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The Dallas Stars brought back their Stanley Cup-winning coach and made a few somewhat pricey acquisitions last offseason.With those significant changes Auston Matthews Jersey , it looked like that fall from top seed in the Western Conference one season to missing the playoffs the next might just be a blip on the way to bigger things.Instead, they fell agonizingly short of the postseason because of a late-season slump.”There’s lots of decisions to be made,” said Hitchcock, who coached three other teams in his 15 years away from the Stars. ”But I’m hopeful that the feeling is that we’re a lot closer than further away.”Among the first questions general manager Jim Nill will have to answer is what to do with four primary players who can become unrestricted free agents, including goalie Kari Lehtonen. Tyler Seguin, already a five-time All-Star at age 26, is signed only through next season for $6.5 million before he can become an unrestricted free agent.Dallas was 42-32-8 for 92 points, a 13-point increase from 2016-17 and only three points out of the Western Conference’s eighth playoff spot. They missed the postseason for the eighth time in 10 years.”It hurts a little bit more than last year,” Seguin said. ”This year, there was a lot of hope and it’s a bit of a shocker. That road trip and that stretch, it’s going to take some time to process it.”That brutal 1-10 stretch in March included the Stars losing every game in a six-game, 10-day road trip. The first loss in that overall slide was at home to Ottawa in which Ben Bishop, the goalie added on a $29.5 million, six-year contract last summer, left with a knee injury. Bishop started only one game after that.”You hate to look back and wonder what you could’ve done different,” said Jamie Benn, their other still 20-something top scorer along with Seguin. ”But we played some pretty good hockey most of the year and then we didn’t raise our level when it needed to be raised.”NOT FULL CONTRIBUTORSAlexander Radulov played every game in the first season of his $30 million, five-year contract and was the third-leading scorer with 72 points (27 goals, 45 assists). But other big-name additions were limited by injuries in their Dallas debuts, like Bishop. The new starting goalie played only 53 games, while center Martin Hanzal (back) played only 38 games and defenseman Marc Methot (knee) 36 games. Hanzal is signed for two more years and Methot for 2018-19.TOP SCORERSBenn, the captain, had hat tricks in two of the last three games – all on the road – and had 10 points (eight goals, two assists) in his last five games. He finished with 79 points (36 goals Connor Brown Jersey , 43 assists), one more than Seguin (40 goals, 38 assists). John Klingberg led NHL defensemen with 59 assists.RETURN OF VAL?Right wing Valeri Nichushkin could be back with the Stars next season after two years in the Kontinental Hockey League. Nichushkin was the 10th overall pick by the Stars in 2013, and had 64 points (23 goals, 41 assists) in 166 games over three seasons by time he was 21 before going home to Russia. That could be the biggest addition this offseason.POSSIBLE DEPARTURESLehtonen is second in franchise history with 215 wins, but is now a backup to Bishop. The other unrestricted free agents are left wing Antoine Roussel and defensemen Greg Pateryn and Dan Hamhuis. Jason Spezza is set to make $7.5 million next season in the final year of his deal, but the 35-year-old center doesn’t seem to be a fit in Hitchcock’s system. Spezza played 78 games and his 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists) were his fewest in a full season since 21 points in 33 games as a rookie 15 years ago.STRUGGLES VS THE TOPThe Stars were a combined 5-13 against the top five finishers in the Western Conference, 2-9 against the top three in their division.”We did a really good job of beating the teams we should beat in most cases, but our record against the top teams, and especially the Central Division, we’re going to have to find a way to improve that and we’re going to have to play better hockey,” Hitchcock said.— The secret was out pretty quickly.A week before the 2015 playoffs, the United States Hockey League’s Sioux City Musketeers invited prospect Eeli Tolvanen to skate with them to see about signing him for the following season. He stood out among older players on a first-place team.”This little 15-year-old kid from Finland who was about 5-foot-6 at the time, he came to that practice and you could tell he was an elite playmaker,” now-New York Rangers defenseman Neal Pionk said. ”When he was doing that at that age, we could tell almost right away.”Tolvanen now looks like a Finnish Mozart on ice, a child prodigy who reaches the next level of hockey faster than anyone expects. On the verge of turning 19, Tolvanen for his next masterpiece could be playing a meaningful part in a playoff run for the NHL-leading Nashville Predators, based on the range of his experiences already.”His growth just