April 3 is the NHL Trade Deadline in this oddly constructed 2013 NHL Season.
That gives us 15 days to look at options for the Stars to consider as they head down the road of trying to get from where they are to where they wish to go. And at times, they seem a long ways from where they hope to go.
And given that in the last 5 games, they have pulled 3 points out of 10, it might be time for the suits in the front office to take a hard look at the alternative plan. Nobody likes to ever consider the alternative plan until reality hits them right in the face. When you start each season, you bravely announce that the playoffs are the goal (or the Stanley Cup for the extra-brave) and you march into the year filling your fans' heads with optimism and hope.
Then, when things start to go badly, a team must make that tough decision. The players and coach don't need to be involved in this tough decision, because you want them playing as hard and trying to win their next game no matter what. There is a belief amongst fans that there is a time to "tank" and try to work your way up the draft ladder by design (Hello: Seth Jones), but that is a very dangerous proposition of inviting cancer into your organization (losing, not Jones) by authorizing a mentality where anything less than winning is welcomed. This is fun talk for message boards but I don't believe for a second that most of the proud men in sports would ever consider trying to lose just for a few draft spots. That is everything opposite of the wiring of these men who ascend to this level of their profession. They get indigestion from losing a game and to lay down and surrender when people are paying money to follow your team is the unpardonable sin. Some fans call it good business, but few men inside the lines would agree an even fewer would participate.
Anyway, back to the tough decision. When a team gets to a certain fork in the road, it has to make a choice. Are we in this race or aren't we? What is our highest upside of achievement in this year and where can we help the big picture if we sacrifice this year's upside for the future? In other words, can we flip some of our assets to give this thing a boost moving forward and making next year or the year after a more likely target?
Fans and media often don't want to hear about playing the long game, because we want payoff sooner than later 100 times out of 100. But, a sports organization always needs to play the "long game" which at times requires you to trade a guy in his prime (say, Phil Kessel) for a few picks (that turn into Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton). This might mean that you lose one of your better players but then when you have 2 fantastic young teenagers in exchange, you are playing the long game properly.
As I type this, the Stars have completed 28 games of a 48-game season. They have 20 games to go, and this morning they wake up in the 10th spot, just 1 point behind the holder of the 8th and final playoff position, San Jose. Of course, had they lost to Calgary last night, they would have spent this morning in the 14th spot, an indication of how insanely close everything is in the Western Conference for another year in a row.
They are so close to getting in the tournament, and yet, they are a team that has to remain realistic to itself since they were "so close" in 2011 and missed on the final day, and "so close" in 2012 and faded late as well. Each time they fade late, they miss an opportunity to try to flip assets at the deadline and help their future.
But, they also have a fan-base that is anxious. The possibility of a 5-year playoff drought is a difficult milestone to swallow. The Ducks have never had more than a 3-year absence from post-season play and the Sharks have had 5 years COMBINED of missing the playoffs in their 21-year franchise history. The Coyotes had a 6-year run of missing the playoffs from '03 to '09, until you helped them hire Dave Tippett as their coach. They haven't missed the playoffs since. Tippett, of course, has coached in the NHL 9 seasons and has missed the playoffs just once - the year he was fired in Dallas.
And then there is the Kings. The Kings also had a 6-year absence from post-season play from '03-'09, but then they have ruined it for anyone looking to dismiss one's playoff chances as they squeezed in last season to the final playoff spot and then hauled off and won their first Stanley Cup as an 8-seed. And now, they will be cited by each and every person that wants to keep the "go for it" posture moving forward. "The 2012 Kings got in and won it all!" - why can't we?
Of course, that is why with 20 games to go you are in a tough spot. With a possibility of 40 possible points left to fight for, why would you let a 1-point deficit make you pessimistic? On the other hand, do you think you have a similar roster that like the 2012 Kings could just get in and then start mowing down teams with high seeds and by extension, superior talent?
