One thing is certain as the Dallas Stars’ 2016-17 regular season nears the end. Changes are coming. The Stars were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs on Monday. They have completed the rare task of sandwiching two dismal seasons around a first place Western Conference finish in 2015-16. Currently, the Stars rank eleventh in the west with a record of 31-35-11 and 73 points.
The first order of business will be assessing head coach Lindy Ruff’s performance. Due to an incredibly difficult run of injuries, it’s hard to pin the entire season on Ruff. However, the NHL is a result driven business and the results simply have not been good enough. Ruff ranks fifth All-Time in NHL wins with 733. His contract expires at the end of the season, and it seems like a mutual parting of ways between is inevitable.
Stars general manager Jim Nill also has to prepare for the Las Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft which will take place on June 21st. The Stars will lose one player to Las Vegas. They can protect seven forwards, three defenseman and a goaltender or eight skaters and a goaltender. Two days later Nill will be leading the Stars’ table at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
Another annual event the GM needs to prepare for is NHL Free Agency. On July 1st the Stars stand to lose three players: Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky and Jiri Hudler. All three skilled forwards are entering the twilight of their careers and the Stars have just under $20 million in cap space for next season. Let’s take a closer look at each of these players and assess whether they will be back in 2017-18.
Patrick Sharp’s 2016-17 has been a microcosm of the Stars’ season. Injuries played a major factor. Early in the season, Sharp suffered a concussion, then after returning too soon, concussion symptoms sidelined him again. His season came to an end earlier this week due to a nagging hip injury. Sharp, who turns 36 in December, had hip surgery on Tuesday.
As a result of the injuries and playing hurt for much of the season, Sharp had his lowest points (18 points in 48 games) output since his rookie season in 2003-04. In addition to the on-ice challenges, his father Ian has been battling leukemia.
Sharp is the Stars’ candidate for the Bill Masterton Trophy, given each season by the NHL to a player who displays the attributes of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. Assuming Sharp’s recovery from hip surgery goes as planned, he would like to return. “We’re going to get the surgery done, let him heal. He’s going to train, and then let’s take a look at him,” Nill recently shared with Sean Shapiro of NHL.com. “We’ve had conversations. If he comes back, he wants to be in Dallas. He thinks he’s a Dallas Star.”
Prognosis: A healthy Patrick Sharp is still a top six forward who oozes character and leadership. The interest in a return to Dallas seems genuine and mutual. If the money can work (meaning lower than his $5.9M cap hit for 2016-17), he’s should be back and is worth it.
When Ales Hemsky signed with the Stars in 2014 many people envisioned a goal-scoring right winger to pair with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Now, three years later, Hemsky has played 165 games for the Stars while producing just 28 goals. To be fair, he’s missed nearly all of this season due to groin surgery to repair an injury he sustained at the World Cup of Hockey.
Hemsky, a former first round pick (13th overall in 2001) of the Edmonton Oilers, turns 34 this summer. At this time last season, he was playing his best hockey as a Dallas Star, paired with a rookie and fellow Czech-native Radek Faksa and Stars’ super pest, Antoine Roussel. Hemsky returned from his surgery this month and has been one of the Stars’ best forwards. He recently scored three goals in four games.
Watching Ales Hemsky since his return, reminds me of how much the Stars desperately missed him this year. Nice PPG to tie the game at 1
— Bruce LeVine (@BruceLeVinePuck) March 26, 2017
Prognosis: Wherever he lands, Hemsky is sure to take a hefty pay cut from his current $4 million cap hit. The Stars don’t have a lot of depth at right wing so it makes sense to try to bring him back at a reduced rate. Also, the Stars could take a run at Patrick Eaves assuming the Ducks don’t re-sign him. Eaves will surely be due for big raise from his $1 million salary this season.
At the start of the season, with his team decimated by injuries, Nill signed Hudler a free agent at the time who he knew from the Detroit Red Wings organization. Hudler, who turns 34 in January, started out missing 25 games due to a mysterious illness. Once Hudler returned, he missed time again due to a lower body injury and was a healthy scratch for several games.
Hudler has played in 32 games and produced just 11 points. He also had the dubious distinction of scoring on his own net during one of the season’s low points.
Prognosis: I have to imagine a healthy Hudler would have produced better results. However, I believe the Stars will bite the bullet and let him walk. Hudler’s 2016-17 salary was $2 million. Maybe the Stars get lucky and Las Vegas adds Hudler, which would satisfy the Stars’ expansion donation requirement.
Travis Morin, Justin Dowling, Dustin Stevenson and Justin Peters are also unrestricted free agents who played most of the season in the American Hockey League with the Texas Stars. Morin a 33-year-old veteran led Texas in scoring with 52 points. Dowling, still just 26 years old, had a cup of coffee with the big club this season producing two assists in five NHL games. Stevenson, who turns 28 years old this summer, is a journeyman minor league defenseman. Peters, 30 years old, is a veteran minor league and NHL backup goalie who the Stars acquired via a minor league trade with the Arizona Coyotes in February.