Over the next month, or so, I must restrict a bit of my blogging on the Dallas Cowboys to make room for the other team that is closely covered in this space, the Dallas Stars. Now, that isn't going to mean that the Cowboys will get no love at all, just that about twice a week, we need to ponder the off-season events of the Stars, too, as we approach the NHL Draft weekend which is about one month away (June 22-23 in Pittsburgh). Dallas has the 13th pick and the need to make it count with another major piece of the future is obvious and apparent.
From there, they will hit free agency on July 1, and hopefully, shortly there after, they will be putting the finishing touches on their next roster. This, of course, is all "Collective Bargaining Agreement Pending", but if we all know that and are comfortable pondering the idea of hockey with still more new CBA rules, let's get down to business.
The Stars have a lot of work to do to try to achieve their goals. Were they close in 2011-12? I suppose, but, we cannot afford to start thinking in the ways of over-the-top optimists. This franchise has missed the playoffs every year since 2008, and actually saw its team point total dip this year to 89 points. You can squint and tell me that Los Angeles could have been Dallas with a bounce here and a timekeeper there, but the truth is clear, the Stars were just not sustainably good enough this season.
So, now, the offseason is here. TIme for Jamie Benn and Kari Lehtonen to put their feet up - once they are done representing their countries in the World Championships - and now the brass must activate their busy season so that this team can advance down that very important road of building a strong NHL contender in the short term and much more importantly, the long term.
It is very interesting to see the long-term and short-term plans work together. Only then, can you fully see the task that is ahead of this organization. Each year, many new deals come free so the constant treadmill feeling of running in place can be in full effect.
This summer, Sheldon Souray and Adam Burish are the two unrestricted free agents which will give the Stars some level of pause. It doesn't take a detective to know the Stars would love Souray on a 1-year deal and that Souray will shop for multiple years on the market. If he finds those deals, the Stars will likely punt, but if it is to bid on a single season, they will want to be front and center. Jake Dowell, Toby Peterson, and Radek Dvorak are also free, but I am assuming the Stars would not sign them to deals unless they make a decision late in the summer to fill a hole. So, there is your good news. Very little to resemble the summer of 2011 or 2013 from a free agency standpoint in keeping your own.
However, 2013 is close enough that it is likely time to get some business looked at there. Kari Lehtonen bargain contract of $3.5 million annually will likely increase dramatically. He is the right age and the right size to consider putting a long-term deal on, but there is no question that his agent will be looking at some of those monster extensions signed by other elite goalies (some from Finland, too) and have a huge number in their head.
Other contracts in 2013 that expire include your captain Brenden Morrow ($4.1m), one of your top centers Mike Ribeiro ($5.0m), and your newly found sniper Michael Ryder ($3.5m). This trio is particularly tricky, because you are looking to add to your squad - specifically your Top 6 forwards (where you get the majority of your scoring) - not subtract. And yet, if Morrow or Ribeiro were moved this summer as part of a rebuilding effort, I am not sure too many people around the organization would be shocked.
Then, there are two more internal balls to juggle. Steve Ott was the subject of trade talks at the deadline, and it seems the Stars would have done a deal that would have brought them a major piece of their future. As much as he is loved by fans and teammates, this may still be an objective, given his reasonable contract number through 2014 ($2.95m). Stay tuned there.
And then, maybe the biggest contract of them all still needs to be signed by your star player, Jamie Benn. It must be odd to deal in contract talks with a guy and attempt to get him on a reasonable deal while at the same time telling the world that you think he can carry this franchise for the next decade. That promotes that team, but I am guessing it doesn't totally help their bargaining position with his agent. The range for his deal is likely somewhere between Loui Eriksson's extension ($4.25m annually) and Patrick Kane's deal ($6.3m) since Kane is from the same draft in 2007. The Stars would love to buy out some years of his free agency and that will cost them, but I think they have seen enough to realize he might be the stud they believed he was 2 years ago.
Now, that your head is possibly spinning at that current players situations, then you must consider which players in Austin are ready to contribute in Dallas (Brenden Dillon? Scott Glennie?). And which players in juniors and college hockey are ready to contribute in Austin (Austin Smith, Reilly Smith, Jamie Oleksiak). Or are one of the Smith boys actually ready to get all the way to the bigs by next fall? If they are, it would have to be in a "Top 6" capacity or you are much better off letting them play big minutes in the AHL as a Top 6 there.
And finally....Free Agency.
This is where the big money is spent and the tears of regret flow for years. You must dabble and be aggressive at times, but you must be very careful not to lock down the wrong guy that saddles your future. The pickings are slim, but it appears the Stars are ready to shop. With the Bob Gainey hiring last week, many of the Stars brass spoke publicly about their intentions:
Stars president Jim Lites offered this: "We are without budget. As crazy as that sounds. We are restricted by only the CBA and fitting long and short term into that system...This is a different situation than we have been in for the last 4 seasons – which is we have an owner who is willing to spend and not being run by the league....We are prepared to spend what we need to spend, but we need to spend wisely."
Then, I asked Tom Gaglardi if he anticipated the Stars being front and center on July 1 with all of this cap space. His response? "Uh, Yes. We have identified some guys we are going to pursue hard. And so we expect to be in the mix."
The boldness and confidence with which these two men speak is quite wonderful to see. I think we can examine the shallow pools in free agency and see this is not the greatest summer to have loads of money. But, there are more than just one way to do this. You also have a number of teams who are now squeezed badly by the cap and are looking for some relief by dealing away a piece.
Lites: "You know what is out there now? The Brad Richards type. The reason we got Brad Richards is that he became available for prospects because Tampa Bay fell apart after they paid him. Other teams have lost flexibility and they may want to move that guy. Contracted players who either have no trade clauses but will waive it to come here and you may be able to work things through with that guy who may have a burdensome contract for their team. For instance, you see Jeff Carter in Los Angeles who Columbus didn’t want to keep."
All parties agree that the Stars need 3 major parts. 2 Top 6 forwards and 1 defensemen, preferably that elusive #1 D-man. Those are expensive pieces and will cost some of these kids if the Stars choose to go that route. They would rather have kids fill these roles, but that takes patience and some luck.
Regardless, Gainey, Lites, Gaglardi, and Nieuwendyk now sit in a room and chart out an aggressive plan. And as a follower of this franchise for 14 seasons, including the last 4 that ended in early April, this excites me greatly.
Next time, let's start to look at the roster, draft, and free agency. It is a big summer for the organization coming up.