The February slump of the Dallas Stars does not imply a firesale is coming. A Brad Richards trade? That's a possibility.
A month ago you could have predicted the Dallas Stars' stance at the trade deadline and likely would have been 90% correct. We've known for a few months now that James Neal would likely be traded for defensive help and we knew the Stars were desperately in need of help on the power play with a puck moving defenseman. As we've chronicled here before, Neal was the most expendable of all the young forwards the Stars had and there is likely a very, very good reason that Joe Nieuwendyk was willing to part ways with the him.
Whether you agree with the value of the trade or not, you can't argue with the fact that the Stars filled a desperate need on the team and while Alex Goligoski certainly isn't the cure-all defenseman we wanted he's certainly an improvement and a step in the right direction.
If there is one thing that has been clear over the past two months is that Joe Nieuwendyk is focused on this season and making the playoffs. He's made several aggressive moves to improve the team without sacrificing the core group of players with the goal adding talent and depth to what we thought was already a talented and deep team. Of course, the Jamie Langenbrunner trade was made when things were going great and it was easy to say at the time it was a great trade to improve an already good team.
What about now? What is his strategy now that the Stars have won just once in the month of February and have slid all the way from third to 11th in the conference? Is Nieuwendyk still focused on the playoffs this season and is he still prepared to make aggressive trades to improve the team not only this season but in the future as well? Many are speculating that with Neal gone, the Stars are preparing to trade Brad Richards as well.
This morning, the word is that the Stars are exploring interest in Brad Richards, with as many as six teams in the mix. After nearly a month of standing firm that Richards will not be traded, has Joe Nieuwendyk suddenly changed his mind on the short and long term direction of the team?
One thing that has become very clear over the past few days since the James Neal trade was that Joe Nieuwendyk wanted Alex Goligoski. The Dallas Stars scouts have kept an eye on the defenseman for a number of months now and Nieuwendyk has stated he's been watching him closely for some time. When you wonder exactly why the Stars might not have received the value many thought they deserved for James Neal, it's easy to see why when you consider that it was the Stars going after Goligoski all along.
There are teams out there that had no idea James Neal was even available. The Stars didn't dangle him out there, they wanted Goligoski and James Neal was the bargaining chip from the beginning.
Nieuwendyk has since said how much the Stars believe in Goligoski not just for this season but for the future as well. What we have to remember about Goligoski is that he's still a relatively young player and is in just his second full season in the NHL. He still has a lot of room for improvement and when you consider that he's already one of the best defensemen the Stars have, it's exciting to think what he could be when given an opportunity to really grow as a player. He wouldn't have received that chance in Pittsburgh -- he will in Dallas.
So when you look at this trade, you ask yourself if this was a move for this season or whether it was a move for the future. Goligoski certainly improves the Stars in the short term but he also has the potential to become a very special player for the Stars two, three, five years from now. It was a very shrewd move by Nieuwendyk, who obviously was not interested in an older -- but proven and experienced -- player who was 30+ and on the downside of his career.
Nieuwendyk wanted a player to improve the Stars today while also acquiring a player that will improve and grow over the next few years. He received that in Alex Goligoski.
So when we consider this, we wonder just what sort of plan Nieuwendyk has for the Stars right now. If the Stars were still in the top four of the conference there would be zero debate about the plan should be moving forward towards the trade deadline; instead, the Stars are in a tailspin and there appears to be no way out. Despite improved play the past few games, it just hasn't been enough and the Stars now find themselves on the outside looking in.
This latest development has Stars fans wondering if Nieuwendyk should begin a firesale, selling off a number of veteran players in return for whatever assets can be attained in an attempt to start over and begin a 2-3 year rebuild. Use players like Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson and Tom Wandell as cornerstones of the team while building a faster, younger group of players and in a few years the Stars could be contending once more.
Many feel that this current "core group" of players is just not enough and after years of futility and the possibility of missing the playoffs once again looming, it's obvious that major changes need to be made. After seeing the effort of players like Mike Ribeiro last night against New Jersey, it's tough to really argue against that point. Even if the Stars do make the playoffs, you wonder if big changes really would be needed in order for the Stars to continue to improve in the future.
If the Dallas Stars and Joe Nieuwendyk really were planning on a firesale and selling off the assets to rebuild for the future, what changed between Monday and Tuesday? One loss should not affect the scope of the plan for the next few seasons. If Nieuwnedyk were thinking about a firesale, then why target a player like Goligoski specifically and likely receive less value for James Neal? Why not put Neal out there on the market and allow teams to outbid each other and maximize the value of a player that obviously many teams covet?
