It was May 13, 2016. Clean Out Day.
The Dallas Stars gathered for one final time as a team before heading their separate ways for the summer. Two days earlier the Stars had dropped Game 7 of the Central Division Final. Dallas was three periods away from the Conference Finals. And then...Bam! The offseason had arrived.
The best Stars season in a decade was over. 109 points, two banners to add to the American Airlines Center rafters, the first playoff series victory in eight years. It was a season for the ages. One to be celebrated. But there was no celebrating on that day. The Stars had designs on playing another month. They had set records - both individually and collectively. They had been on an eight month joyride and no one was ready to get off. Then, suddenly, abruptly, it was over.
That was about 11 months ago. If you have followed the team closely since then, that may be hard to believe. Less than a year ago the Stars were on top of the Western Conference - the darlings of the NHL. A season like the Stars just endured can make it seem much more distant than that. This year there was no joy ride. No abrupt ending. The finish this time was more merciful than torturing.
On Monday the Stars held clean out day for this season. It was not two days after a Game 7. No, this time it was one day after the announcement that Lindy Ruff would not return after four seasons in Dallas. As disappointed players reflected back on a disappointing season, I was taken back to last May.
What I recall most about that day 11 months ago was hearing the Stars one-by-one express a unanimous sentiment. As good as the season had been, you could never go back. That was arguably the toughest part for them. They understood how difficult it was to get to a spot like that, and how no credit gets carried over to next season. When it ends, it's over. That's it.
That reality is a rude awakening if you're on the wrong end of it, but it's both true and constant. Over the last ten seasons an average of more than five teams each year miss the playoffs after making them the year before. That's about one-third of the playoff field that falls out every season. Last year ten teams posted 100 point seasons. Four of them missed the playoffs this year.
In 2014 the Los Angeles Kings won their second Stanley Cup in three years. They have one postseason win in three years since, having missed the playoffs in two of those seasons. In back-to-back years the Boston Bruins went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013, then had the best record in the NHL in 2014. They followed that up by missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons the next two years.
The Stars were battling uphill all season. The team's injury problems began literally before the first day of training camp, and it only got worse from there. If they would have played their best, the season still would have been a challenge. They didn't, and it unraveled. It can be injuries, personnel changes, underperforming, a little bad luck, something else, or all of the above. Whatever the reason, these falls from grace happen every year. They hit hard and indiscriminately.
But for every story of a fall, there's also one of a rise. Four of last season's bottom-five teams are about to drop the puck on postseason play. The Columbus Blue Jackets went from a historically bad season last year to a record-setting one this year. Four out of five teams that made a coaching change last off-season responded by qualifying for the playoffs this year. Of course, nothing is guaranteed by simply making a change, but the point remains the same as the Stars players reminded us 11 months ago. No results from the prior year get carried over. For better or worse.
If anything does carry over after a season like the Stars just finished, it's an industrial-size chip on their shoulder and a long summer to dwell on it. If you don't have any pieces in place, that may not mean much. If you do - and the Stars do - it could mean a lot. It's worth noting that the only other time the new-era Stars missed the playoffs, they responded the next year by going 17-4 out of the gate en route to a first-place finish. It's fair to imagine you'll see a similarly motivated group when the Stars reconvene in the Fall.
Before then, General Manager Jim Nill and the Stars face the most critical offseason the team has had since he arrived. They have to hire a new coach, address a young and crowded blue line, and figure out the answer to a goaltending question that will not go away. They have to submit a protection list for the expansion draft and then navigate an expected frenzy of activity just before it. A week later the Stars have nine picks in this summer's NHL Entry Draft, including one that will be a lottery selection. Dallas has seven restricted free agents and four unrestricted free agents that ended the year on the NHL roster. Nill has more than $20 million in cap space to maneuver, and countless possible ways to carry out a plan.
As the dominos get ready to fall, I think about the thing I'll remember most about this year's clean out day. That was Nill adamantly declaring that the Stars were not "rebuilding." Dallas has a number of decisions to make. That part has already begun. It started with trades in February, continued with a coaching change on day one of the offseason, and more is still to come.
But the Stars have all-world players in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They have John Klingberg, who in a down year still managed to finish in the top-10 of defensemen scoring. They saw tremendous potential from first-year players like Esa Lindell, Devin Shore, and Julius Honka. There is no doubt that Dallas has some holes and questions. They also have some huge, hard-to-find pieces in place. Nill was quick to remind people of that after a year that threatens to shatter perspective.
For all but one team every season, the end of the year is painful. The journeys and reasons may vary, but the end result is the same. Everyone looks ahead and asks the question of how they can be better. This past season forced the Stars to look and act quicker than they had intended.
They will now spend the offseason answering that question in detail. New pieces will arrive to join those already in house. Everyone involved will look themselves in the mirror, doing their part to ensure a different fate a year from now. All of them focused on October, where six months after clean out day, a clean slate is waiting.
Josh Bogorad is the Studio Host on Stars television broadcasts. He can be seen 30 minutes before face-off on 'Stars Live' and immediately after games all season long on Fox Sports Southwest. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshBogorad.