The Dallas Stars finished the 2015-16 regular season atop the Western Conference, but came up short against the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 of their second-round playoff series. While fans, players and coaches try to shake off the sting of defeat and of promise unfulfilled, general manager Jim Nill and his staff are hard at work.
In addition to the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, Nill has decisions to make on free agents and potential trades, as well as projecting which Stars prospects might be ready to make the move from Cedar Park to Dallas. Over the next couple of months, Nill will shape his club for the upcoming season. What calls might he make, and why?
In a previous post, the Stars’ options for the goalie situation were examined. Now, let’s see what the forwards and defensemen might look like come October.
Defense: Younger and Bigger
Unrestricted Free Agents: Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, Kris Russell, Jordie Benn.
Restricted Free Agents: Jamie Oleksiak.
The Dallas defense is getting younger and bigger this summer. A good argument can be made for offering Goligoski a new contract: Partnered with John Klingberg on the Stars’ top defense pair, he was a major possession driver and put up 37 points, second only to Klingberg among Dallas blueliners. Two factors skew the odds against Goligoski’s return, however.
First, he and Keith Yandle are the top UFA defensemen available this summer in what is a very shallow talent pool. As such, the 30-year-old Goligoski will command top dollar and significant term in his next contract. Don’t be surprised if he signs a six-year, $36M deal, unless it’s with Dallas. When pursuing free agents, Nill has to consider both Jamie Benn’s contract extension this summer and Tyler Seguin’s next contract three years from now. The Stars’ current cap space is going to disappear quickly.
Second, Nill has to consider the potential (probable) NHL Expansion Draft next summer. For that draft, the GM will have to choose to protect either seven forwards and three defensemen or eight skaters. All of the Stars’ current UFAs aside, these d-men will be eligible for selection in the draft: John Klingberg, Stephen Johns, Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Esa Lindell, Julius Honka, Mattias Backman, Ludwig Bystrom and Troy Vance.
If Dallas only protects three defensemen, which three? Klingberg and Johns would seem to be locks, so the real choice is between exposing Lindell or Honka. Want to make the decision even more agonizing? Add one of the Stars’ UFA blueliners to the mix. Do you expose both promising young defensemen, or the veteran you valued highly enough to re-sign just one year prior?
Of the Stars’ four UFA defensemen, bringing Jordie Benn back to fill the role of seventh defensemen and challenge the youngsters for a spot on the bottom pair makes sense. With the threat of an expansion draft looming, allowing the other unrestricted blueliners to walk makes sense, as well. When the puck drops in October, the Dallas defense corps could look like this:
Forwards: Mostly Minor Alterations
Unrestricted Free Agents: Vernon Fiddler, Patrick Eaves, Travis Moen, Colton Sceviour.
Restricted Free Agents: Valeri Nichushkin, Brett Ritchie.
While the Dallas defense gets a somewhat radical renovation, the forward corps faces mostly minor alterations. A couple of youngsters muscling their way up Interstate 35 will make two decisions fairly easy for the Stars GM.
Travis Moen has almost certainly played his last game as a Star. Left wing Curtis McKenzie has earned a one-way ticket to Dallas, and will take the veteran’s roster spot. Likewise, the talented-but-injury-prone Patrick Eaves and his glorious Civil War-throwback beard will likely be replaced by Brett Ritchie, a sharp-shooting wrecking ball of a right wing.
Colton Sceviour offers Dallas excellent value as a depth forward. The only question is: Do other teams recognize his value, as well? Provided he can be re-signed at a reasonable cap hit, Sceviour should be wearing Victory Green again this fall.
Will fan favorite Vernon Fiddler return to the fold? Before the Stars’ general manager can answer that question, he has to resolve the Cody Eakin question. In Eakin, Seguin, Jason Spezza and Radek Faksa, Dallas has four centers deserving of spots on the top three lines. Trading Eakin for a goalie could be a very smart move, and the three netminders mentioned in the linked article all play on teams in need of a young, skilled and versatile center.
Should the Stars trade Eakin this summer, offering Fiddler a one-year deal gives Dallas a veteran presence on the fourth line and allows highly touted prospects Jason Dickinson and Devin Shore another year to develop while playing top-six minutes in the AHL. This fall, Stars forward lines could look a lot like this (subject to “Ruffling,” of course):
Sceviour-Veteran UFA TBD
Should the Stars decide to carry a 14th forward, they’ll likely sign a player for well under $1M. Scottie Upshall, Ryan Carter and Jonathan Marchessault are potential candidates who, along with Sceviour, could push McKenzie and Ritchie for ice time.
With the exception of the fourth line, the forward combos should look quite familiar. Big changes will come in the summer of 2017, when the contracts of both Sharp and Hemsky expire. Until then, expect more of the same from the Stars forwards, which isn’t a bad thing.
Matt blogged about all things hockey at On Goal Analysis/The OGA Blogs from 2008-2014 and has written several travel articles for The Dallas Morning News. He began covering the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers for The Hockey Writers in August 2015. Matt is also writing a biography of “Tex” Rickard, the Texas cowboy who founded the New York Rangers and the Madison Square Garden Corporation.