The wild early parts of July are fun for hockey fans. It’s a hectic time of year in the NHL: players are moving or re-signing, big contracts are being signed, and every once in a while, there is a big-name free agent that your team is reported to be coveting. That’s been the story for the Dallas Stars this offseason.
The Stars were on the shortlist for the biggest offensive free agent in this year’s class, John Tavares. Most recently, it looked like the Stars were one of the teams to beat for Erik Karlsson, arguably the NHL’s best defenseman over the past few seasons. As of this writing, Karlsson is still available and the Stars are out of contention. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the team to beat for the defenseman’s services. Or not. Wait, the Stars are back in it? The rumors and reports are changing every day. Who knows if a deal will ever happen. For the Stars, it’s ok if it doesn’t happen.
Sure, it’s fair to be a little frustrated if you’re a Stars fan. Would signing Tavares or corralling Karlsson make the Stars better? Absolutely. It’s a win-now move that shows management is ready to take a leap but not acquiring either shows the team is willing to stay the course and trust the process they’ve been working on the past few seasons.
A little over five years ago, Dallas acquired the talented Tyler Seguin. Having him on the roster was the opening of the Stars’ championship window. Since then, the team has had three head coaches, made the playoffs only twice (making it out of the first round only once), and have combined for a 207-153-49 (.575) record. Sure, it does seem like the window is slowly closing. Seguin is entering a contract year, Jamie Benn isn’t getting any younger, and aside from Miro Heiskanen, Dallas doesn’t really have anything exciting to look forward to coming up the prospect pipeline. But that’s all ok.
The Stars still don’t need to make a move. They’ve already made plenty and the team is better.
Help from Within the Stars Organization
News that went under the radar, hidden under the rumors and reports about the two biggest names this offseason, was the help that arrived from within the organization.
The most exciting move so far is the return of the Stars’ prodigal son. After a two-year stint in Russia, Val Nichushkin will return to Dallas this coming season. Nichushkin wasn’t a flashy player in his first two seasons in Big D and he never became the next Evgeni Malkin or Alex Ovechkin or [enter high-scoring Russian name here]. Many were disappointed. After a rift with head coach Lindy Ruff, a contract dispute, and disappointing numbers, the winger opted for the comforts of home in Russia.
Some were certain he’d never come back. Lucky for the Stars, he did, he makes the team better immediately.
He was solid in his first season, scoring 14 goals and adding 20 assists in 79 games. He developed great chemistry with the top line of Benn and Seguin and they were shaping up to be the next three-headed monster in Dallas. But offseason surgery, missing almost the entirety of his sophomore season, and then butting heads with Ruff ruined Nichushkin’s relationship with the organization.
It’s probably no coincidence that the only two seasons that the Stars have made the playoffs in the last five years were when Nichushkin was on the team.
During the 2013-14 season, his rookie season, Nichushkin played 79 games and the Stars clinched a playoff spot for the first time since the 2008 Conference Finals. After missing most of the 2014-15 season (he only played 8 games) due to an injury, the Stars failed to qualify for the postseason. Returning to the lineup in 2015-16, a healthy Nichushkin played another 79 games, notched 29 points (nine goals, 20 assists) and – wouldn’t you know it – the Stars qualified for the playoffs.
When the young Russian returned home during the 2016-17 season, the Stars had their worst season since the 1995-96 campaign (26-42-14), finishing 34-37-11. It may be a coincidence that a healthy Nichushkin in the lineup coincided with Dallas clinching a playoff spot, but there’s probably some merit there.
What about the defensive depth that Dallas so dearly lacks? Yeah, Karlsson would be a very welcomed addition, but with each passing day, a deal is looking less and less likely. Again, the Stars can look for answers within.
The reason Karlsson is not a Dallas Star is that Jim Nill is not willing to part with the team’s top prospect.
The Senators made it clear that Miro Heiskanen needed to be involved in a trade for the All-Star Swedish defenseman. But Nill won’t flinch. Why? Well, Heiskanen has the potential to be the Stars’ homegrown “Erik Karlsson” at some point down the road – a precocious playmaker, daunting defensive talent, and brilliant blueliner. The Stars could still squeeze some of Karlsson’s prime, but regression is right around the corner for the 28-year-old. Heiskanen will celebrate his 19th birthday on July 18 and he’ll be on the Stars’ roster come opening night.
