I've been preparing myself for most of the past season but now that it comes time to actually contemplate Dallas Stars hockey without Brad Richards I'm at a sudden loss at what to feel. On one hand I'm ready for the Stars to truly move forward and start over with a new coach, a new owner and a roster that is going to be much different next season. Yet it's going to be very hard to watch Richards play with another team next season, possibly even in the Pacific Division, knowing what could have been if the circumstances had been different.
When the Stars traded for Richards back in 2008, he became the cornerstone for what the team was supposed to build around. Nearly right away, however, financial and ownership difficulties drastically altered that plan and the Stars were left with a half-loaded roster that never was able to take advantage of having a player like Richards on the team.
It's frustrating for everyone involved. Joe Nieuwendyk has not had the financial flexibility to build the Stars into the team he envisions for the future and Richards has had to be a part of another franchise falling victim to ownership instability. In the end, we're left with questions about the short and long-term future of this team and what losing Brad Richards means for the Dallas Stars next season and beyond.
The initial reaction to the reports that the Stars would not be offering a contract to Richards left us wondering if the Stars are even going to have a chance at any free agent come July 1. Losing Richards is one thing, not being able to add even some firepower to the roster in an attempt to replace his production is something else entirely and fans have a right to be angry and depressed at the proposition.
Fortunately, in the midst of all this negativity, there's still some good news to be had.
As we've pointed out over the past few weeks, the Stars currently have 17 players under contract for around $39 million next season. The next question -- that won't be answered until likely September -- is just how much Nieuwendyk will have available to spend to add those five players needed to fill the roster.
Assuming that if the ownership situation stays like it is currently, with really no owner at all, the Stars would probably head into the 2011-12 season with a payroll very similar to that of the past season: $45-$47 million.
This gives the Stars at the trade deadline, presumably, $4-$5 million with which to hope to land a "big-name" free agent and then use the rest to fill the roster with role players. Whether that player is on defense or offense it doesn't matter; the point is that Stars will likely at least have the ability to be active on July 1 and not be complete lame ducks when it comes to free agency.
Right now, that's probably the best-case scenario.
If a new owner is in place once we enter August and then September, then the payroll will likely increase substantially. By that time, however, the time will have passed for the Stars to make any offers for a big free agent and while they'll have more money to fill out the rest of the roster the ability to sign more than one free agent is likely not going to be available.
One free agent is better than none, if you want to look at the situation as half-full.
For nearly a full season now, we've assumed that the Stars would need to sign a big defensemen to take that "next step" as team. Yet with Richards departing, the Stars are suddenly without depth at the center position and are sorely lacking when it comes to playmakers up the middle -- unless you want to count Jamie Benn as a center.
There are a few options for the Stars as to how to move forward but leave no doubt as to the short-term future of this team: the Dallas Stars are not going to sign one player or make one trade and suddenly be right there in line with the best the NHL has to offer. In fact, there's no way they were that close with Brad Richards. They were much closer than they are now, however, and you wish they were an easy answer as to just how the Stars should retool and rebuild and move forward.
It's likely that any big changes or any rebuilding is going to have to wait for the season to start, when an owner is actually in place and the payroll and budget of the team is set.
It's important to remember that the Stars are not going to completely change over the course of one summer. This is why the coaching hire that Nieuwendyk makes is going to be so incredibly important for the long-term future of this team, as he's going to have to be adept at making full use of a team that isn't exactly grinding forward with guns a-blazing.
The Stars are now officially in a bit of a "start over" mode, and it's all going to start with the new coach and the attitude the new owner brings to this franchise. The Stars will hopefully be involved in contract talks with some of the top free agents this summer, or at least someone better than average, and while losing Richards hurts like hell the Stars would still be able to move forward and start to build the roster up again.
Of course, it's beyond frustrating to think of what might have been. I refuse to get caught up in "what if" and "if only", especially since revisionist thinking does zero good for anyone at all. Yet knowing that if the Stars just had an owner with an actual realistic budget in place, the Stars could have kept Richards as well as added that defensive help this team needs, on top of another winger.
Instead, I'm encouraged by the signs that say the Stars will at least be able to attempt to sign someone this summer despite the ownership issues. There's no easy way to really move forward after losing a player like Richards to free agency, but there are plenty of changes coming this summer that will provide us as fans with hope and positivity that helps to dull the pain of Richards' departure.
A new owner.
A new coach
A new direction for this franchise.
A somewhat fresh start and possibly a kick-start to what should be a slight re-tooling and rebuilding time for a team that needs change.
These are dark days for the Dallas Stars and this week has possibly been the darkest yet. There's a bright light on the horizon, however, and as depressed as we may feel right now I have to believe that there is something good waiting on the the other side.