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Sting of Game 7 still lingers, but Stars 'very confident' in direction

Moving on from a sudden playoff exit, Dallas has plenty of reason for optimism about its future

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

A little more than 36 hours after their season ended in a Game 7 double-overtime loss in St. Louis, the Dallas Stars gathered at American Airlines Center to begin wrapping up the 2018-19 season with a team meeting, physicals, and exit interviews.

The sting of Tuesday's loss to the Blues was still there, but so was a sense of accomplishment and a lot of optimism about the future.

"Tough ending, second overtime. It is what it is right now, but we are going to have to move on," said defenseman John Klingberg. "We get prepared for the next season, it feels like it's a long way there, but we're doing something good here. We were doing something good throughout the whole year. Feel proud about where we are as a team."

 

[RELATED: Stars reflect on season at exit interviews | Mailbag: What will be Stars' focus this offseason?]

 

"If you don't win the Stanley Cup, the end goal, the season is a loss," said center Tyler Seguin. "It still hasn't totally sunk in that today is the last day of being at the rink with the exit meetings and stuff, but all in all, a lot to build on."

There is a lot to build on.

Video: Nill confident in direction Stars are heading

The Stars had their share of ups and downs and adversity throughout 2018-19 but emerged a stronger team. They weathered a storm of injuries early in the season, especially on defense, and struggled to lock down an identity for half the season, but after the All-Star break they were one of the top teams in the Western Conference, and that helped them lock down a playoff spot.

They knocked off Nashville, the top team in the Central Division, in Round 1 and then took St. Louis, the second-best team in the league after the All-Star break, to seven games in round two.

"Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. Did we reach our goal? No. But when you look back, only one team is going to win it. But I feel very confident in where we are heading," said GM Jim Nill.

"I liked how we got to where we're getting. I like the path we are heading on. Life is never going to be easy, and there are going to be bumps in the road, but what excites me is that we fought through all those things. I am excited about the future, disappointed in the end."

What made it especially disappointing is how wide open the playoffs were. After the dust settled in the first round when five higher seeds got knocked out, there appeared to be no true favorite among the eight teams remaining. The race for the Stanley Cup was wide open, and the Stars were right in the thick of the hunt.

Video: Montgomery thanks Stars' leadership group for work

"This one really stung," said Nill. "From what we went through and where we are getting to, where players are taking their game, we are going to sit and watch these final four teams, and we are going to say, 'We were right there.' We're not, and that's a credit to those teams. I like where we are heading, and we are not that far off."

Not far off and set in many key areas. Coach Jim Montgomery did an excellent job in his first season as a head coach in the NHL, helping the team navigate through the ups and downs and making the adjustment to being the bench boss in the top league in the world.

"Monty got us to the second round and for a first-year coach that's a good job," said Nill. "What I liked is Monty learned, he was open-minded. I think he thought there was going to be a certain way to do things, realized we're going to have to adjust on the fly here. I think he found out the grind of the NHL; it's the best hockey league in the world, and there's a reason for it. I thought he did a good job.

"He went from dealing with college players to NHL players, who are making big money and are the best in the world and they want their piece of the pie, ice time and everything else. You've got to deal with that, and I think he did a great job."

Montgomery was the Stars' third coach in the last three seasons, so there was an adjustment and some struggles for the team early in the season as they tried to grasp their new coach's concepts. That shouldn't be an issue moving forward.

Video: Benn sees 'lots of potential' in Stars moving forward

"We should start the season a much more consistent team," Montgomery said. "We'll have our ups and downs at some point, but I think at the beginning of the year, the first month, should be pretty smooth as far as us getting off the ground."

Players are on board with the stability behind the bench.

"It makes it easier coming back next year and know what you are expecting," said Klingberg.

"I don't know about you guys, but I'm good with this coach for the next eight years, at least," said Seguin.

The team's goaltending is set with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin both returning next season. Bishop and Khudobin provided the Stars a solid one-two punch in net and were the backbone of the team.

Video: Seguin sees a foundation in place for future success

"We just kind of fed off each other all year," said Bishop. "Hopefully we can come in next year and provide the same kind of services."

And there was a lot of buzz about the team's youth. Players like defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who had a spectacular rookie season as a 19-year-old. And 22-year-old center Roope Hintz who came on strong over the second half of the season.

Both were impact players in the playoffs.

"It was inspiring, especially in playoffs seeing guys like Roope and Miro, obviously knowing their talent, but to be on the big stage," said Seguin. "Since Game 1 in Nashville, we were all blown away with like, 'These guys are the real deal.'

"It's inspiring as teammates and shows how bright our future is."

Video: Heiskanen on successful rookie season with Stars

 

Hintz played Game 7 with fractured foot

Nill provided injury updates during Thursday's media availability, including some of the issues players were dealing with during the playoffs.

Center Roope Hintz suffered a fractured foot blocking a shot in Game 6 of the St. Louis series and received an injection to play in Tuesday's Game 7.

"It was amazing what he did," Nill said. "He got injected. We didn't know whether he'd be a go or not for the final game."

Forward Mats Zuccarello, who returned for the playoffs after breaking his arm blocking a shot on Feb. 24, was still dealing with issues during the playoffs.

"It healed well, but he had a lot of tendon issues, tendonitis and everything else that goes with that," Nill said. "Those kinds of injuries are really two months to get totally healed, and he was pushing it. He was getting injected every game. He was never 100 percent but still very effective."

Video: Zuccarello not approaching offseason any differently

Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak suffered a knee injury in the second period of Game 6 of the Nashville series and that kept him out of the entire series with St. Louis.

"Losing Jamie was a big hit for us," Nill said. "If we would have had him in that series, he would have gone head-to-head with some of the Maroons and these forwards and it would have changed the game."

Forward Mattias Janmark was dealing with the lingering effects of a fractured foot that he suffered earlier in the regular season.

"Janmark fractured his foot back in February/March," Nill said. "It just kept getting aggravated. The more you played, the worse it got. And that's why he was in and out of the lineup."

Defenseman Joel Hanley suffered a shoulder injury, but he was expected to return had the Stars made the Western Conference Final.

Video: Klingberg on Stars buying in to Montgomery's vision

 

Updates on Johns, Hanzal and Methot
  • On defenseman Stephen Johns, who missed the entire season with post-traumatic headaches, Nill provided this information: "We're in consultation with doctors and medical people, and there is really no update on that. It's not concussion-related. He's had headaches and those type of issues. That's where it sits. He's been seeing specialists and going from there. There's really not much to update on that."

  • On center Martin Hanzal, who had back surgery last year and re-injured it this season and was limited to seven games: "We're going to have more consultations, talk to more doctors. I don't know if it is career-ending. We'll have to figure that out."

  • On defenseman Marc Methot, who had season-ending knee surgery in January after playing only nine games this season: "His recovery time is maybe ready for training camp. Now, he is a free agent. Is it career-ending? We don't know."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mark Stepneski has covered the Stars for DallasStars.com since 2012. Follow him on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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