Joe Nieuwendyk specifically wanted Alex Goligoski and he went and got him. That is not a move a team preparing for a "firesale" makes.
What has been really interesting was seeing many in the media instantly claim the Stars will now trade Brad Richards based on the fact that James Neal was traded. It was near universal, with most of the national writers claiming that Richards will go to the "highest bidder" or that the Stars trading Neal means they're preparing to trade Richards as well.
The friendship between Richards and Neal is cited, but no matter how much I search that is the only real reason I can find. A month ago, when the Stars were still winning, the stance from both sides was that he would not be traded and would stay in Dallas through the rest of the season. Does trading Neal suddenly change that stance? When the Stars have been open to trading Neal for months now, why would that suddenly change the plans the Stars have Brad Richards?
The problem with the Richards situation now is the same as it was a month ago. By keeping Richards, the Stars run a big risk of losing a franchise player for absolutely nothing to free agency. Back when the Stars were still at the top of the conference that risk was well worth it, but now that the Stars are facing the very real possibility of missing the playoffs keeping Brad Richards is starting to make less and less sense.
This morning, several news outlets are reporting that the Stars are "exploring trade interest" in Brad Richards, likely trying to determine just what sort of value he could receive for one of the best forwards in the NHL. While this certainly doesn't mean that the Stars are now intent on trading Richards, this does show that the Stars are looking to explore all possibilities of a Brad Richards trade.
The problem here, of course, is that Richards has a full NTC and can pick and choose exactly who he would be willing to be traded to. He'd want to be traded to a team where he feels he has a good chance at resigning with long-term and he wants to go to a team where he'd feel comfortable. This puts the Stars in a tough position because it's near impossible to match up the teams he'd be willing to go to with the value they would expect to receive in return.
Teams like the New York Rangers have that ability to give the Stars what they would want in return for Richards, now it's just a matter of waiting to see if the Stars are indeed willing to trade Brad Richards before the deadline.
It's very important to realize just how big these next few games are for the future of the Dallas Stars. If the Stars win against Detroit and then again on Saturday, then the Stars are still right in the mix for the playoff hunt and keeping Richards makes sense. Two more losses, however, and the Stars sink further and further away from the playoffs and the idea of keeping Richards makes less and less sense.
What we're likely seeing is the Stars preparing for both possibilities. Trading away Richards, no matter what value you receive in return, means that the possibility of contending in the next few seasons is very likely gone. The Stars might as well start over and begin that rebuild that everyone feels is likely needed anyway. With Brad Richards gone, there's no need to keep going with the status quo and starting a rebuilding process will be inevitable.
Joe Nieuwendyk has stood firm that their plan is to re-sign Richards and that is all he'll talk about. While there's always the risk of losing him for nothing, it appears that Nieuwendyk feels that signing Richards this summer is a very, very real possibility.
Nieuwendyk said as much again today, talking to Mike Heika of the DMN:
``It's the same answer it has been. Our first priority is to re-sign Brad Richards to a long-term contract. That is what we would like to do,'' Nieuwendyk said. ``However, we have to be open to any possibility and we have to be open to situation that could improve our team.''
That last statement is very important. While Nieuwendyk is adamant that the Stars aren't "shopping Richards around", he does make it clear that the Stars are willing to explore any possibility and be ready for any contingency. If the Stars tank the next two games and the outlook for the playoffs is even more dire, then I'm sure that Nieuwendyk will be more receptive to trade offers. Not shopping him is much different that willing to field offers.
Of course, the fact is it would likely take a monster offer for the Stars to even seriously consider a trade. The fact that Richards is still suffering from a concussion and that the return in any trade now is likely lower than the Stars would be willing to accept.
There is still the possibility of the Stars sale being completed and the team being able to not only keep Richards, but to add vital pieces to a strong core of players and be a strong contender as early as next season. There's an amazing difference in just what paths the Stars may take over the next few days and the next few months, and likely it all hinges on just how well they play against Detroit and Nashville. Right now, however, it appears that Joe Nieuwendyk is not willing to trade Richards unless the price is absolutely perfect, no matter what happens over the next few days.
Hold on to your hats, Stars fans. The ride is only beginning.