Stars Thinking Cup After Successful Summer

The Stars missed the playoffs and bid adieu to coach Lindy Ruff last season after failing to live up to their advance billing. But after a busy summer of retooling with a new coach and adding several key pieces, they are actually thinking Stanley Cup. Visions of celebrations are dancing in the Stars’ heads, showing them victoriously skating victory laps the American Airlines Center ice or in an Eastern Conference building while hoisting hockey’s heralded chalice high above their heads.

“When you look at what we needed to do to fix the goaltending and improve the penalty kill, we were able to get the pieces to do that,” said Stars owner Tom Gagliardi. “I think we had a great summer. You usually don’t get all of the things you want, but I think we did this year. I think we were able to target key people, and we were able to get them.”

Hitchcock returns to the scene of the franchise’s only Stanley Cup conquest in 1999. The 65-year old veteran is one win shy of tying Al Arbour for third most coaching wins (782) in NHL history. He’s a defense-minded taskmaster who can get under his players’ skin, but he can also find a way to win close games.

The Stars improved on their blueline by acquiring former Ottawa veteran Marc Methot, whom returning coach Ken Hitchcock knows from their experience together in Columbus. In fact, Dallas GM Jim Nill said Hitchcock feels that Methot may be the piece the Stars are looking for to solidify their defensive corps.

Methot was a casualty of Ottawa’s protection issues heading into the expansion draft. The Vegas Golden Knights claimed Methot before trading him to the Stars for goalie prospect Dylan Ferguson (drafted this past June in the seventh round) and a second round NHL Entry Draft pick in 2020.  “(Methot is) just a natural leader,” Nill said. “He will be a voice in the room, which will help our leadership group. He will be a presence on the ice. He’s a big body. He knows how to play the game. To develop a guy like him takes years.”

With his veteran’s savvy, Methot is expected to provide guidance to several young and emerging blueliners in Dallas. The cast includes Julius Honka and Esa Lindell, plus those who have a year or more of NHL experience — John Klingberg, Stephen Johns, Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth.

Dallas also obtained the goalie they wanted in Ben Bishop, whose .919 save percentage will be a welcome addition in the Stars’ crease. The team finished last with an .893 save percentage for the disappointing 2016-17 campaign. “(Bishop is) a great puck handler and he’s going to help our defense and forwards with their transitions,” said Nill, who acquired Bishop from the Kings last May for a fourth round pick in last June’s NHL Entry Draft.

Bishop, who is a graduate of suburban Frisco High and played junior hockey for the then Frisco-based Texas Tornado, is pleased to be back in north Texas. After stints with St. Louis and Ottawa, Bishop joined the Lightning in 2012 and was dealt to the Kings last February. During that time, he ranked seventh in wins (141-72-20) and in save percentage (.920), and fifth in goals against (3.17). He will certainly help a team that ranked 29th with a 3.17 goals against average.

Offensively, the Stars will change styles from a freewheeling attack under Ruff to a more stable game plan under Hitchcock. They certainly strengthened their attack core with the signings of Martin Hanzal and Alexander Radulov.

Hanzal is expected to be very active in Hitchcock’s system as a strong penalty killer and faceoff man. The 30-year old former Phoenix forward likes to take his 6-foot-6, 226 pound frame to the front of the net. “He’s a much bigger addition than people realize,” Nill said of Hanzal, whom the Coyotes dealt to Minnesota last February. “I know our players were excited because they know he is hard to play against.”

Nill believes that Radulov has 25-30 goal potential in Dallas as a high-end skill player. The four-time MVP in the KHL returned to the NHL last season and scored 18 goals and 54 points with Montreal. The former Predator should increase his output significantly if he skates on a line with Stars captain Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

“If you look at what Jim Nill has done, we’re ready (to contend for the playoffs),” said team president and CEO Jim Lites. “The fact that he’s added players like Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza in previous years and has drafted so well, in addition to what he did this summer means that we’re ready to win now.”