Will Dallas Stars be able to keep their young talent?

A look beyond the upcoming season at Tom Hicks' financial troubles and the effects on the Dallas Stars in 2010-2011 and beyond.

When I look at the Stars forwards and ask myself where that warm, fuzzy feeling comes from I find, improbably, that the answer lies in the events of last season. Loui Eriksson, Steve Ott, and James Neal all made monumental leaps in 2008-2009. Though things fell apart in the end, the three of them were in large part responsible for bringing the team from 15th place to 5th place (for a time) last winter. If you add repeat performances from that trio to known quantities in Mike Ribeiro, Brenden Morrow, and Brad Richards, you get the sense that this is a very dangerous group of players if they stay healthy. Not to mention Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen, or any potential improvement from Fabian Brunnstrom. I'm excited just thinking about it.

But recently on Defending Big D, Brandon wrote the following:

Currently the company line is that the Stars are operating with a budget that is based on the revenue generated by the team. If this line holds true and we see about the same payroll next summer that we have now ($8-$10 million under the salary cap), then the Stars will have a tough time holding onto the talented young players currently on the team.

The good news is that aside from a tighter budget and lower operating costs, the Stars should not be affected much short term. But it's what could happen next year that has fans worried, and despite what officials say, perhaps they should be.

And I couldn't help but wonder how bad the situation really could be for 2010-2011.

There are only 5 teams in the NHL spending less money on payroll this year than the Dallas Stars, and the Sharks, Ducks and Kings are actually spending more. In spite of all of this, there is a great optimism about the upcoming season, and the Stars consider their team one that will contend for a playoff spot. So do I, for what it's worth.

The point is that the reason the Stars are so dangerous this year on a budget, is the same reason they could be just as anemic for many years to come: Their production is coming from players performing beyond their pay grade; players that will need deals soon.

Consider the following from last season:

Player Age Goals Points Base Salary
Loui Eriksson 24 36 63 $1.7 million
James Neal 21 24 37 $720k
Steve Ott 27 19 46 $1.5 million
Fabian Brunnstrom 24 17 29 $875k

 

These are FOUR of the Stars TOP FIVE goal scorers last year. Dallas got 96 goals and 79 assists for LESS than 5 million dollars. That's a steal. And while it may get even better this coming season, it is of course unsustainable.

 

Let's optimistically assume for the sake of this post that they'll spend another $45 million in actual payroll dollars  next year. Here are the known contracts for 2010-2011, with Benn and Vishnevskiy thrown in for fun:

Player Age 2010-2011 Salary (not cap hit)
Brad Richards 29 $7.8 million
Mike Ribeiro 29 $5 million
Brenden Morrow 30 $4.1 million
Brian Sutherby 27 $812,500
Jamie Benn 20 $755k
Trevor Daley 25 $2.5 million
Karlis Skrastins 34 $1.65 million
Mark Fistric 23 $1 million
Jeff Woywitka 25 $700k
Ivan Vishnevskiy 21 $765k
Sean Avery* 29 $2 million
Total: $27.025 million

 

By my count they'd be in need of around 7 forwards, 2 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders for 17.92 million dollars. That's an average of 1.628 million per.

And you want to keep Loui Eriksson, right? And Steve Ott? Do you want to see Neal go? Nor do I.

How much is Loui Eriksson going to be looking for? Here are some other restricted free agents that signed this off-season to use as a jumping off point:

 

Players Age Goals Points Contract
Kris Versteeg 23 22 53 $3.1 million per from Chicago
David Krejci 23 22 73 $3.75 million per from Boston
Tuomo Ruutu 26 26 54 $3.8 million per from Carolina
David Booth 24 31 60 $4.25 million per from Florida
Ryane Clowe 26 22 52 $3.5 million per from San Jose

 

I see Loui (RFA) more likely to get a deal like that rather than say...Thomas Vanek (40 goals, 64 points, 25 years old, $8 million last year) or  Anze Kopitar (27 goals, 66 points, 21 years old, $6 million last year).

The David Booth deal seems like a good blueprint. If you look at their career paths and stats, they match up almost exactly (Booth, Eriksson). But they gave Booth 6 years. Would you pay Loui $4.25 million? If he pots 40 next year, are you willing to go 5 million? There's no money for that, as things currently stand.

