They say history is written by the victors. It’s a flawed statement in many ways — the losers of the American Civil War sure seem to write a lot of history books for Southern schools — but it rings true for the NHL.
Every year, the rest of the NHL looks at whoever wins the Stanley Cup, looks at what they did to win it, and decides that’s the best way to win the next Stanley Cup. If a team bullies their way to the Cup, then every team needs to get bigger, even if said bullies were also a talented team. If a team plays stifling defence, then that must mean the death knell for run-and-gun hockey and it’s time for every other NHL team to adopt the trap.
Canucks fans are familiar with this revisionist history from 2011. When the Canucks lost to the Bruins, despite taking the Stanley Cup Final to seven games, all sorts of narratives popped up about how the Canucks were constructed incorrectly: they weren’t tough enough, they were too dependent on the power play, Roberto Luongo couldn’t be counted on in big games. Those narratives were nonsense — the loss had a lot more to do with key injuries and running into a hot goaltender — but they stuck.
Meanwhile, the big, bad Bruins provided a template for other teams: get bigger and tougher. Nevermind that they were also a fast, skilled team, with tremendous offensive talent that also lucked into a goaltender that improved his game by leaps and bounds in his mid-30’s and had one of the greatest playoff performances of all time. That didn’t fit the narrative.
Besides, it’s a lot easier to get bigger than it is to find an unheralded star goaltender in his 30’s, an elite Selke-winning centre, and a 6’9” athletic freak of nature.
That said, there are still things that can be learned from the best teams in the NHL. The trick is to learn the right lessons and not get carried away by a surface-level narrative. To that end, let’s take a look at the team that just beat the Vegas Golden Knights in five games and will represent the Western Conference in the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals: the Dallas Stars.
In terms of style of play, the Stars are excellent defensively, among the best in the NHL at preventing quality scoring chances. At the same time, they have enough scoring pop from both their top-end talent and their depth to win games. Style, however, isn’t always easily transferable from team-to-team. The way the Stars play might not work as well for another group of players, so let’s instead look at how the team itself is constructed.
Some teams are built primarily through the draft. Others, mostly through savvy trades. Still others, through bold free agent signings. The Stars are intriguing because their GM, Jim Nill, built the team with a seemingly perfect balance of all three.
If you look at the 25 players that have appeared in at least one postseason game for the Stars this year, 10 of them were drafted by the Stars, 8 were free agent signings, and 7 were acquired via trade. That’s about as balanced as you’re going to get.
Even the Stars’ top line reflects that balanced approach. Jamie Benn was drafted by the Stars, Tyler Seguin was acquired in a trade with the Bruins, and Alexander Radulov was a free agent signing.
Benn was a draft steal back in 2007, before Nill’s time with the Stars. He fell to the fifth round in the draft primarily because he was playing in the BCHL and was overshadowed by the draft-eligible players that finished ahead of him in scoring: Kyle Turris, Riley Nash, and Casey Pierro-Zabotel.
Turris went third overall and has had a fine NHL career even if he hasn’t lived up to the pre-draft hype. Nash went later in the first round and carved out a place for himself in the NHL. Pierro-Zabotel went in the third round and never played an NHL game.
Benn, picked last of these four, has easily had the best career. He’s won an Art Ross Trophy, he’s a two-time first-team All-Star and one-time second-team All-Star, and he finished third in Hart Trophy voting in 2016.
It’s interesting comparing Benn to Pierro-Zabotel. The two are practically the same size and both had question marks surrounding their skating when they were drafted. In their draft years, Pierro-Zabotel had 9 more goals and 51 more points in a similar number of games. Yet, Benn was the one that steadily improved his game and became one of the best players in the NHL, while Pierro-Zabotel became one of the best players in the ECHL.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that Pierro-Zabotel was eight months older than Benn. At that age, that many months can make a world of difference in terms of potential.
Benn represents a key to the Stars’ success: they hit on a couple of late-round picks that have made a major difference. Aside from Benn, there’s John Klingberg, who was picked in the fifth round in 2010 and skates on the team’s top pairing.
Klingberg was completely off the radar in his draft year, splitting time between two under-18 leagues and the under-20 league in Sweden. Just two of their scouts had even seen Klingberg play, but their Swedish scout was such a big believer that they took a chance on him. It paid off, big time.
There’s a clear lesson there: shoot for the stars in later rounds of the draft, aiming for boom or bust players rather than safe picks that might turn into fourth-liners or third-pairing defencemen. The Stars ended up with a first-line forward and a top-pairing defenceman out of fifth-round picks.
Then there are the top picks that have paid dividends in this playoff run. The star is Miro Heiskanen, who leads the Stars in scoring and looks poised to be one of the best defencemen in the NHL over the next decade. Denis Gurianov, picked 12th overall in 2015, had a breakout year with 20 goals and leads the Stars in goals in the playoffs. Roope Hintz, Radek Faksa, and Jason Dickinson have all been important factors in the bottom six.
The Stars have had some misses at the draft, but finding contributors throughout their lineup has helped keep the salary cap under control for the Stars.