Another positive: financial freedom. It’s reported that Karlsson is seeking Drew Doughty money, something to the tune of eight years and $88 million. Heiskanen will cost a fraction of that, at least for the next few years. The Stars’ young Finnish blueliner signed his entry-level contract in July of 2017 and according to CapFriendly, he will only cost the Stars around a $900,000 cap hit over the next couple of seasons, less than a tenth of the cost of trading and signing Karlsson.
It’s hard to know for sure if Heiskanen has the same potential as Karlsson, but there are similarities in their games. Here are the pre-draft scouting reports on both defensemen:
Erik Karlsson: “Karlsson is a very offensive-minded defenseman. He is blessed with excellent hockey sense, confidence and coolness. Everything looks so easy and natural when Karlsson has the puck under control in the offensive zone. He is a true power play specialist that usually gets the puck on net and also delivers very good passes. Furthermore, he is mobile and a capable skater with good agility and technical skills. – Elite Prospects, 2009
Miro Heiskanen: “His hockey sense is so good that he dictates the play due to how effectively he moves the puck. He makes great decisions, understands how to create chances while keeping his plays simple, and overall shows no issues playing at a pro pace. His mobility is pretty good, too, as he can get up into the rush well and close his gaps efficiently. – Corey Pronman, ESPN, 2017
The two scouting reports almost mirror each other. But if I’m Dallas, I’m hanging on to the long-term potential that a homegrown Heiskanen can bring to the Stars and it appears that’s exactly what Nill will do. And tell me this doesn’t make you all giddy inside. Stick with your guns, Nill. Trust the process. Hang on to Heiskanen.
Doubtful Dallas Depth
Many believe that the Stars lack the depth – particularly scoring depth – to reach the next level. I agree this is the area that needs the biggest improvement.
Last season, the Stars’ big three of Benn, Seguin, and Alexander Radulov put up 79, 78, and 72 points, respectively. The next highest scorer was John Klingberg, a defenseman, with 67 points. After the top four, Mattias Janmark is the next highest-scoring forward on the team with just 34 points. That’s less than half of what the top line is doing. For the Stars to succeed, depth scoring is a must.
Tavares would’ve helped this cause but obviously, that’s not happening. Again, that’s ok. Dallas is getting back its former first/second-line winger in Nichushkin. Aside from bringing back its Russian right winger, Dallas made a sneaky depth signing on Day 1 of free agency that will help the team.
At an affordable three-years and $2.4 million per season, the Stars signed Blake Comeau to add bottom-six winger depth. The Stars lost its tenured Tasmanian-devilish forward in Antoine Roussel, who signed a four-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks. Comeau is a cheaper substitute, who arguably brings more scoring than Roussel.
The 32-year-old winger spent the last three seasons with the Colorado Avalanche where he put up 33 goals and 90 points while only missing eight games over the last three years. For comparison’s sake, Roussel recorded 30 goals and 73 points in the same span and missed 33 games to suspensions and injuries. Comeau, as it turns out, is a bit of an upgrade.
While interning with the Avalanche this past season, I was able to observe and talk to Comeau. He’s a leader in the locker room. For an older guy, he’s fast. Very fast, in fact. Comeau can keep up with Seguin or any of the Stars’ speedy youngsters. More importantly, he can keep up with his opponents. Comeau plays a defensive game and he’s extremely physical, something Dallas needs especially now that Roussel is gone. He finished with 145 hits last season, good for third on the Avalanche. Roussel was arguably the most physical player on the Stars’ roster and he only managed 104 hits last season.
Comeau should fit in nicely with the Stars’ attacking style. Check this out:
Blake Comeau signed with DAL for 3 yrs at $2.4 mil/yr
Don't know how I missed this one on July 1st. What a neat and tidy signing for the Stars. I like it. pic.twitter.com/W8g0lhzANU
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) July 6, 2018
Stars Can Stand Pat
If Nill and the Stars are finished making moves, the team will be fine heading into the season, especially with Nichushkin, the debut of Heiskanen, the few depth moves, and a new head coach to put it all together.
Dallas would benefit from acquiring Karlsson or trading for some offense but is it a necessity? I don’t think so. The Stars – and their fans – should feel comfortable with this roster. This team can get it done. For now, we must play the waiting game and trust the process of the Stars’ front office. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?
Good things come to those that wait.