Don't Steve Ott's numbers last year match up pretty well with Ryan Clowe's? Is Steve Ott worth $3.5 million? Does he want to test that UFA market finally? I feel very strongly that the team cannot afford to lose Steve Ott any more than it can afford to lose Brenden Morrow. Plain and simple, the Stars play better hockey with Ott in the lineup. (They play better when his hand's broken and he can't fight, apparently as well). He is one of a kind.

What about James Neal? Mike Heika says Neal could be a replacement for Brenden Morrow or even more. What if he goes for 20+ goals again? Is he worth, say, 2 million on the open market? And with more ice time, Brunnstrom can push it over 20 goals, right? You start to see the problem. The numbers add up far too quickly, and we haven't even talked about the goaltending situation yet, and haven't mentioned the fact that they're likely losing Modano and Lehtinen in the process.

Adding up potential, extremely speculative numbers for Eriksson, Neal and Ott, filling in the rest of the roster with fodder and adding goaltenders, you start to see the 2010-2011 number rise to near $50 million. $5 million over our current budget of $45.

This is the situation in full below. Note that Eriksson, Neal, Brunnstrom, Niskanen and Grossman are all RFA's.

  2009-2010 2010-2011 2011-2012
FORWARDS
Brad Richards " $7,800,000 $7,800,000 UFA
Mike Ribeiro " $5,000,000 $5,000,000 $5,000,000
Brenden Morrow " $4,100,000 $4,100,000 $4,100,000
Mike Modano " $2,250,000 UFA  
Jere Lehtinen " $1,500,000 UFA  
Fabian Brunnstrom " $875,000 RFA  
Loui Eriksson " $1,700,000 RFA  
Steve Ott " $1,500,000 UFA  
James Neal " $720,000 RFA  
Brian Sutherby " $812,500 $812,500 UFA
Krys Barch " $575,000 UFA  
Toby Petersen " $550,000 UFA  
DEFENSEMEN
Trevor Daley " $2,300,000 $2,500,000 UFA
Stephane Robidas " $1,500,000 UFA  
Karlis Skrastins " $1,100,000 $1,650,000 UFA
Mark Fistric " $750,000 $1,000,000 $1,250,000
Nicklas Grossman " $1,050,000 RFA  
Matt Niskanen " $805,000 RFA  
Jeff Woywitka " $600,000 $700,000 UFA
Andrew Hutchinson " $600,000 UFA  
GOALTENDERS
Marty Turco " $5,400,000 UFA  
Alex Auld " $1,000,000 UFA  

Capgeek.com

If the Stars do tender all or some of those players offers, there could be draft picks as compensation if they lose them. This last off-season the compensation was as follows:

Contract Value Compensation due
$863,156 or less None
$863,156 - $1,307,811 3rd round pick
$1,307,811 - $2,615,623 2nd round pick
$2,615,623 - $3,923,434 1st and 3rd
$3,923,434 - $5,231,246 1st, 2nd and 3rd
$5,231,246 - $6,539,061 Two #1's, a 2nd and a 3rd
6,539,061 or more Four first round picks

 

Meaning there's at least a chance that even if they are forced to let some of their young, home grown talent get away, they could get something in return and try the same trick twice: Rely on some youngsters to get it done on the cheap with the veterans you still have. But I'm no CBA expert. Don't quote me on any of that.

This might be the point in the conversation where Brad Richards contract should rear it's ugly head again(?) I don't want to re-open the Brad Richards trade talk that we slammed the door on the other day, but you can see why Tom Hicks would want to get rid of that contract if he could. (Again, he's got a no trade clause, and he's a great player. I don't want to trade him). Or you might care to pontificate on paying Sean Avery for the next couple of years? All told that's 10 million in payroll going to moves made by the previous regime.

What players would you make your top priority if you were Nieuwendyk?

Would you be willing to accept a rookie netminder next season to help keep these other talents?

I should point out that we don't know what the budget situation is going to be next year. It could get worse, it could get better. The Stars might host a few playoff games, Hicks may sell the Rangers, and Dallas might be back to spending like they used to. Who's to know? All I do know is that I'm glad I'm not Joe Nieuwendyk. These problems may seem far away to the fan merely looking forward to October 3rd, but they are very real and I'd be willing to bet they'll cause GM Joe a sleepless night or three.

Unless things fall just right for Hicks Sports Group and the Stars this year, Mike Modano may not be the only one to say goodbye at seasons end, and years of Les Jackson's hard work and scouting may disappear in the night.

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