Saturday, July 05, 2014

Bag of Pucks: Summer Free Agency Edition

I have to admit that reading glowing reviews on the direction of an organization without equal time to cynicism is quite a change around here (at least for this particular writer).  I am sure it won't continue indefinitely, but with regards to the Dallas Stars and their 14 month run with the organizational makeover, the news continues to be better than good.  In the last several days, the Stars have again upgraded their mix with Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, Patrick Eaves, and Anders Lindback.  2 Top 6 forwards in 1 day, and 2 depth additions as well.  Then, on top of that was the unexpected signing of Vern Fiddler, after most expected that he would elect to take more money and ice time elsewhere.

Frankly, the reviews are fantastic with respect to the talent acquisition department, and the continued influx of players who are now ready to add to the troops that took this franchise back to the playoffs this past spring.

Jim Nill and his staff is receiving the accolades for these acquisitions again, like the "summer of Seguin" in 2013, and there is no debate that if you were to rank the transactions in the last 14 months, the #1 move should remain the hiring of a General Manager who is regarded across the league as one of the best in the business.  The feelings, going back to last spring, were that whoever could convince Nill to take over the helm of their organization would reap the benefits for years and years.  That much has delivered to be true so far, with the future seemingly plenty bright.

However, I don't want to forget to recognize the ownership that has made this possible.  As I have said before, Joe Nieuwendyk had his stamp on the farm system full of talented kids, but was sabotaged by bankruptcy and indifferent ownership for much of his tenure.  Tom Gaglardi wanted his own guy to run things when he was ready to invest heavily in the side, and Nieuwendyk did not represent a fresh start.  Gaglardi had Nill identified by Jim Lites and company, and then got the deal done to hire his guy.  From there, it would only work with aggressive moves, cash investment, and faith in the process.

And for that, I want to make sure Gaglardi is recognized as vital and imperative to this process.  When I was younger, I counted owners of franchises as unimportant figureheads who were just the suits they would show in the crowd and pretty much interchangeable.  And maybe, in the 1980s when I had that impression, that was closer to the truth.  But, in the present day sports-landscape, either a team has an owner that has ambition to push his team to achievement or you wish you did.  An owner's motivation could be to fill his arena (to maximize profits) or to get the Cup, or both.  The Stars' last owner was driven to get a Cup and was a fan's dream.  But, when he over expanded his sports empire, he was bitten by spending more than he had and he suddenly became a fan's nightmare - An owner who could not be bothered with a team's fortunes because his financial empire was collapsing.

For that reason, we should be slow in our judgements of this owner in the long-term.  Only the actions over many, many years will reveal his full body of work.  However, based on what we do know, I am tickled that Gaglardi appears to be everything I hoped - a guy who wanted badly to put a great team together and is willing to trust brilliant people to help him do that (the one flaw in Jerry Jones' game).  So, enter Nill and then, Lindy Ruff.

But, if you wanted to know if they were satisfied with all of the good signs from 2013-14, then the first week in July 2014 should help you see.  No, they are not.

There were several things about the 2013-14 Stars that were very impressive.  However, the power play was never completely sorted out, the face-off wins were barely more than the face-off losses, and it could easily be argued that the Stars 2nd line was actually one of the best 3rd lines in the sport.

Enter Jason Spezza.

Below is a complete list of the 9 centers in hockey who were both both above 200 points in the last 4 seasons (at least 50 points a year - including the lockout year) and in the Top 50 face-off men in hockey:

Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Pavel Datsyuk, Jason Spezza, Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux and Anze Kopitar.

That is the entire list.  Now, please examine that list for players who were available on the open market.

Maybe Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza.  Spezza, by the way, missed nearly the entire season in 2012-2013, otherwise, he might be well up that chart even higher.

I won't lie, I might have preferred Thornton because of my better familiarity with his complete game, his size, and his 3 years under contract, and his mastery of the power play; but it doesn't appear he will be moved by the Sharks.  Of course, he is also 4 years older than Spezza and therefore if the Stars can make sure this isn't a 1-year rental, then there are tons of things to like here.

They did give up some fine young players, Alex Chiasson the one most are familiar with.  For me, I hoped all along to flip Chiasson this summer as the center piece for a number of reasons, including my personal feelings that he was overachieving with his production early in his career (Sell high!) and that the Stars are loaded at wing in their system.  He made the most sense to be valuable to others and to be able to center a big deal, and it worked perfectly.

Spezza is not without a few concerns, as trusted voices from around the league have argued he is a bit "too perimeter" these days, but I am more than interested in seeing how a change of scenery suits him.  He seems to be exactly what they need as they have lacked a perfect #2 center compliment to Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and now they seem to have it.  Add to that Ales Hemsky on a reasonable 3 year deal on a proven winger who turns 31 in August, and the Stars have a 2nd line just like that.  Valeri Nichushkin goes to one line and the other wing can go to either Erik Cole, Colton Sceviour, or my pick, young Brett Ritchie by Thanksgiving.

That fixes your depth issue as Eakin/Roussel/Garbutt are a fine #3 line that jumps on the opposition #1s, your face-off issue - with Spezza, Fiddler, Benn, and Eakin (who is by far the worst, but partly because he is taking draws against that list of centers above), your power play issue as Spezza can really add something there, and you really haven't lost anything of note off your playoff team.


Now, many of you are asking how this fixes the blue-line, and I did not forget I have been pounding that table for years and years.  But, the idea that they could grow and develop their defense group without losing any of them in their pursuit of Spezza and Seguin is fantastic work.  Now, we expect the full arrivals of Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, and John Klingberg in the next 12 months, with Trevor Daley/Alex Goligoski and Jordie Benn/Brenden Dillon providing strong play on the way into the playoffs last year.  It isn't Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but it is homegrown (mostly), reasonably priced, and young with younger pushing them from behind.

The bottom line there is that the best defense is to keep the puck.  And the Stars weren't Los Angeles or Chicago in puck possession or Corsi last year, but they were in the Top 10 with the truly strong teams in the NHL.  Now, they are adding a formidable 2nd line and the ability to win draws at a very high rate (so they start plays with the puck).  This means you are not dropping back and playing defense in your own end all day, and that keeps your defensemen from having to defend.

It looks good on paper, and it looked good on the ice last year.  This seems to make too much sense not to try for the prices they paid.

Now, back to Gaglardi - I have received a number of questions about how many players are on the roster and how close the Stars are to the cap ceiling.  That's right - the cap CEILING!  This tells us that they are looking to make more moves, I would think to gain back some cap room that will allow them to make a move at the deadline to give them that final boost over the finish line next season.  Yes, kids, we are back to the days of considering the cap ceiling, not signing Eric Nystrom off waivers to get into compliance with the salary cap floor like the Stars did 2011.

There is great competition to overcome and higher hills to climb than merely the #8 seed, but if this doesn't get you fired up for Opening Night, I don't know what to tell you.

This thing is being built right before your very eyes.

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