step-by-step happened quicker than most people see,” said Jay Varady, Tolvanen’s coach in Sioux City. ”He’s just been successful at a really young age in really tough challenges.”At 17, Tolvanen led his team and tied for eighth in points in a USHL full of 19- and 20-year-olds, went 30th in the draft last June to Nashville and decided to go home to play professionally for Jokerit in the Kontinental Hockey League. Contract talks with the Predators began on draft day and continued as Tolvanen set the KHL scoring record for an 18-year-old and rarely looked out of his depths.Unlike when Sioux City got a first impression of Tolvanen and thought it a no-brainer to give up its first-round pick to sign him Frederik Andersen Jersey , Jokerit general manager and Hockey Hall of Famer Jari Kurri wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, Tolvanen lit up Finnish junior leagues, but this was a different level playing against men.”Since the first day, everybody was pretty clear that this guy is hardly a kid,” Kurri said. ”Everything went smoothly.”Tolvanen led Finland in scoring at the world juniors twice and tied for second in points among all players at the Olympics as one of the youngest players in the tournament. Before and after the Olympics, he filled up highlight reels in the KHL and impressed Jokerit staff with more than just his shot.”He’s more like a well-rounded player than many people maybe understand at the moment,” coach Jukka Jalonen said. ”He can defend excellent, he’s really physical, he hits hard, he has good vision on the ice. He can pass the puck over and shoot it, and he can play defense. He’s a very sound player.”Pionk didn’t see Tolvanen’s marksman-like shot in the spring of 2015 because a growth spurt hadn’t happened yet. Two years in the USHL playing under Varady allowed Tolvanen to grow and adapt his game to an ice surface smaller than those in Europe while learning English and American culture.”It was really just Eeli’s commitment to becoming a pro,” Varady said. ”He wanted to come over here, he did want to learn the language. He wanted to challenge himself on the smaller rink, tighter-checking game than maybe under-20 in Finland.”Tolvanen’s depth of experiences from the USHL to the KHL and the Olympics could speed up his learning curve in the NHL. He averaged more than 12 minutes in his first two games and was quick to get over the enormity of his leap to the next level.”Most of the nerves went away after the first shift,” Tolvanen said.Before the organization’s top prospect debuted, Predators coach Peter Laviolette said he hoped it was a seamless transition and pointed out that Tolvanen could simply fit in instead of carrying the load. Laviolette saw a jump in Tolvanen’s play from Game 1 to 2 and expects the improvement to continue.”He looked like he was skating better, more competitive, more confident with the puck,” Laviolette said Sunday in Tampa. ”Every game he plays, I think he’s going to get more and more comfortable with the speed of the game, with the level of competition.”Other young Finns have raised the level of competition in the NHL, from Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Florida’s Aleksander Barkov to Carolina’s Sebastian Aho, Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen. Kurri thinks those players succeeding and playing a full season against grown men in the KHL readied Tolvanen for this.”He was facing tough games night after night,” Kurri said. ”He’s a fast guy but he’s pretty strong – strong in his skates Womens Jake Gardiner Jersey , too. A lot people are surprised (by) that. He can play physical game. He can hit, too, and he wants to. I think this year really helped (him) to be a better player when he started facing the KHL teams night after night.”Joining fellow Finns Pekka Rinne, Juuse Saros and Miikka Salomaki should help Tolvanen, the third-youngest player in the NHL this season. Though judging from his experience with Jokerit and Finland’s national team, he fits in with teammates of all ages.”He gets well along with older guys, and they love Eeli and how he handles himself on and off the ice,” Jalonen said. ”He’s quite a laid-back presence. He’s quite cool, quite patient under the pressure and he doesn’t panic. I think he’s matured as he’s aged.”As Tolvanen ages and sharpens his all-around game, he is expected to be part of the Predators’ long-term future with Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and P.K. Subban. He already stands out and has plenty of room left to improve.”He does it a little different than everybody else: where his hands are at, how he handles the puck and he just has that ability to get his shot off and it’s deadly,” Varady said. ”The other thing is his speed, and he will play with a little bit of edge. He finishes checks, which sometimes surprises you with him, but he wants to get in on the forecheck, he wants to skate, he wants to compete.”—AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.—
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