Thursday, May 31, 2012

Stars: Defensemen and Goaltender Evaluations

The Stanley Cup Finals are now underway and the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils duke it out for the next 2 weeks to find out which unlikely team will raise the Cup for the NHL in 2012. From there, the other 29 teams will strive to close the gap and figure out how hope can spring eternal in each of their locales.

In Dallas, we have spent a fair amount of time both on the rhetoric from those who are running the franchise now and have begun to look where exactly the organization stands with its current set-up. With that in mind, last week we tried to offer an individual evaluation on all forwards who are on the roster at this particular moment. Now, we will attempt to finish our look at the Stars from the defense and goaltender spots and proceed forward next time with sorting through draft and free agency ideas and objectives.

Let's begin now, with the blue-liners:


Alex Goligoski - 26 - 4 years remaining on contract at $4.6m per season (UFA 2016)

Goligoski is likely the most controversial figure of the current team to debate. The Stars made a major investment in him to attempt to fill the gigantic hole at the top of the defense corps, and so far it has left many fans wanting more. He costs premium dollars (2nd highest paid player on the team at $4.6m per season, and that has expectation levels quite high. The price of James Neal and the void caused by Sergei Zubov make the expectation levels even higher. He is a very useful piece, who leads the team in ice time on the power play by a healthy margin on a per-game basis, and leads the defense in scoring. But, there is always a feeling of wanting more. Zubov is simply an unfair comparison because Zubov was a premier, Hall of Fame caliber player. Goligoski is the best defenseman they currently employ. But, to compare one to the other is a losing battle from the first moment. He simply has to take more games by the scruff of the neck offensively. And to this point, there isn't a great indication he is capable of doing that like many power play quarterbacks. In his own end, he is average, but they pay him large dollars in hopes of getting better offensive play making than they have seen so far. 2012-13 is a key year, and the ability for the Stars to get a true #1 defensemen ultimately might really help Goligoski fit better. But for now, it looks like a rather risky contract from the Stars perspective.

Stephane Robidas - 35 - 2 years remaining on contract at $3.3m per season (UFA 2014)

Nobody has been asked to do more since the end of the road for 3 veteran defensemen in 2008 for Dallas than Robidas. When Zubov, Mattias Norstrom, and Phillipe Boucher all ended their runs with the Stars at virtually the same time, the Stars had a large void to fill. Since that time, Robidas has logged 24 minutes of ice time per game for 4 seasons running. This 7,500 minutes on the ice has certainly pushed him to the limits and while his legs seem to wear down after March 1 each season, he is still the heart and soul of the organization. He is tough as nails, he takes a tremendous beating, and he contributes heavily up and down the ice. If he had not been around, there is no telling how the unit might have fallen apart. The real questions are going to be what does he have left to give. At 35, there are signs of diminishing skills at times, but Robidas is one of those players that you really are happy to have. He sets a strong example for younger players and gives you everything he has. He would just be better served as well by someone elite taking the #1 spot of this unit. Like Goligoski, if he was pushed down a spot or two, you would be very happy, rather than a feeling that he is being over-exposed at times.

Trevor Daley - 28 - 5 years remaining on contract at $3.3m per season (UFA 2017)

Trevor is the best and the fastest skater on the team. He is capable of rushes from the back that are fast and dazzling. But, they just don't happen as often as you might like them to happen. He has played in nearly 600 games for the Dallas Stars and has played a ton of minutes. He can be trusted in his own end to usually make the proper decisions and to get the puck out of harm's way. He is tough and generally thought of as one of the core pieces of this group (thus the long term deal that has him under contract as long as anyone). At the end of the day, he is what he is. Solid, not flashy. Productive, not as productive as you might like. He has a fair deal which pays him as a #3 or #4 defensemen and he can do that. But, the idea that he would take another giant leap forward with his superior skating ability once he reached his late 20s hasn't fully taken shape. He is a nice piece to have and a member of your leadership group. If his puck skills could just improve a half-tick, perhaps his entire game could find the next level.