April 3rd is the day of Game #36, so you will get 7 more games to determine where you are. Then, with a team that has quite a few useful parts, you would have to decide if you should cash in those parts now or potentially lose them for nothing in a few months as the Stars have their share of expiring contracts. A few weeks ago, they cashed in the expiring deal of Michael Ryder for Erik Cole and that is a move that I have enjoyed. Cole is a power player who flashes every night and while the stats aren't overwhelmingly in his favor at this juncture, I think that was a nice addition for the next two season - especially if they lose Brenden Morrow and their only real net presence on the roster right now to free agency.
Let's look at each of the Stars veteran parts that might make sense to flip for a pick or a kid to help replenish the roster with even more players who are early in their careers:
Derek Roy: We might as well start with the most complicated case of them all. Roy has the potential to be the 2nd-line center that the Stars have been seeking for a while and he does a lot of things really well. He is 29 years old and has done a few things to make this a difficult decision. It appears that the two sides have discussed a contract extension, but also that the two parties are not overly close on their numbers. The Stars have to hold the line at what they think he will be worth and Roy sees some of the numbers around the league and considers himself due for a major extension. He also knows that he might be one of the top centers in free agency and might wish to bet on himself this summer that someone will throw a contract at him for many years (7?) and the possibility of $5m or more per year. If the Stars do that, they have to be confident that he is not in decline - like Buffalo thought when they dealt him - and will still be an exceptional center when he is 35. Is that prudent? Or do the Stars keep shopping for the center ice compliment for Jamie Benn and move Cody Eakin up for the rest of the year, flip Roy for some handsome prospects and keep shopping? I think the Stars would do 5 years at $4m or $4.5 (total deal: $22m or so), but I don't think they want to get in that $35m-$40m range for Roy. And I can't blame them. I might make another run at the player and his agent and see if a compromise can be struck, but if there is no extension before April 3, I think you have to trade him. He would bring you the most in a deal, as the new team would be the favorite to re-sign him moving forward.
Brenden Morrow: Another sticky situation, as he has been a fantastic player for you and your captain for many years. But, it seems like his body is not what it was and the $4m price has outlived its value. The great news for the Stars and Morrow here is that he is a very respected veteran that people around the league see as just the type of guy to add at the deadline. His value is actually more in a trade than keeping around and there is reason to believe that you might be able to get something decent. I also think that he would be up for a chance to play deep in to the spring and might welcome a new chapter to his story. I hate to see him go, but I think the time has come and might be a worthy move to make.
Eric Nystrom: Not sure how much value he has as a trade, but I do think I would be fine with keeping him around to play that checking-line grit role. You would take calls, but his price is such that he can be a candidate for a new deal for next season this summer.
Jaromir Jagr: This one might require a visit with the player and see what he wants to do. He holds all of the cards and perhaps you ask him where his comfort lies. He plays on a year-to-year basis and may be interested in another Cup run, but I honestly have no idea if he wants to stay here and maybe even consider another season in Dallas or if he wants to move. He hides his cards well, but if he wants to be dealt, you might be pleased with a reasonable return, as well.
Those are the 4 expiring free agents on the roster (and Jordie Benn). There are a few other parts that you could see gathering interest around the league that would have additional years left on their deals. Those names would include Vernon Fiddler and Stephane Robidas. Robidas, like Morrow, has a no-trade clause, but also like Morrow might welcome a chance to go play for a contender.
Personally, I think I would like to open up a defense spot moving forward anyway, and with Robidas, Trevor Daley, Alex Goligoski, and Aaron Rome all on long-term deals, with Brenden Dillon and Jamie Oleksiak securing spots as regulars, you actually don't have a ton of flexibility in the area of your roster that needs the most improvement. If everyone has nailed down a spot, you might need to move something out before you start moving things in over the summer. And I trust that is part of their long term plan - if not priority #1 - to find a defenseman or two that can be in the top spots as 25 minute guys moving forward.
They have improved their spot with plenty of youth on the roster over last year's squad, but this is a work in progress. That is why to fall in love with a low-payoff opportunity in 2013 is missing a chance at a brighter future.
Tough decisions are heading this way and with 15 days to go, the war-room is full of activity.
The most important news items for the Dallas Stars between now and April 3rd may or may not have anything to do with their games.
Let's pull up a chair and see what they reveal about their plans and their belief in where they are in all of this.