last season the St. Louis Blues' coaching change to Stanley Cup has altered the mindset of some organizations and fan bases. But in a bigger picture, the microscope on sports teams gets more intense each year. If a team struggles and doesn't make the playoffs, change is demanded. The simplest change is usually the first one made and that's firing a head coach. Heck, in the NFL there's "Black Monday," the unofficial day that we wait for to see what coaches get fired every season -- and there's always a handful.

You can't fire 23 players all at once. Salary caps, bad contracts, no-movement clauses, and public perception can handcuff a team's roster decisions. So, fire the coach. It's a players' league, and the hope that a "new voice" will spark better results from the players dictates these coaching moves.

Firing the coach is a trend that started long ago and yes, it will only pick up steam moving forward.

 

Newkirk: I don't think all the NHL general managers that have made coaching changes this season have done so with the thought that their team is going to do what St. Louis did last year and rally from last place in the standings to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, I think it's more of a statement that the team itself is underperforming based on the collective expectations of the hockey operations department and team ownership.

Just like when a head coach pulls the starting goalie during a game when the team is playing poorly because he can't bench 18 skaters, it's a lot easier for a GM to make a coaching change than it is to blow up the roster, especially in the salary cap world in which we now live. Because of that, I think this trend will continue, since it's one of the few tools a general manager has midseason to inject life into an underperforming squad.

 

LeVine: The NHL is a copycat league but I'm not sure there is a "Craig Berube Effect" that factored into recent coaching changes. 

Berube took over a Blues team that was playing badly and transformed them into champions. With several exceptions, coaching changes involved teams not playing horrible hockey, but performing below expectations (Nashville, Toronto and Vegas). The theory that the hockey season is a marathon, seems to be replaced with a reevaluation needed every 20 games or so. Available coaches are shiny, new objects that seem to offer a cure-all for downturn in fortune.

I can't imagine Vegas would have missed the playoffs without a change and think Toronto would have gotten into the mix on the Eastern side. Since the end of last season there have been 14 head-coaching changes in a league of 31 teams.

Patience is no longer a virtue and that trend will not change anytime soon.


 

5. Which player was the biggest snub from this year's All-Star team?

Heika: Ben Bishop, hands down. I know it's difficult to make these rosters work for the divisional teams, but Bishop was a Vezina Finalist last season and looks like he will be again this season. The league needed to find a way to make sure he was there playing in his hometown.

As much as Blues goalie Jordan Binnington was spectacular in the playoffs last season, and the game is in St. Louis, I honestly believe Bishop should have gone ahead of Binnington when you consider his body of work. And he definitely should have gone ahead of Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck. Once you establish that belief, there are ways to work around the rest of the roster.

 

Rea: Ben Bishop got hosed.

The two goalie spots on the Central Division's roster came down to three players: Connor Hellebuyck, Jordan Binnington, and Bishop. On December 30th, when the rosters were announced, Bishop was first or second among those three players in save percentage and goals against average at even strength, on the penalty kill, and overall. He was also second in high-danger save percentage on the penalty kill.

On top of all that, the All-Star Game is in Bishop's hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. He's the best off-ice story among the Central Division goaltenders. When you essentially have a "tie" between All-Star choices, you go with the best story. In this case, Bishop returning to his hometown as an All-Star. Someone screwed up here.

 

Newkirk: It's Ben Bishop for the second straight season.

Bishop deserved to go to the 2019 All-Star game in San Jose, but due to the roster rules, and an injury to Minnesota defenseman Matt Dumba, Bishop was not taken -- even though he had better numbers than both Pekka Rinne and Devan Dubnyk. It's an even bigger snub this season, because on top of being one of the best goaltenders in the NHL again this year, Bishop grew up in St. Louis and still has an offseason residence there.

It would be a perfect storyline for the 2020 All-Star Game in St. Louis to have a native son return to play in this NHL showpiece, just like having Bishop lead the Stars into Enterprise Center last year during the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The fact that Bishop will have to watch the events like the rest of us should be considered a huge failure for everyone involved.

 

LeVine: The NHL is always looking for good stories to promote the game, and it's hard to believe they overlooked this one. 

Ben Bishop may have been born in Denver, but he calls St. Louis his hometown. Growing up, Bishop played for the St. Louis Jr. Blues and attended Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis where he played high school hockey before moving to Frisco to play for the Texas Tornado.

I probably should have mentioned Bishop was second in the league in save percentage, top five in goals against at the time of the selections and is again a viable Vezina Trophy candidate. His family still lives in St. Louis and it would have been a perfect confluence of hometown pride and All-Star talent.

This is a huge swing and a miss for the league. Too bad someone wasn't stealing signs for them.

Video: DAL@ANA: Bishop denies 27 shots for 33rd NHL shutout

Don't miss your chance to see the Stars take on the Tampa Bay Lightning when they return home to American Airlines Center on Monday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. Get your tickets now!

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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