Stars’ Summer Going Swimmingly

After a 2016-17 season as disappointing and frustrating as the Dallas Stars and their fans endured, some changes were needed. General Manager Jim Nill and his staff have been hard at work for almost three months, and their efforts are bearing fruit. Though Nill still has work to do before he can take a break, his off-season is going swimmingly.

The Stars’ summer officially began April 8, following a season-ending shootout win over the Colorado Avalanche. While 16 NHL teams advanced to the playoffs, the Boys from Big D, Western Conference champs just one year ago, headed for the golf course amid a swirling cloud of uncertainty over the expected changes to come.

Nill made his first move less than a week after the season ended, replacing head coach Lindy Ruff, whose contract was expiring, with veteran bench boss Ken Hitchcock, who guided the Stars to their only Stanley Cup win back in 1999. The GM completed the coaching staff overhaul June 22, hiring Rick Wilson and Stu Barnes to join holdover Curt Fraser as assistant coaches.

In the midst of the assistant coach search, Nill addressed the Stars’ Achilles heel by sending a 2017 fourth-round draft pick to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for pending unrestricted free agent goalie Ben Bishop. “Big Ben” and the Stars quickly came to terms on a six-year, $29.5 million ($4,916,667 annual cap hit) contract, a very reasonable outlay for a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist.

New coaching staff and starting goalie in place, Nill turned his attention to the NHL Expansion and Entry drafts, which took place just a few days apart.

Viva Las Vegas, Viva Cody Eakin

The Vegas Golden Knights plucked one player from each of the 30 NHL clubs in the Expansion Draft. While the Stars protected seven forwards, Cody Eakin wasn’t one of them.

The decision to expose Eakin was understandable. Coming off a career-worst season which began with a training camp injury, the “Ginger Ninja” found himself pushed down the Stars’ depth chart by the continued development of Radek Faksa and incoming coach Hitchcock’s stated desire to move Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza back to center.

Golden Knights GM George McPhee, who drafted Eakin in 2009 while in the same role with the Washington Capitals, snapped up his former prospect. It’s a win-win, as Eakin gets a chance to prove last season was a fluke and the Golden Knights get a solid middle-six center.

Cody Eakin was claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft. (Annie Devine/THW)

On the Stars’ locker clean-out day in April, winger Adam Cracknell, who played for the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL from 2006-08, offered a bit of advice to all Vegas-bound players.

“Don’t live downtown,” said Cracknell, laughingly, adding, “It’s a great city. On the outskirts, it’s awesome. Golfing was fun. I played there in the East Coast (Hockey League), so I didn’t have the money those guys are going to be making. I lived a little differently, but…It’s a great hockey spot. A lot of fans will be going down there I’m sure, making trips out of it. Just don’t live close to downtown; that’s my only advice.”

Before Eakin can settle into his new home, he’ll return to Dallas on October 6 for the first game in Golden Knights franchise history, which is also the Stars’ season-opener.

The Stars’ Superb Draft

The luck of the draw in April’s NHL Draft Lottery gave the Stars the third overall pick in the 2017 draft. A month later, the Anaheim Ducks advanced to the Western Conference Final, turning the conditional second-round pick the Stars received for fan favorite Patrick Eaves into a first-rounder.

Though Nill expressed a willingness to trade Dallas’ top pick for a top-pairing defenseman, no such deal materialized. Instead, the Stars used that pick on the top defenseman in the draft, Miro Heiskanen. The smart, mobile Finn is likely a couple of years away from skating a regular shift in the NHL, but has the potential to reach “elite” status. When he does reach the NHL, the left-handed Heiskanen could form an exciting defensive duo with either John Klingberg or fellow countryman Julius Honka.

The Stars bundled Anaheim’s first-round pick (29th overall) with their own third-rounder and sent both to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for the 26th pick. That selection was spent on the top-ranked goalie in the draft, Jake Oettinger. The lanky (6-foot-4) native of Lakeville, Minnesota, will return to Boston University this fall for his sophomore season, following a successful freshman campaign. With Bishop under contract for the next six years, Oettinger won’t be rushed into the NHL.

Day Two of the draft saw the Stars take sharpshooting left wing Jason Robertson in the second round, followed by centers Liam Hawel, Jacob Peterson and Brett Davis in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds, respectively. While that trio of pivots has already earned the “project” label, seventh-round selection Dylan Ferguson, a goalie with the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL, gave the Stars an almost immediate return on their investment.

Methot Brought in, Niemi Bought out

Drafted by the Stars on June 24, Ferguson became a Golden Knight 48 hours later. Dallas dealt the goalie prospect and a second-round pick in the 2020 draft to Vegas for defenseman Marc Methot, whom the Golden Knights claimed from the Ottawa Senators in the June 21 Expansion Draft.

Methot is everything the Stars sought in a blueliner: Veteran. Left-handed. A stay-at-home defender, accustomed to playing with a highly-skilled partner (with the Senators, he was paired with Norris Trophy finalist Erik Karlsson). Expect Methot to be Klingberg’s “safety net,” giving the skilled Swede confidence to take calculated risks and be creative with the puck.

Craig Anderson, Michael Raffl and Marc Methot November 15, 2016 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The acquisition of Bishop gave the Stars one too many goalies. After a career-worst year, Antti Niemi was the odd man out. A lethal combination of dismal statistics and an over-saturated goalie market made a trade impossible, so the Stars bought out the final year of Niemi’s contract on June 27. As a result, the team carries a $1.5 million charge against the salary cap for the next two seasons, while the goalie is free to pursue a job elsewhere.

What’s next for the Stars?

The Stars head into free agency on July 1 with a few boxes yet to be checked and a few questions in need of answers.

On the housekeeping side, the club must re-sign restricted free agents Radek Faksa, Brett Ritchie, Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth.

As soon as those contracts are signed, Nill must determine which defenseman (or -men) he’ll trade.

Though any deal for one of the bottom trio probably won’t yield more than a draft pick in return, a player-for-player trade could result under the right circumstances.

Dealing Oleksiak to the Arizona Coyotes for speedy-but-struggling winger Anthony Duclair is one such possibility. Both players could use a fresh start, and Oleksiak would add to the Coyotes blue line depth while Duclair could be the top-six right wing the Stars need.

In the absence of such a trade, Nill will look to free agency to fill the right wing void.

Adding Honka to the roster leaves the Stars $17.5 million in cap room with which to re-sign the RFA quartet and lure free agents to Dallas. Veterans Justin Williams, Alexander Radulov and Radim Vrbata must be considered, but re-signing free agent Stars Patrick Sharp or Ales Hemsky to less-expensive contracts remains a distinct possibility.

Next to questions surrounding Mattias Janmark’s ability to play next season, perhaps the biggest question facing the Stars is: Will Valeri Nichushkin return to the NHL this year? He’s under contract in the KHL for one more season, but a desire to return to Dallas and the right amount of cash could make the young Russian’s KHL contract disappear. The ball is in Big Val’s court, and a decision is expected within the next couple of months.

The Stars might’ve lost the 2016-17 season, but they’re clearly winning the offseason…and it’s not over yet.