Sheldon Souray - 35 - Unrestricted Free Agent

Here is one of the questions the Stars must ask themselves immediately. And they likely already have their verdict. The question is, what does the blue-line look like if Souray doesn't return? Of course, to answer that properly, they must recognize that their are 3 kinds of nights with Souray at this age. Nights when he looks like a franchise defenseman and leads your team into battle. Nights when his feet look slow and father time has caught him. And, nights where he is missing due to nagging injuries. On those nights when he was right, he was clearly everything this squad has been seeking on the backend. But, how many nights were there? And how much do you pay for those, knowing that he is getting older and seeks multiple years in his next contract? Souray has an edge that can be priceless as both teams on the ice are aware of his mood and his ability to inflict punishment on anyone that comes toward the crease. The only question is whether his body can hold up for 2 or 3 more years. You would imagine there is a team that is willing to find out, but the Stars have given indications that they would happily pay more but only on a 1-year pact. But, if he is gone and they are not able to find a veteran replacement of equal or better ability, this could be a major blow to the group.

Mark Fistric - 25 - Restricted Free Agent

Fistric is a large man who can be an imposing figure on defense. So much so, that his solid checks now have him on NHL "watch lists" for big hits and shots that may border on being illegal. But, the bigger question as he now reaches a similar spot to where Niklas Grossman was last season, is whether he has a future with the organization. Grossman was much further ahead of Fistric in the pecking order where he had his spot every night and was a clear member of the top 4 when healthy. Fistric has had a hard time staying off the scratch list all season and seems to work his way into the doghouse at times. He will never be a threat with the puck, so then a defensive defenseman must always make sound decisions in coverage and not get caught up ice. His ice time has never been granted generously, and you have a suspicion that he has his list of doubters in the front office. Somewhere between 2008 and here, it seems the Stars have gone from believing he could be a core member of the Top 4 eventually, to now believing that he might always be a #6-#7 player on the edge of a roster. Personally, I always thought he deserved a better chance back there, but as time runs short on his restricted free agency window, it appears that he might ultimately experience that Grossman change of scenery that is sometimes good for a player.

Philip Larsen - 22 - Restricted Free Agent

One of the real success stories in the organization for 2011-12 must be the development of Larsen. It is very difficult to bring a player to the big leagues and yet make sure you are using him in spots where he can gain confidence and not asking him to do too much. A few days short of Thanksgiving, Larsen was called up, and aside from losing 3 weeks in recovery in January, Larsen was there each night showing he belonged. He demonstrated toughness at a very high level for a player with his skill set and showed the puck skills and Hockey IQ that were promised all along. The Stars made a point to generally use him only at equal strength, which is something that will no doubt change coming into this season. I think it is very easy to see his potential and given the lack of quality defensemen that have arrived in the last 4 years, Larsen puts a little spring in everyone's step about what year #2 in Dallas might offer. He sure looks like he could be a part of that young core if things continue to develop.

Adam Pardy - 28 - 1 year remaining on contract at $2m (UFA 2013)

A very curious piece of business completed by the Dallas Stars in the summer of 2011 was the 2-year, $4 million deal they gave to Adam Pardy. Even more curious, was the feeling from almost the end of training camp that they were wondering why they did that. At least, that is the indication to those on the outside that saw him play 36 largely anonymous games for the Stars. In fairness to Pardy, the erratic schedule he was on never allowed him to develop any sort of rhythm or continuity with any other defense partner or with the team in general. Every time he is playing, he is knocking off rust from not having played in 10 days, it seemed. But, in fairness to the Stars, we must assume he was not knocking socks off in practice and training camp to earn this role of what amounted to injury replacement defenseman, or the dreaded #7 guy on a 6-man depth chart. Surely, you can fill that spot at less than $2 per season, but the Stars must have thought last summer that they might have a real find if things worked out. He has more to his game than just defensive defenseman, as he actually can do a bit with the puck, but it doesn't really seem he is in the plans of the team enough to fully see that on a regular basis.

