Stars poised for return to playoffs

By David Mullen

The Dallas Stars are not among the favorites to reach the Stanley Cup finals this year. According to Las Vegas odds makers, this year’s favorites are the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs (a team that has not won the Stanley Cup in more than 50 years), the Vegas Golden Knights, the Boston Bruins, the Winnipeg Jets, the Nashville Predators and the defending champion Washington Capitals. The Stars are nowhere to be found.

 But what makes the National Hockey League, which begins its long season this week, so interesting is that parity reigns and nearly half of the teams will have a chance at winning a championship. Remember, the expansion Golden Knights were a 500-to-1 underdog to win the Stanley Cup last year. They made the finals. So seeing the Stars returning to playoff hockey and making a long run is not that farfetched. The Stars are much improved.

The Stars are deeper going into the 2018-19, and it is not that they were that bad last season. A collapse in the final 21 games kept them from making the playoffs. New head coach Jim Montgomery, in his first NHL year after great success in the college ranks, has been brought in to keep the team focused on the puck by controlling and attacking opponents. He will no doubt communicate better with his players than former coach Ken Hitchcock was able to.

Dallas still has Tyler Sequin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radlov and John Klingberg. Goaltender Ben Bishop will now be backed up by free agent acquisition Anton Khudobin, which is a major upgrade from Kari Lehtonen. But all eyes will be on 19-year-old defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who could be the future of the franchise. Forward Valeri Nichushkin returns to Dallas after a stint in Russia. Expect better results from Nichushkin than his first go-round at Victory Park.   

But the Central Division and the Western Conference as a whole is loaded with talent. The Jets are led by Patrik Laine, who is in a contract year. The Predators rely on strong defense and goaltending. The St. Louis Blues retooled in the offseason, adding more offense. And the Minnesota Wild, always a thorn in the Stars side, will be near the top of the division come playoff time.

The Pacific Division will be competitive this season, assuming the Golden Knights were not a first-year fluke. I really like the San Jose Sharks this year, led by general manager Doug Wilson. 

Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are two of the best players in the league. The Los Angeles Kings will try to avoid the LeBron James spotlight coming from the Los Angeles Lakers and their Staples Center home, but should qualify for the playoffs.   

 In the Eastern Conference Metropolitan Division, the Capitals will find out how difficult it is to repeat, despite returning Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Pittsburgh Penguins still have Sidney Crosby, but must rely on a comeback year from goaltender Matt Murray. 

The Philadelphia Flyers made two major moves this offseason, bringing back winger back James van Riemsdyk and introducing the most hideous mascot in sports history, Gritty. He, or it, makes the Cowboys’ Rowdy likeable.

The Eastern Conference Atlantic Division is stacked and not particularly thrifty. The Maple Leafs dipped into free agency and signed John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract. 

Everyone’s favorite preseason choice, the Lightning, acquired Ryan McDonagh late last season and then gave him $47 million. The Bruins have great balance, and approved their goaltending situation by signing Jaroslav Halak to backup Tuukka Rask.

When the ice shavings settle, I see a San Jose Sharks versus Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup finals. And for the first time, the Stanley Cup will be raised in the Silicon Valley. But things are looking up for a playoff run for the Dallas Stars. Expect this season to begin a return to glory.

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