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Playoff exit was tough, but Stars see bright future

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

As the Dallas Stars cleaned out their lockers Friday, the sting of the Game 7 loss to the St. Louis Blues was still fresh. But Stars GM Jim Nill was taking a big picture look at the season, and he liked what he saw.

“That last game isn’t a reflection of our team. I just talked to the players, and we are flushing that down the drain. It is part of the game, but our season overall was a great season,” Nill said. “We didn’t make the playoffs the year before. We talked about how we had to make so many changes. They bought into those changes. We ended up winning our division, winning our conference. We got through a lot of adversity in March with injuries. Overall, the message here is it was a great season.”

The Stars did have their best season in quite some time.

*They finished first in the Western Conference for the first time since 2002-03.

*They won a division title for the first time since 2005-06.

*They racked up 109 points, the first time they topped the 100-point mark since 2006-07.

*The 50 wins in the regular season were the most since 2006-07.

*The Stars won their first playoff series since 2008 and came within one win of making it to the Western Conference final for the first time since 2008.

*The seven playoff wins were the second most for a Stars team since 2000, second only to the ten wins in 2008.

“We put together a heck of a year,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “I think first and foremost, we looked at some areas we wanted to improve, we improved, and we moved forward. We ended up in a real good place in a tough division, ended up one game away from advancing, which that’s the sting.”

But going deep in the NHL playoffs is tough, even for teams with regular season success. From 2011-12 to 2014-15 the St. Louis Blues were tied with Pittsburgh for the most regular-season wins in the NHL with 181. The Blues didn’t make it past the second round during that four-season stretch and lost in the first round the past three years before finally reaching the conference final this season. And that’s only halfway to the ultimate prize.

“Sometimes you have to learn from losing,” Ruff said.

The Los Angeles Kings missed the playoffs six straight seasons and then lost in the first round in their first two tries in the playoffs before winning their first Stanley Cup in 2012. Chicago went through some growing pains as well.

“It’s tough to start the playoff experience and run the table, winning four rounds and win the Cup. You look at the teams that have had success recently or in the past, there are roadblocks or bumps along the way,” Sharp said. “My old team in Chicago, our first year in the playoffs we made it to the conference finals and lost badly to the Red Wings in five games. The next year we won the Stanley Cup. You’ve got to go through some adversity to get where you want to go.

“On the flip side of that, there is nothing guaranteed. Just because we had a good year this year doesn’t mean we are going to come back, and it’s going to be an easy ride. We’ve got to recognize that. It’s a competitive league. It’s hard to win.”

So, the Stars can’t stand still and rest on what happened in 2015-16. They’ll need to try to get better because the teams around them will be trying to do the same.

“We have to motivate ourselves and move forward,” said Stars center Jason Spezza. “We are trying to be a great team, and our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. A lot of steps were made this year, but no one is going to be satisfied with how things went. We have to move forward. You hope you learn from losses, but it doesn’t make it any easier to lose.”

Now, it’s on to the offseason. Nill and Ruff said the Stars would spend the next week or so evaluating this past season and then begin to formulate a plan for moving forward. They will target areas for improvement.

“Some of the team numbers, I still think there’s another notch defensively,” Ruff said. “That’s probably the biggest thing I can give you. We had about a two-month window where our defensive play slipped, and we gained it the last six, seven weeks. It’s the backbone of any team, is that you got to defend. I thought our defending for the most part when we were winning games, was where we needed it, but our whole scenario I think we have another level.”

How the stars proceed on the goaltending front and their two-goaltender system will get a lot of attention this summer.

So will how they handle their free agents. The Stars have eight unrestricted free agents – four at forward (Vernon Fiddler, Patrick Eaves, Colton Sceviour, Travis Moen), and four on defense (Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, Kris Russell, Jordie Benn) – and the players know that change is inevitable.

“We made such great strides, winning the Central Division and the Western Conference. It’s tough knowing that some of the guys in that room won’t be back,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn.

“You don’t want to see changes, but it is out of your control,” Spezza said. “We had a chance to win with this group, and we didn’t. Now, it is going to look a little different. You are not sure how it is going to look. For the most part, we hope we stay together and give us another crack at it this year.”

The Stars likely will get an infusion of youth next season. They got a shot of it this past season. Forward Mattias Janmark had a solid rookie season. Center Radek Faksa and defenseman Stephen Johns both came up from the AHL and were key players for the Stars down the stretch and in the playoffs and should be big parts moving forward. Defensemen Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak, who both saw limited playing time this past season, could be ready for bigger roles moving forward.

And there are prospects knocking on the door. Forwards Brett Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie could be ready to break through, and defenseman Esa Lindell as well. Forwards Devin Shore and Jason Dickinson and defenseman Julius Honka are among those getting close.

“We have young kids coming in, we’re getting bigger, we’re getting stronger, we’re getting faster, so our expectations are growing,” Nill said. “The message here is it’s been a great season, we got to get better, and we’re going to get better, but the future’s very bright for the Dallas Stars.”

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter 

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