The past few weeks have been very interesting for fans of the Dallas Stars.
While the uncertainty about the sale of the franchise continues, Joe Nieuwendyk has grabbed this hockey team by the scruff of the neck and physically dragged into the future. Despite having no owner and no clear management plan above his head - with the exception of perhaps Tony Tavares - Nieuwendyk is now deep into his plan for reworking the Dallas Stars into the team he knows can be successful for a long time.
As I watched and read about the Brad Richards bonanza, with teams flying representatives to Toronto to grovel at the feet of the former Dallas Star, I couldn't help but wonder if Richards' departure was the catalyst for Nieuwendyk to really propel this thing forward. With Richards on the team, the Stars were going to constantly be fighting to stay competitive in the present, fighting for a playoff spot while also attempting to rebuild a bare farm system while preparing for the inevitable youth movement that would come when a number of prospects are ready for the NHL.
With Richards gone, both player and team can move on and move forward. We know that the Dallas Stars are not going to be a Stanley Cup team this season. Joe Nieuwendyk knows this. Glen Gulutzan knows this. The Stars, instead of fighting to keep up with the Western Conference for this upcoming season, are in the midst of retooling and looking toward the future - one that is very promising and could yield some extremely lucrative seasons in just a few very short years.
That's not to say that Nieuwendyk is content with throwing in the towel for this season or next. Instead, he understands that even if the Stars are keeping an eye on 2012-13 as a potentially big season, he needs to keep the current Stars competitive and entertaining. Without an owner and with fan interest waning, Nieuwendyk could not afford to turn the Dallas Stars into a team content with getting a top-five pick a few years in a row all in the name of rebuilding. The trick, of course, is to do both at the same time; rebuild while making the current team at least potentially postseason-worthy.
For the price of a contract that might have gone to Brad Richards next season, the Stars signed Sheldon Souray, Michael Ryder and Vernon Fiddler. We're all lamenting the loss of a great player like Richards, but it's tough to deny that the free up salary was spent on players that provide a very competitive bridge from the present to the future.
On a day when teams across the NHL were handing out five and six-year contracts to average players, Nieuwendyk was able to accomplish his mission for this team while keeping the longest contract signed to three years. It's amazing how set up the Stars now are in the present - all without having to mortgage the future while doing so.
Therein lays the beauty of what Joe Nieuwendyk accomplished on the first day of free agency.
More initial thoughts on the first day of free agency after the jump...
Here are some of my thoughts after contemplating the moves made my Nieuwendyk yesterday:
It's important not to judge each signing individually.
Just like the NHL draft, we can't judge an entire day on one signing alone. The reaction to the Radek Dvorak contract was downright comedic, as Stars fans were left wondering just why the Stars would want a 34-year old winger whose best days are behind him. The initial shock wore off and fans tried to see just where he'd play in the line combinations, unclear as to just how he fit in the plans for the Dallas Stars.
Just a short time later, the big picture came into focus. Dvorak was acquired for depth and for the penalty kill, with Michael Ryder providing the scoring touch and prowess the Stars so desperately needed up front. Instead of scratching our heads, we're left nodding along as Nieuwendyk's plan takes shape.
The Dallas Stars are a better team in 2011-12, even without Brad Richards.
I'm not going to sugarcoat this one. As it stands, right now, I feel that for this season the Stars are going to be better than in 2010-11. It's true that the Stars needed Richards to be that cornerstone superstar for the long-term, but with his departure the Stars were freed up make moves to improve with several players - not just one.
There was a lot of talk about wanting a few of the big-name players on the market but when the dust settled, the Stars kept away from the big-money and were still able to improve upon a fairly decent core of players for the upcoming season. I don't know what else you'd like from your general manager.
Michael Ryder will play with Mike Ribeiro, and see a lot of power play time.
Ryder saw his minutes drop in Boston the past few seasons, being relegated to a third-line checking role and not getting much playing time on the power play. Ryder chose the Stars as his destination because he'll get a chance to not only be a significant player for this team, he'll likely end up on the top line with Ribeiro and Morrow.
Ryder is a natural right winger who has played with Ribeiro before, albeit briefly, and plays the sort of finishing style that compliments Ribeiro and Morrow perfectly. There's no certainty that this is exactly where he's headed in the lineup, but as of right now I don't where else he'd be a better fit - especially with Eriksson and Benn building chemistry together last season.
Speaking of line combinations...
This is a worthless exercise, but I'll try it anyway.
Morrow - Ribeiro - Ryder
Ott - Benn - Eriksson
Fiddler - Wandell - Burish
Petersen - Dowell - Dvorak
Goligoski - Robidas
Grossman - Daley
Souray - Pardy/Fistric
We'll be covering this later this month, but there have been hints by Nieuwendyk that the Stars are looking to get more out of Steve Ott. His placement on the second line with Benn gives the Stars great versatility in the faceoff circle and some grit and physicality to go with Benn's and Eriksson's playmaking ability.
Fiddler can play center or wing and is a faceoff machine. Same with Jake Dowell. The Stars are suddenly a very versatile hockey team on the ice, they're physical and there's scoring ability up and down the lineup. Nothing flashy, but this is a hard working team.
I like the Sheldon Souray signing.
Sure, it's not the big defensemen we were all hoping for that would solve all of our issues. Souray, however, does fill a need on the blueline and on the power play, and his motivation to prove himself is going to be a key factor this season.
Souray was basically run out of Edmonton, accused of being a locker-room cancer and of being an injury-prone, overpaid defenseman. He was bought out by the Oilers from the last year of his contract and at age 34, he's likely got just one last shot at showing he's worthy of more.
If the Stars had paid a significant price to land him, I'd be upset. Instead, a one-year, $1.65 million contract brought to the Stars a defenseman capable of scoring 20+ goals a season. I'll take that any day.
Isn't it ironic, however, that Adam Pardy is going to get paid more this season than Sheldon Souray?
The Stars might not be done.
When I was looking at the potential line combinations above, I came to a very quick realization: there's no room for Philip Larsen, Tomas Vincour, Travis Morin, Colton Sceviour or Scott Glennie. As of this moment, the Stars just don't have an open spot for a player to shine in training camp and force their way onto the NHL squad.
The Stars are versatile, but there are redundancies as well.
I wonder if the Stars are still looking to land that big name, cornerstone defenseman we've been looking for. Perhaps the Stars are set and will purely rely upon call ups for depth as the season progresses. Nieuwendyk has said that this is most likely the roster they'll move forward with, although he's open to the idea of a trade.
In the meantime, players like Vincour, Larsen, Glennie, etc. get time in Austin to continue to develop without the pressure of having to instantly perform at the NHL level. This is a strategy used by the Red Wings, and it's worked out well for them. Nieuwendyk isn't one to rush his prospects and there's no need to now anyway.
At the very least, if injuries happen the Stars have some very promising depth to call upon in the AHL.