Any normal Dallas Stars fan has removed the daily activities on the hockey team from their radar back in early April. With the CBA expiring in September, they may not get fully turned back on until Thanksgiving (who knows?). But, for those of us who aren't normal, and who understand that there is much more to following a franchise than the 82 games that count in the standings, we know that this next month - and more specifically 2 weeks (Today through July 2) - are vital for where this team is headed and how we can evaluate the new philosophies from a new owner and staff for the hopefully bright future.
I say the next two weeks because this Friday and Saturday is the 2012 NHL Draft. Now, the Stars have a number of picks, including some extra ammunition from the Nik Grossmann trade, and sit at #13, #43, #61, and #74. I won't pretend to dive as deeply into the NHL Draft as I do the NFL Draft, but I think this week we will spend some time focused on the most attractive of these picks - #13 - and the options they could also generate if they decide to move up in the draft.
But, one thing that may not be top of mind is that the draft weekend is often fertile ground for trades in the NHL. Almost every year, with its proximity to the opening of free agency, we see major moves discussed and announced around the league. Teams are looking to fill holes and because of the lack of numbers in free agency from a depth and quality standpoint, it is not uncommon for teams to not want to wait around at the 5-10% chance they would have to convince an elite free agent to come to their door. Instead, they do business with trades and those would happen this weekend in many cases.
Then, July 1, the window goes up in free agency, and this is where the buyer most beware. There are some very attractive pieces available on July 1, but you must get it right. In this day with a hard salary cap and funds in rare supply, the wrong deal on the wrong player can really create all new problems for an organization. If your team lacked a top center, for instance, but had plenty of cap room to find one, impatience might cause you to make the largest mistake a team can make - buying someone who is willing to take your money, but not capable of being what you want him to be.
In other words, overpayment is implied in free agency. You are at an auction with other motivated buyers. You don't want to get outbid, so you throw caution to the wind. And before long, you have paid the center equivalent of Brian Campbell $57 million or Christian Ehrhoff $40 million. Paying them more doesn't make them a better player. It makes them the same player they have always been with a much fatter wallet. Now, you overbid for a player who is not the perfect fit, but rather the best fit given the choices. That is a big difference. And now, instead of having the top center, you have your version of Chan Ho Park, and your cap room has gone away and you now have an overpaid #2 center for the next 7 years. Congratulations. You have lost at free agency.
It isn't the players fault, by the way. It is your fault as an organization in building the wrong way. Free agency is not the proper road to building a team. It is the way to land a nice piece that compliments the team you built. Like baseball, building a hockey team requires kids. Many, many kids who you have drafted or acquired who can arrive on the scene and change your franchise for the better at a reasonable wage. Then, you secure those who earn security and discard the rest and do it again with a new crop of kids. It takes a while and it is not terribly exciting for your fans, but the good news in Dallas is that while you may have been sleeping, the team has begun the process.
And I guess that is the good thing about bankruptcy (assuming there is such a thing). The Stars had to slow their roll on big ticket acquisitions, but in the meantime, were combing the hockey world for talented kids and placing an emphasis on "growing their own". This process takes years, but if you started it and have a reasonably stocked farm system in certain spots, you can already plan on seeing the fruits of this labor ready to roll at camp in September.
Now, they have a ton of cash available, kids on the way, and a team that has been on the cusp of the playoffs for the last few years - hypothetically verifying the premise that they are "not far away". And, in the NHL these days, that is the mantra. If the Kings and Devils can do it, why can't we? It may be misguided, since the Kings were actually a pretty strong pick when the season started from many observers, but it shows that teams can turn the corner rather quickly when the time is right.
So, here they are. Well-positioned with cap room, draft picks, and pretty pleased with the prospects. I would interject on the prospect side that there appears to be a shortage of high-end elite offensive talent and a real shortage of centers. They have some talented kids, but the NHL is not drooling at the Stars prospects right now. They are building, but not close to the industry leaders at the present.
Below, let's discuss the 3 different avenues for acquisitions that are available in the next month:
FREE AGENCY: This is where the highest stakes are found and the most ready-to-change-your-franchise impacts, too. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are the belles of the ball, and neither is expected to take much time in finding their riches and new address. Suter is clearly gone from Nashville, it seems, and will be paid handsomely. Personally, I don't think the Stars laying out $40-$50m would make any sense for his style of game, but the good news is that it seems irrelevant, because he doesn't seem to have Dallas on is radar, either. Shea Weber is everything that this franchise should invest in (a defenseman who has the total package), but he will not hit unrestricted free agency until 2013, at which time, the Stars can join 29 other teams in trying to wow him if Nashville somehow cannot find a way to lock him down.
