Free agency started off with a bang on July 28. Deals flooded in immediately as many teams were active early on. For the first time in a few years, the Dallas Stars were among those teams. The Stars made multiple moves within the first hours of the day and finished the first day with more deals than most teams across the league. Going into this summer, finding a top-four defenseman was the one obvious hole Dallas needed to fill. What they would do beyond that was up in the air, as many of their top players will be returning from injury next season, greatly improving their lineup from within. Now that things have calmed down a bit on the free agency front, let’s see how the Stars made out.
When Jamie Oleksiak signed with the Seattle Kraken, the Stars knew they needed to find his replacement. They found their guy before the market officially opened, signing veteran defenseman Ryan Suter to a four-year, $14.6 million deal. Suter is a proven NHL defenseman with 16 seasons under his belt. He can play big minutes, shut down top players, and has a solid mix of passing and offensive abilities to round him out. It seems to be a bit of a risk signing a 36-year-old to a four-year deal, but Suter has shown so far that age is just a number for him. He believes that he has plenty left in the tank and agreed to sign for less money in order to secure longer term for him and his family.
Dallas recently took a similar risk, signing Joe Pavelski in the summer of 2019 when many believed his game would drop off. That risk paid off, as Pavelski led the Stars in scoring last season and was one of the most integral pieces to their Stanley Cup Final run in 2020. Suter will likely slot in on the second pair with Miro Heiskanen, but Stars general manager Jim Nill is open to testing out any combination of their elite top four.
“If you want to have success in this league, you have to have a good top four, and we really feel this top four is as good as anybody in the league. That’s what excites us. Ryan has been one of the top defensemen in the NHL for many years. That’s a great veteran who has a great presence. He reminds me a lot of Chris Chelios when I was in Detroit. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t seem to age. He’s a heavy body, he’s got iron lungs and he’s a great skater. When we lost Oleksiak, that’s a big hole to fill. We’re fortunate to be able to find a player of Ryan’s caliber.”– Stars general manager Jim Nill
While signing Suter did not come as a surprise, signing Jani Hakanpaa certainly did. Dallas added to their defensive core by adding the former Carolina Hurricane on a three-year, $4.5 million contract. The Finnish defenseman has only 62 NHL games under his belt but has impressed in his young career. In 2019-20 with the Anaheim Ducks and Hurricanes, he racked up 215 hits and averaged 18:01 of ice time. At 6-foot-5, 218 pounds, he adds much-needed size to the Stars’ blue line. This was especially important after Oleksiak signed in Seattle, leaving them with a smaller defensive core.
Along with physical play, Hakanpaa is a strong presence in front of his own net, clearing opposing forwards out to allow easier saves for his goaltender. He is also a right-handed shot, which gives Dallas options on their heavily left-handed blue line. Although he does not bring much offense to his game, he did score two goals in the final 15 games with the Hurricanes last season and is excited to join the “Finnish Mafia” (Miro Heiskanen, Roope Hintz, Esa Lindell, and Joel Kiviranta) in Dallas.
Two other key players that left the Stars this summer were Jason Dickinson and Andrew Cogliano. Both players have been a huge part of the Stars’ defensive success over the past few seasons and will be missed. Dickinson has been the utility player that moves up and down the lineup, playing in just about any situation. Cogliano served on the left wing of perhaps the best checking line in the league, along with Radek Faksa and Blake Comeau (“F-C-C”).
The issues for Dallas arose when the offensive production of these players began to dip. The Stars struggled to score goals, and not receiving help from their bottom-six was a large part of that. Still, they knew they needed to replace these key players in order to maintain their defensive success. There were plenty of options to choose from both on the market and within their system. Many believed they would sign a two-way forward with proven scoring success in order to increase their offense, while others believed top prospects Adam Mascherin, Ty Dellandrea, or Riley Damiani were capable of filling that role. On day one of free agency, Dallas decided to stick with the defensive mindset, adding Luke Glendening and Michael Raffl to the mix.
Glendening is a veteran defensive center that has played his entire career with the Detroit Red Wings. He was among the leaders with a 60.8 percent success rate on faceoffs in the 2020-21 season, improving his career number to 55 percent. He is capable of adding some offense in his game but has a ceiling with a career-high of 23 points. Along with faceoffs, he is a proven penalty-killer and should fill that hole left by Cogliano.
“It’s important to have four lines in today’s NHL, with the schedule and how intense the games are, and Luke fills that void. Luke is a consummate pro, he plays the game the right way, he’s one of the marquis faceoff men in the league, he’s a great penalty killer, he plays physical and has high-end character.”– Jim Nill
Raffl is an Austrian left-winger that played his first eight seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers before finishing last season with the Washington Capitals. Similar to Glendening, Raffl is a defensive forward that can solidify the bottom-six in Dallas. He has similar offensive capabilities to Glendening but should reach 20 points in a full season.
They Signed a Goalie?
Going into next season, the goalie position in Dallas may have been a bit blurry. However, it seemed the debate would take place within the organization. Ben Bishop continues to rehab after knee surgery but is a proven elite goalie. Anton Khudobin is determined to return to his 2020 playoff form after struggling in 2020-21, and Jake Oettinger overachieved in his rookie season, pushing him into the starting role before the season was over. While there were plenty of questions about how things would turn out next season, it seemed it would be a battle between the three names mentioned above. However, Jim Nill had a different mindset and shocked Stars fans and the entire league when he signed veteran goaltender Braden Holtby to a one-year deal.
Holtby is a Stanley Cup champion, a Vezina Trophy winner, and a proven elite goaltender in the NHL. However, he is coming off the two worst seasons of his career between the Capitals and the Vancouver Canucks. In 48 games for Washington in 2019-20, Holtby finished with a 3.11 goals-against average and a .897 save percentage. Playing behind a poor Canucks defense in 2020-21, his numbers were even worse. One big question is whether he is capable of nearing his elite form once again at 31 years old. For the Stars, however, the biggest question is what role will he play?
Dallas now has four NHL goalies on contract heading into training camp. Oettinger is the only player that can be sent down to the American Hockey League without requiring waivers, but he has proven that he is overqualified for the AHL. There are many possible options for the Stars going into next season, which we will dive into later this week, but it is clear that Nill did not trust the health of Bishop nor the tandem of Oettinger and Khudobin that played the 2020-21 season. For this reason, he added Holtby to the mix, giving them plenty of options and depth for whatever comes next.
The Stars were among the busiest teams in the NHL on the first day of free agency, adding multiple players to their roster and surprising many in the process. Only time will tell if those additions will make a difference for a team going into an important season, but they did add plenty of depth after injuries plagued them last season. Time will also tell whether or not they are done making moves this offseason, but with four goaltenders and some questions among their forward group, that seems unlikely.
Sam Nestler is a Dallas Stars contributor for the ‘The Hockey Writers’. Growing up in New Jersey, Sam has been playing hockey since he was 7 years old. Developing a love for writing in college, Sam uses his hockey knowledge to create analyses and articles on every aspect of the game. Sam also hosts his own podcast on Spotify, the “Slapshot Sammy’ podcast, breaking down action across the NHL and NCAA. Check out the podcast here, and give his latest article a read!