February has been a dreary month for Dallas. One month ago the Stars were riding high. At the end of January, the Stars had a double-digit point lead over second place in the Pacific Division, and Dallas was fighting over second-place in the Western Conference.
My, how a month can change things.
The Stars currently sit in a three-way tie for ninth place in the conference, and they have dropped from a commanding Pacific-Division lead to last place in the division. Like holes in the hull of a ship, injuries decimated the lineup. Management tried to mend the ship, but the roster could not find the momentum and chemistry they had throughout most of the previous 50 games. So far in the month of February, Dallas has gone 1-8-1 in ten games, and dropped five straight. The only win the Stars recorded was a comeback victory where the team was down 3-0 to the Chicago Blackhawks, and Dallas fought back to win 4-3 in a shootout. It is an 82-game season; ten games do not ruin a year. With 22 games remaining, the Stars can easily turn things around and make it into the playoffs (especially considering how close the West is: only two points separate fifth and eleventh place). But their recent slide has caused fans and analysts to question the state of the franchise.
Brad Richards Trade Debate
Trading Brad Richards would undoubtedly be a sign Dallas is cashing in on the season. But that may just be the current position the team is in. Stars’ management needs to ask: are we a Stanley Cup caliber team — not just a playoff-bound team, but a Stanley Cup team? If the answer is Yes, then keep Brad Richards, as he is the offensive leader of the franchise; if the answer is No, trade Richards. With league sources hinting that the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers are the top choices for Richards to end up (Richards has a no-trade clause in his contract he would have to waive before a trade could be completed), Dallas could receive a treasure of young talent and/or high draft picks. According to sources, Richards top choice is to stay in Dallas, however, ownership issues prevent the Stars from paying Richards the amount of money he could receive at big-market franchises (Richards currently makes $7.8 million). As Richards becomes a free agent after this season, it’s hard to say if he would take a salary cut to stay in Dallas long term. If Nieuwendyk can establish Richards would sign a contract within a certain ballpark figure, then the team may not want to trade him. But, if it appears that Richards and the Stars are not close on salary numbers, the team should not think twice about trading him. The Stars might make the playoffs this year, but being realistic, they are not a Stanley Cup team. Of course, some fans might present last year’s Philadelphia Flyers as a reason why even a seventh seed can make the cup, but let’s not get delusional. The Flyers had much more depth than this year’s Stars. The Flyers also received Simone Gagne mid-series against the Boston Bruins. Gagne became one of the top offensive pieces on that team for the rest of the playoffs. The Stars will not have such luck.
Predicting what the Stars could get for a trade involving Richards is difficult, but you have to think it will be a good amount. Richards is a top-three forward, and one of the best centers in the league. He could totally revamp a team such as the Kings or the Rangers. If the Stars’ management played their cards correctly, you would think a trade involving Richards could bring a first-round draft pick, a second-round draft pick and a prospect; or a first rounder and two second rounders. During this trade deadline, teams are shelling out quite a bit for players, and the Richards trade would be no different.
It would be painful to watch Richards go. But perhaps that is the current state of the Stars’ franchise. Going into a rebuilding stage right now during the ongoing ownership fiasco could prove to be extremely beneficial for the Stars. Imagine the team finding new owners within the next two years, just as they put themselves in position (with talented young players) to become a playoff caliber team. With a new ownership that is able to pay high-priced talent, the team could retain those flourishing young players with adequate contracts. As of right now, however, the team is unable to sign anyone. Trading Richards, and receiving potential prospects, could set the team up to become a top Western Conference team in the next few years.
And besides, if Richards wants to stay in Dallas, there is always the chance he returns after the season and signs a contract with Dallas.
James Neal Trade
A trade the Stars have pulled the trigger on is the one involving forward James Neal. The Stars moved Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenseman Alex Goligoski. All in all, this seems like a pretty good trade for both sides. Goligoski is an offensive minded defensemen who has more points this season than any other Dallas defenseman. Also, he is under contract for next season and he is only 25 years old. You have to think Goligoski will continue to be a top-two defenseman on almost any NHL team. The Stars got what they needed in this deal, a talented, experienced, offensive-minded defenseman who is young and has Stanley Cup experience. The Stars have relied on inexperienced defensemen too much over the past two or three seasons, and at times this has been a serious problem for the team. Goligoski will greatly improve the backend.
Of course, as any trade goes, you have to give something up in order to get something. At first sight, I thought the Stars gave up too much for Goligoski. A straight up Neal-for-Goligoski trade seems even, but the Stars throwing Niskanen in tips the trade in the Penguins favor. The Stars should have tried for a third- or fourth-round draft pick to balance the deal. Neal and Goligoski are both young talents who have not yet plateaued. Neal has 72 goals and 131 points through his first 2.5 seasons. He finished with 24 goals in his rookie season and 27 last year. This season he had 21 goals and 18 assists in 59 games with Dallas. Neal is a reliable 30-goal scorer, and will probably notch one or more 40-goal seasons. Niskanen is only 24, and had 82 points through 2.5 seasons with Dallas. After finishing with strong rookie and sophomore seasons, he has slumped last year and this year. But he is a promising player. All in all, the Stars probably moved Niskanen and Neal for Goligoski in order to free up some cap space. All three players are under contract for next season. For this season and next season, Goligoski makes $1.8 million, while Neal earns $2.875 million and Niskanen makes $1.5 million. Financially, the Stars came out on top in this trade, as Goligoski practically makes the same as Niskanen, but is a much better player.
Nevertheless, it hurts to see a player of Neal’s ability and not-yet-fully-realized potential leave the team. Despite some streaky periods, Neal has been a key figure for the offense all season. To sum it up in one sentence for Dallas: the trade of Neal for Goligoski simply transfers the lack of depth from the backend to the offense.
After such a dominating performance through the first 50 games of the season, it would be a debacle if the Stars did not make the playoffs. Dallas fans don’t need the team to shine in the postseason, but even a glimmer in the playoffs would go a long way to revive a franchise that has missed out on the past two postseasons. Nevertheless, the Stars should continue to think long term about how to reinvigorate the roster and the fan-base. And if that means trading the team’s top offensive weapon now for prospects, then management should part ways with Brad Richards.