DALLAS — A few hours before the Dallas Stars were set to host the New York Rangers at the American Airlines Center, the Stars posted on X, formerly Twitter, to alert the masses of a surprise coming later in the evening.
Shortly after the Stars took the ice for warmups, about 30 minutes before puck drop, Jamie Benn skated with Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz in line rushes while Jason Robertson skated with Wyatt Johnston and Evgenii Dadonov.
“I wanted to be patient with combinations and give as long a runway as I could, particularly some of those combinations have a long history of being really, really good,” Stars head coach Pete DeBoer said. “At some point, if it starts to feel stale, some guys need a change, just for a change.”
To be clear, that wasn’t the announcement the Stars teased on social media, but it was noteworthy nonetheless. Not only is DeBoer patient with line combinations overall, he’s especially patient with touching the top line of Robertson, Hintz and Pavelski.
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) November 21, 2023
Under DeBoer, the only times that line has been split up is when there’s been an injury. Hintz missed seven games last season in January. When he was ready to return, Tyler Seguin was playing well with Robertson and Pavelski, so DeBoer opted to keep Seguin on the top line and play Hintz with a couple of new linemates. By the third period of Hintz’s first game back, the Stars trailed 2-1 and he was reunited with Robertson and Pavelski. The line instantly scored a goal.
“That’s not brain surgery, is it?” DeBoer said after that late January game. “We didn’t have much going, and those guys tend to get a lot going. It’s that simple.”
In the playoffs, Pavelski was injured in the first game against the Minnesota Wild and missed the remainder of the series. Seguin once again filled in with the top line and once again played very well. When Pavelski was ready to return in the second round, DeBoer started him separate from Robertson and Hintz. By Game 4 against the Seattle Kraken, with the Stars trailing the series 2-1, DeBoer once again put his top line back together.
“I don’t know if inevitable is the right word, but I think yeah, probably,” DeBoer said in May when asked if reassembling the top line was inevitable. “Over a long run, we knew you probably end up back with those combinations at some point. You’d be crazy not to.”
In those two instances, the source of not playing Robertson, Hintz and Pavelski together was an injury. Sure, it lingered a bit after all three were available but it started because DeBoer’s hand was forced. That’s what makes Monday night different.
Well, sort of.
Injury didn’t force DeBoer’s hand Monday, but performance did. Splitting Robertson from Hintz and Pavelski may be noteworthy but it shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Coming into Monday night’s game, Robertson was riding a seven-game drought in scoring at five-on-five. Along the same lines, Benn was riding an eight-game drought scoring at five-on-five. The Stars were coming off a game in which they blew a 3-0 lead and lost 6-3 at home. If there was a good time to test out a switch, Monday night was the time. And if there was a change to make, swapping Robertson and Benn made the most sense.
It’s also worth noting that neither Robertson nor Benn was having a bad season prior to Monday’s tweak. Benn picked up right where he left off last season and had 12 points entering the Rangers game and Robertson was tied with Pavelski for the team lead in points with 15. Special teams helped both players with their scoring numbers, but it would be hypocritical to criticize a power play — and the members on both units, but particularly the top unit that includes Robertson and Benn — that was lagging for an extended stretch out of the gate and then also dismiss the scoring that Robertson and Benn did on the power play to get it going in the right direction.
“He’s an easy guy to look at and go, ‘We want more’ because he’s such a good player,” DeBoer said of Robertson. “He’s still almost a point a game for us. He’s doing a lot of good things. It reminds me a little about the playoff conversation through the rounds, ‘Well, he’s not doing enough, he’s not scoring enough’ and he’s got a point a game. I think we all want to see him at the elite level that we know he can play at and I know he’ll get there. In the meantime, he’s still contributing, still a big part of what we’re doing.”
Robertson’s start to the season is reminiscent a bit of the dialogue that hovered over him in the playoffs, though naturally, not as intensely scrutinized given the difference in what’s at stake. While Robertson did have decent point totals through the first two rounds of the playoffs, it’s also true that he was struggling; that was no secret to anybody who watched him play and was acknowledged by coaches and players with the Stars, including Robertson.
DeBoer is right that Robertson is still contributing positively to the team. But, as DeBoer said, the bar does get raised when you come off back-to-back 40-goal seasons and a blistering 109-point campaign. Other teams see that, too, meaning they are playing Robertson differently. There’s a lot more attention that’s bound to go Robertson’s way and opposing coaches are devising game plans specifically geared toward limiting Robertson’s impact. DeBoer’s confidence that Robertson “will get there” is grounded in reality, as Robertson has shown consistently throughout his career the ability to take that next step. Sometimes it takes longer than other times, but Robertson typically figures it out.
DeBoer has also done a great job pushing the buttons. He’s not only stayed patient with Robertson’s journey but he’s said, and done, things to reinforce his belief in his superstar forward. During the playoffs, DeBoer acknowledged Robertson’s learning curve but also gave Robertson his confidence, verbally and by his actions. DeBoer did that again Monday. Robertson and Benn were both in scoring droughts, but the swap was more about getting Robertson going than trying to spark Benn. The Stars captain is a seasoned veteran who has seen it all in the league and plays a style of hockey that inherently is built on confidence. Robertson, still just 24 years old, is still growing.
After making the lineup switch, DeBoer put Robertson’s new line in the starting lineup. Robertson also got the honored treatment of being the last player announced in the starting lineup, garnering the loudest and longest roar from the home crowd. These things may seem small, but they’re all part of DeBoer’s toolbox in how he runs his team and why he’s managed to get such strong buy-in from his players, even if he is temporarily demoting them in the lineup.
As the other end of the swap, Benn looked sharp in his first game playing with Hintz and Pavelski. After the Rangers went up 2-0, Hintz, Pavelski and Benn came down the ice, effortlessly passing the puck around like the top line has done so often in recent years. Benn was the third piece this time and he got the punctuating honors, slamming the puck home and starting a run of six unanswered goals for the Stars.
— Bally Sports Southwest (@BallySportsSW) November 21, 2023
“Benner wants to be the difference in the game every night,” DeBoer said. “I know he’s been a little frustrated recently. I think he had a good start to the season and then he went dry for a little while but he’s been getting some good looks. I think it was just a matter of time. But he’s the heart and soul of our team. He wears it every night.”
Monday night, they quieted the voices who pointed to their lack of wins against quality opponents, taking down the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, 6-3. Earlier in the season, when the power play was stuck in the mud, the goaltending and even-strength scoring came to the rescue. Now, with their top line still working through some things, they have another line that has picked up the slack, with Matt Duchene, Mason Marchment and Seguin playing lights out. At some point, one would expect it all to come together.
This part of the season is about working through the kinks, and the Stars are doing that while racking up points along the way. Even at 12-4-1, this team’s best still feels like it’s ahead.
(Photo of Roope Hintz and Jamie Benn: Jerome Miron / USA Today)