2011 NHL Free Agency: The Salary Cap Situation & the Dallas Stars

DALLAS TX - JANUARY 15: Jeff Woywitka of the Dallas Stars celebrates a goal against the Atlanta Thrashers at American Airlines Center on January 15 2011 in Dallas Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

We're now a month away from the start of free agency in the NHL and still we have no news in regards to the ownership situation of the Dallas Stars. For each day that goes by, the possibility of having a drastically higher payroll and budget for Joe Nieuwendyk to work with on July 1 lowers. For those with big-name free agent and Brad Richards aspirations the facts that keep building can be disheartening.

As it stands now, the Dallas Stars have 16 players under contract for the 2011-12 season (9 forwards, 5 defensemen, 2 goaltenders) for a total cap hit of just around $38 million. The actual payroll, for those wondering, is only about $400k less than that figure.

If we factor in Tomas Vincour and Philip Larsen, two players likely to get a very legitimate shot out of training camp, then the stars have five spots to fill and around $22 million in cap space with which to work.

Sounds like a dream, doesn't it?

Let's consider for a moment, however, that the Stars -- even with a new owner -- are going to actually be smart and not spend right up to the cap even if given the go-ahead by the new owner. Let's put somewhere between a $51 and $53 million internal cap on payroll that allows the Stars to add to the roster without completely breaking the bank both for the short term and for the future.

That gives the Stars around $14 million or so to work with, five roster spots to fill (one on defense) and not a lot of room with which to work. I know that it sounds like the big restrictions we've suffered through are still in place, but when you factor in the fact that the free agency pool this summer isn't exactly awe-inspiring, you actually become a bit thankful that the Stars aren't going to suddenly become the Washington Redskins of the NHL.

Or the Toronto Maple Leafs, for that matter.

If the Stars are able to re-sign Brad Richards for a cool $7 million a season, then that gives the Stars just $7 million or so with which to sign four more players. Those spots could be filled by returning free agents such as Jeff Woywitka, Jamie Langenbrunner or Brian Sutherby, or the Stars could go the route of bringing up youth from the AHL with players such as Aaron Gagnon, Travis Morin or even Scott Glennie (a long shot, no doubt).

Obviously, this isn't exactly the ideal situation. The hope is that the Stars are able to not only sign Brad Richards, but also make vital additions to a roster that is obviously lacking more than a few key parts. A big, physical defenseman, perhaps, or another gritty yet goal scoring winger. 

The reality of this situation is that unless the ownership issues are solved and the Stars find themselves with a budget north of $55 million, there's a good chance that even signing Brad Richards leads to a roster that is very, very similar to the one that finished just a few points shy of the postseason.

Whatever the case, it's a very tough situation for Joe Nieuwendyk. Signing Brad Richards is a universal priority, but there's a good chance that keeping the center will hamper the Stars' ability to continue to build. I find it highliy unlikely that even if Tom Gaglardi steps forward and hands Nieuwendyk a blank check and tells him to "build me a winner", the Stars will suddenly be spending right there alongside the Blackhawks and the Rangers of the NHL world.

For one, there just isn't that much available this summer worth breaking the bank over. Two, the Stars have the future to consider as well as players like Jamie Benn, Alex Goligoski, Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric all head towards free agency in one form or the other. 

So, the answer is: there is no clear-cut answer. 

So much rides on the ownership situation and whether the Stars decide that the money Brad Richards is likely to get thrown at him is worth it or not. I highly doubt, no matter what, the Stars are going to spending towards the cap ceiling any time soon. A budget of $55 million to $58 million, even with a Brad Richards contract on board, could allow the Stars the freedom to spend in free agency and add some key pieces to the future.

Of course there's also the question that even if the Stars magically gain the ability to play with a bigger budget, are there players available this summer that will not only be worth the expense but be willing to sign with Dallas? While there are certainly a few very serviceable and somewhat exciting options via free agency, the lack of true "star" power this summer is going to drive up the asking price for the majority of these free agents well beyond what could be expected any other year.

We must also address the issue that if the Stars' ownership situation remains unresolved in time for free agency, the Stars could be facing the possibility of losing Brad Richards and perhaps missing out on top names this summer.

For a team that is facing a very uncertain future in regards to the payroll, perhaps losing Richards won't be as bad a proposition as most Stars fans believe....

....to be continued.

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