We'd all like the Dallas Stars to be a Stanley Cup contending team now, this season. It's been a frustrating couple of years with the Stars as a solid foundation of players has gone to waste as the Stars missed the playoffs two seasons in a row. When you realize that just a few key additions could have drastically improved this team at one point the frustration level rises when it's apparent just how handcuffed the Stars have been.
When Joe Nieuwendyk was named as the general manager of the Stars he was handed the broken car and given no money to fix it. We covered the financial restrictions of this team ad nauseum over summer and while some may say the head coaching change was completely unneeded the Stars were still facing a future where the core players would be shifting from the older to the younger, and the team would still be unable to truly augment that core with any notable acquisitions.
This summer has been a trying one for Stars fans as we've seen Mike Modano and Marty Turco depart and we're likely on the verge of a Jere Lehtinen retirement speech. The fans are most unhappy about the Modano situation as he heads to Detroit but the simple fact is that this was a decision that needed too be made now. Modano would have been -- likely -- just fine with the Stars this season and likely would have put up 10-15 goals as the third line center.
Yet Joe Nieuwendyk isn't just focused on this season, he's focused on seasons yet to come as well. With the latest contract extensions handed out to James Neal, Niklas Grossman and Matt Niskanen, Nieuwendyk has somehow performed the impossible and kept the core group of young players on the Stars in spite of limited resources. Despite the limitations forced upon him by the ownership situation, he's done a heck of job setting this team up for the future.
As much as we don't want to admit it, there would be no use in selling out to try and turn this single season into a last-grasp effort at getting back to the top. Joe Nieuwendyk has been forced to accomplish a near impossible task: improve a team with limited funds while somehow maintaining the core that is already in place.
Nieuwendyk could have gone into fire-sale mode, deciding to drastically alter the face of this team while acquiring draft picks and prospects. This sort of strategy might have set the Stars up for a big turnaround in a few years yet that sort of rebuilding -- especially in the NHL -- is never a guarantee.
What he didn't have the option of was making the big trade or making the big free agent acquisition to improve the team currently in place; the Stars have been incapable of adding any significant amount of salary the past few seasons and would have had to give up significant pieces in order to even the acquisitions out.
Instead Joe Nieuwendyk took on the task of accomplishing something not many of us thought possible a year ago, not with the financial limitations he was facing: maintain the core group of young talent while turning the Stars into a younger team set up for future success.
Forget the emotional aspect of the Mike Modano decision for a second and think about the long-term plans. In reality, the Stars are going to be fighting for a playoff spot this season, there was no point in keeping a player of Modano's age and ability. If we all sit back for a second, push the emotions aside, we realize that all Modano would have given the Stars this season was 10 or so goals and one heck of a nostalgia factor.
The Stars wanted to get younger, to get their less-experienced players on the ice and to get them that playing time needed to take the next step. While these young players will likely struggle with increased responsibilities this season, the Stars are banking on them taking significant steps this season in order to become better for the future. It's a fine line to walk, maintaining a team's competitiveness while putting your younger players out on the ice. There's going to be growing pains but the key is to try and still remain a respectable team while also realizing that true contention is still a few years away.
The Stars traded a fading prospect for a goaltender that has the potential to be incredible and while the contract was likely a bit premature, Nieuwendyk turned from an aging veteran to a younger player just entering the prime of his career. While we will all be pained to see Modano playing elsewhere this season, we'll get to see the further emergence of players like Jamie Benn and Tom Wandell.
Nieuwendyk has been able to keep core players like James Neal, Loui Eriksson, Mark Fistric, Niklas Grossman, Tom Wandell and Steve Ott and has ensured that these players will all be with the team for a least the next few years. This allows the Stars to climb out of the ownership disaster they're currently mired in and come out on the other side ready to make the moves needed to augment this group of players with the top-end talent needed to become a contending team.
Nieuwendyk has been forced to rebuild without actually rebuilding. He wanted to maintain the Dallas Stars as a competitive team while also preparing for the years to come. He knows he doesn't have a Stanley Cup team on his hands, but what he does have is the strong foundation for what could be in just a few short years. It's tough for us fans to look that far ahead while focusing on the season we're facing. We don't want to see the team give up on Modano, or Turco, as we fear it's a step backwards and not the instant improvement we so desperately need.
The beauty of it all is that once the ownership situation is resolved, instant improvements can be made. With one or two key additions this current iteration of the Stars could go from a team on the bubble to one firmly contending for the playoffs. As we all learned a few years ago, and especially this past season, once you're in the playoffs anything can happen.
I'm sure, if given the resources, Joe Nieuwendyk could have made those moves he needed to make. If that were possible, it's likely that Mike Modano would still be on the team providing veteran leadership on a team poised to take the next step. Instead, Nieuwendyk was forced to play with the hand he was dealt he's done the best he could. Not every decision was the right one but you can't deny that while this season may be tough, the future is certainly looking bright.