Brenden Dillon - 21 - 2 years remaining on entry level contract at $900k

Dillon is a sign of how your front office can really help itself in the NHL. Dillon, 15 months ago, was just a player that had not been picked in 2009 or 2010, and was looking for a job in professional hockey. So, he signed with the Stars and made some quick impressions in the AHL. Now, barely a year later, he is allegedly one of the most exciting pieces in the organization and poised to make the team in camp next season. He is a big, physical defenseman, but also has enough puck skills that the coveted, "big, 2-way defenseman" label is being attached to him. If he is a true late-bloomer that can step right in and add to a group that needs that skill set remains to be seen, but his debut in Game #82 for the Stars in April certainly did not slow down the hype train. If he is what he showed that night, there is no reason he cannot step right into the mix. And I imagine that has something to do with the way the Stars look at the Sheldon Souray decision. Would they rather have kids on the ice every night? Perhaps we will know soon enough.

Jordie Benn - 24 - Restricted Free Agent

The older brother of Jamie Benn is establishing himself to a point where we don't always have to introduce him as such. He is making his own name with his quality play in the AHL and is at an age where the Stars consider him a dependable call-up in a pinch. Whether he is more than that remains to be seen, but his flashes of offensive talent are impressive from a blue-liner. He is another story that will be hashed out in training camp, but Benn does seem to provide them with another quality option down the lineup should they want to go in that direction.


Kari Lehtonen - 28 - 1 year remaining on contract at $3.55m (UFA 2013)

Here is one of the more complex questions that the Stars must consider moving forward. Where are they with their goaltender in terms of locking him up for the long haul. He was grabbed at a bargain price for his 1st contract with the Stars, but that will expire by next season, and he would hit free agency at the right age to break the bank. What contract is he worthy of and what do the Stars want to pay are great questions. As for Kari the goalie, he has nights where he is flat-out elite. He has spent a lot of time bailing the Stars out of bad defensive situations with a composure level that is quite impressive. He makes great saves, controls his rebounds well, and with his large frame just shuts the door on a regular basis. Last season he provided some of the best goaltending this team has seen in a decade, but certainly did not save his best for last as the pressure of the playoff push looked to get in his kitchen a bit. But, any questions about his commitment level that were brought over from Atlanta have been put to bed a long time ago. He is a competitor and a very good goaltender. It wouldn't be shocking to hear that the Stars have extended his deal sometime this summer.

Richard Bachman - 24 - Restricted Free Agent

Bachman was not really on the radar for big league duty when the year began, but when Andrew Raycroft had major issues in the early months, the smallish goalie from Colorado College was given a great opportunity. And after he won his first 3 career starts - all on the road at LA Kings, NY Rangers, and NY Islanders - most observers had to do a double take. Bachman proved that he could handle the job by playing very well in spot starts all season long. Usually, he would get tough road dates, but pulled wins out of Chicago and Vancouver in February to really inspire a rare confidence in a young back-up. He really doesn't resemble the large Lehtonen in any way, accept for the composure and calm when chaos is breaking out all around them. He did have a slip or two late, including a forgettable outing in Winnipeg in March, but overall, he has more than earned the right to be the #2 going into next season and appears to have the quality to belong in the NHL. Very strong debut season for Bachman.

As you can see, there are plenty of things to sort through for this front office. The free agency class of 2013 is already on their mind, and aside from the Jamie Benn extension, they have all of these other pieces of business to deal with, too: Ribeiro, Morrow, Ryder, Lehtonen, Nystrom, and Pardy will all be UFAs in 1-season.

So, they need to have a strong draft, target and sign a major piece or 2 in free agency, consider trades, and talk extensions with the pieces they already have in place. All of this while properly projecting the kids coming up the pipeline from Austin.

The work for the front office never stops if they want to play hockey in May and June again soon.

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