Have the Dallas Stars done enough to become a playoff team?

I imagine at some point I’ll get tired of looking at WAR totals from the 2018 season, but today is not that day. We’ve used them as a jumping off point to see how much Jamie Oleksiak improved in Pittsburgh, and to scrutinize the Dallas Stars’ depth. That last one gnawed at me a bit because without league context a lot of pertinent information is left out that doesn’t help us understand where the Stars fit into the Western Conference. Why not add the context now, eh?

I pulled up the WAR numbers from @EvolvingWild for Western Conference teams again, and broke their WAR down by forwards, defensemen, their top five players, everyone else, and total WAR. I then found where each team ranked in each category in the conference and found an average rank.

The Pacific Division was verifiable trash. Were the Vegas Golden Knights a great team, or were they a good team in a terrible division who beat two mediocre teams in the playoffs (San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings) prior to Marc Andre Fleury stealing the Western Conference Final from the Winnipeg Jets? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t bet on them running through the West like that again.

It’s pretty easy to see the Stars’ problem here. Their average ranking here is 6.2, good for 7th in the West. Their total WAR was 8th in a conference where eight teams make the playoffs. The particulars of the NHL playoffs seeding ding the Stars too. Five of their Central Division foes are ahead of them in total WAR. The top three from each division make the playoffs plus two wild cards. At best only five of the teams in the Central can make the playoffs, and in 2018 the Stars were the 6th best team.

This was despite the fact that the Stars got the most WAR from their top five players in the conference. We knew they were top heavy, but WAR shows us again, if we needed it, that the top five skaters did their part. But, 95% of us wouldn’t be able to guess who the Stars top five in WAR were.

I went six deep on this to include Alex Radulov, but he did in fact finish behind Esa Lindell in WAR. The reason is all of the penalties he takes.

It’s easy to see ways these number can improve. For starters, rebounds from Mattias Janmark and Jason Spezza would be huge. The additions of Val Nichushkin and Miro Heiskanen should help make a big difference.

Heiskanen is a real wild card here. The list of teenage rookie defensemen since 2008 is a quality list. Using Hockey Reference’s Play Index I pulled the list of all teenage rookie defensemen since 2008 then sorted them by points.

I added the WAR values for each player in the top 15 of rookie point scoring defensemen. The average guy had one WAR. If Heiskanen does that he will comfortably be the Stars third defenseman behind Lindell and John Klingberg.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Heiskanen will be closer to the top of this list given all he already brings to the table at both ends of the rink, and the distinct possibility that he will be one of the Stars better penalty killers from the opening face off. I see no reason why he can’t push two WAR as a rookie which would comfortably make him the Stars number two defenseman behind Klingberg, which does sound about right.

Nichushkin had 1.8 WAR as a rookie. In his second full season (year three) he had 0.7. Despite his flaws, when Nichushkin left he was a useful player after being very good as a rookie. 1.8 WAR added to the Stars last season would have made him fit into the Stars top five players, bumping Lindell out. If Val splits the difference or matches his rookie year (or improves upon it) he could be a big boost.

Ultimately, I don’t know that I can confidently say this is a playoff team right now. They’re as good as the back end playoff teams, no doubt. The chips are stacked against them in the Central. St. Louis improved. Winnipeg is adding rookie Kristian Vesalainen. Nashville and Minnesota didn’t really need to improve. Unless the Stars decide to pull the trigger on a big move they’re likely to be in a dogfight for one of the wild card spots once again as Benn, Seguin, and Klingberg get another year older.