Parise is much more likely to stay in New Jersey than it seemed back in April. With their success and playoff revenues, you would imagine keeping their captain is very much in their plans. If not, Minnesota seems to be the most likey home. Should the Stars invest in Parise? Absolutely, as I think he provides much of what the Stars want - elite offense, power play presence, speed, leadership, and great effort levels, but at his price you must be careful. But, most importantly, why would he choose to play here? Right now, the Stars are rather anonymous. At some point soon, they may be an attractive destination for free agents, but at the present time, it is a tough sell for many free agents with options to believe that the Stars are serious about being a cup contender. We have to remain realistic. Like the Rangers, at first, the acquisitions will be trades. Then, after success with trades, Adrian Beltre and Joe Nathan might follow. Not the other way around.
Are there realistic free agency targets? Yes. If they wish to get in on a group of defensemen that I like: Matt Carle, Jason Garrison, or Dennis Wideman, I think you could find a real compliment to the Stars power play forces at a heavy price ($20m) but not insane price. If you wanted to take a look at a tougher defenseman like Barrett Jackman, you might be able to do that sort of thing for 3 years/$12m. But, he is not going to help your power play in the slightest. He would be more of defensive replacement for what you lose from Sheldon Souray leaving and the gritty/leadership factor that he can provide.
As for Souray, the Stars offered a 1-year deal (reportedly in the $3m range) and the Souray camp wants a multiple year deal (no doubt seeing Willie Mitchell get 2-years, $7m). Unless Souray changes his mind because of a lack of interest league-wide, there is no reason to believe the Stars are going to move up the term. They just didn't see enough to believe he can play every night for 8-9 months anymore.
Otherwise, look for the Stars to carefully sift through the cheaper options at forward spots, but the idea that they can find their "Top 6" vacancies with a bold strike through free agency doesn't seem to be the route the Stars are going to take. And, it might not be the worst thing in the world to keep the owner's personal connections in mind. One of his co-owners in Kamloops might need a job.
TRADES: This is going to be 100% speculation. And it is going to hurt to read some of the names involved. But, from what I am deducing, the Stars are looking to make a splash this summer through the trade route. This can be tricky, but I imagine most of their class of 2013 free agents can all be had if the price is right. This means some of your favorite players - Brenden Morrow and Mike Ribeiro - are at the top of that list. Also, a 2014 free agent is Steve Ott, and since we seem to have it on pretty good authority that he was available at the deadline, we should know that this hasn't changed. All 3 have value. So, if they can find a trade that nets them a piece that the Stars think can be part of their big picture group moving forward, I would not say any of them are locks to be here when camp starts again.
Obviously, Ott has real value for a team that is close. In fact, one has to wonder how Vancouver's playoff run would have gone if they would have done the Buffalo deal (Cody Hodgson for Zack Kassian) with the Stars for Ott. I imagine the Stars would have jumped on that with both feet, but instead the Canucks went the other route and were dismissed early by Los Angeles. Morrow is tricky as he has major health issues that will continue to scare off many buyers. He may be more of a deadline candidate next spring if he can demonstrate his value again through durability and performance. But, he has many, many admirers in NHL front offices around the league. Ribeiro is a capable #2 center, which may make the Stars hold on to him because they have almost nothing behind him unless they can get a center coming back in the deal and that is hard to fathom for a number of reasons.
Beyond the veterans available in trade, the Stars now have enough kids that they can start to ponder the wisdom of dealing one of them. Maybe the prospect with the most value is goaltender Jack Campbell. He is still unproven at the AHL level, but is oozing with talent and seems to be the player that NHL minds quickly bring up when talking about the talent in Dallas. If Kari Lehtonen (another 2013 UFA) is a priority for an extension - and I don't know why he wouldn't be - then you might flip your top goalie prospect for something up front. The biggest reason for this deduction goes back to the old adage that you cannot play 2 goalies at the same time. There is just one net. So, surplus sometimes pays other bills. This may be a move made down the road to maximize the deal, but for now, it is something to keep on the radar.
With a number of attractive names out there in trade talks: Rick Nash, Jordan Staal, etc, the Stars can consider options, but with both of those players in particular, expect the prices to be jaw dropping. Additionally, in the case of Staal, he will also hit UFA in 2013, so buyer beware. And in the case of Nash, we are back to a player agreeing to come here since he has the ability to veto any destination he doesn't agree to.
DRAFT: As I said above, we will write something about the draft and the 13th pick in particular as the week goes on. But for now, you should know that it is a draft where a clear consensus is not easy to find when looking at even the Top 5 in the draft. The Stars are surely looking in 2 directions - center and defense, and this draft is short on top-end centers but seems to have enough quality depth on defense that there could be something pretty nice there when they pick. What makes this draft a bit odd is that there could be a case where a top talent starts falling because of various issues (including the KHL issue as it pertains to young Russians). If that happens, the extra ammunition of an additional 2nd rounder could cause the Stars to shoot up to get the center of their dreams. But, this is all dependent on a slide that may not even happen, so speculation is everywhere.
In conclusion, the Stars are ready to get active. They have a renewed sense of urgency and with Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, and Kari Lehtonen, they feel that they have a group to build around. They don't think they are miles away and they don't think this will take forever. But, it might not happen at daybreak on July 1. They have to make sure they get this right.
This should be a very interesting month.