Back to the top line. It’s centred by Tyler Seguin, who was the centrepiece of a blockbuster trade engineered by Nill in 2013, one of his earliest moves as GM of the Stars. He sent Loui Eriksson and three prospects — Joseph Morrow, Reilly Smith, and Matt Fraser — to the Bruins for Seguin, Rich Peverley, and Ryan Button.
Eriksson was solid for the Bruins for three seasons and Smith turned into a legitimate top-six forward, though he was traded to the Florida Panthers after two seasons. The clear winner of the trade, however, was the Stars. Seguin bounded back after a down year with the Bruins and became a perpetual point-per-game player, even scoring 40 goals in the 2017-18 season.
The Bruins talked themselves into trading Seguin because he didn’t fit their culture and had a goalscoring slump in the playoffs. Nill took advantage of that and got the best player in the deal when he was still just 21 years old. Seven years later, Seguin is still a star in Dallas, while the Bruins have nothing remaining from the assets brought back in the trade.
What’s the lesson there? Partly it’s to take advantage of the poor decisions of other teams, but the other lesson is to not get too attached to your prospects.
Morrow, Smith, and Fraser were all promising prospects for the Stars at the time of the trade. Morrow was a former first-round pick that had just made the transition to the AHL. Smith had just put up 35 points in 45 AHL games after a fantastic NCAA career. Fraser was the leading goalscorer for the Stars in the AHL.
Of the three, only Smith panned out.
The Stars didn’t sacrifice their future to acquire Seguin, because Seguin was their future. They were willing to part with promising prospects and a quality veteran because they knew the value of those players: not every prospect pans out and veteran players tend to get worse over time.
Seguin isn’t the only key player acquired via trade. Their starting goaltender during the regular season, Ben Bishop, was acquired for the low price of a fourth-round pick back in 2017. Jamie Oleksiak, who plays on their second pairing on defence, was likewise acquired for a fourth-round pick in 2019.
Bishop was so cheap because he wasn’t under contract. The Stars simply traded for his rights so they could negotiate a new contract without competition. The gamble paid off: Bishop knew he had a starting job in Dallas and signed a six-year deal.
The Oleksiak deal, on the other hand, is a little weirder. The Stars initially traded Oleksiak to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018 for a fourth-round pick. In 2019, they traded the same pick back to the Penguins for Oleksiak. It was the same trade, just in reverse.
Oleksiak has provided a stable partner for Heiskanen, similar to Chris Tanev with Quinn Hughes. Undoing that trade to get Oleksiak back turned out to be a smart move.
Back to the top line, where Alexander Radulov skates on the right wing.
Radulov signed with the Stars in free agency in 2017 after he had made his return to the NHL with 54 points in 76 games with the Canadiens. The Stars ponied up the cash, signing Radulov to a five-year deal worth $6.25 million per year, betting that he had more to give.
At the time, Radulov was the top forward available in free agency and the Stars were willing to give him the term he wanted. Of course, it helped that the Stars had the cap flexibility to sign him.
The Stars have avoided too many high-priced mistakes in free agency, though they haven’t been entirely innocent. Jason Spezza’s four-year contract worth $7.5 million looked pretty bad at the tail end of his deal. Martin Hanzal’s $4.75 million contract was ill-advised, then injury troubles forced him out of the lineup entirely, with reports indicating that he will retire.
You could argue, in fact, that the Stars’ worst contract belongs to their captain, Jamie Benn, who arguably hasn’t lived up to his $9.5 million per year contract. If your worst contract is also one of your best players, however, you still have room to maneuver, and the Stars have given themselves opportunities to add players in free agency through careful, prudent spending on depth players.
That allowed the Stars to add Joe Pavelski last offseason on a three-year deal worth $7 million per year. There’s a solid chance they’ll have regrets in the third year of that deal when Pavelski is 38, but he was great for the Stars this past season, solidifying their second line while playing an excellent two-way game.
When you look at the Stars’ cap situation, they’ve spent a lot of money on the top of their lineup, while limiting their spending on the bottom. They do have a couple more expensive players like Andrew Cogliano ($3.25 million) and Blake Comeau ($2.4 million), but they each only have one more year left on their respective deals.
Corey Perry and Jason Dickinson each make $1.5 million per year and they’re rounded out by the likes of Roope Hintz and Joel Kiviranta, who are still on their entry-level contracts.
The Stars were able to get Perry so cheaply because he had just been bought out by the Anaheim Ducks and was still collecting a paycheck from the Ducks. They did the same on defence, adding Andrej Sekera for $1.5 million after he was bought out by the Edmonton Oilers.
They also found depth on defence on the cheap, acquiring Taylor Fedun for a 7th-round pick from the Buffalo Sabres. He makes just $737,500 per season, near league minimum. Actually at league minimum? Joel Hanley, who has been reliable on the third pairing in limited minutes.
To sum up, the Stars have been able to find value in free agency, which has allowed them to spend big on marquee free agents.
The most important part of the Stars’ construction, however, has been patience. Despite disappointing years where the Stars missed the playoffs three times in four seasons, Nill stuck with Benn and Seguin, and slowly built a Cup contending team around that pair, steadily adding piece by piece.
Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson the Canucks could learn. It’s tempting to look at their success this season, getting to the second round of the playoffs, and to make big moves to quickly turn the team into a Cup contender. The Stars show that the slow-and-steady approach might be the wiser way to do it.