The Dallas Stars find themselves in an interesting and critical situation in terms of the franchise’s growth. This summer, even subtle moves could push the Stars to being Stanley Cup contenders or back to a playoff bubble team.
With such a young core intact, the Stars are in a good place for the future. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin lead the team offensively as one of the best duos in the NHL. John Klingberg stepped up in a big way and showed in his rookie season that he looks like the possible heir to Sergei Zubov. Valeri Nichushkin and Julius Honka both have tremendous potential.
Around that core is a solid mix of grizzled veterans, role players and youngsters. This offseason, the Stars have 12 players that will look for new contracts as either restricted or unrestricted free agents. Six of the 12 played at least 20 games in the NHL this season, three are over the age of 30, and four are defensemen.
The Stars not only seek a return to the playoffs next season, but they look to establish themselves as a perennial playoff team as the young core grows. Who Jim Nill decides to re-sign could indicate where he believes the development of the youth is and just how much of a veteran presence is needed.
Below are the three players I believe the Stars must absolutely re-sign, as they will be impact players next season or in the near future.
1- Patrik Nemeth
Nemeth easily tops the list, in my opinion. The 23-year-old defenseman is the team’s best defensive prospect. Note that I mean he is not the best defenseman in the system, but rather the best defensive defenseman in the system.
Though Nemeth has only player 35 games in the NHL, he has shown that is NHL ready and can be a big part of the defensive unit moving forward. Despite being thrown to the fire in the 2013 playoffs, he didn’t look out of place in five games against the high-powered Ducks. Sure, he suffered from some growing pains in his time with the big club, but that is expected for a young defenseman. An arm laceration kept him out mid-October to March, but he still managed to average 16:12 of ice time, over two minutes more than last season.
Nemeth uses his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame really well in front of the net and along the boards. He is smart with the puck and efficient with his outlet passes. He is not the fastest or most skilled defenseman the Stars have, but he is a boulder in the defensive zone. The Stars have enough puck-moving, fast-skating offensive defensemen in the system. Nemeth provides a different set of skills that the team desperately needs more of.
2- Jhonas Enroth
I understand Enroth only played 13 games and recently said it is unlikely he returns to the Stars, but he hasn’t completely ruled out a return, the Stars haven’t traded his rights yet, and free agency hasn’t opened to see him sign somewhere else, so I included him on this list.
Stars better resign Enroth this offseason. If they don’t, it’ll be a mistake, I feel like. Extremely solid in net.
— Dylan Nadwodny (@dnadders) April 12, 2015
Enroth not only survived the black hole known as the Dallas Stars backup role, but by the end of the season, he had some fans calling for him to unseat Kari Lehtonen as the team’s number one goalie. Things didn’t start so well for Enroth after he was acquired in a trade from the Buffalo Sabres for Anders Lindback on February 11. The 26-year-old Swede lost his first five starts, surrendering 20 goals in that span. He turned things around and won his next four starts, surrendering five goals and earning a .951 save percentage in that span. He played well behind the same defense as Lehtonen, who ended up with one of the worst seasons of his career and easily the worst since coming to Dallas.
Enroth showed he can be a number one with Buffalo, and chances are he will seek that role with a team in the offseason, but if the Stars can lock him up, he could very well end up pushing Lehtonen to be better or even push him to the bench. With no quick-fix solutions in the system, and no show-stealing goalies in the free agent market, Enroth looks to be Dallas’ best short-term option.
3- Jamie Oleksiak
Mentioning Oleksiak to Stars fans these days will probably get you more grunts and sighs than anything else, but I refuse to give up on him. A 22-year-old 6-foot-7, 250-pound defenseman is not one to so quickly abandon. He was drafted 14th overall in 2011 and has failed to make a big impact in the NHL so far.
The most common knock on Oleksiak is that he isn’t mean enough. Remember, he is still only 22, and he has played with a growing nasty, physical edge as he develops. He punished opponents and seemed to impose his will on the way to a Calder Cup championship with the Texas Stars in 2014. In 36 NHL games this season, he seemed to try to be more physical, but he wasn’t that imposing. It seemed as though he second-guess himself less, but there were still some moments of hesitation in his game. He registered one goal, seven assists, eight penalty minutes and an even plus/minus in 13:23 of ice time per game with Dallas. In the AHL, he racked up four goals, 16 points, 12 penalty minutes and a plus-26 in 35 games.
There is definitely still room to grow, as with all of Dallas’ young defensemen, but Oleksiak is not out of time. Even Zdeno Chara took a while to develop his mean streak. If, and I understand this is a big if, he pans out, he could be a stud on the defensive unit for years to come. It is simply too early to give up on “Big Rig.”