In a very short period of time, Dallas Stars General Manager Jim Nill has assembled a playoff-caliber team. His Stars entered the All-Star break with a record of 31-14-5, good for second place in the vaunted Central Division. With thirty-two games remaining on the Stars’ schedule and just over thirty days remaining until the NHL trade deadline, Nill must assess his roster and decide whether or not any upgrades are needed. Without a doubt, he’ll take a close look at the Dallas defense.
The Stars battled through a serious slump in January. Though numerous factors contributed to the rough patch, over the last five games the team showed a marked improvement in all areas, save one: special teams. While the Stars’ penalty kill and power play woes can’t be blamed solely on the defense, the blue line is one area in which Nill can utilize his roster depth to effect immediate improvements. Whether he chooses to boost the PK or PP, the general manager has options.
The Power Play Specialist
The Dallas power play has run hot and cold all season, but January was positively frigid: The Stars converted on just 12.9 percent, going 4 for 31 during the month, while allowing a league-high four shorthanded goals. If Jim Nill wants to give the Stars power play a shot in the arm, adding another blueliner who can run the man-advantage would be the easiest fix. With hulking Dustin Byfuglien apparently off the market, GM Jim should check the price tag on the New York Rangers’ disgruntled, doghouse-dwelling defenseman, Keith Yandle. Though the Rangers are rumored to want a scoring forward in return, they also lack defensive depth. With Yandle heading for unrestricted free agency this summer, perhaps an offer of a high draft pick, either Patrik Nemeth or Jamie Oleksiak and Ales Hemsky (assuming the Stars retain half Hemsky’s salary) could bring him to Dallas in February. If so, the Stars defense pairs could look like this:
- Alex Goligoski – John Klingberg
- Keith Yandle – Jason Demers
- Johnny Oduya – Jyrki Jokipakka
- Jordie Benn – Oleksiak or Nemeth
Having Klingberg on one power play unit and Yandle on the other would give the Stars a tremendous one-two punch. Teams with two highly-skilled PP quarterbacks have done quite well for themselves in the Stanley Cup Final, from the Blackhawks’ Keith and Seabrook to the Kings’ Doughty and Martinez, back to the Rangers’ Leetch and Zubov in 1994, and beyond. Keith Yandle could be the final piece of the puzzle for the Stars.
The Penalty Killer
Throughout January, the Dallas penalty kill was at least as bad as the power play, a five-for-five performance in a 2-1 win over Calgary notwithstanding. Should Jim Nill decide the Stars need a more physical, veteran presence to clear the crease of interlopers while killing penalties, pending UFA Braydon Coburn of the Tampa Bay Lightning could be a viable option. The 6’5″, 226 lb., thirty-year-old blueliner has plenty of playoff experience, having advanced to the Stanley Cup Final with the Lightning last year and the Flyers in 2010. Though he’s a lefty, Coburn can play either side of the ice. As with Yandle, an offer of either Nemeth or Oleksiak could seal the deal, perhaps with a mid-round draft pick thrown in. Due to Coburn’s $4.5 million cap hit, however, Tampa would have to retain salary for Dallas to fit him in. With Coburn in the fold, the Dallas defense should look something like this:
- Goligoski – Klingberg
- Oduya – Demers
- Coburn – Jokipakka
- Benn – Oleksiak or Nemeth
Adding Braydon Coburn would bolster the Stars’ PK, as well as creating (with Jokipakka) a true “shut-down” defense pair, giving the Stars a better chance of winning those all-too-frequent low-scoring playoff games.
The “Go For Broke” Option
To give the Stars the best possible shot at the Cup this year, Nill has to at least consider pursuing both Yandle AND Coburn. Yes, those moves would undoubtedly cost Dallas two highly-regarded young defensemen, a top-nine forward (Hemsky) and a draft pick or two. If the Stars retained half Hemsky’s salary ($2 million) and the Lightning retained $1 million of Coburn’s, Dallas would be tight against the salary cap, but not over. In that event, defense pairs might be:
- Goligoski – Klingberg
- Yandle – Demers
- Oduya – Coburn
- Benn – Jokipakka
The (playoff) party would be fantastic, but the morning-after hangover would come with the realization that Goligoski, Yandle, Demers, Coburn and Jordie Benn are all unrestricted free agents as of July 1. Which ones should be re-signed? Given salary demands and cap constraints, which ones could be re-signed? Given Jim Nill’s track record, Stars fans should be confident in his ability to make those decisions, particularly if he does so while sipping his morning coffee from Lord Stanley’s Cup.